What Is Materials Science?

Required coursework, job prospects, and average salaries for graduates

Graphene sheet against an image of its structure

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Materials science is a multi-disciplinary STEM field that involves the creation and manufacture of new materials with specific desired properties. Materials science sits at the boundary between engineering and the natural sciences, and for that reason, the field is often labeled with both terms: "materials science and engineering."

The development and testing of new materials draws upon numerous fields including chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering.

Key Takeaways: Materials Science

  • Materials science is a broad, interdisciplinary field focused on creating materials that have the specific properties.
  • Specializations within the field include plastics, ceramics, metals, electrical materials, or biomaterials.
  • A typical materials science curriculum emphasizes math, chemistry, and physics.

Specializations in Materials Science

The glass of your cell phone screen, the semiconductors used to generate solar energy, the shock-absorbing plastics of a football helmet, and the metal alloys in your bicycle frame are all the products of materials scientists. Some materials scientists work at the science end of the spectrum as they design and control chemical reactions to create new materials. Others work much more on the applied science and engineering side of the field as they test materials for specific applications, develop methods for producing new materials, and match the properties of materials to the specifications required for a product.

Because the field is so broad, colleges and universities typically break down the field into several subfields.

Ceramics and Glass

Ceramic and glass engineering is arguably one of the oldest science fields, for the first ceramic vessels were created around 12,000 years ago. While everyday objects such as tableware, toilets, sinks, and windows are still part of the field, many high-tech applications have emerged in recent decades. Corning's development of Gorilla Glass—the high-strength, durable glass used for nearly all touch screens—has revolutionized many technological fields. High strength ceramics such as silicon carbide and boron carbide have numerous industrial and military uses, and refractory materials are used anywhere high temperatures are in play, from nuclear reactors to the thermal shielding on spacecraft. On the medical front, the durability and strength of ceramics has made them a central component of many joint replacements.

Polymers

Polymer scientists work primarily with plastics and elastomers—relatively lightweight and often flexible materials that are made up of long chain-like molecules. From plastic drinking bottles to car tires to bullet-proof Kevlar vests, polymers play a profound role in our world. Students who study polymers will need strong skills in organic chemistry. In the workplace, scientists work to create plastics that have the strength, flexibility, hardness, thermal properties, and even optical characteristics necessary for a given application. Some current challenges in the field include developing plastics that will break down in the environment, and creating custom plastics for use in life-saving medical procedures.

Metals

Metallurgical science has a long history. Copper has been used by humans for over 10,000 years, and much stronger iron goes back over 3,000 years. Indeed, advances in metallurgy can be connected to the rise and fall of civilizations thanks to their uses in weapons and armor. Metallurgy is still an important field for the military, but it also has a significant role in the auto, computer, aeronautic, and construction industries. Metallurgists often work to develop metals and metal alloys with the strength, durability, and thermal properties required for a given application.

Electronic Materials

Electronic materials, in the broadest sense, are any materials used for creating electronic devices. This subfield of materials science can involve the study of conductors, insulators, and semiconductors. The computer and communication fields rely heavily on specialists in electronic materials, and the demand for experts will remain strong for the foreseeable future. We'll always be looking for smaller, faster, more reliable electronic devices and systems of communication. Renewable energy sources such as solar also depend upon electronic materials, and there is still significant room for advancements in efficiency on this front.

Biomaterials

The field of biomaterials has been around for decades, but it has taken off in the twenty-first century. The name "biomaterial" can be a bit misleading, for it does not refer to biological materials such as cartilage or bone. Instead, it refers to materials that interact with living systems. Biomaterials can be plastic, ceramic, glass, metal, or composite, but they serve some function related to medical treatment or diagnosis. Artificial heart valves, contact lenses, and artificial joints are all made of biomaterials designed to have specific properties that allow them to work in conjunction with the human body. Artificial tissues, nerves, and organs are some of the emerging research areas today.

College Coursework in Materials Science

If you major in materials science and engineering, you'll most likely need to study math through differential equations, and the core curriculum for a bachelor's degree will probably include classes in physics, biology, and chemistry. Other courses will be more specialized and might include topics such as these:

  • Mechanical Behavior of Materials
  • Materials Processing
  • Thermodynamics of Materials
  • Crystallography and Structure
  • Electronic Properties of Materials
  • Materials Characterization
  • Composite Materials
  • Biomedical Materials
  • Polymers

In general, you can expect a lot of chemistry and physics in your materials science curriculum. You will have many electives to choose from as you decide on a specialty such as plastics, ceramics, or metals.

The Best Schools for Materials Science Majors

If you are interested in materials science and engineering, you are likely to find the best programs at comprehensive universities and technological institutes Smaller regional universities and liberal arts colleges don't tend to have robust programs in engineering, especially an interdisciplinary field like materials science that requires significant laboratory infrastructure. Strong programs in materials science can be found at the following schools in the United States:

Keep in mind that all of these schools are highly selective. In fact, MIT, Caltech, Northwestern, and Stanford rank among the 20 most selective colleges in the country, and Cornell isn't far behind.

Average Materials Scientist Salary

Nearly all engineering graduates have good job prospects in our technological world, and materials science and engineering is no exception. Your potential earnings, of course, will be tied to the type of job you pursue. Materials scientists can work in private, government, or education sectors. Payscale.com states that the average salary for an employee with a bachelors degree in materials science is $67,900 early in a career, and $106,300 by mid-career.