Materials engineers work with a wide variety of materials used to manufacture many different types of products. They may work with such materials as metals, ceramics, plastics, semiconductors, and combinations of materials called composites to develop new materials that are then used to create computer chips, television screens, golf clubs, snow skis, and many more. They also identify and select materials to be used in new ways. New technologies have radically improved the ability of materials engineers to manipulate materials in new ways, including the ability to create and study materials at an atomic level using computers.
A majority of materials engineers specialize in either metallurgical or ceramic engineering. Metallurgical engineers are divided into three main categories: extractive metallurgists, who remove metals from ores and refine them; physical metallurgists, who study the nature, structure, and physical properties of metals and their alloys; and process metallurgists, who develop and improve metalworking processes. Ceramic engineers develop ceramic materials (nonmetallic, inorganic materials that generally require high temperatures for processing) and the process for turning these materials into products. Ceramic engineers develop products such as glassware, automobile and aircraft engine components, fiberoptic communication lines, tile, and electric insulators.
Materials engineers need to be able to work effectively as part of a team. They should have the ability to communicate in writing and orally. These communication skills are vital in the field of materials engineering because materials engineers interact so often with many non-engineering specialists in a wide variety of fields. Materials engineers should be analytical, creative, detail-oriented, and inquisitive.
In 2002, materials engineers earned a median annual salary of $62,590. Earnings ranged from the lowest 10%, who earned less than $39,360, and the highest 10%, who earned more than $92,690. According to a 2003 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, bachelor’s degree candidates in materials engineering received starting offers averaging $44,680.
Training and Education
A bachelor’s degree is required for all entry-level materials engineering positions. Most programs include study in the agricultural specialty, as well as courses in mathematics and science. Many programs include a design course, along with a computer or laboratory class. Many colleges offer students the option of earning a 2- or 4-year degree in engineering technology, which include hands-on laboratory courses that prepare students for practical design and production work, as opposed to more theory-based jobs. While graduates of these programs may obtain the same kinds of jobs as graduates with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, they are not qualified to register as professional engineers.
Faculty positions and many research and development programs in materials engineering require graduate training. Some engineers earn degrees in business administration to enhance their education and give themselves more career options. In fact, many high-level executives in government and business started their careers as engineers. Engineers in the United States are required to be licensed if they offer their services directly to the public. When engineers become licensed, they are designated Professional Engineers (PE). PE requirements include a degree from an engineering program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), 4 years of relevant work experience, and successful completion of a State examination. Entry-level engineers usually work under the supervision of experienced engineers, and may advance to become technical specialists or to supervise a staff of engineers and technicians.
In 2002, materials engineers held about 24,000 jobs. Materials engineers work in many different manufacturing industries. 68% worked in either computer and electronic products, transportation equipment, fabricated metal products, primary metal production, and machinery manufacturing.
Between 2002 and 2012, employment of materials engineers is expected to increase more slowly than the average. Many manufacturing industries are expected to have employment declines. However, a demand will remain for materials engineers to create new materials to be used in the electronics, biotechnology, and plastics fields. Employment growth will be better in professional, scientific, and technical services.
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