Careers in the Science of Stuff

When asked, years ago, why he held a large stake in a boring company such as Gillette, at a time when high-tech companies such as Amazon and AOL were all the rage, legendary investor Warren Buffett replied, in essence, that when you control one-third of the market for a product that half of the world's population uses every day, you're in pretty good shape, businesswise.

Making sound investment decisions is probably more complicated than that-- (I wouldn't know, having never made one myself);-- yet there is something to be said for good market fundamentals.

When it comes to careers, very similar reasoning applies. Details may be important, but there's a lot to be said for sound fundamentals. And as William Baker, the former president of Bell Laboratories, is reported to have said, "Everything is made out of something, and it always will be."

That means that people who spend their time thinking about how to make stuff, and how to make stuff better, will likely never run out of stuff to do. Sure, details of supply and demand will affect the employment market--in some years, jobs will be abundant; in others, they will be scarce--but the demand for more and better stuff will never fade. If you're considering investing years of time, gallons of sweat, and all of your expertise in preparing for a career in materials science, it's at least helpful to know that there are sound fundamentals.

But what if we go beyond these fundamentals? What is the job market in materials science really like? How hard are jobs to come by now, or how easy? What proportion of jobs is in industry? In government labs? In academia?

All of these questions have the same, regrettable answer: Nobody really knows. There aren't many data, because a field such as materials science is hard to parse. The multi- and interdisciplinary nature of materials science means that materials scientists are hard to count. Material girls--and boys--are trained in chemistry, physics, engineering, mathematics, computer science, and biology, just to name a few related disciplines. When the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Division of Materials Research counted the departments it supported, it came up with a list of about 20 different kinds, according to division director Tom Weber.

That makes it hard to figure out how many degrees are awarded each year to folks who end up calling themselves materials scientists. And if you can't locate them and count them at the beginning of their careers, it's hard to track them as their careers progress. The bottom line is that in this most tangible of scientific fields, tangible, quantitative data are hard to come by.

Still, a few observations about the economics and training of materials scientists can be made. The first is that old-style materials science is fading. Over the last several decades, for example, the number of jobs involving the study of steel has declined by about 90%.

Another observation: The nation imports the bulk of its materials science workers. In 2001, the number of green cards awarded to materials scientists exceeded the number of new materials science degrees awarded (at every level, according to the best available data) by a factor of 5. For other years, the ratio is smaller, but imported materials scientists always outnumber those produced domestically. In no other field, perhaps, is our reliance on imported research talent quite so dramatic. What does this mean for young materials scientists? That's not at all clear.

Materials science is interdisciplinary; so, too, is the study of science careers. Macroeconomics is only part of the picture; microeconomics also enters in. Salaries for materials scientists are comparable to those for the other physical sciences: pretty good in both academia and in industry.

There's one other important aspect of any career choice: the science itself. Scientifically, these are very exciting times for materials science.

The field of materials science is vast, encompassing everything that's anything. Hot areas are easy to find and hard to count. Asked what fields are hot, NSF's Weber mentioned biomaterials--a very wide field by itself--nanotechnology, and conducting (and semiconducting) polymers. That's just for starters.

The field of materials science is in the midst of an effort--one that will, no doubt, last for many years--to reinvent itself. Having long relied on materials found in nature, or modifications of those materials, materials science is working toward the goal of designing new materials from basic principles to fulfill particular needs. Need a material with certain properties? Plug those properties into a computer program, run a simulation, and out pops a recipe. In the future, perhaps, we won't make things out of stuff that's just lying around; we'll design the material to meet the need. It's an ambitious program and one that scientists are nowhere near completing. There's much work to be done, and for young and aspiring materials scientists, who have their careers ahead of them, that's a very good thing.

As the month goes on, we'll be exploring various materials science subdisciplines while working to gain a better understanding of the economics of materials science careers. Data are sparse, but there are some out there, and we'll do our best to pull them together and figure out what they means.

We kick off the feature with an article on opportunities to train and work in materials science in Europe. Southern and Western European Editor Babette Pain describes Europe's most important materials science companies and research institutes.

Femke de Theije has worked on one of the most precious materials in the world: diamonds. During her PhD at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, she studied the influence of nitrogen on the growth of this material. From her office at Philips - where she currently works on a biosensor project - she tells about her PhD experiences and her eventual choice for industry.

Jamie Link , a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, talks about her innovative research with adviser Michael Sailor, and the bright future for women researchers in materials science.

Next Wave's Jim Austin notes that the limited data we have about this field indicate that materials science research is full of wonderful scientific opportunities and equally full of talented young scientists chasing a limited number of jobs.

The E.U.-funded COLLAPSE project is an investigation of the corrosion of lead-tin alloys of Baroque organ pipes in Europe. Next Wave's Anne Forde investigates the role of materials scientists in this cross-disciplinary project.

A final-year Italian Ph.D. student in materials surface science, Erik Vesselli describes how the presence of many big institutions in Trieste, in particular the synchrotron radiation facility at ELETTRA, have contributed to offer him a dynamic, international, and creative scientific environment.

Jim Austin is the editor of Science Careers. @SciCareerEditor on Twitter