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Aspiring materials physicists, among other physicists, learn early in their training that mechanical and thermodynamic approaches are complementary ways of solving a problem. Sometimes the mechanistic approach is the more useful; other times it's the thermodynamic, or statistical, approach.

People thinking about scientific careers face a similar dilemma. Every scientist needs one good job, a job that pays decently, offers good job security and decent benefits, and is a good fit for his or her unique talents and interests. If you want to be sure to find that one good job--and get hired for it--it's entirely within your control. All you have to do is come out on top. All you have to be is the very best.

You're not the very best? Then the alternative, statistical approach might not be a waste of time. It helps to know what you're up against. The marketplace for career opportunities is defined by the statistical issues of supply and demand. When the economy is good, more job opportunities are available; when it's bad, fewer exist.

Yet any kind of statistical analysis must start with real numbers, and when it comes to materials science careers, reliable real numbers are hard to come by. Materials scientists defy the usual categories: they're trained in many disciplines and employed in a wide range of academic departments, government laboratories, and industrial divisions. Counting is hard, the counts often unreliable. One often comes across two sets of numbers, sometimes even both from the same source, that appear to contradict each other.

On the theory that some numbers are better than no numbers, I present the meager data I was able to dredge up. Unless otherwise noted, the ultimate source for the numbers below is the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), although I've done quite a bit of back-of-the-envelope estimating to arrive at some of these numbers. Merrilea Mayo, director of the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable at the National Academies of Science, graciously provided some of the data and generously shared her knowledge in an interview. All the mistakes, however, are mine. The conclusion: A career in materials science is about like any other scientific career. The scientific opportunities may be limitless, but, partly as a result of the increasing internationalization of science, the competition for good jobs is likely to be strong.

How many materials scientists are there right now?

In North America, there are probably some 10,000 to 15,000 materials scientists and engineers doing R&D work, with a similar number in Europe and Asia. This includes materials scientists with a range of different backgrounds and degree levels, although half or more of those doing R&D have advanced degrees.

Perhaps another 60,000 materials scientists in North America (with a similar number in Europe and Asia) work in other areas, including manufacturing and professional services. These estimates are imprecise because BLS lumps materials scientists with chemists. But the estimate is corroborated, e.g., by the current membership of the U.S.-based (but international) Materials Research Society, which stands at about 12,600.

What about materials engineers?

Engineers working in the materials field are less likely than materials scientists to have advanced degrees and are more likely to work in traditional areas, such as metals. They are also more likely to work in manufacturing and less likely engaged in materials research. BLS estimates that about 24,000 people are employed in the United States in materials engineering, about two-thirds of these in manufacturing. The number of engineers doing materials-related research is probably several thousand.

Are these job categories growing?

Not very much. BLS estimates that the chemist/materials scientist category will grow at the same rate as jobs generally over the next 8 years. Some folks believe growth in the materials sector is more vigorous than in chemistry. Jobs for materials engineers will grow more slowly than the national average for all jobs.

How many new jobs will materials science generate?

BLS projects that, in the whole labor force, 22 million new jobs will be created over 10 years, about a 15% increase from the current employment numbers. Assuming BLS is correct about their predicted growth rates, there should be, in a conservative estimate, 2000 or so new materials science R&D positions over the next 10 years and another 10,000 new materials-science-related jobs, roughly, outside of R&D. A more liberal estimate would be 3000 R&D positions and 15,000 jobs outside of R&D.

... and for materials engineers?

BLS estimates that only 1000 new jobs will be created for materials engineers by 2012.

How many materials science jobs will be created by retirements?

BLS estimates that 35 million workers will leave their jobs over the next 10 years; that's about 24% of the current labor force. If materials scientists quit at the same rate, there should be about 3000 positions opened up to retirement over the next 10 years.

Total it up: How many materials science jobs will there be in the next 10 years?

In research and development, 5000 to 6000 jobs are likely to be created; outside R&D, perhaps as many as 25,000 more, including all degree levels.

How many people will be competing for these jobs?

Lots. It is possible to estimate the number of new degrees being awarded in materials science in the United States--about 2000 per year, including all degree levels--but doing so would be pointless, because the workforce in materials science is international. In 2001, 7000 green cards were issued to materials science and engineering workers. Most years the number of green cards issued is about 2000.

What areas of materials science should I seek out or avoid?

Biomaterials are big. Nanotechnology, especially, is big. But no field is big enough that a good job is guaranteed. As in any other area of science, the key to success is to pick an important problem and do good work.

Don't seek a job in the metals industry unless you intend to work overseas. In the last 30 years, the number of jobs for scientists working in metals has declined from more than 13,000 to fewer than 2000.

What else should I, an aspiring materials scientist, be thinking about?

You should be thinking about globalization. For every good American materials-research job, there are several workers from China, India, or elsewhere eager to fill it. If the government tries to keep them out, those labs are likely to go to them. This is only partly because the pay in Asia is lower than in America and Europe; salaries in Asia are rising fast. The salary range for one postdoc program in Singapore goes up to $155,000 per year. In this new world, the best jobs will go to the best scientists, no matter where the jobs are, no matter where the scientists are from.

An informal poll of the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable showed that all but one corporate member planned to locate their next R&D facility in Asia. By now industrial support for research at Beijing's Tsinghua University has probably surpassed MIT (the American industrial-support leader). If you want to work in materials science research, it wouldn't hurt to learn a foreign language.

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