Materials Science is an interdisciplinary field that combines scientific – i.e. physical and chemical – with (bio)engineering and mechanical concepts for the development of new materials. A degree in Materials Science means you will learn how different materials work and how they can be improved for a variety of applications – from food packaging to space ship coatings.
Materials Science is a hybrid course that will give you a deep understanding of different materials for various applications.
As a successful material scientist, your goal is to connect the desired property of a certain material - for example: brittle, hard, flexible - to the scientific characteristics that affect this property - for example its chemical composition.
This knowledge can then be applied to several technological fields, such as (bio)medical, constructions, packaging, electrical, and many more. Understanding the engineering concepts will help you design the most suitable material for any given application.
Good university programmes in Materials Science include modules that focus on the sciences needed for the course, and specifically Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics; and then offer more specific modules for testing the various physicochemical properties (elongation, stiffness, thermal behavior) and developing new materials. Programmes that focus more on Materials Engineering will include fewer purely scientific modules and instead emphasise topics such as product and/or process design for industrial productions.
Many programmes include practical parts or research periods where you can work hands-on on a relevant project. Depending on the course, such projects might be carried out at the university, at a research center or at a company.
There are many universities in Europe that offer courses in Materials Science and/or Engineering. Some examples are given below:
The contents of Materials Science Bachelors vary from university to university. In general, the courses aim to create an understanding of the basics in Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics, and provide an overview of the fundamentals of different materials. Courses that focus on Engineering might also be heavier in Mathematics - expect linear algebra, differentials and integrals.
Bachelor programmes generally cover a range of different materials. Below are examples with typical applications:
For various applications, you will learn what materials are most commonly used, how you can analyse and characterise them, and with what methods you can improve them or develop new ones. Already at the undergraduate level, elective modules allow you to focus on those areas that you are most interested in.
You will then study different properties of the materials, such as electronic, optical, crystallinity, shock resistance, and so on. You will learn how to characterise these properties through different techniques, e.g. based on the atomic level or with thermal approaches.
Some programmes also offer modules that cover computer modelling. There you can learn how to use algorithmic simulations to predict certain material properties without needing a lab experiment. Other typical courses teach you the use of CAD software (“computer-aided design”).
Any Bachelor’s programme then typically includes practical courses or projects. To graduate, your Bachelor’s thesis will commonly include a research assignment in which you apply the knowledge you have gained over the years and get the first taste of what it’s like to be a material scientist.
In many, if not most Masters in Materials Science & Engineering, you will focus on a specific field. Some programmes are already specialised; in others you can choose your specialisation through elective modules. Every university has its own strengths, so check the curriculum before you apply. Typical specialisations are:
Lectures at the postgraduate level will be more challenging than in your Bachelor’s degree, and allow you to dive deeper into the topics that interest you most.
A Master’s will typically include hands-on research, commonly as part of your Master’s thesis/dissertation or in an industrial placement embedded in the curriculum.
With a PhD in Materials Science, you will become an expert in your field – but things might not always work as you would like.
Getting a doctorate degree is extremely challenging and requires lots of hard work and resilience. You will face many obstacles: Lab experiments might fail; a research approach you had planned might turn out too complicated or expensive; an analysis might bring your computer to the brink of destruction; or you might be working on a project that is so innovative that you simply lack a clear direction. But all of this is normal.
Depending on the project field and goal, you might have different tasks to carry on throughout the PhD. You will also have to convince an industrial partner or a scientific journal that what you are doing is worthy of attention. The competition might be high but with a bit of creativity you can make yourself stand out of the crowd.
None of this is easy. But if it’s what you want to do - then do not let those challenges deter you and just give it your best!
Depending on the university, degree programmes may have names like Materials Science, Materials Engineering, or the hybrid, Materials Science and Engineering. These might indicate differences in the coursework.
A Materials Engineering course is likely to have more modules on mathematics and different engineering concepts, like how to design a product or a process (or ultimately: a number of formulas and graphs that you will have to know how to apply).
In a Materials Science programme, on the other hand, the focus lies more on research and on developing new materials or improving existing ones.
For example, biodegradable plastics are currently a popular research topic. A goal from a scientific perspective is to try and make plastics that “disappear” in a certain period of time. A goal from an engineering perspective could be implementing an associated industrial process, and improving its efficiency.
To sum it up: If you are more interested in the atomic level (chemistry) of the materials, you might want to become a materials scientist. And if you are more interested in doing calculations and see things in a larger (industrial) context, you might rather want to become a materials engineer. Either way, a degree from either branch of the field would allow you to grow into the other role.
Many university programmes in Materials Science will offer course modules in nanotechnology or nanochemistry, especially at the Master’s level. Nanotechnology is an increasingly relevant field; it focuses on materials that have internal structures only visible with very powerful microscopes. “Nano” is even smaller than “micro”!
These types of materials are used for a large variety of applications, especially in electronics, optics and catalysis. If you want to make sure you are well-prepared for cutting-edge research & development, check the course curriculum if it includes nanotechnology or nanomaterials modules.
When you’re choosing a university course in Materials Science, you might want to consider a variety of factors:
All over Europe, there are many good institutions that offer high-quality degree programmes. If you are looking for the very best universities, a ranking can point you in the right direction.
The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) - also known as the Shanghai Ranking - compares universities specifically in the area of Materials Science and Engineering. In the 2020 edition, the best universities in Europe were:
|Rank in Europe||University||Country|
|1||University of Cambridge||UK|
|2||Imperial College London||UK|
|3||University of Oxford||UK|
|6||Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)||Germany|
Materials scientists are in high demand, especially while many industries shift to more sustainable processes and materials. As a graduate, you have many career options to choose from, although for some you might compete with physicists or chemists. And there is not only a wide variety of choices in functions, but also in application fields.
Typical positions in any field include, among others:
And then there are various field-specific positions:
Materials Science and Chemistry overlap in many places, so when picking a study programme, you might be looking at options in both areas.
In a Chemistry degree, you will learn many of the same concepts and will be able to work in the same or similar jobs later on.
In simple terms: As a materials scientist, you focus more on the “big” properties of materials (is the material resistant to shock?), whereas a chemist focuses more on the “small” properties – the ones that cannot be seen (what are the elements that make the material?).
A chemist is more inclined to work in nanotechnology or polymer science, where they have to understand the chemical bonds that give a certain property (how can I make this material softer/harder?).
A material scientist may also connect the chemistry to the property, but mainly focuses on the physical part of the material (for what can I use this material?).
Materials Science is exciting, but it is not a subject that is suitable for everyone. Do not study Materials Science if you don’t feel any affinity to sciences or mathematics - even if the job prospects are great!
Before starting to study Materials Science you should ask yourself: How curious are you about the materials around you? Do you wonder what makes your phone go bright, what makes furniture stable, or why graphene is supposedly such a wonder material?
Materials Science combines elements of other scientific disciplines. If you are not quite sure which degree subject suits you best, these are worth exploring:
All of these fields are closely related to each other, but Materials Science usually focuses on the application rather than the understanding of every last detail.
With so many fascinating developments and so many options, there are many benefits to getting a degree in Materials Science & Engineering. Here are the most convincing reasons to go into this field: