Materials Engineer

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Materials Engineer


Materials engineers create new synthetic and inorganic materials everyday. Whether it is ceramic bowls, golf clubs, fiberglass canoes, plastic Frisbees or polyester pants we are talking about, they were all designed and developed by these engineers. Sometimes called metallurgical engineers, materials engineers are involved in the extraction, development, processing, application and evaluation of metals, minerals and materials that make these products.

Materials engineers study the nature and properties of different materials, conduct experiments and design new products (sometimes fusing a few materials together) that can be commercially sold. Once they gain some general experience, materials engineers will often specialize in a particular area such as ceramics, metals, semiconductors or plastics, which are also called composites. Despite the differences in materials one may work with, the engineering processes involved are quite similar, involving research, design and testing. The research stage is a crucial step consisting of formulating theories using mathematical and scientific principles to determine whether or not a plan will work. They use extremely sophisticated methods such as x-ray diffraction and kinetic and thermodynamic theories. Materials engineers must consider a number of factors when working with different materials. For example, those who work on designing boats must consider the possibility of corrosion on the keel (underside of the boat). Next, the design component uses the research to create and produce a product from the materials. Finally, the testers must literally test the products for safety and quality before they hit the marketplace. Some factors they consider are the strength, appearance and various electro-magnetic properties of a product.

Materials engineers usually work with a team of other engineers, technicians and scientists and make sure that everything is running smoothly, safely and will withstand a number of conditions. Materials engineers use high-tech computer-aided design (CAD) systems to create realistic geometric models of objects which can simulate and analyze the effects and potential problems of designs. If they do find faults within the designs, they will work at creating solutions to prevent potential disasters. Some engineers also work at improving already existing products in order to make them more user-friendly or environmentally sustainable. Although a great deal of work takes place on the computer, many materials engineers travel to factories or plants to see their designs and work in production.

Material engineers are required to constantly update their skills and knowledge in order to keep up with technological advancements in this quickly changing field.
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  Interests and Skills  
Materials engineers should possess a natural sense of scientific curiosity when it comes to materials, minerals and metals because they have to create new and improved products from these natural and inorganic materials. Therefore, they should enjoy difficult problem solving, analyzing scientific experiments and finding faster and cheaper methods for production. They have the ability to work both independently and in a team environment and also enjoy communicating with fellow workers and clients.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Study the properties and characteristics of metallic and non-metallic materials
  • Design, develop, test and apply new types of materials tailored to meet specific requirements
  • Conduct processes for moulding, shaping and melding metals
  • Use thermal and mechanical treatments to modify alloy properties
  • Research, develop and monitor processes for extracting metals from ores, such as refining
  • Conduct chemical and physical analytical studies, failure analyses and other studies and recommend material selection, design of materials, corrosion control measures, operational testing and other procedures
  • Determine appropriate methods for fabricating and joining materials
  • Monitor material performance and evaluate material deterioration
  • Analyze material failures to find causes and develop solutions
  • Supervise technologists, technicians and other engineers and scientists.
  • A typical day for metallurgical engineers will vary according to the area they specialize in. Most split up their work time between the office, laboratory and plant or field sites. Most work an average 40 to 50-hour workweek and will put in longer hours when a deadline is coming near or an emergency occurs. Traveling will generally include going on-site. Those working in and around smelting furnaces and welding machines will encounter heat, dust and noise. Senior engineers may spend more time in an office performing managerial functions.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Materials engineers can work in so many different fields of engineering because most machines, structures and electronics require materials and metals. They are often employed by government research organizations, materials testing laboratories, electronics companies, aerospace and marine design, car companies, primary metal producers, mineral processing plants, energy conservation firms, household appliances, petroleum refineries and oil companies and finally, engineering consulting firms specializing in corrosion, pipeline maintenance and other metallurgical work.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Since the materials engineering field is quite specialized, some say there is no room for movement or advancement. Yet this is a myth. Those with production experience could move into sales or customer service positions. Since they are so knowledgeable about these material products (who more knowledgeable than the makers?), they would be perfect representatives.

Materials engineers can open up their own consulting firms and focus their work primarily on research and development work. Those working in large companies can move into management positions and lead engineering companies. Finally, materials engineers with PhDs can also teach at the postsecondary level.

  Educational Paths  
While still in high school, if this is the career path you are interested in taking, make sure you take courses in mathematics and chemistry. Most university programs will require these subject areas as prerequisites.

Materials engineers require a bachelor's degree in metallurgical or materials engineering or in a related engineering field. Then, they must also become registered as a professional engineer (PEng) within anl association of professional engineers to secure employment and practice in their field. Some engineers also get master's degrees in a specific area, such as ceramics engineering.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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