Materials engineers work with the building blocks of modern engineering. By studying the structures and properties of materials (e.g., ceramics, metals, plastics), they are able to process them in order to meet precise chemical, electrical, and mechanical requirements, with applications to everything from aviation manufacturing to nanoengineering and biotechnology. Through careful manipulation, materials engineers are even capable of creating entirely new materials, expanding the frontiers of what’s possible.
Every new gadget and gizmo starts with the manipulation of material properties, and materials engineering is a discipline that builds the future. Since its acceptance as an independent field of study in the mid-20th century, materials engineering has produced radical materials advances that have spun off into entirely new industries. Current trends are pushing the boundaries further: atom-thick graphite, electric ink, and nanotubes all bring science fiction into the present tense.
There are many paths to becoming a materials engineer. With touchpoints in chemistry, physics, and nanoengineering, this is an inherently interdisciplinary field. Career paths can diverge based on a specific concentration, as well as the choice of whether to pursue research or development. A materials engineer may begin work right after finishing their undergraduate degree or they may go on to pursue graduate level education.
If you’re ready to design your future, check out our step-by-step guide to becoming a materials engineer below.
After graduating from high school, aspiring materials engineers need to earn a bachelor’s degree in materials engineering, ideally from a school accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Do note that some schools also offer an accelerated bachelor’s and master’s combination degree for materials engineering.
Admissions requirements vary from school to school, but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive high school GPA (3.0 or greater); SAT and/or ACT scores; letter(s) of recommendation; and a personal statement.
Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering offers a bachelor of science in engineering (BSE) degree in materials and science engineering. Students may also apply for an accelerated program which combines undergraduate and graduate classes, culminating in a dual BSE/MS degree.
Hosted at the school’s Tempe campus, students get practical, hands-on training in state-of-the-art laboratories. Internships with industry heavyweights like Honeywell and Boeing Helicopter are often woven into the student experience. The BSE program consists of approximately 120 credits and can be completed in four years. Base tuition for the program is $10,710 per year for residents and $28,800 per year for non-residents.
The University of Texas at El Paso offers a bachelor’s of science (BS) in metallurgical and materials engineering. The core curriculum focuses on the fundamentals of materials engineering, while electives allow students to specialize their studies further. Students may select one of three concentrations: general metallurgical and materials engineering; manufacturing; or printed nanoengineering.
Students may also opt into a dual BS-MBA program at UTEP if they maintain an average GPA of 3.3 or better. The program consists of 128 credits (with a concentration) and takes four years to complete. Tuition is approximately $224 per credit for residents and $705 per credit for non-residents.
Many states require materials engineers to be licensed. Requirements for this vary from state to state, but details are available on the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) website.
The first step towards licensure is getting certified as an Engineering in Training (EIT). And in order to do that, one must pass the Fundamental of Engineering (FE) exam. Many undergraduate programs prepare students to take the FE exam and most engineers choose to sit for the exam within one year of earning their bachelor’s degree. The six-hour, 110-question exam is administered year-round by the NCEES. The exam fee is $175.
After passing the FE exam and being certified as an EIT, a materials engineer is able to start working under the supervision of a professional engineer (PE). Accumulating PE-guided work experience is necessary if a materials engineer wants to become a PE. Furthermore, gaining work experience at this stage can help a young materials engineer decide what aspect of materials engineering piques their interest.
After earning a bachelor’s degree and gaining some initial work experience, many materials engineers go on to earn a master’s degree in materials engineering from a school that is accredited by ABET. While it’s not a requirement to practice and is primarily targeted for engineers looking to work in research, teaching, and development roles, graduate-level education can be a significant boost to one’s resume for any materials engineer. Do note that some schools offer dual bachelor’s and master’s (or master’s and doctoral) degree programs.
Admissions requirements for master’s programs vary from school to school but often include some combination of the following: a competitive undergraduate GPA (3.0 or greater); strong GRE scores; letter(s) of recommendation; work experience; and a personal statement.
North Carolina State University offers a non-thesis master of materials science engineering (MMSE) degree that can be completed entirely online. Courses include modern concepts in materials science; polymer technology and engineering; materials forensics and degradation; mechanical behavior of engineering materials; and phase transformations and kinetics. This 30-credit program costs $504 per credit for North Carolina residents and $1,312 per credit for non-residents. Full-time students can complete the degree within two years, while part-time students may take up to six years.
The University of Florida’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering offers a non-thesis master of science in materials science and engineering (MSE) which can also be completed entirely online through the school’s EDGE program. Students can tailor their curriculum along one of four tracks: metals, polymers, electronic materials, or structural materials. The program consists of 30 credits and may be completed within two years for full-time students and up to seven years for part-time students. Tuition for the school’s online EDGE program is $501 per credit for residents, and $725 per credit for non-residents.
Similar to the master’s degree, a doctorate in materials engineering is not mandatory, but some materials engineers choose to pursue it—especially if they wish to work in research and academia. (Please note that it is possible to pursue a PhD without first getting a master’s degree and some schools offer a combined master’s and PhD degree.)
Admissions requirements vary from school to school but are largely in line with other graduate-level programs (see step four above). In addition to those requirements, however, the first two years of a doctoral program typically are spent in candidacy and progression towards full doctoral status will require individual assessments and interviews with departmental leadership.
Stanford University offers a PhD in materials science and engineering at its Northern California campus. During the first two years, students take ten courses in materials science and engineering. Furthermore, they will be expected to attend weekly colloquium lectures, find a faculty research advisor, and join a research group. In the second year, all students take a qualifying examination, which, when passed, confirms them as a PhD candidate. The final stage of the program involves a dissertation and an oral exam. The program averages 135 credits and most students complete the program within five years.
The last step for a materials engineer is to become licensed as a professional engineer. While not a mandatory step for all, it is a requirement for those leading publicly funded engineering projects. Furthermore, getting certified as a professional engineer is a mark of distinction that can be seen as desirable in job markets and it can qualify one for board examinations and future advancement.
In order to be eligible to become a professional engineer, materials engineers need at least four years of practical work experience in their field. Once deemed eligible, materials engineers will need to pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam, which tests for a minimum level of competency in materials engineering. The 80-question, eight-hour test is administered once a year. Exam fees vary by state.
Materials engineering is built upon a bedrock of scientific truth and evolving innovation. In order to stay current with new findings and industry trends, many materials engineers choose to join a professional society or subscribe to field-specific journals. If you want to listen in on high-level conversations about materials engineering, check out some of the resources below.