How Do I Become a Nanoengineer?

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Nanoengineering—the application nanotechnology—is the practice of using science, mathematical methods, and empirical evidence to understand materials at the atomic, molecular, and supramolecular levels and solve real-world issues that benefit the greater good. Nanoengineers practice engineering on a microscopic scale, manipulating matter ranging in size from .1 to 100 nanometers. To put that in perspective, the diameter of one nanometer is roughly 1/100,000 the diameter of a single strand of hair.

A relatively new and inherently interdisciplinary career, nanoengineers can create innovation in green energy, environmental monitoring, medicine, textiles, computers, digital imaging, aerospace, technology, transport, and more. Nanoengineers investigate the interactions occurring in nanomaterials, develop 3-D computer simulations based on the observed properties, and test lab-created theories in real-world situations. Most nanoengineers work in laboratories, college research settings, or offices, while some work in the field.

Nanoengineering will be a field of rich growth in the upcoming years because of its increasing importance to innovation across a wide spectrum. In the United States alone, the market-value of products using nanotechnology is predicted to be $1 trillion and five percent of the entire GDP by 2020. Nanoengineering has the potential to help overcome climate change, revolutionize the way medicine is delivered, and keep highly utilized infrastructure working through sensor technology. Nanoengineers have the potential to improve the world in which we live.

Keep reading to learn how to become a nanoengineer.

Step 1a – Earn an Associate’s Degree in Nanotechnology (Two Years)

If a high school graduate is looking to save money while earning his or her degree or wishes to explore entry-level nanoengineering before making a commitment to the field, starting his or her education at the community college level may be a good choice.

Some community colleges offer associate degrees in nanotechnology, such as Richland College and Forsyth Tech. Other community colleges offer introductory coursework in nanotechnology such as North Dakota State College or degree and certificate programs with nanoengineering elements, such as the semiconductor technology certificate at Hudson Valley Community College.

Associate degrees in nanotechnology qualify students to work as engineering technicians—a position that supports the work of a nanoengineer. Working as an engineering tech can expose community college graduates to the kind of work they would be committing to as nanoengineer before they invest in the education required to become one.

Step 1b – Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering or Science (Two to Four Years)

After graduating from high school or following graduation from an associate degree program, students interested in pursuing nanoengineering should earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering or science (i.e. chemistry or physics)—ideally from a program recognized by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET). Majoring in mathematics is also a potential pathway to becoming a nanoengineer but may limit the number of nanoengineering graduate programs to which an aspiring master’s or doctoral student can apply.

At the time of this writing, several universities offer nanoengineering majors, material science majors with a focus in nanoengineering, or nanoengineering minors, making it possible for students to study nanoengineering directly following high school graduation. While universities across the United States offer nanoengineering programs, only two universities with nanoengineering bachelor’s degrees have ABET-accredited programs in nanoengineering: Rice University and the University of California, San Diego.

Admissions standards to a bachelor’s program vary from institution to institution. Students must often demonstrate a 3.0 GPA or higher, show interest (and aptitude) in STEM prior to admission, and provide letters of recommendation, SAT or ACT scores, and a personal statement. Some nanotechnology programs also require that students apply to the school in a general engineering pool, and then gain admission into the nanoengineering program based on performance in general engineering coursework.

Step 2: Engage in Research or Work Related to Nanotechnology (One to Three Years)

Whether a graduate from a bachelor’s program is interested in working or in pursuing higher degrees following graduation, having at least one year of experience in research or nanotechnology-related work is valuable. For those hoping to work directly following graduation, work experience is often desired by employers and students are encouraged to seek out research and externship opportunities while they are students.

Step 3: Earn a Master’s Degree in Nanoengineering (Two to Three Years, Optional)

This step is practical not only for those who wish to become leaders in the field, but also for those with non-nanoengineering undergraduate degrees who wish to transition into nanoengineering. While there are some nanoengineering-specific master’s programs, many programs that qualify professionals to become nanoengineers are classified as nanotechnology programs.

Aspiring nanotechnologists can enroll in a master’s of science in nanoengineering or a master’s of engineering in nanotechnology. These programs are typically offered in both traditional on-campus formats and online. The following four universities offer master’s of nanoengineering programs:

Requirements for admission into a graduate nanoengineering program vary, but generally, students need to have a 3.0 GPA or higher in their bachelor’s program, GRE scores (not all programs), two to three letters of recommendation, a CV, and a personal essay demonstrating interest in the field.

Examples of coursework in nanoengineering programs include polymer nanocomposites, wearable biosensors, micro and nanoscale energy transfer, and colloidal and molecular self-assembly. Some master’s programs also have students complete a thesis or capstone project as a requirement for graduation.

Step 4: Earn a Doctorate in Nanoengineering (Four to Six Years, Optional)

Similar to the master’s degree, a doctorate is not required to work in nanoengineering. However, because nanoengineering is such a broad discipline, earning a doctorate can enable a nanoengineer to pursue a specific nanoengineering focus, such as nanobiology, nanobioelectronics, and nanoenergy. In addition, many senior nanoengineering jobs require a student to have an earned doctorate. A doctorate is also appropriate for those seeking to create innovation in the nanosphere.

The following universities offer on-campus doctoral programs in nanoengineering:

Although requirements vary from program to program, the process for completing a doctoral program can include the successful completion of required coursework, passing qualifying and comprehensive exams, writing a thesis or dissertation, presenting a compelling oral thesis or dissertation defense, performing well in annual reviews, and gaining teaching experience.

[Please note that the following three steps can be completed after a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree, as well.]

Step 5: Apply for Engineer in Training (EIT) Certification (Timeline Varies, Optional)

To work independently as an engineer, most states require licensure, and licensure requirements vary in each state. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) provides a comprehensive set of links to the different engineering licensure requirements in each state.

The first step to becoming a licensed engineer is to earn an Engineer in Training (EIT) Certification. To qualify for this certification students must sit for and pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. The FE exam is offered in chemical, civil, electrical and computer, environmental, industrial and systems, mechanical, and other disciplines of engineering. A nanoengineer should complete the FE exam in the arena of engineering in which they are working or hope to work.

Step 6: Accumulate Practical Experience (One to Four Years)

After passing the FE and earning an EIT certification, a nanoengineer can begin working under the supervision of a professional engineer (PE). Accumulating work experience under a PE is necessary for a nanoengineer to become a PE and to qualify for certain board certifications and professional organizations. The number of years of work following the EIT depends upon how much work a nanoengineer did under a PE as a student.

Step 7: Become a Professional Engineer (Four Years, Optional)

After working for four years under a PE, a nanoengineer can apply to become a professional engineer (PE). The PE certification, while not necessary to work as a nanoengineer, is a requirement for those working as primary or principle engineers on projects, particularly in the public sphere. In addition, being an official PE can make a nanoengineer more competitive in the job market and more desired by clients as the credential is a signal of ethical, high-quality work.

Before certification, PEs must pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) administered by NCEES. NCEES offers PE exams in agricultural and biological engineering, architectural engineering, chemical, civil, control systems, electrical and computer, environmental, fire protection, industrial and systems, mechanical, metallurgical and materials, mining and mineral processing, naval architecture and marine, nuclear, petroleum, software, and structural engineering. A nanoengineer who wishes to be a PE should choose the discipline most closely related to the field in which their nanoengineering expertise has been cultivated.

Helpful Resources for Nanoengineers

Nanoengineering is an exciting, interdisciplinary field. Finding connections in the field through membership with or involvement in professional organizations can help an emerging nanoengineer find the support, inspiration, and connection that fuels a satisfying and productive career in nanoengineering.

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