Thursday, March 03, 2011

On the term "Materials Science"

I have to admit I hate the term "materials science" (and consequently, "materials scientist") and have for a long time [1]. At face value, it is an overly broad term including the fields of metallurgy, ceramics, polymers and maybe even a few other odds and ends such as semiconductors (kinda cool how I just marginalized the $300 billion semiconductor industry, huh?). I don't have a problem with any of these fields, but I do have a problem with someone somehow thinking that they can be combined, and worse yet, mastered by an individual. I've met people who have specialized in these fields - they certainly do not come anywhere close to knowing everything that they can and should know about their fields, let alone have much more than a very basic understanding of any of the other fields let alone all three. [2]

I tend to avoid spending much time looking at material science journals just because there are so many articles that I really have no interest in. That percentage is already high enough for a journal devoted to polymers; why look at journals that are guaranteed to increase the percentage?

The strangest use of the term material science is in industry, where you see it used in job titles, only I've very seldom ever seen a job with that title where they truly sought a full-blown across-the-board material scientist. The positions always seems to be aimed at a subset. In my experience, usually polymers. (I certainly recognize that as a personal bias.)

In my last employment position, I did truly work as a "materials scientist". This was a small medical start-up that did not have the funding to hire the three people that they really needed. (The device did have metals, ceramics and polymers.) I admit I did a bang up job with the polymers, but really was hurting with the ceramics and the metals. If someone really could handle all three subjects, I would be greatly impressed.

[1] I received by Bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota's Department of Chemical Engineer and Material Science. Yes, the two areas were combined and still are to this day.
[2] I certainly fit that description, but then, that isn't saying much, is it?


Materialist said...

As someone with one degree in Mat Sci and aiming to get more, I agree that working out the place of a materials scientist is a mess. At the academic level, the identity can range widely depending on whether the department is born out of metallurgy, ceramics, polymers, chemical engineering, applied physics, or whatever.
There is an idea of a specific materials approach, but it is too young to be as cohesive as other departments. I would advise interested undergrads to stick to a better-defined course of studies such as chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, or physics. When it comes time to look for employment, there are a few companies that really do materials research (e.g. 3M, Novellus) and a bunch that will take a chance on general science/engineering skills.
As far as journals go, materials journals do tend to have a particular approach (demo devices are one favorite) that can be valuable if that's what you seek.

Eric F. Brown said...

One of my polymer textbooks once mentioned that "materials science" is not the correct term, as the word "materials" is a noun and should not be used as an adjective. The book further mentioned that Oxford named its Mat Sci department "Department of Materials" in order be correct grammatically. I would have posted on this, if I'd been able to find that book.

John said...

I'm sure that Oxford is grammatically correct, but I don't agree with them. It's along the lines of what I said in the thixotropy post last week - a language is a living thing and I love it. Americans are always making nouns into adjectives, although not as much as we make them into verbs.