Materials Science Myth Buster – sorting the fact from the fiction to quite literally get to the matter at hand

Written by Susannah Lea, PhD Student, Department of Materials

Whether you have heard of Materials Science or not there are often key misunderstandings about what it’s actually all about. While the concept of studying how to improve and even make new materials may start to sound like alchemy or even magic I can assure you that it is very much grounded in scientific principle (and it may well be the next best thing to the Hogwarts letter you waited for). Having studied Materials for my undergrad and continued on to do a PhD I’m hopefully in a good place to help dispel some of the myths and let you know what a degree in Materials is all about.

It’s too specialised

Fingers crossed this isn’t the case now, but this was something I heard several times whilst applying to university, including from a careers advisor who had never heard of Materials before! The funny thing is though that at least in the first few years of my undergrad the complete opposite was true. I built on things I had learnt in school from all of Chemistry, Physics and Maths and even Biology too. I studied topics from semiconductors to biomedical implants and from aeroplane engine alloys to polymers synthesis, with both coding and lab work sprinkled in. This was perfect for me as I was torn between both Physics and Chemistry when I started looking at uni courses and thought that Natural Sciences was my only option. Then I discovered this whole new discipline which blurred the subject boundaries at school, whilst looking at both ‘why’ and ‘what to do with it’.

Of course, like any degree, you will specialise in later years. Whether you find that nanomaterials are your niche or alloys attract your attention (as they certainly did for me) you will get the chance to pick certain options and ultimately your final year project. I certainly had cast my sights on alloys, but this has still opened up opportunities in particularly the aerospace and nuclear industries, as well as many more.

There aren’t many career options

This one is just simply untrue. If you look at practically any engineering company that manufactures something you will likely find a Materials division, as to be honest one of the fundamental steps is what to make something out of. Even purely computational and software-based companies will be open to Materials graduates, as Materials research can be computer-based and during a degree, you will find yourself coding, doing computer-aided design and even looking at simulating how materials perform by calculating band structures or stress states.

So, what are some of the jobs that I have watched other students from the department go into that you may not yet have thought of? There have been people going into cosmetics development, renewable technologies, mining and even food products (you know there’s a lot of work done into tailoring the melting point of chocolate and getting it to crystallise just right!). Yet there’s also been people who opted for a field change, but yet still had the skills to enter banking, teaching or IT.

Isn’t it the same as Textiles?

You may be surprised to hear that I have heard this multiple times and whilst denying it to anyone who asked during my undergrad and then waffling on about casting and welding, on reflection, the best thing to say is that it is a bit of textiles, but also so much more. So, you won’t be using a sewing machine to make anything (a skill that I have regrettably never mastered), but you will be evaluating the strength and applications of different fibres and may even find yourself making something like nylon in the lab. Even things like carbon fibre lay-up will often follow patterns or woven structures reminiscent of textiles, so if Textiles is your thing but you also want to understand why we use certain fibres and how they are manufactured, Materials could definitely be the right thing for you.

It’s just science

It may be unexpected, but Materials at Imperial is an engineering degree and it is commonly at other unis too. That means at the end of four years you will be able to add MEng to the end of your name and have a fully accredited degree to become a chartered engineer if you want to. The engineering part is often the ‘how can we use it’ or ‘how can we make it better’ part of Materials and you may well find yourself comparing what alloys should be used in the next jet engine because you also understand the science of how the microstructure got there in the first place. As with Physics, Chemistry and Maths, Materials blurs the lines between science and engineering. Or as I like to think of it, it’s science with a purpose!

So it’s just engineering?

Just in case an engineering degree scares you slightly, let me settle your mind knowing that it is still called Materials Science as well. So, Schrödinger will certainly make an appearance and Heisenberg may or may not, along with other quantum effects and physical processes. This was something I was really worried about when looking for a degree, as science was something I knew from school and could do, but engineering was unknown and actually a bit scary. Ironically, I now find myself doing a PhD in engineering alloys for nuclear reactors and even overlapping with some Mechanical Engineering. Maybe I have gone to the engineering dark side of Materials, but I certainly haven’t regretted it! However, in all seriousness engineering literally just means problem-solving and you will find that a lot of school science is really just engineering in disguise. All you need to consider is whether just learning the principles satisfies your curiosity, or if you also want to use it to change the world.

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