by Donald L. Johnson

One of the smaller STEM occupations in the U.S. workforce is the field of materials science, with an estimated 7,900 materials scientists employed in 2016, according the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  While often combined with chemists in both university academic departments (because of educational requirements in chemistry) and in occupational employment forecasts, materials scientists enjoy, on average, higher median annual wages.  Median average annual wages in May 2017 for materials scientists stood at $99,530 for materials scientists and at $74,740 for chemists.  The BLS projects employment for materials scientists to grow 7 percent from 2016 to 2026 as demand holds steady for cheaper, safer, and better quality materials for a variety of purposes, such as energy, transportation, and electronics.  This growth rate is the same employment growth projected on average for all occupations.  However, median average wages across all occupations was $37,690, or less than 40 percent of the annual median wage for materials scientists.

According to the BLS, materials scientists study the structures and chemical properties of materials in order to develop new products or enhance existing ones.  Materials scientists research ways to strengthen or combine existing materials, or develop new materials for plastics/polymers, metallic alloys, and superconducting materials.  Materials scientists work in laboratories where they conduct experiments and analyze their results.  In addition to working in laboratories, materials scientists work alongside engineers in industrial manufacturing facilities.  The largest employers of materials scientists are research and development organizations in the physical, engineering, and life sciences; chemical manufacturing firms; architectural, engineers, and related services firms; firms specializing in the management of companies and enterprises; and computer and electronic product manufacturing.  A master’s degree or Ph.D. is required for many research jobs.  Laboratory experience through internships, fellowships, work-study programs in industry, and co-op programs offered by universities are useful to gain work experience in the field.

Materials scientists tend to specialize by the materials that they work with most often, such as ceramics, glasses, metals, nanomaterials, polymers, and semiconductors.  This field is closely related to materials engineering.

Projected Employment Growth, Materials Scientists, 2016-2026

Materials Scientists job outlook

Source: Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2018.

About the author
Donald L. Johnson has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Tennessee and serves as senior researcher and principle investigator for ORISE workforce studies. With more than 20 years of experience in surveying both industry and academia, he has conducted dozens of analyses related to science and engineering labor market trends, and on issues such as workforce skills, adequacy of labor supply, education requirements and employment demand.