Issue Date: November 17, 2008
AS COMPANIES strive to break their dependence on petroleum and to develop more environmentally friendly products, they are finding a greater need for materials scientists. For now, however, the economic slowdown has somewhat dampened the job market for materials scientists, resulting in a hiring freeze at some—but not all—companies. Career experts agree that job seekers shouldn't despair. Although it's hard to predict when the economy will rebound, they say, it's safe to say that when it does, prepared job seekers will find themselves in big demand.
"Materials research is at the root of almost every advance that's made no matter what industry you're in," says Sandra DeVincent Wolf, director of planning for the Materials Research Society.
Companies are already looking to the future. In September, 3M announced the launch of a renewable energy division to target alternative energy markets in the wind and solar areas. Matt Frey, a senior research specialist in 3M's Corporate Research Materials Laboratory, says materials scientists will be needed to improve the durability and performance of photovoltaics, for example.
The St. Paul, Minn.-based company is also investing in its relatively new business unit on oil and gas exploration. Frey says 3M will need materials scientists to help apply its existing technologies to improving the extraction of oil and gas. The company also needs materials scientists to advance its core business areas, such as adhesives, which are used in products ranging from health care dressings to window films.
Despite this growing need for materials scientists, the current economic downturn has forced companies like 3M to temporarily stop hiring in many areas, including research and development.
"Industry on the whole is frightened of the disruption that's going on, so there's been a freeze on a lot of openings that were available," says William H. Suits, a career consultant for the American Chemical Society who has worked with more than 75 job seekers in the past year.
Wayne Dunshee, a corporate scientist at 3M who has weathered numerous economic downturns in his 37 years at the company, points out that hiring can thaw just as fast as it freezes and that job seekers shouldn't despair. Rather, they should continue seeking opportunities at 3M, even if it means knocking on the back door.
Dunshee notes that the hiring freeze excludes some manufacturing positions and suggests that job seekers try to land one of those positions and work their way into R&D. "I would encourage people to try to figure out a way to be here," he says. "Use your imagination. Take what you've done your research on and figure out how it applies to the research we do here. If you're able to do that, you're the type of person we want."
Furthermore, Suits says, companies are looking for candidates with good communication skills and who can demonstrate to employers that they can solve problems specific to the company's goals. "We have so many people who are graduating and who have talent, but they're just totally incapable of relating it to the problem that the customer might have," Suits says. "That skill of positioning yourself as a problem solver is what industry is really looking for."
Meanwhile, at Procter & Gamble hiring of materials scientists remains strong. According to Nick Nikolaides, manager of doctoral recruiting at P&G, the company is starting to recruit a greater number of Ph.D. materials scientists as the company focuses on developing products with a significantly reduced environmental footprint.
Nikolaides notes that in recent years, almost half of the Ph.D. positions filled were for research in materials science. He doesn't anticipate that trend to change next year.
Nikolaides also points out that as the company hires more materials scientists, it will also be looking to fill supporting positions. For example, P&G will need analytical chemists with a background in polymer and materials science to analyze the new materials, as well as engineers to test the materials. "I think there's room for everyone, whether they are chemists, materials scientists, or materials engineers," he says.
Even at small and midsized companies, opportunities for materials scientists are growing. Luna Innovations, a Roanoke, Va.-based technology development company that employs around 250 people, is looking for a senior scientist to join the company's Advanced Materials Group in Blacksburg, Va. Luna develops new technologies for the health care, telecommunications, energy, and defense markets.
Martin E. Rogers, director of advanced materials at Luna, says candidates should have a Ph.D. in materials science, polymer chemistry, or organic chemistry, as well as two years of postdoctoral experience. Some industry experience in materials science is also desirable.
"We're looking for someone who's going to manage complex problems, write grant proposals, and work in a team setting," Rogers says. "People who have demonstrated all that would be preferred candidates."
Novan, a start-up company in Research Triangle Park, N.C., is also looking to expand its small staff of scientists to include materials scientists, chemists, microbiologists, and polymer engineers. The company was founded in 2006 to commercialize antimicrobial technology developed at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Nathan Stasko, president of Novan, says they are looking for Ph.D.s with experience in biomaterials and polymer synthesis, as well as a firm understanding of the manufacturing processes used to make commercial devices.
MATERIALS SCIENTISTS also have opportunities abroad. Nanoco Technologies, a company in Manchester, England, that manufactures quantum dots for various applications, is looking to fill five Ph.D. positions in various scientific disciplines, including materials science, polymer science, and nanoparticle chemistry. "There is a huge amount of innovation going on over here and a huge need for not only materials scientists but chemists of all persuasions," says Michael Edelman, chief executive officer of Nanoco.
The company currently employs 30 scientists representing 10 different nationalities. Roughly 80% have a Ph.D. "We recruit aggressively from around the world, and we're looking for the best people to come and work for us," Edelman says.
As employment possibilities in materials science grow, competition for jobs will also intensify. The increased interest in materials science is nowhere more apparent than on college campuses. Nikolaides says that when he was a graduate student at Cornell University in the late 1980s, the focus was on pharma and small-molecule synthesis. When he returned recently to recruit for P&G, the climate had completely changed. "It's all about materials now," he says.
Sarah M. Zehr, director of engineering career services at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says employers seek students with demonstrated leadership. "They want to see that you're involved in things," she says. "Having a leadership role, whether it's professional or extracurricular, can certainly help."
Just because someone didn't major in materials science doesn't mean they can't get into in the field, Nikolaides says. "There are opportunities across the board to get engaged in materials science," he explains. "If it's not in graduate school, think a little more broadly when you're thinking about a postdoc. Look at one that might get you more involved with materials research. You've got to go where the action is."
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