As micro and nanotechnologies are presumed to have grown in importance, so has the field of nano education and the number of specialized “nano” degrees. Underlying lively discussions by educators and students that I have witnessed are two questions. Students ask “are microsystems and nanotechnology focused degrees relevant?” and educators ask “how do we make them relevant to best prepare students?” This post is my attempt to answer both.
With any specialized degree comes high risk, but the possibility of high reward. Micro and nano degrees are no exception. Relating these subjects in specific, the reward is a background in the driving force behind what is predicted to become the next industrial revolution. The risk is that the field has yet to fully fledge and a degree in it may be premature and not align with the demands of the current technology workforce.
Regardless, nanotechnology is increasing in importance. In 2011, the National Science Foundation predicted that nanotechnology will have a $3 trillion direct impact on the global economy and employ 6 million workers in the manufacture of nanomaterial-based products. 2 million of these nanomanufacturing jobs are expected to reside in the United States.*
Due to the interdisciplinary nature of micro and nanotechnologies, this will be felt in many sectors of the economy, ranging from medicine to electronics. I have written about some of fields here
Is Nano Only Research?
It is important to keep in mind that many promises of nanotechnology, and their integration into microsystems, have yet to exit the research lab and enter the commercial marketplace. Nanotechnology is comparatively new branch of science and there is still a gap between knowing its potential and converting it into something useful to society. According to scholarship-positions.com, most of the relevant careers in this field are still in research. As recently as 2012, a prominent Indian scientist opposed creating a nanotech degree due to not enough related jobs outside research.
This leads to a question worth asking: is nanotechnology and its integration into microsystems exclusively for researchers and academics with PhDs?
Not exactly. The National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network predicts that a workforce at all education levels will be needed to make the promises of micro and nanotechnologies a reality. This does include researchers with PhDs to discover more promises of this field and how they can be harnessed. Also needed will be engineers with Bachelor’s degrees to integrate nanotechnology and design microsystems, and technicians with Associate’s degrees to maintain the equipment and processes used to produce microengineered and nanomaterial-enhanced products. Project managers with Master’s degrees and technical businesspeople with MBAs will be needed as well to keep micro and nanotechnology-focused enterprises operating and profitable.
Making a “Nano” Degree Relevant
In my opinion, a micro or nano degree is relevant if it adequately prepares all its students to launch their careers or pursue further study after earning their degree. A relevant program caters to the changing needs of the technical industries its students are employed by, preparing them through challenging class and laboratory projects to ensure they are competitive candidates for jobs and internships.
However, it has been mentioned before there are not many positions with “nano” in their job titles out there. Employment may be found in more traditional technical fields, but with work at the nanoscale. A micro and nano degree may provide the depth of knowledge to perform this, if done right.
Asking how to do it right poses another challenging question. Eric Drexler, the scientist who coined the term “nanotechnology,” provides advice regarding how a student can go about this on his website. I have no need to repeat his points. Since Drexler’s seminal work, nanotechnology education and dedicated programs have proliferated, with offerings ranging widely in their emphasis and requirements. In my opinion, an ideal nano program offers these to its students:
- Rigorous academics
- Access to local industry for both student employment and mentorship
- Strong laboratory and hands-on components relating to micro and nanotechnologies
- A strong support group and sense of community between its students
- Serious discussion of nanoethics and the impact of nanotechnology on society
In conclusion, the relevance of a micro and nano program ultimately depends on how well it caters to the career goals of all its students and accounts for the changing demands of industry. One that does not do so or only teaches theory may not be the best option for an aspiring nanotechnologist. When looking to prepare for a career in micro and nanotechnologies, choose wisely.
*Numbers from executive summary of “Protecting the Nanotechnology Workforce” report: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2014-106/pdfs/2014-106.pdf