A while ago, I posted “Is a Nano Degree Relevant?” Shortly after, this became the most viewed post on The Nano Student blog. Several readers have since emailed me back or contacted me through various social media with their views on the subject. Two of whom reply…

“My thoughts is that there is a very gray border currently describing the skill sets of a nanoengineer. The main skills I see a nanoengineer having are fabrication/ metrology techniques for nanoscale materials. People have to see the importance in having these skills for nanoengineers to be hired.”

-Michael

“So now the question becomes how does a nanoengineer gain the right skills for industry.”

-Sadat

Follow-up discussion has centered around two big questions: will a specialized micro or nanotechnology degree provide adequate preparation for a related job and how does it stack up to degrees in more traditional disciplines? The answer to each depends on the specific opportunities the nano degree gives the student to gain relevant experience and the requirements of the employer.

 

Is a “nano” degree competitive?

From my discussions with professors in various university and community college micro and nanotechnology programs, members of their industry advisory board have called for the creation interdisciplinary microsystems and nanotechnology degrees. They ask because their companies are working on projects that blend together traditional disciplines and have assembled interdisciplinary teams to tackle them. Ideally, a candidate with an education focused on such technology would be able to jump right into these projects and not need to be brought up to speed in something outside their specialty. An ideal candidate perfectly fits this desired role, having precisely the right qualifications and education for these diverse on-the-job requirements. An ideal micro or nano program should produce these candidates. To make its industry advisory board happy, this program should mint enough qualified new graduates for their companies to pick and choose per each open job. Right?

Maybe. The point is that micro and nanotechnologies require their own skill sets, which are different from those of more traditional disciplines but have plenty of overlap. For technicians in particular, the unique combination of skills is becoming recognized in the United States and Europe.

For micro and nanosystems engineers, a specific skill set appears less defined, with more overlap into traditional disciplines. A good resource is the Institute of Nanotechnology’s summery of their skills and training survey outcomes. While this may be several years old and some geographic variation is to be expected when assessing the needed skill sets, the presented results are valuable for defining them. The highlights were that:

  • Roughly 57% of the recruiters surveyed employed “graduates and post-graduates specifically for nanotechnology know-how.”
  • Roughly 58% valued employees whose technical skills could both be described as a “generalist” and “specialist.”

Because both the study and commercial applications of micrtosystems and nanotechnology are broad and interdisciplinary, the skills obtained from a micro or nano degree will be so as well. Even though the author of the Institute of Nanotechnology’s survey, there is no one career path in nanotechnology. The “nanotechnology industry” can incorporate anything from semiconductor manufacturing to developing targeted drugs to treat disease. With enough lab experience, the two main skill sets micro and nano students develop are the synthesis, fabrication, and analysis of tiny structures.

To stand out, a “nano” degree provides its students two main competitive advantages, which are

  • Broad scope, ideal for knowing the diverse applications of microsystems and nanotechnology
  • Hands-on experience provided by most programs working directly with nanomaterials coupled with understanding of how to use them to solve real world problems

The two greatest disadvantages of a specialized program in micro and nano technologies are:

  • Theory intensive (many of the promises of nanotechnology are still research topics)
  • Do not provide the same depth of knowledge as more traditional technical fields

As many of the nanoengineering students I correspond with have pointed out, often the most nano-specific jobs they find require candidates to have a Master’s or PhD. This is because much of the specialized microsystems and nanotechnology work is still in research and early level product development stage. A Master’s degree or higher is typically required for such positions.

Many entry level positions requiring a Bachelor’s degree (engineer) or Associate’s degree (technician) often focus on general engineering or research work or technical and facility operations that do not always require specialized “nano” skills. Competition from more traditional, and recognized, fields will therefore be tougher for these jobs. Generally, engineers with scientific knowledge are preferred over scientists with understanding of engineering concepts, according to the journal Science.

 

Concluding remarks

With any specialized degree, including one in the micro and nanotechnologies comes high risk but potentially high reward. Whether or not a nanotechnology oriented degree will land a nanotechnology oriented job is as dependent on the skills and tenacity of the student as well as the program.

In my opinion, which I share with many of the professors and industry professionals I correspond with, successful students have a sharp focus and are passionate about this field. Like many technical fields, micro and nanotechnologies require a broad scientific background but specialized engineering skills. Therefore, a micro or nanotechnology degree may not leave a lot of flexibility during a job search. Students who choose to devote their studies in these fields are best off with a solid plan to propel them to the specific career they want when they begin. Serious competition when entering the job market or pursuing further study should be expected.

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