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A week ago, I was chatting over social media with fellow undergraduate nanoengineering alumni. Many of our fellow classmates are struggling to find employment and some have for over 2 years. Others are underemployed or working as technicians who happen to hold with a Bachelor’s degree in engineering. Our luckiest classmates either pursued graduate education or trained for work in other fields not directly related to nanotechnology. This begs the question, where are all these nanotechnology jobs we were told needed to be filled? Are there enough of them?

Why Nanotechnology Breakthroughs Have not Become Jobs

While some of the struggles of nanoengineers may be attributed to an overcrowded job market and lackluster economy, the reason for the lack of true nanotechnology jobs in industry is because they have not materialized yet. The ones currently available approach the development of nanotechnology from a functional or market-driven approach as opposed to an academic one. These jobs often work with technologies that are still under development and most often require engineers to hold graduate degrees and technicians to have several years of experience. I have written about the experience requirements here.

The adoption by industry of many advanced materials and nanotechnologies has been hindered by bad application development. Instead of technology being developed to solve a problem, many nanotechnologies are developed to demonstrate they are possible with little regard to how they may be used. As a result many of these technologies or methods, and the associated intellectual property, are not brought outside the laboratories they originated in, despite their potential. The most advanced nanosystems I have reviewed are at technology readiness levels (TRL’s as defined by NASA) between 4 or 6 but may need to be at TRL 8 to be commercially viable.

From my analysis, the main roadblocks to the widespread industry adoption of many promising micro and nanotechnologies appear to be problems relating to any these three factors:

  • Repeatability and stability of results
  • Integration with current technology
  • Manufacturability using state of the art processing methods

What Can Be Done?

In the long term, nanotechnology jobs may result from nanotechnology application development focusing on addressing specific needs. In other words, more effort needs to be made to bring advances in nanoscience or new micro and nanotechnologies out of the research labs they originate in and into industry and society by developing them to target identified needs. This may even be turned into class projects for a nanotechnology education program.

Near term, nanotechnology education programs and their students are wise to prepare for the current job market. Nanotechnology is multidisciplinary and a nanotechnology workforce may require multidisciplinary training. However, nanotechnology appears to be applied to very specific niches in each field it is used in. These niches each require a very specific set of skills that is not always similar to the others. A generalized nanotechnology curricula may not cover these in enough detail on its own. For the reasons mentioned earlier, there may be few attainable jobs that are direct matches to the background provided by nanotechnology education. Students therefore will need transferable skills and experience working on challenging projects to enter the technical job market and must prepare to take jobs in field other than nanotechnology specifically.

Some of my fellow classmates become materials engineers, biomedical engineers, quality engineers, and even data scientists after graduation. I ended up working on projects related to semiconductor devices and business development during graduate school and in space exploration during my internship. One of the uses of my nanotechnology education recently has been to figure out how well nanotechnology education aligns with industry expectations and how its students can become more job ready.

Until the technical issues holding micro and nanotechnologies back from widespread industry adoption are overcome, there will not be many jobs directly applicable to a nanotechnology degree. Success starting a career with a nanotechnology education appears to be about taking skills learned and applying them to another field, for now.

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