I majored in NanoEngineering.  When I tell people, this can draw curious looks and the question “you majored in what?”  During job interviews, “what is nanoengineering” is asked more straightforwardly.  It is usually followed by “you are the first nanoengineer I’ve met.”  Other professionals more indirectly ask if a major in nanotechnology was a good choice.

I write this almost 3 and a half years after I graduated from UC San Diego, as one of the first students to receive a degree in NanoEngineering.  At graduation, most of us had some ideas of which direction we wanted to navigate the next 2 years of our lives.  It was either grad school or looking for the first post-graduate job.  After that we did not know.

Over the next 2 years, UCSD graduated hundreds more nanoengineers, several of whom I have recently been contact with.  Whether or not the major prepared us adequately for our chosen careers can turn into a lively discussion.

My Perspective

Reflecting on my undergraduate education, I would call it a good theoretical introduction to nanotechnology.  However, it prepared its students for jobs which did not exist.  It alone was not enough to propel me through the academic and career challenges that awaited me for the next 3 years.  Immediately after graduating, I pursued a Master’s in Nanoscience and Microsystems Engineering at the University of New Mexico.  My undergraduate education was theoretical, and my aim in grad school was to make it practical.

With a nanoengineering major, regardless of what one does with their life, there will be a steep learning curve.  The reasons for this is because effective nanotechnology education is broader then it is detailed in any specific field.  It must interdisciplinary due to the nature of its subject.  Technical departments at most companies, on the other hand, specialize in a specific field.

As a personal example, I took an internship at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in integration and test engineering while a graduate student.  My responsibilities included 3D printing, creating and running LabVIEW codes for machines, and SolidWorks drawings for models of propulsion test equipment.  I had not studied propulsion in detail prior, and spent a lot of my downtime in JPL’s employee library reading about it and watching videos on advanced techniques for both LabVIEW and SolidWorks.  My education had only given me a basic theoretical understanding of 3D printing.  I voraciously read technical papers on this too.

Within a month, I felt competent in these tools.  The learning curve was steep, but at least I felt like I did not fall off it.  Classmates of mine at UCSD and UNM have had steep learning curves too, once they leave academia.

With any technical degree, one’s education will only prepare them a certain amount.  A degree in aerospace engineering may have flattened the learning curve at JPL but would not have given me as much career flexibility.  Later work and business ventures put me into manufacturing engineering and biotechnology.  In these, the learning curve was also steep. My nanoengineering degree enabled me to more easily enter these fields because it give me enough technical knowledge to comprehend the job I was doing.  From here, I could identify possible solutions to the technical problems I faced and a way to quickly acquire the specific technical skills needed to solve them.

Finding a Job as a Nanoengineer

One of the greatest challenges of a nanoengineering major is explaining what it is and how it enables a student to become a valuable employee in a technical role.  Because of this, I feel a nanotechnology degree granted from any institution makes it harder to find a job then a more traditional engineering degree.  Once in a job, the broad background makes gaining experience and moving between disciplines easier.

Applying electronically for jobs is less effective because the resume filtering software used may not have “nanoengineering” programed as an acceptable field and will automatically reject any applications with degrees not approved by the filter.  Furthermore, many companies use requirements so rigid few recent graduates can meet.  I learned this is why some companies cannot find the skilled engineers they need.

Additionally, employers demand at least some hands-on experience solving real world problems in the field they recruit for.  Some nanotechnology programs have struggled to provide opportunities to develop these skills.  Without such, there students face a competitive disadvantage on the job market and this will bring down the reputation of the program.

As an undergraduate, I pursued such outside my major.  I later learned that most managers recognize transferable skills and learning experiences obtained from projects, even if their resume filters do not.  For this reason, I encourage nanoengineering students to go around, not through, these filters by networking and obtaining referrals to find satisfying jobs.

Was Nanoengineering a Good Choice?

At the time I decided to pursue nanoengineering, it was.  The best aspect of a nanoengineering degree is it provides a good overview of the scientific and engineering principles that underlie modern materials and electronics.  This has become most valuable aspect of mine, considering my experience and directions my career has taken.  Combined with technical experience and the ability to see projects to their completion, a nanoengineering degree can be made to be very useful.  Whether or not industry is ready to accommodate engineers with nanoengineering degrees is the subject of a previous post on my blog here

The worst aspect of a nanoengineering degree is it make finding the first job more difficult. Yet this does not reduce career prospects.  Nano degrees are more adaptable then those in traditional technical fields.  This also means a nanotechnology education alone can fail to provide the depth of knowledge in specific subjects desired by employers.  The responsibility to gain this is on the career seeking student.  The responsibility to provide adequate opportunities to do so is on the institution and department offering the degree.

To ensure career success and profitability of the degree, I advise students in nano programs to gain project experience in a more traditional scientific or engineering field in addition to their studies.  Gain as much as possible and see several projects through to completion.  This will provide new technical and leadership skills which support the theoretical knowledge gained through coursework.  Bring these to the interview, sell them, and then use these to excel in the first job or two.  After that, charting a career will become much easier.