The Nano Student becomes the Nano Professional

I am still here. In the last several months a lot has happened. I have completed my graduate degree, defended my Master’s and moved to another state. On top of all of this, I held part time position focusing on industry analysis and mapping of micro and nanotechnologies, attended conferences and industry networking events, and worked to develop and patent a new MEMS sensor.

As a result, I have a lot to write about but until now, have rarely been able to create the time and focus to post these on this blog.  Aside from finishing my degree, many of my recent activities have focused on career, technology, and business development.  New posts are coming soon. Please stay tuned.

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How do We Explain Anything Nano?

What exactly is nanotechnology, and how does one explain it to others from more traditional backgrounds? I get that question often, especially from students hesitant to reach out to employers on this subject. Earlier I wrote about doing so.  This reblogged post contain my advice on how to communicate ones knowledge on anything nano.

The Nano Professional

I remember at a job fair once overhearing a group of my fellow classmates in our undergraduate NanoEngineering program expressing their frustration over not being able to describe their budding careers in nanotechnology to recruiters. How do we micro and nanotechnologists explain our work in a way that the rest of the world can understand?  Finding a way to do so in a concise, but detailed, manner is a challenge.

In the previous example, the most readily available piece of career fair, and networking, advice at my alma mater was to have a prepared “30 second commercial” to recite – like an entrepreneur’s elevator pitch.   Brevity and depth during this exercise may seem at odds and one classmate felt compelled make “tradeoffs” between each.

The question of how to explain micro and nanotechnology to the layperson and keep it short and sweet has come my direction before. My answers are…

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How to Categorize a Nanotechnology Company

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One question that comes my way often is how can we explain what a “nanotechnology company” is? Secondly, what would they look for in a new hire in terms of education and technical skills?

To answer these, first it needs to be recognized that nanotechnology is interdisciplinary. This means that work related to micro and nanotechnologies uses ideas and concepts typically associated with several different fields of science and engineering. For an example, look up BioMEMS. Because nano is indeed interdisciplinary, many companies will hire teams of engineers from various backgrounds (often electrical, chemical, and mechanical) to work on nanotechnology related products.

In most cases that I have observed both through analysis and contact with industry, a “microsystems” or “nanotechnology” company will base its operations around a core set of technical competencies to develop their products.

To identify these competencies (and the skills a new hire may need), the Southwest Center for Microsystems Education has counted over 2700 companies within the United States alone with work on the micro and nanoscale and is in the process of compiling industry maps for all 50 states. See here for more details. I have been part of this effort.

From my analysis, most micro and nanoscale work performed in industry can fit into one of seven categories:

  • Semiconductors
  • Materials / Chemicals / Nanomaterials
  • MEMS including Bio-MEMS, Microsensors, and Medical Devices
  • Electronics / Electronic Components
  • Optics and Photonics
  • Research and Development / Laboratory Analysis Services
  • Tools and Capital Equipment

Each has its unique technical competencies and approach to the development of commercial products, with unique skills and education requirements. A generalized description of each category is given below:

Semiconductors

There has been work at the nanoscale within the fields of semiconductors and microelectronics for many years, just it has not been called nanotechnology.  In fact, the feature sizes of many microelectronic devices are on the order of nanometers and are fabricated using combinations of advanced chemical and top down methods in cleanrooms. Employment may be found at chipmakers and other large semiconductor manufacturers. Understanding of semiconductor physics and experience in the fabrication of devices is desired for employment in this field.

Materials / Chemicals / Nanomaterials

Within nanotechnology, there is often overlap between chemistry, materials science, and biochemistry, especially with work related to nanoparticles and nanostructured materials. For example, many new drugs incorporate chemically synthesized nanoparticles to target specific diseases. The functionality of many engineered materials is also determined at the nanoscale. For this reason, this category encompasses companies that work across a variety of industries from composites to pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. A background in chemistry, materials science, biochemistry, or chemical engineering and experience in a chemical laboratory are desired by employers in these fields.

MEMS including Bio-MEMS, Microsensors, and Medical Devices

MEMS stands for “microelectromechanical systems” which is broad and interdisciplinary itself. MEMS are widespread across many fields, enabling the development of wearable electronics and the tiny sensors that enable the internet of things. In, biotechnology mems and bio-MEMS enable many genomic and medical devices. Work related to MEMS requires an understanding of how devices function at the nanoscale, and how to engineer them and their fabrication process to maximize performance and output. MEMS, including bio-MEMS utilize many of the same fabrication techniques as semiconductors. Cleanroom processing experience is a plus.

Electronics / Electronic Components

This category is devoted to companies that use micro or nanotechnology enabled components to make functional electronic devices. Because of More’s Law, the size of transistors is decreasing, forcing many electronic components to shrink to the order of nanometers. Electronics assemblers and packaging companies are adapting to newer, smaller technologies. This category is differentiated from “Semiconductors” which stands for the creators of the electronic components themselves, working to engineer their properties at the nanoscale. A background in electronics engineering or assembly is ideal for employment in companies categorized under this field.

Research and Development / Laboratory Analysis Services

Companies with a heavy emphasis on research and development are often early-phase startups aiming to bring a new technology to maturity.  Large commercial or government research facilities are included in this category.  Also included are companies that contract analysis or laboratory services and technology incubators providing lab equipment to entrepreneurs aiming to develop new technologies. At large research facilities, a PhD in a technical field is often required to become a member of the technical staff. A Master’s degree and/or several years of industry experience may be required to become a process or development engineer. Smaller companies may need technicians to run lab tests.

Optics and Photonics

Optics and photonics covers the manipulation and control of light using nanoscience.  Equipment produced by companies specializing in optics or photonics very often incorporate lasers and materials selected for their optical properties.  Companies in this category may create specialized materials or devices that guide light “signals” or detect them.  This category has overlap with semiconductors and tools and capital equipment because numerous electronic devices and microsensors make use of optics or photonics.  Related employment may be found at many companies specializing in microdevices, including producers of medical devices, electronics, and specialized equipment for nano work. Prior experience working with optics either through employment or coursework is a plus for job seeking students.

Tools and Capital Equipment

This category covers the tools used in the research, development, and production of micro and nanotechnologies. These may include electron microscopes, optical spectroscopic equipment, or any machine tool used in the production of semiconductor devices. For micro and nanomanufacturing, the work must be performed at nanometer precision over millions of tiny devices.  This requires specialized equipment and has led to an entire industry devoted to tools for micro and nanotechnology.  Often, employment related to nanotechnology tools and capital equipment is found at specialized companies that build and repair them. Understanding of how to design, operate, and construct tools for micro and nanoscale work is desired by employers in this area.

The Geography of American Micro and Nanotechnology

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The Southwest Center for Microsystems Education (SCME) has just released a poster on its industry mapping project. Through this effort, the SCME’s goal is to gain an idea of the skills need by employers working in the micro and nanotechnologies in recent graduates. Knowledge gained will be used to strengthen technical and post-secondary education programs across the United States.

As explained on the poster, the commercial and industrial use of microsystems and nanotechnology is widespread throughout the United States. The data presented provides a snapshot into the micro and nanotechnology enabled industry, displaying where within the US it is clustered and a profile the diverse applications of small technologies. Because the applications are widespread, the industrial sectors impacted by their use are wide ranging, which is partially illustrated in this analysis.

However, these findings do not tell the rate at which the micro and nanotechnology enabled industry is growing nor the size or hiring and employment statistics of companies listed. Future work will examine these. Companies included in this study range from startups with less than 20 employees to large semiconductor foundries employing over 1000. No data was found for Alaska, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico.

More information on the methodology of this work is available here.

Highlights

  • Out of the 1500 companies categorized, 22% produce tools and capital equipment. These companies build and repair the machines and specialty parts used to analyze and manufacture micro and nanostructures.
  • 18% of companies categorized produce microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and Bio-MEMS. Many biotechnology and medical diagnostics companies that make use of microsensors or gene sequencing technologies are included in this category.
  • Over half of the companies categorized focus on the production of devices or instruments, as opposed to materials and components for them.
  • Only 13% of companies specialize in the manufacture of materials traditionally viewed as nanotechnology such as nanoparticles, carbon nanotubes, and nanostructured materials.
  • Out of the over 3000 companies counted, roughly 10% are located in the Silicon Valley

Implications of This Study

This study provides a snapshot of the geography of the micro and nanotechnology enabled industry within the United States and the specialties of companies within it. The density map presented illustrates where nanotechnology may have the largest impact upon regional economies within the US. Categorization of the companies working within micro and nanotechnology provides insight into their specialties and potential skill needs.

Based on the categorization, it can be concluded that the majority of companies categorized build integrated systems, as opposed to the manufacture of advanced materials. These systems include the tools for the manufacture and characterization of nanotechnology and microelectronic devices incorporating nanotechnology. Recent graduates who aim for technical employment within nanotechnology are well served understanding how to integrate it within a useful device in an economical manner. Knowledge of only the scientific phenomena behind nanotechnology and the microsystems it is incorporated into may be insufficient. Companies focusing exclusively on production of nanomaterials through the use of these scientific principles are only 18% of those categorized.

While many of the companies counted specialized in micro or nano-dimensioned products, many others focus in more established technical industries but are introducing micro and nano products as solutions to technical problems. There is no defined “nanotechnology industry” but instead many established industries turning to micro and nanotechnologies to solve their problems.

Note: This author presented this work at the COMS Conference in Salt Lake City.

Micro and Nanotechnology: Maturing Economy, Maturing Workforce Demands

As part of my job, I analyze the adoption of micro and nanotechnologies into the United States economy. Mainly I focus on the skill and education needs for engineers and technicians needed to work with such technologies. A common question I am asked is the status of the “nanotechnology industry” and where students may find jobs in it.

From what I can tell, there is no defined “nanotechnology industry.” Instead, microsystems and nanotechnologies are becoming more widespread across many industries. There applications are very diverse, ranging from shrinking integrated circuits to improving the delivery of pharmaceuticals. Industries making use of nanotechnology include semiconductors, to the food and automotive industries for applications such as transistors, better preservatives, and components for sensors that enable “smart” vehicles.

Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) however, can be classified as an industry itself. Experts tell me that as of 2014, this industry is still maturing and is predicted to see steady growth yet is still in its adolescence. In comparison, many hot topics of nanotechnology may still be in their infancy. For both MEMS and many promising applications of nanotechnology, materials selection and device design are still being perfected. As these technologies mature, their impact can be profound across many disciplines.

In fact, the Southwest Center for Microsystems Education has knowledge of over 3000 companies working with MEMS or some form of nanotechnology in the United States. The fields and specialties of these 3000 companies are as vast and diverse as the United States itself.*

Implications for the Education of Technicians and Engineers

Because of the omnipresence of nanotechnology, education programs specifically devoted to it have sprung up many places. However, does such an education adequately prepare students for a career? The answer depends on the specific application a student seeks to specialize in and whether or not their program enables them to learn all the relevant skills better than one in an applicable traditional field.

Even though the widespread use and potential of micro and nanotechnologies is claimed as justification for such programs, this poses a difficult challenge to nanotechnology education.

To be employable, a graduate must know how to make original and practical contributions in a competitive industry. Included in the know-how to do so is intermediate familiarity with the industry and its technical field. Microsystems and nanotechnology offer solutions to niche problems in a many dissimilar industries and fields simultaneously yet are not the only way to solve any of them. Specializing in the use of nanotechnology for one specific application may amount to focusing on a niche within a niche, if on target with local employer expectations.

Solving the Emerging Problems of Nanotechnology Education

To address potential skill mismatches and lack of industry exposure, and hopefully save job seeking nanotechnology students agony, educators I have interacted with worldwide have shared with me their efforts. There are many different approaches to solve these emerging problems. Most of the solutions I am told about focus on one any of these three criteria:

Students, educators, and local industry leaders need to interact more

On this subject, I strongly agree. How can educators design curricula that prepare students for industry jobs if they only have limited contact with industry professionals themselves? One of the best ways to find out is to ask as many local industry leaders as able to what their companies are looking for in a new hire. Students should meet and mingle with them for the networking.

If a program does not have contact with the outside industry is wishes to serve, it risks becoming out of touch and minting unprepared graduates.

Educators need to give students challenging projects, and many of them

The difference between a simulation and real device performance, inaccuracy of measurements, device failure analysis, and how these may relate to each other are better learned in a laboratory then a classroom. Industry leaders have voiced their concerns about engineers from programs that do not give students the chance to solve many open ended technical problems. According to them, the best ways for students to become employable is to have undertaken several practical and design projects.

The focus needs to be on micro and nanotechnology commercialization and workforce training as much as on research

While academic research is important, not all students will become researchers. For various reasons at many universities, teaching is less of a priority then research. This is a common complaint in programs where only the theoretical concepts behind science and engineering are taught as they relate to current research efforts. Students and industry leaders have voiced serious concern about this to me. On the other hand, university program directors have also told me about their efforts to create opportunities to prepare students for the rigors of the technology economy. Often these are coordinated internships and technology commercialization efforts placing students at their lead.

While nanotechnology education programs are often justified by the anticipation of workforce needs in the nanotechnology economy, this economy is still emerging. Microsystems and nanotechnologies are used by many different and diverse industries, each requiring a different set of skills for technical work.   Multidisciplinary microsystems and nanotechnology education can teach the basics of how each works and how they can be applied but may not cover enough of a specific technical discipline to best prepare students to take jobs.

Some promising ways summarized to address this through rigorous design projects, strengthening degree program’s and students’ ties to industry, and accelerating the commercialization of nanotechnologies originating in university research labs.

Note: The Southwest Center for Microsystems Education plans to publish more about its findings regarding the microsystems and nanotechnology enabled economy in the United States and potential skills needed in it. Stay tuned at http://scme-nm.org/.

Shortcomings of Nanotechnology Education

In my correspondence with other students and graduates of post secondary nanotechnology degree programs, I have been told of their struggles, accomplishments, and the shortcomings of such a program. The latter, and the challenges of addressing them have found their way into my discussions with nano educators too. Internet searching yields surprisingly little information on the problems of and challenged faced by nanotechnology education programs and their students. While many online resources exist to provide material to nanotechnology educators, students, and the general public, the shortcomings of curricula devoted specifically to micro and nanotechnologies and how to address them appear underreported.

I have heard the frustrations of students and educators I have corresponded with. In this post, I will identify what appear to me as the three greatest difficulties of nanotechnology education and their causes. These are that curricula may focus too broadly, a lack of laboratory classes, and risk of leaving graduates uncompetitive to enter the workforce.

Nano degrees are too broad and not rigorous enough

Nanotechnology degrees may be too broad yet too specialized in all areas they cover, leaving students to complain about having a little bit of knowledge about everything yet able to excel at nothing. Employers do not like this! Educators also become frustrated with the subject. They worry there is too much to cover and about the risk of overwhelming their students (and themselves) with details if they dive deeply into the underlying principles behind all micro and nanotechnologies. They have to pick and choose what to cover. If they broadly overview everything that makes nanotechnology possible, it becomes harder to make classes both rigorous and relevant.

If misconstrued, I am told nanotechnology degrees do not provide the same depth of knowledge and levels of practical experience as more traditional engineering degrees. Because of this, their graduates risk being less competitive for jobs.

With micro and nanotechnology, there is so much to cover and not always enough time to teach thoroughly and rigorously. Community college educators are most challenged by this, because their curricula is traditionally limited to 2 years in total! In undergraduate engineering programs, one has to fit all the prerequisite courses the upper division engineering courses into 4 years. Somewhere in these 2 or 4 years, a student needs to learn the fundamentals, build technical skills, and gain real-world experience that will land them a job upon completion.

Within micro or nanotechnologies, academic rigor can come from frequent and challenging assignments and design projects. It is the practical experience from design projects that impress employers more than the breadth of knowledge of a job seeking student. These also need to fit into a curricula.

There are not enough applicable lab classes

I am told this very often too. Students tell me the lack of hands-on experience keeps their degree from becoming practical, and them from being employable. Educators cite lack of resources or access to specialized equipment as reasons. Teaching nanotechnology or microsystems is expensive. A lesson on growing nanowires, for example, may require the use of expensive chemicals and an in-demand piece of laboratory equipment. Teaching the fabrication of MEMS will require a cleanroom, and use of many of the specialized processing equipment. The point is that nanotechnology often requires the use of very specialized and expensive materials and equipment that can cost over a million dollars to install. Not every community college or university department can afford many laboratory classes.

For this reason, many simpler demonstration kits, do-it-yourself resources, and even remote access to nanotechnology characterization tools are offered. Students gaining practical experience building micro and nanostructures in a laboratory class is vital. Without it, employers are disenchanted and will hire others with the right experiences. Fortunately, the educators I have corresponded with understand this and are working to address it.

Nano degrees may not adequately prepare students for jobs

It has been mentioned many times before that internships and entry level jobs require practical engineering skills, yet nano education focuses on concepts and research. Another complaint is that there is not enough time in a 4-year curriculum to teach enough technical skills as well as nanotechnology theory to make students as competitive for jobs as more traditional engineering degrees do.

This is a serious concern for students in programs that save their upper division engineering courses for the last 2 years. Some employers have voiced that nanotechnology programs do not provide the same level of preparation, leaving nano students less prepared for the job. Furthermore, many posted nanotechnology engineering jobs require graduate degrees. What room does this leave for Bachelor’s level nanoengineers?

Optimistic students and educators insist this is a perception problem, that should be solved by more active industry outreach and marketing. In my opinion, this is only part of a larger challenge of nanotechnology education. This is that nanoscience and nanotechnology are still very much theoretical fields. Even though they have important and underappreciated societal impact, many their promises still have yet to leave research and development. Because of this, not many entry level engineering and technician jobs in industry require comprehensive knowledge about nanotechnology. The ones that do are often at specialized or research and development companies which require graduate degrees for consideration.

Regardless, one must not forget that the industry enabled by micro and nanotechnologies and its workforce are globalized and knowledge driven. So is competition for its employment. A nanotechnology degree must focus to meet specific workforce needs. Any that aim to prepare its graduates for a job market that should exist in theory run the risk of irrelevance and creating dissatisfied alumni.

The bigger picture

The need to increase public awareness about nanotechnology and to teach students about the associated ethical and occupational safety issues is widely understood. Shortcomings of nanotechnology education, however, are not explored in as much detail. Hopefully, this post will illuminate what may be some of the greatest challenging for nanotechnology degree programs.

While their subject matter may become the next industrial revolution, nanotechnology degrees are a new phenomenon. Nanotechnology education is still a work in progress and students wishing to pursue it must understand this. Such programs may provide the chance to learn valuable skills in the hottest emerging technologies but they also risk inadequately preparing students for a job market that has not materialized. To increase the competitiveness of nanotechnology degrees and ensure they create employable graduates, opportunities for all students to gain practical skills and the depth of knowledge are required. What is needed most in nanotechnology education is a way to make a theoretical degree practical.

Note: a great online resource regarding the challenges faced by undergraduate nanotechnology education is the Symposium on Advances in Higher Education in Nanoscale Science and Engineering held at SUNY Albany in 2009

Will a Nano Degree Earn You a Job?

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.

Is a Nano Degree Relevant?

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

On this website are also pages devoted to making the most of 2-year and 4-year programs within micro and nanotechnology.

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

How do We Explain Anything Nano?

I remember at a job fair once overhearing a group of my fellow classmates in our undergraduate NanoEngineering program expressing their frustration over not being able to describe their budding careers in nanotechnology to recruiters. How do we micro and nanotechnologists explain our work in a way that the rest of the world can understand?  Finding a way to do so in a concise, but detailed, manner is a challenge.

In the previous example, the most readily available piece of career fair, and networking, advice at my alma mater was to have a prepared “30 second commercial” to recite – like an entrepreneur’s elevator pitch.   Brevity and depth during this exercise may seem at odds and one classmate felt compelled make “tradeoffs” between each.

The question of how to explain micro and nanotechnology to the layperson and keep it short and sweet has come my direction before. My answers are summarized in a brief list of things to do and avoid…

 

Tell the technology’s purpose first

The most talented describers of micro and nanotechnology whom have had my audience have begun by telling what nanotechnology can do, which justifies why they are interested in it, and why you should hopefully be too. Then they dive into how it works and by what scientific principles it operates from. Intuitively, telling the great things a technology can do first will hold an interested listener’s attention longer.

A winning formula for this is “It is used for….. by doing…..based on …scientific principle.”

So many engineers do the reverse! Once I was once told about a device “that utilizes dielectrophoresis to separate harmful nanomatter due to differences in dipole and Clausius–Mossotti characteristics of the individual particles.” Fortunately I had some familiarity with the concept of dielectrophoresis, which spared me from total confusion. For those who do not, translation please?

 

Avoid discussing it abstractly

There is a reason students fall asleep during university lecture classes. It is not always that the subject is not stimulating enough. Instead, delivery is not, and may not relate it to something tangible. The point here is this: connect nanotechnology to something others may be familiar with.  Think of your least interesting lectures in college. Please do not remind the audience of theirs too.

I cannot put into words how often I have witnessed scientists and engineers make this mistake.

 

Relate it to real life

One of the easiest ways to bring nanotechnology, or any technical product for that matter, down to planet earth is to compare it with something more familiar. I have heard many creative ways to do so. The best was from a fellow volunteer at a NanoDay exhibit held a at a local science center:

A child asked him “how small is nano?”

His response: “What do you see through a microscope?”

“Germs”

“Now, imagine something so small, that a germ needs a microscope to see it” replied the volunteer.

He was simple and to the point. The child understood him perfectly. Obviously the volunteer was not going to respond with an answer created from information from scientific literature to a child. An adult will appreciate a bit of creativity and effort too.

 

Don’t be too simplistic

While it may be useful to scrub out some of the tech jargon and replacing the big words, do not overdo it.  Explaining technology to the layperson does not mean “dumbing down” the topic, just recasting it into normal language.

Even if unintentional, the “I am the smart one and you know nothing” vibe will turn others off. Recruiters (or potential partners and investors for the entrepreneurial minded) certainly do not want to catch wind of it.

 

Practice practice practice!

Explaining micro and nanotechnology concisely and comprehensibly is as much an art as it is a science. I cannot stress this more.  Do not be ashamed to stumble a few times. Explaining nano-related work in a not-so-technical way takes practice. Give it a try, and try often. It will come more naturally when making the pitch that matters the most.

Professional Development and Nano Students

At different times, students have asked me how to best prepare for a career in micro or nanotechnology.  To be honest, there are many ways one can go about this and plenty of resources available for those who expend the effort to pursue them.

My advice would be to begin contacting and meeting with local professionals who are in a relevant field while also staying informed about recent happenings and keeping one’s professional and communication skills up.  Industry professionals can give a feeling for what a day on the job is like, the industry itself, and how to ready yourself for a career it.  Staying informed about the industry can be a matter of subscribing to the right newsletters or publications, as well as talking with professionals.  Seminars and webinars are also useful for this purpose.  In fact, there are also several good webinars and workshop resources posted online. Three are listed below:

Also, do check out local chapters of professional societies and consider paying them a visit.  Several of the largest ones which have covered different aspects nanotechnology and microsystems are listed below:

It is never too early in your studies to start preparing for a career or to get out and meet people in the field.  The sooner you start, and more of a go-getter you become, the better prepared you will be.

As a nano student, you have your entire career ahead of you.  So, what are you waiting for?