What is the Difference Between Materials Science and Chemistry?


In high school, chemistry was my favorite subject. However, chemistry was my wife’s least-favorite subject. Both of us became materials scientists after we learned the similarities and differences between materials science and chemistry.

It depends on your curriculum, but in my experience high school chemistry class are probably more similar to advanced materials science classes than advanced chemistry classes. Hopefully, this article will help you decide between materials science and chemistry, before it’s too late!

Chemistry and materials science are both science fields that require a basic understanding of chemistry, math and physics. There are many sub-fields shared between the two disciplines, such as polymer technology, corrosion, electrochemistry, and nanotube technology.

As a general rule, the difference between materials science and chemistry is that materials science focuses on solids while chemistry focuses on fluids.

Although that may seem like a trivial distinction, the solid/fluid difference has significant implications.

Materials Science is an Engineering Major, Chemistry is NOT

If you go to any university, you’ll find materials science in the college of engineering, and you’ll find chemistry in the college of arts and sciences. This is several implications.

Since materials science is an engineering discipline, the program will have to be accredited by ABET (in the US, ast least), an organization that accredits engineering departments.

If the materials science program wants to remain ABET-compliant, there are some fairly strict standards that need to be upheld. For example, there are usually some important design classes. Math may need to be more rigorous than is actually needed for materials research. Students will be expected to have some general engineering knowledge. All students in ABET-accredited programs will have a core body of knowledge that they share (such as the materials paradigm).

Chemistry departments do not need to be regulated to such a high degree. There is the American Chemical Society–but that’s just an organization for chemists, not all “science disciplines.”

Both materials science and chemistry can differ school-to-school, but while materials science students may have vastly different electives and research experiences, their core classes remain essentially unchanged.

Additionally, materials science tends to be very hands-on. I have welded, cast aluminum, built a furnace, smashed things with a transformation toughening ceramic hammer, drawn shape memory wire, and even forged a sword.

Undergraduate research is highly encouraged in materials science. Many of my undergraduate classmates actually performed research as part of their part-time job. 

Of course, chemistry also encourages undergraduate research–just not to the same extent. Perhaps it was a quirk of my school, but despite chemistry being one of the largest university departments and materials science being one of the smallest, materials science brought in more research funding than chemistry. It was not uncommon for chemistry students to perform research in a materials science laboratory.

Materials Science is More Interdisciplinary

Of course, in any science field you will have collaborators. A mechanical engineer, a chemist, and an electrical engineer may all work together to build an electronic device with a specific polymer coating.

However, all three of these jobs could be covered in one materials science degree.

While chemistry focuses on . . . chemistry . . . to a very advanced degree, materials science covers a much broader range of topics.

Both degrees will hit basics such as thermodynamics, atomic bonding, kinetics (diffusion), math, and physics. However, chemistry have additional classes that focus on organic chemistry and analytical chemistry, while materials science tends to have more “tie-everything-together” classes like Processing” or Metallurgy.

Chemistry has a Narrower Range of Materials

Chemists usually focus on material properties at an atomic scale. For example, chemists are more likely to deal with nanoparticles, coatings, conductive polymers, self-assembling molecules, pharmaceutical drugs, and fluids.

Materials science focuses on materials at every level–in addition to the materials the chemists work on, materials scientists may work on metals, semiconductors, and ceramics. Materials science also focuses on understanding the structure of materials, while chemistry focuses more on chemical reactions.

There is a lot of overlap between the fields, however. For example, I know materials scientists who have worked on ice cream, hair, chocolate, dye, and more. I personally work on physical metallurgy which is pretty much exclusively materials science, but there are tons of other fields that overlap.

Materials Science focuses on Inorganic Chemistry

Organic chemistry is the really hard chemistry that requires a lot of memorization. In general, materials scientists don’t need this knowledge. Some may need it for research, but most of us just need the fundamentals–I never took a chemistry class after high school.

The chemistry in materials science is mostly organic and deals with bonding, corrosion, and oxidation. Some programs may teach a little bit of organic chemistry to understand polymer basics, but that’s not a common requirement.

Chemistry majors need a broad knowledge of organic, analytical, and physical chemistry.

Chemistry Focuses on Fluids, Materials Science Focuses on Solids

Chemistry usually involves compounds reacting via solutions. There is a liquid involved in every step.

Materials science usually focuses on a bulk material (or 2D material) and tries to understand how the arrangement of atoms and bonding gives the material its property. There can be fluids involved (like when dealing with corrosion or melting materials), but when we consider fluids, we usually consider the effect that a fluid has on our object of study.

The fluid itself is rarely studied in materials science.

So, when a materials scientist studies diffusion, dissolution, nucleation, grain growth, and precipitate growth, they are usually studying these things in the solid state. How does one solid precipitate inside another? How to atoms of one solid diffuse through another?

When chemistry focuses on diffusion, precipitate nucleation, and dissolution, they are usually looking at one or more liquids interacting, often with a solid that is dissolved.

Materials Science has a Holistic Approach Towards Materials Design

A chemist might understand material properties such as biocompatibility, corrosion resistance, and possibly thermal or optical properties of a material.

Materials science focuses on all properties of materials–including strength, hardness, fatigue, magnetism, conductivity, and more.

Materials science uses the materials tetrahedron–we are involved in a material from start to finish. We consider how a material’s processing affects its structure, how the structure affects its properties, and what combination of properties will grant peak performance. 

Materials Science is More Flexible

Chemists can apply for jobs as . . . chemists. Perhaps some chemists can apply for materials science jobs as well (although it’s common for chemists to go to grad school in materials science to improve their job prospects).

Materials scientists can apply for jobs advertised toward chemists, aerospace engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, process engineers, petroleum engineers, nuclear engineers, physicists, and more. The degree is very versatile, and materials scientists can make an argument for why they would be helpful to any industry (for example, computational materials scientists can even go into finance, where they turn their knowledge of computational materials science into stock market algorithms).

There are a lot more jobs advertised for chemists than for materials scientists, but materials scientists can qualify for jobs that aren’t specifically targeted for materials science.

Salary

According the US bureau of labor statistics, materials scientists earn more than chemists. Money isn’t everything, but I can’t say I was disappointed to find the expected salary of my major.

Which Degree is Right for You: Materials Science or Chemistry?

I know I might have made it seem like materials science is clearly better than chemistry, but I know the degree is not for everyone. There are definitely people who prefer chemistry, and I may be shoe-horning it more than reality. After all, I know many materials scientists so I can say what materials scientists do. 

Most of the chemists I know have switched majors to materials science, or are in both the materials science and chemistry department.

If you like chemical synthesis and organic molecules but hate sample preparation and waiting for experiments to finish, chemistry is probably the best choice for you.

If you don’t mind spending a few hours polishing and preparing samples because you get to think creatively and holistically, materials science is probably the best choice for you.

I will say that most people haven’t given materials science a fair shot, because they don’t know what materials science is. If you’re on the fence about which field to choose, I invite you to read this article explaining what materials science is, and this article explaining some more reasons you might want to major in materials science.

Like some of my friends, you may try double majoring in chemistry and materials science. A lot of the intro classes are the same (although not as many as you’d expect because they are in different colleges).

And like my friends, perhaps after a year of double majoring you will realize that materials science is superior and drop the chemistry degree 🙂

References and Further Reading

If you are also considering chemical engineering, you might want to check out this article to tell the difference between materials science and chemical engineering.

If you want to learn more about materials science, you may be interested in this article which explains what materials science is, or this article which explains why you might want to major in materials science.

For more details on salary and job statistics, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has pages on chemists, chemists and materials scientists, materials scientists, and materials engineers.

If you want to learn more about the differences between materials science and materials engineering, this post will explain the (very small) difference.

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