What is the Difference between “Materials Science” and “Materials Engineering?”


The short answer: “materials science” and “materials engineering” are exactly the same thing. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the “science” in materials science relies upon engineering principles, and the “engineering” in materials science relies on scientific principles, to the point where distinguishing between science and engineering is useless.

I’m hunting for some data science to provide statistics, but as far as I can tell, almost all university materials departments call themselves the “Department of Materials Science and Engineering.” They use both terms. For simplicity, here and in other pages on this website, I will usually use the shorter “materials science” when I really mean “materials science and engineering.”

 The short answer: “Materials science” and “materials engineering” usually mean the same thing

Those of us in the field sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between science and engineering because of the nature of our work. We uniquely straddle the line between science and engineering. No one else has that problem. Computer science and computer engineering are very different. One deals with software and the other deals with hardware. You’ve never even heard of a mechanical, electrical, or civil scientist. Chemists and chemical engineers have little to do with each other–and what most people think a chemical engineer does is actually what a materials scientist does!

To be fair, within materials science there is work that is more sciency and work that is more engineery. At a fundamental level, science is about discovery and learning about the world. Engineering is about accomplishing some goal.

Mechanical or civil engineers apply science that has previously been discovered to create something new and useful. Einstein laid out the science for the invention of the laser, and many other scientists contributed studies to make this theoretical idea a reality. Engineers then took that laser, realized it could be used to point at screens during a presentation, transfer information in optic cables, cut/melt through objects, or even read discs.

In most fields, the initial scientific discovery is separate from the engineering application. In materials science and engineering, the discovery and application overlap to the point where science and engineering are virtually indistinguishable.

Science vs Engineering using the Materials Tetrahedron

Most materials scientists (or materials engineers) have to consider all 4 points of the materials tetrahedron: processing, structure, properties, and performance.

However, it is possible to distinguish between a materials scientist and a materials engineer by using this tetrahedron. There are 6 possible edges, but 2 points are especially important: the structure-properties leg, and the processing-performance leg.

In general, a pure engineer is focused on outcomes. He or she would be most interested in processing→performance. A “materials engineer” would like to increase performance by adjusting the processing methods.

In contrast, a pure scientist typically focuses on discovery. He or she might be most interested in structure→properties. A “materials scientist” would like to understand how structure affects properties.

Of course, once that is understood, the next logical step is to figure out what processing can achieve a certain structure, and the scientist is probably looking at some set of properties because he or she has a particular performance target in mind. That’s why it’s so hard to separate materials science and materials engineering.

Which Major? Materials Science or Materials Engineering

As a field of study, there is no difference between materials science and materials engineering (except in Canada). Most university programs will call themselves “materials science and engineering.” The program is typically part of the college of engineering, and the students consider themselves engineers while working on the more scientific side of the spectrum.

It is possible that some university offers slightly different degrees in both “materials science” and “materials engineering.” In Canada, for example, there is a difference because “engineer” is a regulated term. You should ask a Canadian for more information on this, but my understanding is that “materials engineer” is strictly better than “materials science” as a Canadian university degree title.

It is also possible that some company offers jobs for both a “materials scientist” and a “materials engineer.” If you see this, please let me know! I’d be curious to figure out what someone would want to make the distinction.

Which Job? Materials Scientist or Materials Engineer

As a job description, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does distinguish between “materials scientists” and “materials engineers.” I hesitate to infer too much from this distinction, however, because they also list a job title of “chemist or materials scientist.” Also keep in mind that since materials science is not a widely-known field, many materials scientists actually have a different job title.

Nonetheless, since they feel it is important to make a distinction, let’s look at the data.

According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Materials scientists are responsible for researching structure-property relationships.
  • Materials engineers are responsible for developing processes to meet performance metrics, and developing new uses for known materials.

That’s pretty much what I said earlier–engineers and scientists focus on different parts of the materials tetrahedron.

I also notice that there are more than 3 times as many “materials engineers” as “materials scientists.” This makes sense: the term “scientist” connotes research without profit, while “engineer” connotes solutions for profit. Most companies would rather their employees think of themselves as engineers than scientists.

Materials scientists are much more likely to work in research or universities, while materials engineers are more likely to work in architecture or aerospace (notice that research is still #3 for materials engineers).

Salaries are similar, but materials scientists have a wider spread between the bottom 10% and top 10%. This makes sense because pure research positions are obviously not as well-funded as applied research positions, but “scientists” are also more likely than “engineers” to keep the patent rights (which can mean a lot of money in some cases).

Final Thoughts

A degree in materials science and engineering will prepare you for either job position (and tons of others), but now you know what someone means if they try to distinguish between science and engineering.

With all of this said (or written!), this article has three major takeaways:

  1. Education in Materials Science and Materials Engineering are the same thing, so most departments have the official name “Materials Science and Engineering.”
  2. Most academic institutions (research labs and universities) call the field “materials science” because it’s shorter.
  3. Most jobs refer to professionals as “materials engineers” because they want to emphasize the application side of the work. We also have this connotation that “engineering” is somehow a more real-world job than “sciencing.”

For one last takeaway, here’s a page of current Google trends! Unless something crazy happens between now and when you’re reading this, you’ll notice that “materials science” outranks “materials engineering,” but “materials engineer” outranks “materials scientist.”

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