The ceramics industry originated in 24,000 B.C., when ancient cultures began using simple kilns to burn clay figurines. Today, heat-resistant ceramic materials developed by ceramic engineers are used to make space shuttle tiles, artificial bones, lenses and integrated circuits, to name just a few of the many ceramics applications that are essential to supporting a high-tech society. Explore the resources below to learn more about this field and how to become a ceramics engineer.
Ceramic engineering is a type of materials engineering. Materials engineers study the properties of substances like metals, plastics, composites and ceramics to find new uses for them. As a materials engineer, you may specialize in ceramic engineering and develop processes for converting ceramic materials into products like liquid crystal display (LCD) flat-panel monitors, skis, glass optical fibers for telephones or ceramic scintillators (radiation sensors) for computed tomography (CT) scans. The applications of ceramic engineering and technology range across several industries. You may contribute to developing energy and environmental solutions, advancements in biomedical engineering or innovations in nuclear technology, like improving nuclear waste containment methods.
As a ceramic engineer, you're likely to plan and evaluate engineering projects, supervise others and analyze product results, tests and failures. Your work may also involve recommending ceramic materials for new products and managerial tasks like preparing budgets and writing reports. You're likely to consult with other engineers, scientists, technologists and executives to realize goals. In the office, you work with computer-aided design (CAD) programs to make product models and anticipate potential design problems. If you work in research and development, you're likely to spend more time in the laboratory than an office, working with high-tech tools like calorimeters, magnetic separators and tension testers. Ceramic engineers are also supervisors in factories and may advance to a variety of managerial and sales positions.
For an entry-level job in ceramic engineering and technology, you need to earn a bachelor's degree in ceramic engineering or materials science. However, employers are increasingly looking for candidates with graduate degrees, especially for research and development positions. In your undergraduate or graduate studies, you may pursue an academic research career or choose an area of specialization that prepares you for a career in a particular industry, like electronics, transportation, environmental technologies or defense. These are some of the several industries in which ceramic engineers play key roles. Specific types of product specializations include whitewares (used in electrical insulators and dinnerware), glass, abrasives (used in grinding tools) and ceramics for electronics.
If you're a critical thinker, a problem solver and an active listener, you're well-suited for a career in ceramic engineering and technology. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for materials engineers, was $84,550 in May 2011 (www.bls.gov). The BLS estimated that the median wage for postsecondary teachers of engineering, a Ph.D. level job within the ceramic engineering field, was $90,680.
Undergraduate programs are available in ceramic engineering and materials science or engineering that prepare you for entry-level positions. Completing a program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) makes you eligible for becoming licensed as a professional engineer (PE). You can expect to take courses in chemistry, calculus, physics, thermodynamics, engineering principles, ceramics processing and glass science. Selecting a program that offers cooperative education will give you practical experience that's highly valued by employers in this field. You can earn a bachelor's and master's degree by enrolling in the 5-year programs offered by some schools or 5-6 year cooperative plans, in which you work while taking classes.
Earning a master's or doctoral degree in the field can lead to advanced positions in the industry, as well as academic careers. A master's program may take 2-3 years to complete as a full-time student, while an engineering Ph.D. program usually takes 4-5 years of full-time study. Research in ceramic engineering is emphasized at the graduate level. Graduate programs offer access to research facilities equipped with scientific instruments like scanning electron microscopes and electron spin resonance spectrometers. Some universities have research centers dedicated to ceramic engineering, which offer grad students research opportunities. Examples of research projects you may engage in include coatings for corrosion control, bioactive glasses and thermoelectric devices.
Materials engineers are licensed in some states. Becoming licensed as a professional engineer (PE) opens up additional career options, such as bidding for government contracts, becoming a principal of a firm and offering services to the public. Though specific requirements vary, states require that you graduate from an ABET-accredited university program. On graduation, you can take the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam to become an engineer in training. Once you acquire sufficient work experience (generally, four years), you need to pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam to become a PE.