Skills Survey Highlights Varied Needs of Nanotech Industry

Do you want to do nanotechnology research? In an academic or industry setting? From an engineering angle or a biomedical point of view? Do you want to work on product manufacturing? In a small or large company? There are myriad variables when considering a career in nanotechnology, so it’s next to impossible to make general statements about the training you’ll need to land a job in the field. However, a recent survey by the Institute of Nanotechnology in Stirling, U.K., gives some hints about the qualities that employers are looking for in new hires.

“It’s important to identify where you want to head because there are no career paths in nanotechnology,” says the survey’s author, Kshitij Aditeya Singh of the Institute of Nanotechnology, which originated as a European Union-funded initiative. “For an engineer, for example, … you have a set path. That is not the case in nanotechnology. It’s important to know where you want to go, [learn] what are the prospects and what skills you need to develop to grow in those roles.”

The survey included responses from employers from 186 government institutions, not-for-profit organizations, and large and small companies involved with nanotechnology. Most of the companies are located in Europe, with responses also coming from organizations located in Asia, North America, Africa, and South America. Graduates and postgraduates in those organizations work mainly in science research and new-product development, followed by management and manufacturing.

Most respondents indicated that they prefer that their new hires have doctoral degrees. Respondents were split on the type of degree they prefer at the master’s level: For very specialized jobs, employers preferred single-discipline master’s of science degrees. However, a similar number of respondents preferred interdisciplinary master’s degrees.

Engineers preferred over scientists

Engineers with science knowledge are preferred over science students with knowledge of engineering concepts, according to the survey. However, more than 50% of employers still ranked the latter high or very high in terms of importance.

More than half (57%) of employers stated that they value both highly specialized researchers and those with a broader background, with 24% saying that they prefer generalists and 12% preferring specialists.

Beyond academic coursework, on-the-job experience was the preferred training method, followed by continuing professional-development programs and short courses. More than half of respondents said that they don’t have a formal training program for graduates and postgraduates, whereas 32% indicated that they did. (The question didn’t apply to 15% of respondents.)

Employers ranked knowledge of research-and-development management and project management highest on a list of concepts that support science and engineering. “Quality management of research is not taught anywhere,” Singh notes. “In due course, we expect it to be taught in programs, especially in postgraduate programs.”

New-product innovation, technology strategy, and technology innovation were also considered of high importance. Ranked of medium importance were knowledge of intellectual property, risk-assessment methodology, and environmental sustainability.

Overall, Singh notes, the take-home message of the survey is that you need to determine your academic and training path into nanotechnology by first thinking about where you want to end up in the field. “There’s no fixed path that you can walk,” he says. “It changes quite rapidly depending on what your abilities are.”

The full survey is available on the Nanoforum Web site (free registration required).

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