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Published: January 2009
Authors: Dr Tim Bullough and Dr Diane Taktak
The UK’s first National Subject Profile for Higher Education Programmes in Materials was launched in 2008. In the last of a series of articles, the team behind it consider the views of recent graduates on course content and how well it equipped them for a career in industry.
Materials higher education has seen many changes in the last decade – universities have had to adapt to students from an increasingly diverse academic background, and progressively more undergraduates are choosing interdisciplinary materials programmes, such as in bio/medical or aerospace materials.
The 2008 National Subject Profile (NSP) for Higher Education Programmes in Materials was led by the UK Centre for Materials Education (UKCME). With help from the IOM3, retrospective views were obtained of over 120 materials graduates who had completed an undergraduate degree post-1998 and embarked on a materials-related career. Over 80% completed a traditional materials science and engineering degree, or a specialist degree in metallurgy or polymers, with less than 20% having chosen an interdisciplinary programme.
Most respondents were satisfied with the materials knowledge they had acquired in terms of its relevance and usefulness. They rated underlying science and engineering, mechanical behaviour and characterisation of composition and microstructure as the most useful areas and felt they would have benefited from more teaching on these topics.
Graduates of both traditional materials degrees and interdisciplinary programmes said there would be little benefit in increasing the amount of mathematics teaching.
Overall, the NSP concluded that universities are getting subject coverage levels right.
Data obtained from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that six months after graduation about half of all materials graduates are in full-time employment, with two-thirds of the remainder either in full-time postgraduate education or working and studying part-time. These proportions are roughly half-way between those for physical science graduates (a higher proportion undertake further study) and other engineering graduates (a higher proportion go into full-time employment).
The majority of materials graduates work in manufacturing industries, but they also enter retail trade, and health, education and financial services.
The graduates surveyed were also asked whether their studies gave them the competencies, skills and attributes that are needed when employed. They agreed with a separate survey of the materials academics who taught them that report writing, written communication, problem solving and project planning are the most important workplace skills relevant to a materials career. While graduates thought they had been well equipped with three of these skills, they felt more experience in project planning would have been worthwhile.
Materials academics also believe that laboratory skills are important. However, although graduates from traditional materials degrees acknowledge that they have been well trained in laboratory skills, they said they had not found this particularly relevant or beneficial to their career. Possibly this reflects the decline of the materials laboratory in industry, or perhaps materials graduates would be more likely to supervise technical staff.
Graduates from the bio/medical materials disciplines, meanwhile, did rate laboratory skills as ‘very relevant’ to their employment.
It is also interesting that neither traditional materials graduates nor their teachers consider entrepreneurship, ethics, environmental issues and safety legislation to be particularly relevant or important in early careers. However, ethics and safety legislation were ‘very relevant’ to bio/medical disciplines.
It is a common conception that all students face significant financial pressures, and studies have shown that about half of all students in higher education undertake some sort of paid employment during term time, compared to almost none 25 years ago.
A number of universities reported that they were considering introducing flexibility into the timetabling of materials degree programmes to allow for part-time employment.
Finally, materials graduates were asked, ‘Do you believe that materials and materials related disciplines are a good choice of subject to study at undergraduate and/or taught postgraduate level?’ Positive comments were received describing materials as ‘underpinning everything we do and make’.
Some respondents did express concern that ‘manufacturing in this country is on the decrease’ and the materials industry ‘is not as well paid as others’. But most graduates thought their courses led to good career prospects, and some even suggested that a shortage of graduates in their industry worked to their advantage. All comments have been categorised in the image above.
The NSP was designed to provide a non-judgemental snap-shot of materials teaching provision in higher education in the UK.
It appears that materials degree programmes are providing graduates with most of the subject knowledge and skills they need for a career in the field, and they find the experience rewarding. For this to remain the case, the UKCME plans to regularly update the data to reflect changes and longer term trends.
The Centre is also particularly interested in facilitating dialogue between industry and higher education as to how materials-related education should be developing. The UKCME therefore welcomes comments from line-managers and supervisors in industry, and from materials graduates themselves.