How to become a nanosystems engineer

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Student in UCL maths & physical science laboratory

What’s a nanosystems engineer when it’s at home? If you’ve got a creative mind, an eye for detail, want to be part of the future of technology and make a difference in medical science or energy, you might want to read on…

In this guide, we explore what nanosystems engineers do, what qualifications and skills you’ll need, and where it could take you in your career.

‘Nanosystems engineering might be a bit of a mouthful – but here’s why you need to know what it is’

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What is a nanosystems engineer? 


The nanoscale concerns things one hundred thousandth the

size of the width of a human hair (aka very small)

Nanosystems engineers design, build, test and improve materials on the “nanoscale” – that means things one hundred thousandth the size of the width of a human hair. If you’ve seen the movie Innerspace, where Dennis Quaid rides around the body in a tiny submarine, you’ve got the picture (sort of). And fantastical as it might sound, microscopic devices for use in medical treatment and surgery are just the sort of thing you could be working on in real life!

As well as medicine, nanotechnology has applications in computer hardware, electronics, energy, cosmetics and even space travel. As a nanosystems engineer, you will build new technologies using atoms and molecules.

What does a nanosystems engineer do?

As a nanosystems engineer, things you could do include:

  • Using very precise high-tech equipment to work with microscopic materials.
  • Find out about new technologies and how they might be used in nanotechnology.
  • Test the performance of electrical, electronic and mechanical systems or equipment.
  • Work with clients to come up with engineering solution to meet their requirements.

To learn more, check out this video about jobs in nanotechnology from Virginia Commonwealth University:

What qualifications do you need?

In the UK, nanosystems engineering and other nanotechnology qualifications are only available at postgraduate level. There are no bachelor’s or integrated degrees available at the moment (an integrated degree is a course that takes you from undergraduate to postgraduate level) (time of writing: 2018). That means you will need to gain a master’s degree to work in this field.

Many degrees are research based, meaning you will carry out an individual project to explore a particular area of nanotechnology as part of your studies. To qualify for a master’s in nanosystems engineering or a similar subject, you will need a bachelor’s degree or higher in a related field, such as engineering, maths or physics.

At A-level or equivalent, qualifications such as maths, further maths, physics and chemistry are often helpful or even required to get on to an engineering, maths or similar degree course. Check the course requirements of any degree you’re thinking of applying to. You may want to consider computer science A-level/equivalent as well.

What skills and knowledge do you need?

Skills held by nanosystems engineers include:

  • Student using computer next to lab equipment

    Much of your time will be spent in the office working at a

    computer - but you could do work in the lab as well

    Problem solving: You must be able to develop efficient, appropriate solutions to the problems you are trying to solve.
  • Critical thinking: Relatedly, the ability to break down a problem into individual, manageable steps will help you come up with solutions to technical challenges.
  • Creativity: You’ll need to be able to imagine solutions to the engineering problems you face.
  • Computer aided design (CAD): Something you will learn on your master’s degree course and develop in your job.

Knowledge and skills you’ll gain on your degree course and in work include:

  • How engineering principles apply to the design of products.
  • Physical principles and laws and how they relate to the behaviour of atomic and subatomic structures and processes.
  • The composition, structure and properties of chemicals and how they interact with each other. 

What job prospects are there for nanosystems engineers? 

Currently in the UK, nanosystems engineers carry out research at universities, as research students doing master’s degrees and PhDs, or research fellows. Some work for engineering consultancies developing specialist products, devices and solutions for clients in fields such as healthcare. However, specialists are highly employable and the field is growing gradually. 

You will also develop a host of advanced technical skills and knowledge which apply to many jobs in scienceresearchengineeringtechnology and plenty of other, unrelated fields.

If you like the sound of this role but haven’t thought about a career in engineering before, check out this article about what makes a good engineer.

Image credits

Lead image and physicist working at computer via UCL Maths & Physical Science Flickr account, Nanomaterial via Wikimedia Commons


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