Metallurgists are technical experts who work on the physical and chemical properties of metals and alloys (metallic solid solutions).
Metallurgists, or materials scientists, work between science and engineering. They study the structure, physical and chemical properties, performance and processing of metals. They can work on a variety of metals: iron, nickel, titanium, steel, precious metals and non-ferrous materials (aluminium, lead, tin, copper, zinc).
Metals play a fundamental role in our everyday life and it is the job of metallurgists to develop new and more resistant materials for various structures, from trains and buildings to mundane objects such as home appliances, furniture and mobile phones.
Metallurgists are employed by every industry that produces, transforms or buys metallic products. These include steel and copper manufacturers, mining companies, gold and silver producers, foundries, utility companies and the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
While some metallurgists work on-site on extraction processes and quality assurance, others are mostly based in labs and offices, carrying out tests and developing metals for new applications.
Metallurgists may specialise in four categories:
- Chemical metallurgists design and control the processes of extraction of metals from ores (a type of rock). They monitor metal deterioration, corrosion and fatigue and work on their properties to make them sturdier, more adaptable and easier to recycle. They are also in charge of quality and safety controls at manufacturing plants.
- Physical metallurgists look at the physical structure and strength of metals. They conduct experiments to analyse reactions provoked by environmental changes such as rises in temperature and mechanical stress. Physical metallurgists are called upon after accidents that could have been caused by metallurgical failure, for example in lifts, cars, planes or space shuttles. After examining and photographing evidence at the accident’s site, they take samples for analysis and prepare reports. They can also be asked to testify as expert witness in court cases.
- Process metallurgists explore the ways metals can be manufactured and turned into end products. They use various methods (for example casting, heat treatment or forging) to control the shaping of metals. They also join metals through techniques such as welding, riveting and soldering.
- Archaeological metallurgists, or archaeo-metallurgists, study the developments of mining and metallurgy since prehistoric times. They work at archaeological sites to develop excavation strategies, conduct laboratory-based chemical tests on artefacts and report on their findings. They can be affiliated with academic groups such as the Institute for Archaeo-Metallurgical Studies (IAMS) at University College London (UCL).
Starting salaries average £20,000 to £25,000 per year.
With several years’ experience and the status of chartered engineer, you can earn between £30,000 and £40,000, and this could rise to £60,000 after 10 years.
At the most senior level, you can expect to earn up to £80,000 per year.
Tasks vary according to your specialisation, and typically include:
- Carry out destructive and non-destructive tests in order to assess the specific properties of metals (such as electrical conductivity, durability, renewability)
- Assess metals’ resistance to humidity, high temperatures, chemicals, etc.
- Use heat treatments and applications to alter the physical and chemical properties of metals
- In case of accident, investigate metal condition (corrosion, rupture or failure) both at the site and in a laboratory environment
- Provide an accurate diagnosis and make recommendations for remedial actions
- Participate in the daily maintenance of testing and measuring equipment
- Analyse data using computer software
- Prepare technical reports
- Commission equipment and products based on clients’ briefs
- Liaise with clients at all stages of the project
- Undertake quality control checks during the testing, manufacturing and finishing phases
- Provide technical support
- Ensure that products comply with the latest industry standards
- Supervise the work of technical staff
- Carry out risk and cost analyses
- Respect health and safety requirements at all times
- Refine molten metals in furnaces
- Make metal castings
You will need an undergraduate degree in metallurgy, materials science, physics or chemical engineering. The website of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining has a list of accredited academic programmes in disciplines related to materials.
If you plan to apply for a research position, you will need a Masters or Ph.D. in the relevant subject.
After several years’ experience and continuing professional development (CPD), you can apply for chartered engineer (CEng) status. Being chartered means that you are likely to get a pay rise.
It is also possible to get into metallurgy as a technician straight from school through apprenticeships or with an HND/foundation degree in metallurgy and materials.
- Expert knowledge of materials
- Good scientific skills
- Analytical and problem-solving skills
- Excellent interpersonal and communication skills
- Sense of initiative
- Attention to detail
- Ability to work in a team
- Good physical fitness
The job may be conducted in dangerous conditions if you work in a mine, oil and gas offshore platform or manufacturing plant. You could be exposed to extreme levels of temperature and humidity, toxic chemicals and other pollutants. You will be required to wear protective clothing, including a hard hat and safety glasses.
You will work under more comfortable conditions at other locations such as offices and laboratories, with regular office hours.
In order to widen your network, you should apply for membership of relevant professional institutions such as the Institute of Cast Metal Engineers (ICME), the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3) or the Institute of Corrosion (ICorr).
These societies also offer short courses, for example in aluminium metallurgy or in design for casting.
Metal manufacturers and oil and gas industries are the main employers of metallurgists.
You can progress to the rank of technical supervisor, consultant or manager of a multidisciplinary team of engineers and scientists.
Also known as…
- Metallurgical Engineer
- Materials Scientist
- Materials Engineer
- CAD Technician
- Design Engineer
- Environmental Engineer
- Metal Worker
What’s it really like?
Dr Thilo Rehren works at the Institute of Archaeology of UCL. The first photo on the left is used courtesy of Peter Crew, Wales. The second photo is used courtesy of Axel Krause.
What is your job title?
Professor for Archaeological Materials and Technologies – quite a long one, and it captures more than just metals, but also glass, ceramics and pigments.
How long have you been in this particular job and how did you find it?
Well over twenty years now – and by pure chance. Archaeo-metallurgy is a rather specialised field, and there are not many jobs here in this area. I started as an intern on placement with a senior colleague, and got ‘infected’ if you like. When a proper job then came up a few years later I happened to be ready with my PhD, and had some experience already from the placement.
What was your first job as an archaeo-metallurgist and how did you end up doing it?
My first job was to work on an assemblage of ore, slag and metal casting debris from an old excavation that was being prepared for publication. I had studied economic geology as a major and (modern) metallurgy as a minor, and had done volcanology for my PhD – thus, putting these three together equipped me to reconstruct ancient furnace technology (treating the volcano as a furnace of sorts..). This particular combination of skills wasn’t too common, so I was just lucky I suppose that I chose those subjects as a student.
What academic qualifications do you have?
A Diploma (Master’s) in Economic Geology, a PhD in Earth Sciences (Volcanology) and a higher doctorate (the German Habilitation) in Materials Science (Archaeo-metallurgy).
Do you think that university prepared you for the way the work gets done in the real world?
Yes and no. It did prepare me by challenging me to take on new subject matters and to make connections that may appear uncommon. It did not, however, prepare me for the constant demands in a real-world job to deal with many different things at once: not just different research projects running in parallel, but all sorts of matters – teaching, administration, politics/networking, as well as doing research.
What do you do in a typical working day?
Is there such a thing as a typical working day? Inevitably, as a Head of Department these days, administration and external representation take up most of my time. Academic work still includes some hands-on research in the field and in the lab, using microscopy and X-ray analytical techniques mostly. Peer review, as well as writing reports and publications, is often done in the evenings at home, when there is less distraction from the buzz of the day.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
Flexibility of mind and creativity in their thinking. There are no real textbooks for archaeo-metallurgy, and we only know the tip of the iceberg from ancient technologies.
Archaeology has for too long focused on tombs and temples, and neglected workshops and industries.
Do you get to travel a lot for your work, and if yes, which parts of the world have you been to?
Being in a privileged position as one of relatively few experts in a small field, but in a situation where almost any culture on Earth has started to make and use metals at some point, I get to travel a lot. Apart from the usual major conference circus that gets you to major cities around the globe (where one sees just the conference centre and little else), I have been doing fieldwork in Egypt, Sudan, and South Africa, quite a bit in Central Asia and China, across Europe and the Middle East and in South America.
Do you belong to any professional body, and if yes, what are the benefits?
I am a member of several societies, such as the German Mineralogical Society and the Historical Metallurgy Society – the benefit normally is that you receive their journals as part of your subscription for free at home, often with free internet access as well these days. There are also less tangible benefits – to have a body that speaks up in policy debates, or promotes particular subjects in the popular press for instance. Their meetings can also be good fun, and a great place to network and exchange ideas in an informal setting.
What has been your best experience on the job?
I certainly enjoy telling archaeological colleagues that there is a lot we can learn about past people’s lives and skills through studying their production waste: it makes a very complementary contribution to the study of texts or classical architecture. Telling a colleague who brought me in to study bronze melting waste that he actually had the earliest known evidence for glassmaking (dating back more than 3,000 years) was very nice indeed!
What was the worst experience?
Having what clearly was very interesting material described to me, and then been told that it was thrown away as it was not ‘pretty’.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Be prepared to be as flexible with your skills as you can, and to put in a lot of enthusiasm and long evenings for no more than academic pay. And be aware that there is no career planning possible; finding a job, particularly a permanent one, is all down to luck.
If you left this position, what else would you consider or enjoy doing?
Anything to do with earth science / materials science, in particular if it involves ‘hot’ materials: above 500°C!
Do you mind us publishing your salary / rate per hour – this is very helpful for job seekers?
I earn the typical UK professorial salary – more than £60,000 per year, but less than £90,000 (and that includes the Head of Department top-up). Only in exceptional circumstances does a professor earn more than that (apart of course from the medical professions, and economics where very different salaries are being paid).