Metallurgists know all about metals, from how to smelt them to the production of modern alloys, but metallurgists are also obscure. Few know what they are, what they do, and why they do it. Find out what it takes to become a metallurgist and how this obscure career can affect our daily lives.

Obscure careers: Metallurgist

In the world of unusual careers, metallurgist might be near the top. In fact, most people have never heard of the job, or if they have, they probably don't know what a metallurgical engineer does.

A metallurgical engineer is a very specialized materials engineer. The metallurgist focuses on metals, such as steel and aluminum. To get a sense of the scope of the job, consider how often metals are used in everyday life; metal can be found in buildings, homes, airplanes, vehicles, and even furniture and the cans that store food. The work of metallurgists has helped lead to all the modern conveniences afforded by metals.

What is a metallurgist?

A metallurgist knows all about metals -- specifically, how to extract metals from ore, produce new alloys, find new uses for metals and design new processes for extraction. Metallurgical engineering is a very broad field that encompasses several different areas of metal processing. Those who specialize in extracting metal from ore are known as extractive metallurgists. Physical metallurgists are those who develop different metal alloys for specific purposes, such as a new alloy for a particular engineering process. Finally, the mineral engineer is a type of metallurgist who focuses on gathering minerals from the earth's crust.

Metallurgists can find work in any number of engineering fields, including aerospace, mechanical, chemical, civil, nuclear or electrical fields. From designing new alloys to be used in aerospace defense to ensuring safer metal used in electrical wiring, metallurgists are necessary in many industries.

How to become a metallurgist

Expertise in materials engineering starts with a bachelor's degree in engineering or a related discipline, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Some employers prefer applicants who have a master's degree in their engineering specialty, or who have some experience in the workforce; for a metallurgist, this might mean experience in a factory, steel mill, laboratory or the like. Some colleges offer engineering programs that last for five or six years, allowing the student to earn a bachelor's and master's degree while gaining relevant work experience.

Accreditation of the engineering program matters as well. Many employers actively seek those who attended a ABET-accredited program. ABET, formerly known as the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology, helps ensure a high-quality education that prepares graduates for the demands of engineering work. In most cases, a degree from an ABET-approved program, as well as passing grades on the Fundamentals of Engineering and Professional Engineering exams, are required to become a licensed professional engineer.

The field of materials engineering moves quickly, and so continuing education is essential to keep up with the latest trends and advances in technology. Those who already hold a bachelor's degree in engineering or work in a related field can pursue continuing education that gives them the knowledge and skills necessary to move into metallurgical engineering. Continuing education is offered through many organizations that cater to metallurgists, such as the International Metallographic Society, which routinely offers both online and classroom instruction for continuing education of members.

A day in the life of a metallurgist

Metallurgists might handle a wide variety of tasks, depending upon the focus of their position. Some might work for airlines or the military, where they test various metals under stress to determine performance, and thus make recommendations on safety. Some might work in a laboratory, where they work with known metals in an attempt to create new ones. Some could find work with consumer advocacy groups, examining product failures and devising ways to make the products better.

Just as the tasks may vary, so might the working conditions. Metallurgists might work in clean, comfortable laboratories, or they might work on-site at mining operations or metal refineries. Sometimes the work with metals is hot and dangerous, requiring constant safety measures. Most metallurgists work full-time.

Those who work as metallurgists often communicate complex ideas and findings to those around the world. Therefore, excellent writing and communication skills are essential. Metallurgists might work with a wide variety of materials and projects, so being flexible in day-to-day work is also a requirement of the job.

As more companies turn to creating energy-efficient products, metallurgists could be in demand for creating weatherization items, such as thermal sprays.

Nationally, materials engineers made a mean annual wage of $86,790 in May 2011 (BLS.gov, 2012). The highest rates of pay were found to be among materials engineers working with commercial and industrial machinery and equipment (except automotive and electronic) repair and maintenance with a mean annual wage of $115,550. Other high-paying positions include those in the Federal Executive Branch and professional and commercial equipment and supplies merchant wholesalers.

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