What Is Material Science?

What is Material Science? Material Science is a challenging course offered but at the University of Cambridge, it forms a part of a wider subject.

Author: Chloe Hewitt

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What does Materials Science actually mean?

When applying for university, you will come across course titles that you likely will not understand it entails unless you know someone who studied it or works in a related field.

Materials Science is one subject that you would glance over unless you have a vested interest in it.

So, what is Materials Science?

What is Materials Science?

Materials Science is the study of properties of solid materials and how those properties are determined by a material’s composition and structure.

The subject was developed due to the rich variety of material properties that cannot be understood within the context of any single classical discipline.

By having a basic understanding of the origins of properties, materials can be selected or designed for an enormous variety of applications ranging from structural steels to computer microchips.

As a result, Materials Science is critical to engineering activities such as electronics, aerospace, telecommunications, information processing, nuclear power, and energy conversion.  

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Material Science At Oxford?

The diverse programme spans the subject from its foundations in physics and chemistry to the mechanical, electrical, magnetic and optical properties of materials and the design, manufacture and applications of metals, alloys, ceramics, polymers, composites and biomaterials. 

The programme offers an opportunity to develop an introductory understanding of entrepreneurship, and even voluntary options to learn a foreign language. 

Entry Requirements

Before applying to a course it is essential you check that you meet their entry requirements. There is a number of different qualifications that the university accepts – but always make sure to check the university website. 

Currently the academic requirements for Material Science at Oxford are as follows: 

A-levels: A*AA (including Mathematics and Physics, with an A* in either Mathematics, Physics or Chemistry)
Advanced Highers:AA/AAB (with AA in Mathematics and Physics)
International Baccalaureate 40 (including core points) with 766 at HL (including Mathematics and Physics, with 7 at HL in either Mathematics, Physics or Chemistry)

It is also important to note subject requirements deemed either ‘essential’, ‘recommended’ or ‘helpful’. Maths and Physics are essential at A-Level (or its equivalent), with GCSE Chemistry also required.

Chemistry A-Level, or its equivalent, is desirable, but if it is not studied at this level, it is strongly recommended it is studied to AS-Level. Finally, Further Mathematics can be helpful but is not required for admission. 

In addition to all of the above, candidates must take the Physics Aptitude Test as part of their application. 

Course Structure

First Year
COURSES

Physical foundations of materials
Structure and mechanical properties of materials
Transforming materials
Mathematics for materials science
Computing for materials science (MATLAB)
Crystallography classes
Practical course
Foreign language (optional)
ASSESSMENT

First University examinations: four written papers; continual assessment components equivalent to a fifth paper
Second Year
COURSES

Lifecycle, processing and engineering of materials
Electronic properties of materials
Mechanical properties of materials
Structure and thermodynamics of materials
Foreign language (optional)
Supplementary subject (optional)
Mathematics
Practical course
Industrial visits
Entrepreneurship course
Industrial talks
Communication skills
Third Year
COURSES

Materials options courses 1
Materials options courses 2
Team design project
Introduction to materials modelling module
Characterisation of materials or Atomistic modelling module
ASSESSMENT

Final University examinations, Part I: six written papers; continual assessment components equivalent to a further two papers
Fourth Year
RESEARCH

Research project (full-time). Additional elements include Project management, Ethics and sustainability, Presentation skills and an optional foreign language course. (Students are required to achieve 50% minimum in the Part I assessment in order to progress to Part II.)
ASSESSMENT

Final University examinations, Part II (equivalent to 4 papers): project dissertation submitted and assessed; oral examination of project dissertation

It is important to note that at the start of Year 3 it is possible to transfer to a 3-year BA degree in Materials Science, graduating at the end of Year 3. The BA is not accredited. 

What Colleges Offer Material Science?

Although Oxford colleges do not specialise in particular subject areas, it is important to check a college offers the course. You do not want to be set on a course and discover the college you want to apply for does not offer it.

Material Science is offered at the following colleges: 

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How does Material Science Differ Between Oxford and Cambridge?

Unlike Oxford, Cambridge does not have a dedicated Material Science course.

Instead, it is part of what is known as the Natural Sciences Tripos. Natural Sciences allows you to experience new areas of science, discover the interconnections between apparently discrete subjects and gain an insight into different scientific methods. 

A ‘tripos’ refers to the examinations for a BA honours degree at Cambridge University

Material Science At Cambridge

As previously mentioned, Cambridge does not offer a stand alone Material Science course, and is instead one of the subjects you can take as part of the Natural Science Tripos. 

It is important to consider that the subjects you take at A-Level play a significant part in what subjects you can pick for your Natural Science degree. 

Entry Requirements

Most students have at least three science/mathematics A Levels. The minimum requirement is two, but this will restrict your choice of Part IA options. In these circumstances, you’ll normally be expected to achieve A*. 

The most useful combinations are: 

  • A Level Biology, A Level Chemistry, and AS Level Mathematics or Physics

  • A Level Chemistry, A Level Mathematics, and AS Level Biology or Physics

  • A Level Physics, A Level Mathematics and AS Level Further Mathematics

If you do not have Mathematics you are required to complete some preparatory work before the start of the course and must take Mathematical Biology as the maths subject in Year 1. 

In addition to all of the above, candidates must take the Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment as part of their application. 

Year 1 (part IA)

You get to choose three of the following science subjects:

OptionsSubject Requirements
Biology of CellsHighly desirable A Level Chemistry
Useful preparation A Level Biology
ChemistryEssential A Level Chemistry (A Level Mathematics is essential to continue to Chemistry A in Part IB)
Highly desirable AS/A Level Mathematics
Earth SciencesEssential A Levels in at least two mathematics/science subjects
Note No previous subject knowledge necessary
Evolution and BehaviourHighly desirable A Level Biology
Materials ScienceEssential A Level Mathematics, and either Chemistry or Physics
PhysicsEssential A Level Mathematics and Physics or Mathematics and Further Mathematics, including the section on Mechanics
Useful preparation AS/A Level Further Mathematics
Physiology of OrganismsUseful preparation AS/A Level Biology and/or Physics

You will also study one mathematics option focusing on techniques in either the Physical or Biological Sciences. 

Year 2 (part IB)

In the second-year you will once again choose a combination of three subjects – with Material Science once again one of these options available to select. 

  • Animal Diversity
  • Biochemistry
  • Cell Biology
  • Chemistry A: Physical & Theoretical Chemistry
  • Chemistry B: Organic & Inorganic Chemistry
  • Conservation
  • Earth Sciences A: Earth Surface Environment Sciences
  • Earth Sciences B: Earth Subsurface Process Sciences
  • Ecology
  • Evolution
  • Genetics
  • History and Philosophy of Science
  • Materials Science
  • Mathematics
  • Microbiology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Neurobiology
  • Pathology
  • Pharmacology
  • Physics A: Waves, Quantum Mechanics, Condensed Matter Physics
  • Physics B: Dynamics, Electromagnetism, Thermodynamics
  • Physiology
  • Plant Sciences
  • Psychology

Years 3 and 4 (parts II and III)

In your third-year you can opt to follow a broad spectrum Part II subject in Biological or Physical Sciences, or you can choose to specialise in one of the following areas: 

  • Astrophysics1
  • Biochemistry1
  • Chemistry1
  • Earth Sciences1
  • Genetics
  • History and Philosophy of Science1
  • Materials Science1
  • Neuroscience
  • Pharmacology
  • Physics1
  • Physiology, Development and Neuroscience
  • Plant Sciences
  • Psychology
  • Systems Biology (Part III only)
  • Zoology

Due to limited space some Part II subjects have competitive entry, a full list of the topics can be found on the Natural Sciences website.

1 These subjects offer a fourth year/Part III option, leading to an MSci degree.

What Colleges Offer Natural Science?

All Cambridge colleges accept applications for Natural Sciences and the colleges are more similar than they are different, meaning if you are set on doing Material Science as one of your options you can do so at any college. 

Conclusion

Material Science is an interesting discipline, combining the rigours of a number different scientific fields.

By studying Material Science it opens up a number of different career paths ranging from aerospace and transport, to healthcare, to communications. The possibilities are endless.

The key thing to remember is the difference between how Oxford and Cambridge offer the subject, and which you feel you are more suited to. 

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