Initial Publication Date: March 8, 2024

Preparing For a Career in Nanoscience in the Earth and Environmental Sciences: A Guide for Students and Their Mentors

Author: David Mogk, NSF NNCI - MONT Project, based on input from the 2023 Earth and Environmental Science Research Community Survey

The world of Nanoscience is an emerging and important field of study that holds great opportunities for employment for Earth and environmental scientists. Nanoscience has tremendous societal, economic and environmental applications (Hochella et al., 2016). Nano-enabled products account for over $3 trillion (US), and US government spending on research and development in nanoscience exceeds $10 billion/year. NOTE: Students who are Nano-curious from other STEM disciplines are encouraged and welcome to join the cause--there are many opportunities to apply the concepts and methods from Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Material Sciences and Engineering to critical questions about Earth processes and environmental impacts. An "all hands" approach is required to integrate field/observational, theoretical, experimental, analytical, and computational modeling approaches from all STEM disciplines. Nanoscience in the Earth and Environmental Sciences is a full employment opportunity for students who have the proper preparation.

  • For Students:This website can serve as a guide as you chart your own academic progress to help prepare for a career that employs the principles and methods of Nanoscience to topics in the Earth and Environmental Sciences;
  • For Instructors: This website can serve as a resource in your academic mentoring and advising of students, and perhaps as a source of inspiration to incorporate Nanoscience into your regular coursework

Nanoparticles (NPs) are everywhere in the Earth System (Hochella et al., 2019).They are present in all layers of the atmosphere, in the ocean, in rivers and lakes, glaciers, rocks, and soils. They may occur as natural materials, or they occur as engineered or incidental products of human activities.  They account for a large budget of the mass and energy stored and transferred in global cycling processes.  And, they interact with biota and human bodies in ways that are only now beginning to be understood.  Whatever your interests in the Earth and Environmental Sciences, nanoparticles are certainly playing a major, yet under-appreciated, role.  Check out this list of sub-disciplines in the Earth and Environmental Sciences where Nanoscience has an important role to play:

What Can be Done in a Career in Nanoscience in the Earth and Environmental Sciences?

Explore Career Profiles from Nanoscience Practitioners »

Earth and Environmental Scientists with interest and expertise in nanoscience are employed in many employment sectors.  Envision yourself working:

  • At one of the many national laboratories studying processes that contribute to environmental remediation of toxic metals, radionuclides, and persistent chemicals and pharmaceuticals released in the environment;
  • At a Geo-Consulting Company, hired to enhance recovery of critical elements at an ore deposit, or to mitigate release of acid mine drainage and heavy metals to the environment;
  • To document how nanoparticles in the atmosphere, oceans, and soils can be used to mitigate climate change.
  • With geomicrobiologists to understand interactions between natural minerals and waters and microbial life;
  • With the medical community and public health officials to document interactions of nanoparticles with human physiology;
  • With material scientists, using the principles of mineralogy, crystallography, and geochemistry to contribute to new infrastructure for energy production, transmission and storage, or to develop the next generation of semi-conductors, sensors, and photonics and quantum devices;
  • With soil scientists to determine how NPs can contribute to increased crop yields;
  • Across the Earth and Environmental Science disciplines to conduct fundamental research on the formation, distribution, transfer, and fate of nanoparticles throughout the complex Earth system;
  • Doing basic research on how NPs are involved with chemical processes that affect our lives on a daily basis, such as sorption, catalysis, redox, and dissolution/precipitation reactions.

These are just some examples of current job opportunities in Nanoscience, and the best is yet to come!

Preparation for a Career in Nanoscience in the Earth and Environmental Sciences

The following information provides recommendations and suggestions about how to prepare for a career applying Nanoscience to the diverse employment opportunities in the Earth and Environmental Sciences.  This will include following a course of study that will prepare students for future graduate training and employment, and also through career-building experiences that will help students gain essential skills and competencies.  To start, here is some high-level advice:

  • Students should gain a solid understanding of the "basics" of Earth science: Earth materials, structures, processes and history. Much of your preparation for a career in nanoscience will be very similar to degree requirements in Geo/Earth Science, but perhaps with a stronger emphasis on chemical concepts and methods.
  • No single discipline "owns" nanoscience, and interdisciplinary approaches are often required. So, a strong foundation in cognate disciplines is also strongly recommended; an understanding of the basic principles of chemistry, physics and biology is important.  Quantitative skills are also very important, and increasingly, so is some knowledge of computer modeling and coding.
  • Hopefully, much of the foundational work to prepare for a career in Nanoscience will be covered in the context of regularly scheduled courses.  It would also be beneficial to explore related topics in special topics classes and through independent study projects.
  • There are some emerging undergraduate programs that offer degrees in Nanoscience. Check out the Nanoscience BS degree program at Virginia Tech: Info for Future Students and their Course Catalog and Course Flow Chart.

Course of Study

The Earth and Environmental Science Research Community rated courses in the Earth and Environmental Sciences and cognate courses in related STEM disciplines as Essential, Recommended, Useful or Not Applicable as shown in the adjacent figure. Be sure to consult with your academic advisor to make sure you meet the requirements for your undergraduate degree in your home department.  But, there is often flexibility in degree requirements, and with a little planning, you can also get credit for elective courses that help set you up for a successful career in Nanoscience. Here is some additional context about the importance of these courses:

  • At the Introductory-level, it's important to gain an understanding of the overall composition, structure, and processes of the many components of the Earth system, and this can be addressed in any number of Introductory Geology, Earth Science, Meteorology/Climate, and Oceanography courses. It's also important to understand the complex interactions among the components of the Earth system (e.g., feedback mechanisms) and to gain an understanding of the concept of "deep" geologic time that spans back to ~4.5 billion years.  The relationships between the Earth system and humanity (e.g., impacts of natural hazards, resources) can be explored in courses such as Environmental Geology/Studies.
  • The ability to identify minerals, rocks, soils and an understanding of their occurrences, environments of formation and chemical and physical properties are essential. These concepts will be covered in Mineralogy, Earth Materials, and Igneous, Sedimentary, and Metamorphic Petrology courses.  The principles of Geochemistry at high and low temperature is also essential (e.g., distribution of elements, bonding, crystal structures, and processes such as chemical reactions, dissolution/precipitation, and REDOX).
  • Nanoscience also applies to other disciplines in the Earth and Environmental Sciences, such as Structural Geology (nanoparticles (NPs) on fault surfaces), Geohydrology (transport of NPs in porous materials), Geomorphology (weathering processes), Economic Geology (recovery of "invisible gold" or mine waste remediation), and much more.
  • Supporting courses in other STEM disciplines are also really important.
    • Quantitative Skills: Take math courses early and often! A year of Calculus (differential and integral) is highly recommended. If possible, see if you can also fit Linear Algebra, Statistics, or Multivariate Calculus into your undergraduate program. Better to master these math skills at the undergraduate level rather than as a deficiency in graduate school or needing on-the-job training.
    • A year of Inorganic Chemistry is essential. Also highly recommended are courses in Analytical Chemistry, Organic Chemistry and/or Physical Chemistry.
    • A year of Physics (mechanics, electricity/magnetism, optics) is recommended and additional courses in Quantum or Solid State Physics are also useful.
    • If you are interested in interactions of the Life Sciences and the Earth system, a course in Cellular/Molecular Biology is recommended, but additional Life Science courses in Ecology, Human Physiology, and Genetics are also useful.

As a Nanoscientist, it is very important to have a very broad foundation in the fundamental concepts, approaches and methods of the Earth and Environmental Sciences, as well as those of the related STEM disciplines, as you will be addressing topics that must integrate the knowledge base from all these disciplines, and you will have to be able to work and communicate with colleagues who have these diverse disciplinary perspectives.

Additional Experiences to Build Your Career Portfolio

A lot of learning and professional development occurs outside the classroom.  Take control of your future and actively seek out opportunities to do some of the following:

  • Research experiences: it's really important for you to gain experience doing research, which can take many forms:
    • Do a project where you collect your own data.  
    • Gain information skills to do research based on existing data and scholarly literature. 
    • Do a research project that requires integration of multiple lines of evidence. 
    • It's never too early to be involved with research.  Some universities have first and second year research programs to get students involved in a learning community early (e.g. University of Michigan Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program). 
    • Some faculty are adopting Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) by doing authentic research as part of their class activities.  Use these experiences as an opportunity to build your own research portfolio to demonstrate examples of your work for either graduate school or employment applications.
    • Seek opportunities to do an independent research project or senior/honors thesis according to the academic offerings of your academic department.  Don't be afraid to make contact with faculty to inquire about their current research and opportunities to get involved. 
    • Consider participating in one of the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates programs (and similar programs from DOE, NOAA, NASA, and USGS). Start at the NSF REU for Students website, and then Search for an REU Site. There is also a wealth of information at the GEO REU Resource Center.
  • Look for opportunities for internships in the industrial sector or at government agencies. This will give you practical work experience, and can often lead to full-time employment opportunities.
  • Plan to attend Professional Society meetings. There are often opportunities for students to make presentations in oral or poster sessions.  This is a great opportunity to see current and future research and employment trends, to make direct contact with senior personnel who could serve as graduate advisors or work supervisors, and to build peer networks.
  • Skill development: Practice these whenever possible. Make sure that an advisor/mentor can write about your development in these areas in letters of recommendation as this information won't show up in a degree transcript. Put together a portfolio that documents how you've developed these skills with examples.
    • Communication skills are essential: oral, written, graphical;
    • Analytical/Instrumentation skills - demonstrate your ability to collect and prepare samples, calibrate instruments, run standards, acquire data, use appropriate data reduction methods, and data representation. EES-RC members recommend;
      • Check out these tutorials on Instruments and Analytical Methods Commonly Used in Nanoscience 
      • Some exposure to instruments commonly used to image and analyze Earth materials such as powder X-ray diffraction (XRD), SEM methods (SEI, BSE imaging; EDS elemental analysis and mapping), and TEM will also be very useful.  Other spectroscopic methods such as Raman, FTIR are useful, as are methods to acquire elemental or isotopic data on solids and water samples using ICP could also be considered if available.
      • Students should be given the opportunity to do hands-on analytical or experimental procedures and be involved with decision-making about experimental design, sample collection, and then be trained in accepted methods such as instrument alignment/calibration, use of standards, data collection including considerations of precision, accuracy, reproducibility, data reduction and presentation and communication of results. A working knowledge of statistics is helpful in order to determine confidence in a particular analytical result. Replication of results is important, and some experiments can be done longitudinally to look for rare events.
    • Information skills: ability to find credible information, references, methods, and data.
    • Critical-thinking skills: analytical and synthetic/integrative thinking skills; ability to critically review the literature.
    • Systems thinking and understanding complexity and uncertainty.
    • Problem-solving and troubleshooting skills.
    • The ability to apply interdisciplinary approaches to solve problems.
    • Workplace skills: workplace safety, compliance (with policies, procedures), working within budget limits.
    • Personal characteristics: time management, personal accountability.
    • Ability to work in diverse groups, team-work, meeting group responsibilities.
    • Ethics: personal and professional.

Graduate Student Preparation in Nanoscience

Building on the undergraduate academic program, the EES-RC provided this additional advice for continuing study in a graduate program:

  • Build on a solid undergraduate preparation in the basics of mineralogy, petrology, and geochemistry. Gain some experience in modeling using programs such as MatLab.  Upper division special topics courses that do in-depth review of the literature are important.
  • Coursework in crystallography should be taken, either from a geology or chemistry department, or both if possible. A graduate level course in analytical chemistry would also be valuable, as would further courses in atomic, molecular, and optical physics and laboratory electronics, fabrication, and device physics.  Further computer science coursework is also strongly recommended - having strong skills in Python, R, or SQL programming would be beneficial.
  • Other courses cited as important include: Geoinfomatics/Geostatistics, Geophysics, Shallow Earth, Geomicrobiology, Molecular modeling, Artificial Intelligence methodology.
  • Computer language courses such as Python, data analysis courses.
  • Gain experience with spectroscopic methods and TEM.
  • Introduction to semiconductors and the chemistry of new devices (could be available for undergraduates).

How to get started in a Graduate Program in Nanoscience

  • Students preparing to go to grad school should first be advised to identify two or three general topics of interest they may want to pursue in grad school.  Help them do a bit of a literature review to see what's being done and by whom. Help make introductions if possible to potential mentors.
  • To get a fulfilling job in the nanoscience world requires familiarity with particular analytical tools. I would recommend identifying a graduate school that has those tools (could be TEM, FIB, SIMS, other instruments mentioned in this section). Contact people in charge of these labs to determine if there are opportunities to become skilled in the use of such tools during a graduate degree program.
  • A) A great graduate advisor, well-maintained lab facilities, and financial stability are very important factors when selecting a graduate program. Stand out among applicants by reaching out to potential graduate advisors before submitting an application.  B) Select an advisor who does work that sounds interesting to you. Ask for the contact information of their current students to determine if the advisor is a good personality/working style fit for you. Graduate school is not solely about academics, it's about growing as a person and persevering through challenging times. Work for someone who will support you through this. In my experience, thesis or dissertation research topics are typically selected by your advisor. The graduate student should have input on experimental design or specific focuses, but largely the big questions should come from the advisor. Graduate students are encouraged to be broadly enthusiastic about everything.
  • Attend meetings to see the latest research and meet the people conducting it.
  • Don't simply choose a graduate program because of location.  Also consider the cost of living when looking at stipends. Some places are very expensive and others cost-effective.  b) Definitely contact and talk to a potential advisor before applying to a program.  c) Have a weekly recitation that involves reading and reviewing a peer-review article.
  • Take a lot of internships, read a lot of papers
  • Ask yourself for your own motivation and where you want to be in your further career.  Take part in several different workshops, research projects related to your preferred interest and be aware that you might be confronted with changes, setbacks as well as unexpected positive options.
  • I suggest students embrace research topics that excite them, connect with prospective advisors who are engaging and relaxed people, and propose their own project ideas first.

Other Professional Development Experiences to Help Graduate Students Succeed

  • Grad students should begin to make a professional presence by making presentations at professional society meetings, attending short courses and webinars. Encourage them to reach out to established colleagues to seek advice, describe their work, see if they can visit a lab.  It's important to establish research networks early. For those who are thinking about an academic career, they should also seek opportunities to teach classes (even be the primary instructor), develop a teaching philosophy, attend teaching seminars for professional development.
  • If working in a lab on a geocentric topic (microanalyses of volcanic samples comes to mind), consider how the skills you are using would apply to the fields of nuclear forensics, semiconductor research, materials science applications (e.g., lithium and/or transition metals in Li-ion batteries). Diversify your thinking beyond the classic geochemical areas emphasized in your graduate degree (most of the interpretations you make based on geochemical analyses can be translated to other fields).
  • I would recommend attending mostly smaller, more topically focused conferences where one is likely to have more interaction with other scientists. Large conferences are valuable, but it's easy to get lost in the woods at those. Short courses and webinars are as valuable so long as they are relevant to their needs or goals. Small short courses in specific instrumentation techniques are very valuable as you get to spend quality time with a small group for a day or more.     Building strong communication skills is crucially important in all academic, government, or industry sectors.  Whether presenting/speaking or technical writing, effective communication to different types of audiences (e.g., expert peers, non-expert scientist, general public) is critical. Any short courses or coursework in communication (e.g., persuasive writing, oral presentation, grant writing, visual design, improvisation comedy) are beneficial.
  • Seek an internship at a user facility (e.g., EMSL
  • Attend meetings, short courses, and webinars.  Attend local colloquia (regardless of closeness to research topic). Network at all levels for collaboration with State and Federal labs.
  • I would recommend inviting successful very senior nano scientists, to share their experiences and current work projects with the students and to provide them with a bird's-eye view of the field and coming topics.
  • Socialising, getting integrated in the work environment and local community, and preserving a healthy work-life balance.

Recommended Reading to Get Started in Nanoscience

  • Nanogeoscience: From origins to cutting-edge applications, 2008, Hochella Jr, M.F.,(ed.) Elements, 4(6), pp.373-379.
  • Hochella, M.F., Jr.; Lower, S.K.; Maurice, P.A.; Penn, R.L.; Sahai, N.; Sparks, D.L.; Twining, B.S. Nanominerals, mineral nanoparticles, and Earth systems. Science 2008, 319, 1631–1635.
  • Hochella, Jr. M.F., Mogk, D.W., and Maher, K., 2016, The New Earth and Environmental Nanoscience and Technology Centers Sponsored by NSF, ELEMENTS Toolkit 2. Elements 2016;; 12 (1): 77–78. doi:
  • Hochella Jr, M.F., Mogk, D.W., Ranville, J., Allen, I.C., Luther, G.W., Marr, L.C., McGrail, B.P., Murayama, M., Qafoku, N.P., Rosso, K.M. and Sahai, N., 2019. Natural, incidental, and engineered nanomaterials and their impacts on the Earth system. Science, 363(6434), p.eaau8299. 

Videos with Advice on Preparing for a Career in Nanotechnology

Career Planning Resources for Students in the Geosciences

Vision and Change in the Geosciences: Shaping the Future of Graduate Geoscience Education--This report is the result of two national workshops involving Department Heads/Chairs of Geo/Earth Science Departments, and another workshop and a Workshop for Geoscience Employers.  This action plan will set the standard for curriculum reform and design in Geo/Earth Science departments into the next decade.  Recommendations clearly define the knowledge base, concepts, competencies and skills (technical, work place, and personal) needed to succeed in a career in the Geosciences. Download the report.

Mosher, S., Ryan, J., & Keane, C. (2023). Vision and change in the geosciences: Shaping the future of graduate geoscience education. American Geosciences Institute. 107p.]

See also the companion report: Vision and Change in the Geosciences: Shaping the Future of Graduate Geoscience Education.  Download the report.

American Geosciences Institute

  • Workforce Program: This site has a wealth of information about the current status of the geoscience workforce and future needs and opportunities.
  • AGI Geoscience Currents is a series of "one pagers" on a wide range of topics of interest that relate to the geoscience profession (e.g., demographics, technical skills, salaries, etc.): 
  • Careers that change the world brochure and webinar.
  • Career Compasses give roadmaps on how to be successful in a number of geo-related disciplines: 
  • Other Career Resources

Geological Society of America has this

  • Geo Career Resource Website. At the bottom of this page are a few videos of what a work day is like for someone in industry and government positions.

American Geophysical Union

Central Michiang University

University Texas-Austin

U.S. Geological Survey, Employment information