How to study for a career in nanotechnology

by Eric Drexler on 2010/02/24

Students often ask me for advice on how to study for a career in nanotechnology, and as you might imagine, providing a good answer is challenging. “Nanotechnology” refers to a notoriously broad range of areas of science and technology, and progress during a student’s career will open new areas, and some are yet to be imagined. Choices within this complex and changing field should reflect a student’s areas of interest and ability, current background, level of ambition, and willingness to to accept risk — there is a trade-off between pioneering new directions and seeking a secure career path.

Here is an attempt to give a useful answer that takes account of these unknowns. My advice centers on fundamentals, outlining areas of knowledge are are universally important, and offering suggestions for how to approach both specialized choices and learning in general. It includes observations about the future of nanotechnology, the context for future careers.

Learn the fundamentals, and not just in science

The most basic requirement for competence in any physical technology is a broad and solid understanding of the underlying physical sciences. Mathematics is the foundation of this foundation, and basic physics is the next layer. Classical mechanics and electromagnetics are universally important, and the concerns of nanotechnology elevate the importance of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and molecular quantum mechanics. A flexible competence in nanotechnology also requires a sound understanding of chemistry and chemical synthesis, of biomolecular structure and function, of intermolecular forces, and of solids and surfaces.

These are important areas of science, but science is not technology. As I’ve discussed in “The Antiparallel Structures of Science and Engineering”, science and engineering are in a deep sense opposites, and must not be confused. Nanotechnology today is a science-intensive area of engineering, largely because the problem of designing a nanostructure is often overshadowed by the problem of finding, by experiment, a way to make it.

This has implications for choosing a course of study.

Engineering and progress in nanotechnology

A measure of progress in nanotechnology is growth of the range of physical systems that can be designed and debugged without extensive experimentation. As a basis for implementing nanoscale digital systems, commercial semiconductor fabrication provides a predictable design domain of this sort, and some areas of structural DNA nanotechnology have become almost as predictable as carpentry.

Computational tools are in a class of their own, an area of immaterial technology that applies to every area of material technology. It’s important to understand the capabilities and limitations of these tools, and extending them makes a strategic contribution to progress. Computational tools tools are often the key to transforming reproducible processes and stable structures into reliable operations and building blocks for engineering. Today, better design tools are the key to unlocking the enormous potential of foldamers and self assembly as a basis for implementing complex nanosystems.

Competence in engineering — and understanding how science can support it — requires study of design principles and experience in solving design problems. As with physics, some lessons apply across many domains. Because nanotechnology relies on innovations in macro- and micro-scale equipment, engineering education has immediate and strong relevance. Looking forward, the growth of nanosystems engineering will open increasing opportunities for researchers with backgrounds that provide both the scientific knowledge necessary to understand new nanotechnologies and the engineering problem-solving abilities necessary to exploit them.

Students aiming to pioneer in directions that can open new worlds of nanotechnology should learn enough of both science and engineering to solve crucial problems at the interface between them. The most important of these is the problem of recognizing and developing the means for systematic engineering in new domains, extracting solid toolsets from the flood of novelty-oriented nanoscience.

In considering all of the above, keep in mind that the general direction of nanotechnology leads toward greater precision at the level of nanoscale components, making products of increasing complexity and size, implemented in an increasing range of materials. Molecular-level atomic precision has widespread applications in nanotechnology today, and already provides components with the ultimate precision at the smallest possible length scale. I expect that the road forward will increasingly focus on extending these atomically precise technologies toward greater scale, complexity, and materials quality. I recommend courses of study that prepare for this.

Choosing topics and ways to study them

In both science and engineering, a good methodology for selecting an ideal course of study would be to survey a course catalog and note which classes appear in lists of prerequisites for advanced classes in relevant areas of science and engineering. This indicates areas where it is important to study and master the content.

Courses toward the periphery of this network of prerequisites are good candidates for a different mode of study, a mode aimed at understanding the problems an area addresses, the methods used to solve them, and how those problems and methods fit in with the rest of science and technology. I discuss this mode of study in “How to Learn About Everything”. It builds knowledge of a kind that can help a student choose topics that call for deeper, focused learning, and it can later help greatly in practical work — scientists and engineers with broader knowledge will see more opportunities and encounter fewer unanticipated problems. These advantages mean fewer days (months, years) lost and greater strides forward.

Choosing institutions

Beyond topics of study, I’m also asked to recommend universities and programs. It’s difficult to give a specific answer, because a good choice depends on all of the above, and because for each of many areas of science and technology, there are many possible institutions, programs, and research groups. I can only advise that students facing this decision first consider their objectives, and then to look for institutions and people able to help them get there. In particular, universities must either offer a degree program that fits, or provide the flexibility to make one. I found a home in MIT’s Interdisciplinary Science Program (which I can’t recommend, because it no longer exists).

In undergraduate studies, the general breadth, orientation, and quality of a school is more important than any focused undergraduate program that it is likely to have.

Early involvement in research of almost any kind has a special value: It can provide knowledge of kinds that can’t be learned from reading, from classes, or even from lab courses. Pay special attention to research that studies atomically precise structures of significant size and complexity. If that research has an engineering component — designing and making things — so much the better.

Update: See further discussion in the comments.
Update: Now cross-posted at Nanowerk.

See also:

Sara February 26, 2010 at 1:54 pm UTC


I’m currently pursuing a degree in Biomedical Engineering at the moment and I’ve already decided to graduate in 5 years (Not to take it slow) but to add more classes to my program but I’m very confused on what sort of classes to take. Here is are some of the classes I want to take that are not part of my major:

-Organic Chemistry
-Physical Chemistry
-Electricity and Magnetism
-Quantum Mechanics
-Complex Variables for Scientists and Engineers
-Probability and Statistics
-Thermodynamics Part II (Have to take part I)

But still, I’m confused because some have prerequisites that I have to take and even then, it’ll be too much for me.

Should I cut down on the chemistry classes (Or not take Organic and just focus on P. Chem since well it’s statistical mechanics and quantum chem) and add more physics classes? Or because I’m an engineering major, focus on more engineering electives (like Transport Phenomena, Unit Operations, Material Science, etc…). Or switch majors to Chemical Engineering or Physics.

Thanks. I enjoyed reading your article :)

ralsd February 28, 2010 at 4:16 am UTC

The closest major to nanotechnology is “Materials Science and Engineering.”

Eric Drexler March 2, 2010 at 5:28 am UTC

@ Sara — You ask some difficult questions, but I’ll try to give some useful answers.

Regarding the branches of chemistry you mention, I’d recommend physical chemistry as an area to learn, and organic chemistry as an area to understand.

Various facets of physical chemistry provide foundations that are essential to every area in the molecular sciences (including organic chemistry), and supports both qualitative and quantitative understanding. Regarding another item on your list, the physical chemistry class you’re considering will either require or teach a good deal of thermodynamics.

Organic chemistry plays a different role. It is a crucial enabling technology in several of the areas of nanotechnology that I see as most important, but genuine competence at a creative level requires mastery of an enormous body of knowledge that centers around recognizing structural patterns and analogies and their implications for chemical reactivity. Organic synthesis has been compared to playing chess, but the rules are more subtle, numerous, and often require weighing contrary tendencies.

Understanding organic chemistry at a different level is achievable and valuable. Getting a sense of how it works and what it can do is a start. Recognizing the most common molecular patterns and chemical transformations is next. This kind of knowledge can be acquired by the kind of study that I discuss here and here.

About other questions you raise —

Regarding physics, I recommend checking the prerequisites for classes you’d like to take (if you had the time) and consider getting those prerequisites whether you take the follow-on classes or not.

If you plan to work in biomedical engineering, probability and statistics will be important. At a minimum, it’s necessary to understand what the various statistics and tests actually mean. Some elementary mistakes are astoundingly common, for example, misunderstanding the significance of a statement like “so-and-so is significant at the p <0.05 level” (Science had a recent article on this…and in a Nature blog too…).

Of the majors you mention, biomedical engineering could be excellent for work on applications, but much less so for fundamental work in nanotechnology. Chemical engineering is largely tangential here and is relevant almost entirely at the applications end of the spectrum. Materials science is worth understanding no matter what you do. Beyond the basics, it leans toward the applications end, but is also important at the fundamental end. Physics can be expanded in many directions, and can provide good basis for work at any point on the spectrum from applications to foundations.

Regardless of other studies, learning how to think like an engineer — about making patterns in the material world conform to patterns in the mind, rather than the vice versa — is essential if one aims to contribute to progress in a technology. Even in science, this way of thinking is essential to choosing high-payoff research directions and understanding the needs of the people who will (with luck) be using the results.

Thomas March 3, 2010 at 7:30 pm UTC

Hi Dr Drexler,

Thanks for this post, it’s very helpful!

3 ‘small’ questions:

1) You said it’s important to think like an engineer “about making patterns in the material world conform to patterns in the mind”, do you mind sharing ‘how’ this can be done (learnt?)?

2)On what kind of time scale do you think the first nanofactory can be commercialised? In other words, when do you think molecular manufacturing can be fully developed and used widely(similar to how computers are used widely today…?)

3) Do you read e-mails….? As I’ve sent a few, (apologies if I’m being too straight forward…)

Many thanks,


Abdul July 22, 2010 at 1:51 pm UTC

Hi Dr. Drexler,

I want to ask you what major should I take at undergraduate..!!!?

koushal yeginwar August 14, 2010 at 6:10 pm UTC

i have an question that an electonics enginner can have an career in nanotecnology???????? if yes then how its possible…..

Ryan August 15, 2010 at 9:05 pm UTC


I need your help,

I am currently in 11th grade and want to get into nanotechnology, so could you please help me put out an outline for my Bachelor, Master and PH. D for a future in nano-engineering.

Billy Bryant September 3, 2010 at 4:08 am UTC

Hi I’m from the UK and am heading to university next year for an MChem course in pure chemistry. After this I plan to go into nanotechnology, but I have little Physics background and undoubtedly I will learn some on my chemistry course but could this cause a major problem? The chemistry will be biological, physical, theoretical and organic at the beginning and you begin to specialise as you get further into the course.

Eric Drexler September 3, 2010 at 11:23 pm UTC

@ Billy Bryant — The theoretical and physical chemistry that you mention may serve well enough. Make sure that, one way or another, you become familiar with (classical) molecular dynamics, paying attention to the challenges of estimating free energies and reaction kinetics, and also with quantum chemistry (density functional theory, full ab initio methods), paying special attention to where the standard methods fail for reasons of computational cost or inadequate treatment of electron correlation.

Stepping back from physics per se, it will be important to know a good deal about materials and surfaces, and about macromolecules and self-assembly. Note the importance of the first increment of knowledge in related fields of science: Knowing the contours of existing knowledge, what it’s called, and where it matters. I’ve discussed this knowledge and a good way to learn it here and here.

ARUN May 20, 2011 at 9:15 am UTC

I just doing my graduation final year & I am confused what to do next to get into nanotech

ARUN May 20, 2011 at 9:17 am UTC

I just doing my graduation final year with chemistry & I am confused what to do next to get into nanotech

Himadri May 28, 2011 at 8:32 am UTC

Hi Dr. Drexler,

I am from India.I have completed my B.TECH in Electronics and Communication Engg. I had interest in nanoscience and technology.But now I am more interested in QUANTUM MECHANICS.Can I do research in that field?What are the prerequisites to do research in Quantum Mechanics? May I build my career as a Physicist? could you please suggest me something that will be helpfult o realize my dream?

Aniket June 11, 2011 at 1:04 pm UTC

I read your page its really good
can you give the Top colleges name to get addmission for nanotechology.
plz tell me on my email it

Thank You !

rudra July 14, 2011 at 7:56 am UTC

i have completed MCA and i want to do M.Tech in Nanotechnology can i be able to do that. or it will not be possible.

Yousef July 20, 2011 at 7:23 am UTC


I am an undergraduate, and nanotechnology has been a fascinating field in which i would love to study as a major, but i don’t have that clear information of working as a nano-technologist i do not know what kind of job i would have as a nano-technologist, is it in a lab or i can work in many other places such as oil refineries, hospitals, factories and etc.
Moreover which is more recommended, studying nanotechnology as a major and (mechanical or aeronautical) engineering as a minor or the opposite (mechanical or aeronautical) engineering as a major and nanotechnology as a minor ?

T November 11, 2011 at 12:16 am UTC

Enjoyed the article…I have an 2 year associates degree in automotive systems technology. Had worked in the field as an automotive technician for over 12 years..decided to go back to school and I was directed into the direction of nanotechnology…was wanting to do cardiovascular sonography or radiation therapy but there was a 12-24 month waiting list. My question is what actually could I do with an associates in nanotechnology? I could get my bachelor’s …what would a typical day consist of in this field? I havent had the opportunity to speak with the department head of the nanothechnolgy program yet….this program is offered at a community/technical college that I have enrolled in. Thanks

Rand December 15, 2011 at 2:17 pm UTC

Hello, I was wondering what potential breakthroughs you thought of from nanotechnology? What it could do for people and the world, or anything.

Allen January 20, 2012 at 8:24 pm UTC

What are the benifits of Nano-Tech? Like what the companys provide (sick days, paid vacations, ect.).

Sunny Patel April 24, 2012 at 6:12 pm UTC

Sir, Im confused, what do we have to do in this career exactly, and is it having a good scope in the future according to the present economy. and If i want to go in this career what courses should i take. Thank You

Akmal Ali April 27, 2012 at 4:52 pm UTC

Hi. Could you please tell me what a nanotechnologist actually does at work? What is it like? what a person in the nanotechnological field would typically do on an average day of work?


Bokhabane Serutla May 9, 2012 at 11:03 am UTC

Sir, I am a chemical engineering student who is busy doing her third and practicals at an automotive industry. My question is that I would like to do my M-tech after completion of my B-tech and I would like to do it based on nanotechnology in chemical engineering field in automotive or oil industry. What exaclty can I reseach based on what can be implemented, using nanotechnology as a facility in these two industries?

Sajal Tiwari May 21, 2012 at 5:21 am UTC

Hi Dr. Drexler,

I have read ur article and i am confused weather a B.Tech. course in Electronics and electrical engineering or Electronic and Communication engineering or Biotechnology will be helpful for persuading a M.Tech. course in Nano technology.
Sir kindly tell me which of the above mentioned fields should I perseu my Bachelor of Technology in?
I am about to join an average college but with sound infrastructure by the end of next month.

Ryan June 5, 2012 at 4:02 am UTC


Right now, I am starting my second year in college, pursuing a dual degree in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. I am now debating whether or not to pursue another major/minor in engineering, in the hopes of becoming more qualified for a career in nanotechnology. I have become very interested in pursuing a career in this field, and am curious if, in your opinion, taking courses in these subjects will prepare me as much as possible for this line of work.

Also, could you give some advice as to what type of engineering I should consider, or if it is even necessary? And should I drop one of my current majors in pursuit of another?


sara July 9, 2012 at 1:31 am UTC

am i able to pursue a career as a nano technician by studying biology, physics,quantum mathematics, nano-tech, nano-biology, and anything related to nano-tech. There again id like to keep things interesting, and my dilemma here is weather i should or shouldn’t go for robotics.
If anyone has an answer please let me know.
PS- im 13

dhaval sawlani December 9, 2012 at 3:31 pm UTC

Hellow dr drexler
I m dhaval sawlani a student. from Gujarat India .
I m right now studying in 12 sci nd I m literally confused about what to opt for because I m keenly interested in nanotechnolgy. But my parents are little bit doubt full about this decision of mine because in India only colleages only give masters degree…..
Sir plz guide me through this though time of mine …… because I m keenly interested in nanotechnology.
Nd sir will u plz giude me by telling me which coarses I would reqiure to take to go for pure nanotechnology carrier.
Sir plz give a list for both for undergraduate nd graduate coarses any where in the world.
Sir plz do reply .
Waiting for your answers keenly.

sathya December 10, 2012 at 2:49 pm UTC

hai am studying twelth am so interested to study nanotechnology is this possible if s how can apply for it and is there any scope after finishing my hsc………?

Patrick Muthra March 13, 2013 at 4:13 pm UTC

Is Chemical and molecular engineering good for nanotechnology? Its a program at Stony Brook

Onyx smyrna March 30, 2013 at 11:10 am UTC

Im going to complete my ug course on ece… Im very much interested in nano and material science technology… Vil it provide gud value for me in future and if yes which college i should choose and wat kind of job i should expect…

Mrs. N. Srinivasan April 14, 2013 at 4:38 pm UTC

I am interested and fascinated about nanotechnology and wanted to do a course in the same. But because of my business compulsions and family demands could not take up the same. Now my grandson , a brilliant student , wants to be initiated into this subject. He is now in 10th standard and. Has two more years before he goes for his graduate engineering course. He wants to do a summer or correspondence course just for the sake of acquiring knowledge. Pl advice.

Mrs. N. Srinivasan.

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