Each tool or product people use in their everyday lives has to be designed before it can be sold and operated. Behind all of those objects, both large and small, are mechanical engineers. Individuals in this profession are tasked with understanding how a variety of factors will affect a product’s design and functionality. Mechanical engineers have to consider force and thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, manufacturing, combustion, and a host of other issues as they work. They must also consider each component of the object in question to ensure it will not break or fail because of a design flaw.
Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest engineering fields, with jobs of this type required in everything from space shuttle or automobile design to nanotechnology. Increasingly, technology companies that create ever-smaller chips, sensors, and electronic devices are in need of mechanical engineers to help them. On the other hand, biomechanical engineers work in healthcare, helping to design tools and products that work in conjunction with the human body. One of the biggest advantages to a degree in mechanical engineering is the flexibility it gives students to pursue a number of different careers after graduation.
Mechanical engineering students should expect to take basic first-year courses, such as introduction to engineering, calculus and physics, engineering computing, materials science, or systems and fields. As students progress in their course of study, they will take more specific courses on fluid and solid mechanics, thermodynamics, electronics or circuits, and machine engineering. Students focusing on mechanical engineering in healthcare, information technology, manufacturing, or the environment will take engineering electives particular to their area of study.
Because mechanical engineering is such a broad field, students can have very different programs. Popular special interests include micro and nanotechnology, in which engineering students work with materials involved in building computers; bioengineering, in which students focus on fluid mechanics and the design of the human body; and energy and the environment, in which students study topics such as fuel cell systems, advanced thermodynamics, and combustion as a means of understanding energy use. Standard specializations, such as design and manufacturing or solid mechanics, are also consistently popular.
After choosing a specialization, students must choose which type of degree to pursue. Here’s what mechanical engineering students can hope to glean from each type of program:
For mechanical engineering students going into technical positions in manufacturing, drafting or design, material selection, or technical sales, an associate’s degree is appropriate. This degree will also prepare students to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program at many schools, if they wish, but will not qualify them for engineering jobs beyond the basic technical level.
A BSE is the standard degree expected for an engineer and gives graduates a range of employment options. With a bachelor’s degree, students can work in fields that deal with product design and development, manufacturing and operations, automotive technology and transportation, or automation.
Students who want to pursue specialized mechanical engineering fields will need a master’s degree. Especially in emerging fields like environmental engineering, biomechanics and nanotechnology, having an advanced degree and a clear specialization will help students find employment.
High-level and specialized research requires a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. The majority of students won’t need this level of education to pursue a career in the field, but those with interests in niche areas like acoustics and vibrations, particular areas of nanotechnology, systems and controls or other highly technical topics should consider a doctorate. Those students wishing to go into mechanical engineering academia will also need this degree.
In addition to these degrees, students can earn certificates such as the Certified Manufacturing Engineer Certification (CMfgE), which can boost credentials and provide a chance for continuing education. Some universities, like Villanova, also offer certificate programs in areas like Machinery Dynamics, Thermofluid Systems, or Electro-Mechanical Systems.
Ideal Candidates for Mechanical Engineering
Many students who go into mechanical engineering already have some of the important traits for the profession: they’re detail-oriented, curious about how things work, and eager problem-solvers. Because the job always entails figuring out the best way to design a product or object, which tends to mean a great deal of trial and error, students should also be patient and creative, and they should be well versed in advanced science and math. Finally, despite the stereotype of engineers as loners, mechanical engineers often work in teams, so students should be able to collaborate and communicate with others.
As a broad field, it’s difficult to predict the outlook for every individual mechanical engineer. However, the Bureau of Labor projects that as an entire profession, employment for mechanical engineers will grow approximately 5% from 2012 to 2022, which is slightly slower than average. It’s also a slightly slower rate than engineering in general, which is expected to grow by 9%. However, for those in nanotechnology, the outlook is probably better, especially for sharp engineers who stay ahead of recent advances. The majority of individuals in all mechanical engineering fields will need a bachelor’s degree.
Once students do find a position as a mechanical engineer, they can expect to earn a significantly higher than average wage. The median salary for all mechanical engineers in 2012 was $80,580. Computer and electronic product manufacturing earns the highest median salary, at $86,860, while fabricated metal product manufacturing was at the low end, with a median salary of $69,890. As with many professions, pay can vary substantially based on company, location, and job title.
If you’re interested in mechanical engineering as a career, there are many resources that will help guide you. Reach out to professional organizations, search for internships or grants, and learn from those in the field by way of online blogs or by contacting mechanical engineers in your community.