Much of what we use in our everyday lives wouldn't exist without the work of engineers. From the cars we drive to the food we eat, engineers play a role in developing the most-critical and world-changing machines, processes, and materials. These professional thinkers and innovators design everything around us and solve problems to shape the modern world we know and appreciate today.
While the specific tasks of an engineer vary by specialization, generally speaking, engineers use science and mathematics to design, build, and maintain things that serve practical purposes. This can include everything from designing a faster bullet train to developing nanoparticles in order to make chemical processes more efficient. Engineers work within an incredibly diverse range of fields and must be keen problem solvers, designers, and independent thinkers, able to not only define a problem but also provide a simple and cost-effective solution. Students can preview this exciting field through an array of online engineering courses from top-tier universities.
During the course of an engineering program, students can expect to take essential courses in chemistry, physics, biology, algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. However, the bulk of courses students take while pursuing an engineering degree will be in a specialization. These can range from courses covering the basics of the profession, to high-level classes focused on one particular aspect of the field. For example, in a chemical engineering program, students can expect to take course like Equilibrium Thermodynamics, Fluid Mechanics, Kinetics and Reactor Design, Biochemical Engineering, and Separation Processes. Similarly specialized courses exist for all of the subfields of engineering and will be the heart of most engineering degree programs.
When choosing a specialization, students have a lot of options within the broad field of engineering. Students can pursue degrees in aerospace or civil engineering, which allow them to design modern marvels like aircraft, skyscrapers, rockets, and suspension bridges. Those with an interest in the smaller-scale can consider chemical engineering, which focuses on devising new ways to use chemicals in food additives, fuel, and life-saving drugs. There are even options for those who want to save the world. With a specialization in environmental engineering, professionals develop solutions to serious environmental problems like water pollution, public health, and solid waste disposal.
These are only a few of the numerous specializations available to students in engineering programs, with additional opportunities in fields like agriculture, biomedical science, computers, mechanics, mining, and even petroleum extraction.
No matter the specialization, degrees in engineering are available at nearly all levels. Each will offer preparation for a certain set of careers and professional achievement. If you're not sure where to begin, here's some basic information about what each degree level offers.
Associate: Those looking for an introduction to engineering will be well-served by an associate degree. This will cover both basic principles and specialized information in fields like aerospace, civil, and electrical engineering. While many "hands-on" jobs are available for those with this degree level, working as inspectors or in advanced manufacturing, associate degrees can serve as a stepping stone to becoming a fully-fledged engineer with a higher level degree.
Bachelor's: A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement for most engineering careers and is enough to get graduates licensed and ready to work. These programs put students through a rigorous series of courses focused on the fundamentals and a particular specialization. Engineering is hands-down considered one of the most challenging undergraduate majors and usually takes four to five years to complete.
Master's: Getting a master's degree in engineering can be a great way to advance a career, move into management, or just keep up with recent innovations. To earn a master's, students will need to complete a series of focused courses as well as developing a lengthy paper, project, or practical application that demonstrates their knowledge. A master's degree is not at all uncommon for engineers, but is usually earned after some years of spent working in the field.
Ph.D.: Those who want to go into teaching or academic research will need a Ph.D. to even be considered for most positions. Additionally, in some subfields of engineering, like biomedical engineering, for example, a Ph.D. can be a requirement for research positions. Because of the esteem afforded to this level, students must complete a rigorous series of coursework and innovative research.
Usually offered through professional organizations and governing bodies, engineers can also take advantage of several certification programs. These programs offer a chance to prove a high level of skill in particular areas. These programs can be costly and time consuming to complete, but are highly regarded by employers, which makes them a great way to gain a distinct career advantage.
Ideal Candidates for Engineering
At any level of training, there are several qualities engineers share. Two of the most important skills, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), are strong analytical and critical thinking, which are required to help identify issues that need to be solved, fine-tune designs, and make sure products meet all the necessary requirements to serve the needs of clients and consumers.
While engineers must work well independently, most will work in teams. This means students need to build strong teamwork skills. Sometimes other teammates will not be engineers, so decent written and oral communication skills are a must for explaining the design process to anyone unfamiliar with technical terms. The ability to receive and use feedback from others is also invaluable in a real-world setting.
These days, many students have serious concerns about their job prospects after graduation. For those in engineering, certain specializations will offer better potential for new jobs than others. The best bet, according to BLS data, is biomedical engineering, which is expected to see a whopping 62% job growth over the next decade, though environmental and civil engineering should also see very strong gains. Fields with little or no change in the number of jobs are electrical engineering, aerospace engineering, and chemical engineering.
Even in areas with slower growth, people with engineering degrees enjoy a very low unemployment rate, just 2% in mid-2011. Even better, the majority of these positions pay salaries far above the average, especially for those with graduate degrees. The average salary for mechanical engineers is $78,160, with even those on the low end of the spectrum bringing in as much as $50,550. In some fields, salaries are even higher, with chemical engineers averaging $90,300 and aerospace engineers $97,480.
If you think engineering is right for you, reach out to experts, professionals, and fellow students to learn more about the field and how to best prepare yourself. There are many resources out there – professional organizations, student groups, even colleges and universities themselves. Each can help you learn more about what it takes to be an engineer and get you on the path to making your career aspirations a reality.