Guide to getting a doctorate in engineering

    Olga Knezevic
    Olga Knezevic

    Olga Knezevic

    Olga is an in-house editor and writer at She has previous experience as a higher education instructional designer and a university librarian. Olga is passionate about well-crafted sentences, Wikipedia rabbit holes, and the Oxford comma.

    Updated Sep. 14, 2023
    Guide to getting a doctorate in engineering
    Contents is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

      Pursuing a doctorate in engineering is a substantial undertaking. If you are ready to perform research and development at the highest level, use cutting-edge technology, and strive to address humanity’s pressing issues through technological innovation, a doctorate in engineering may be right for you.

      Engineering is a broad field of study, containing hundreds of disciplines. Among the largest and best-known engineering subfields are:

      • mechanical
      • civil
      • chemical
      • electrical
      • computer
      • industrial
      • environmental

      Why get a doctorate in engineering?

      Most engineering positions are open to students who have earned a bachelor’s degree in the field. Following that, the bulk of career advancement occurs through on-the-job training and experience, not unlike the apprenticeship systems that train master craftsmen.

      Master’s degrees are pursued by engineers seeking to fast-track their careers, teach, or enter managerial roles. An engineering doctorate is an even more specialized degree, reserved for those interested in advanced research, academia, or the highest leadership roles in an engineering firm.

      With a doctorate in engineering, you can:

      • teach as a professor at a university
      • work in a government or industrial research lab
      • start a company based on your innovation

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      What types of engineering doctorate degrees are there?

      There are 2 main types of engineering doctorate degrees: the Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy) in engineering and the doctor of engineering (DEng).

      Doctor of engineering (DEng)

      usually completed mid career

      requires a master’s degree and professional experience

      focused on practice and application lasts about 3 years

      completed by engineers seeking to enter technical leadership roles

      graduates leave the program with a professional portfolio

      Ph.D. in engineering

      usually completed early in one’s career

      requires only a bachelor’s

      focused on theory

      lasts about 5 years

      completed by engineers interested in academic or industrial research

      graduates leave the program with a dissertation or thesis

      Admission requirements engineering doctorate degrees

      Specific admission criteria vary by school, but the following are common:

      • DEng programs require a master’s degree as well as 3 or more years of work experience
      • Ph.D. programs are generally open to students with a bachelor’s in engineering, with an embedded master’s completed in the first 2 years of the program
      • Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores
      • minimum GPA of 3.0, is common, but big-name schools may not accept applicants with less than a 3.5

      How long does an engineering doctorate take?

      DEng programs take about 3 years while Ph.D. programs take about 5 years to complete. Ph.D. students produce a book-length thesis or dissertation as their final task, which involves a lot of self-directed work. If the writing or research process is protracted, completing a Ph.D. may take more than 5 years.

      What is the degree structure of an engineering doctorate?

      The degree structure of an engineering Ph.D. is typically laid out as follows:

      1. Coursework
        The first 2 years of the program are usually spent completing core coursework, including research training and exams.
      2. Research
        You begin carrying out scholarly or scientific research at some point in your first 2 semesters.
      3. Candidacy
        You officially begin work on your dissertation when you become a doctoral candidate, which happens once all coursework and qualifying exams have been completed. The required exams
      4. Dissertation proposal examination
        The first important milestone after becoming a doctoral candidate is passing the dissertation proposal examination. The exam is meant to determine how feasible your dissertation proposal is and whether the committee feels you have the necessary academic background to carry it out.
      5. Annual progress updates
        Doctoral students formally report on the progress of their studies and research once a year, usually to their dissertation supervisor.
      6. Dissertation and defense
        The engineering Ph.D. concludes with finishing the written portion of the dissertation and defending it in an oral examination in front of a committee.

      DEng students follow a simplified version of the structure outlined above. As the focus of their program is on a portfolio rather than a dissertation, the practical research or projects they undertake carry greater weight.

      What can you study in an engineering doctorate?

      The specific courses you take depend on the program you are pursuing. Based on the size of your school or university, some of the following programs may be offered.


      Chemical engineers design and develop various chemical manufacturing processes and apply these to the production of food, drugs, fuel, chemicals, and other substances used by consumers and businesses. Chemical engineers apply principles from engineering, chemistry, math, physics, and biology.


      Mechanical is the broadest engineering discipline, allowing you to work in a variety of fields, including aerospace, automation, biotechnology, design, energy, and even robotics.

      Electrical and computer

      Electrical and computer engineers are involved in research, idea development, and the design of new products and manufacturing techniques. They work with cutting-edge technology such as surgical robots, lasers, medical robots, environmental innovation, and hybrid electric vehicles.

      Automotive systems

      Automotive systems engineers help advance vehicle technology through high-efficiency powertrains, reduced emissions, lightweight structures and chassis, robust design, and superior manufacturing.


      Civil engineers deal with the construction, maintenance, and design of physical structures such as canals, bridges, roads, airports, dams, sewage systems, pipelines, and railways.


      Environmental engineers combine engineering with insights from biology, chemistry, and other STEM fields to develop solutions to issues in public health, climate change, pollution, waste disposal, and many other environmental arenas.

      Industrial engineering

      Industrial engineers focus on the optimization of complicated processes within various organizations, factories, and industrial settings. They work to improve integrated systems, information, equipment, knowledge, and the financial aspects of industrial processes.

      Integrative systems and design

      These engineers manage the integrated subsystems, processes, and products within their organizations. Their job is to ensure the stability and viability of the systems they oversee.

      Biomedical engineering

      Biomedical engineers work to enhance and advance technology related to medicine and human health. They develop new medical devices and technologies by applying the principles of engineering to biology and medicine.

      Materials science

      Materials science uses a combination of chemistry, physics, and engineering to develop solutions to problems in biotechnology, nanotechnology, manufacturing, energy, and other engineering disciplines.

      Marine engineering

      Marine engineers focus on the internal mechanisms of ships and other watercraft, including aircraft carriers, tankers, and submarines.

      Nuclear engineering

      Nuclear engineers develop, research, and improve various processes, systems, and instruments related to subatomic processes and radiation, with applications in industry and medicine.

      Aerospace engineering

      Aerospace engineering focuses on the design, development, manufacture, and testing of various spacecraft and aircraft. Utilizing some of the newest technologies available, these engineers work on the cutting edge of engineering innovation.

      How to pay for an engineering doctorate

      Most engineering Ph.D. programs are partially, if not fully funded. A portion of this funding is internal, stemming from the research or teaching assistant positions Ph.D. students take on, and the rest is from external fellowships. DEng programs are generally paid for by the student’s employer but may also be eligible for external fellowships.

      Even for grad school, it is recommended that you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year if you are not in a fully funded program.

      » Read: Get paid to get your Ph.D.

      What kind of jobs can you have with an engineering doctorate?

      The following roles are usually pursued by Ph.D. graduates:

      • Postsecondary engineering teacher

        Average salary: 112K US$

        College professors develop curricula, hold lectures, grade assignments, and supervise dissertations. Engineering professors are usually employed by research universities, where they conduct research in addition to teaching.

      • Research engineer

        Average salary: 86K US$

        These engineers specialize in high-level research and development in search of ideas, innovations, and techniques to advance the field of engineering.

      The following roles are usually pursued by DEng graduates:

      • Senior engineering manager

        Average salary: 155K US$

        Engineering managers, both at the standard and the senior level, manage teams of engineers who report directly to them. The engineering manager’s role is to ensure that all of their team members are satisfied with their work, on track, and doing what they should be.

      • Director of engineering

        Average salary: 154K US$

        Directors of engineering are heads of departments or larger engineering teams, with multiple levels of engineers reporting to them. This is an upper-level management position that requires a significant amount of communication, vision, and leadership as well as active involvement in the projects your team undertakes.

      Frequently asked questions

      A Ph.D. in engineering is a highly specialized degree. It is useful for those with the specific goal of entering academia or research positions. It is not typically pursued by engineers who wish to remain in practical roles.

      These 2 degrees are similar but have different aims. Doctor of engineering (DEng) programs are aimed at mid-career engineers looking to advance to highest echelons of their field or found their own companies. Ph.D. programs are aimed at early-career engineers looking to enter academia or research and development roles.

      By the time engineers enter a doctoral program, they are likely quite clear on their aims. If they choose a Ph.D. program, they are likely looking to become academics or researchers.

      Interview with a chemical engineering professor


      Dr. Andrew Zydney

      Professor of Chemical Engineering

      Dr. Andrew Zydney is currently the Bayard D. Kunkle Chair and Professor of Chemical Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Zydney received his Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from Yale University and his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from MIT. He began his professional career on the faculty at the University of Delaware before moving to Penn State in 2002. Dr. Zydney’s research is focused on the production and purification of monoclonal antibodies, vaccines, and gene therapies for the treatment of cancers, autoimmune diseases, and hereditary disorders. Dr. Zydney has received numerous awards for both his research contributions and his teaching, including the William H. Walker Award for Excellence in Chemical Engineering Education from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Alan S. Michaels Award for Innovation in Membrane Science and Technology from the North American Membrane Society.

      What inspired you to become an engineer?

      I was always interested in science and math, so engineering seemed like it might be a good fit. However, my decision to become a chemical engineer was really inspired by the professor in the first chemical engineering course that I took as an undergraduate. He was so passionate about the field and the opportunities for chemical engineers – the next thing I knew, I was majoring in chemical engineering.

      How difficult was it to become an engineer?

      The chemical engineering major is definitely challenging – it combines a solid foundation in the basic sciences and mathematics with a very strong emphasis on problem solving. It does take hard work and a strong quantitative background to become a chemical engineer, but it is definitely worth it.

      What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

      I am currently a professor of chemical engineering at Pennsylvania State University, so my day-to-day job includes both teaching and research. On the research side, I work very closely with my graduate students to plan experiments, analyze results, and prepare research publications. The specific focus of my research is in the production and purification of biopharmaceuticals for treating cancers, protecting against infections, and curing hereditary disease. I meet regularly with undergraduates who are working in my lab and who are enrolled in the courses that I teach.

      What do you enjoy best and least about the job?

      I love working with students and seeing them grow and develop, both as individuals and as professional chemical engineers. I also love doing research that contributes to the development and production of life-saving medicines. On the other hand, I really don’t enjoy grading, and I wish I didn’t need to spend so much time on the paperwork that is required to support a large research group.

      What are your plans for the future?

      I truly love being a professor of chemical engineering at a major research university. I can’t see myself stopping that in the near future. I am looking forward to moving my research program into new areas that are evolving from advances in the life sciences, including the development of technologies needed for the more cost-effective production of mRNA vaccines like those used against COVID19. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

      Additional resources

      U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Employment Outlook for Graduate-Level Occupations

      Information about graduate-level occupations, openings, and projections within the United States.

      National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE)

      NSPE is one of the leading engineering professional organizations. They publish a seasonal publication entitled PE, as well as offering other news, research, a job board, and professional membership.

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