Engineering – degrees and careers
Engineering is one of the most popular undergraduate majors. It can also lead to an extremely well-paid career, with average earnings of $71,125 just 3 years after graduation, compared to $46,450 for the average bachelor’s degree. Few majors can compare in terms of earnings.
However, an engineering major is notoriously challenging because of the significant focus on STEM subjects. If math and science were your strengths in high school, this may not be an issue for you. Degrees in engineering are offered at the associate, bachelor, master’s, and doctoral levels. Becoming an engineer usually requires completing a bachelor of science in engineering.
Levels of engineering degrees
The different levels of engineering degrees are pursued for specific purposes.
- Associate degrees are the path to careers in engineering technology.
- Bachelor degrees in engineering are the main route to becoming an engineer.
- A master’s degree in engineering can accelerate career advancement and lead to leadership roles within an engineering firm or government organization.
- Doctoral degrees in engineering are pursued by those interested in teaching or in advanced research and development.
Types of engineering degrees
There are about 200 engineering fields, but most derive from the 7 discussed below. Individuals choose different engineering degrees based on their interests, strengths, and career aspirations. Note that about half of all engineers get formally licensed. The initial licensure exam known as the FE is offered in the engineering fields discussed here. Further specialization usually takes place in graduate school or on the job.
It is possible to earn a bachelor of science in engineering without a specialization, although it may make passing the FE and entering a career more challenging. Master’s degrees are usually offered by specialization. An engineering doctorate is micro-specialized, according to research or dissertation topic.
Mechanical engineering is a popular and versatile engineering field, often considered the root of the entire discipline. A mechanical engineering degree can lead to work in the aerospace and automation industries, machinery manufacturing, biotechnology, energy, and robotics, among many others.
Electrical engineers research and develop electrical components, systems, and equipment used for industrial, scientific, or military purposes. Different types of electrical engineers may focus on high-voltage power systems, electronic circuits, solar energy, driverless vehicles, aircraft propulsion systems, electronic component testing, or instrumentation, among many other fields.
While related to both electronic engineering and computer science, computer engineers have specialized training in embedded systems, computer architecture, and digital signal processing. These graduates can pursue careers in programming, hardware, software development, installation, network design, and computer systems. They may design parts for consumer electronics, medical devices, aviation autopilot systems, or low-level software for warehouse automation.
The range of industries that employ chemical engineers include biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, alternative energy, industrial and consumer chemical manufacturing, food production, and petroleum engineering. Surprisingly, the semiconductors and electronics industries hire a lot of chemical engineers, as manufacturing microchips requires chemical processes.
There are 4 main types of civil engineering. Structural engineers design large structures like bridges and skyscrapers. Geotechnical engineers focus on the behavior of earth materials like rock and soil. Water resources engineers design systems such as water treatment facilities and storm drainage. Transportation engineers focus on the movement of people and goods.
Industrial engineers optimize processes to make them more efficient. The most common application is in manufacturing across virtually every industry, but industrial engineers may also analyze lines at amusement parks, product movement to and from warehouses, or even the way medical personnel move in a hospital.
Surprisingly, environmental engineers are not primarily focused on designing renewable energy structures. In fact, it’s mechanical, electrical, and civil engineers that design these. Environmental engineers take a more holistic approach, weighing the long-term costs and benefits of various structures and practices to find the most sustainable solutions.
Becoming a professional engineer (PE)
To become a licensed professional engineer, you need:
- a bachelor’s degree, preferably in an engineering discipline
- a passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
- 4+ years of experience working under a professional engineer
- a passing score on the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam
About 50% of all U.S. engineers are licensed. Professional Engineer licensure is more important in some fields than others.
The table below lists the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam pass rates and volumes of test takers from October 1, 2020 to September 30, 2021, published by the National Society of Professional Engineers.
|FE Exam||Volume||Pass rate|
|Electrical and Computer||4,312||66%|
|Industrial and Systems||494||66%|
The FE exam is taken by bachelor of engineering students as they are about to or shortly after they graduate. It is the first step towards licensure.
As you can see from the table, civil and mechanical engineering are the most frequently taken FE exams. This is accounted for partly by the fact that these are the most popular engineering fields, but also by licensure being more important in these disciplines.
Licensure is required for:
- working as an engineer for the U.S. government (in most cases)
- becoming a private contractor
- offering consulting services
- signing, sealing, and submitting engineering plans
- serving as an expert witness in court
- advertising yourself as a professional engineer to the public
- teaching upper-level engineering classes (some states)
Your decision on licensure is likely to depend on your field and career goals. Computer and industrial engineers are less likely to seek licensure than civil or mechanical engineers. The latter may find it difficult to find work without a license. The more tied your work is to the health and safety of the public, the more likely licensure is required.
Most in demand engineering jobs
The table below lists the projected job growth and median pay for some of the most popular engineering disciplines. This is one excellent way to decide which engineering major is right for you.
|Role||Median pay||Projected job growth (2020-2030)|
|Electrical and electronics engineers||$101,780||6.8% (electrical); 6.2% (electronics)|
|Computer hardware engineers||$128,170||1.7%|
|Engineering teachers, post-secondary||$115,590||12.5%|
|Mining and geological engineers||$97,090||4.8%|