Engineering is a vast field, with a breadth of specializations that can feel daunting. Once students have sorted through the offerings, however, the profession offers an array of career choices to best fit an individual’s preferences and abilities. Entering the profession can be done via several educational pathways, while advanced degree programs and certifications can boost earning power and lead to job advancement. As you assess your interests and aptitude in engineering, you may ask yourself: Will I need extensive college training in mathematics? Is an undergraduate degree sufficient to get into the profession? Do I need a license or certification to work in my state?
The following how-to guide explains what you need to know to become a mechanical engineer, from basic educational requirements to graduate training to build your credentials. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts the addition of 11,600 mechanical engineers from 2012 to 2022. Read on to discover how you can become one of the new hires.
Mechanical engineers research, design, develop and test mechanical and thermal devices including tools, engines, and machines. Some of the more-common devices serve the medical, energy, and automated manufacturing sectors. Many mechanical engineers work in general-purpose and automotive manufacturing, or for architectural and engineering service companies. Mechanical engineers also work in research and development testing laboratories. They typically spend their workdays in professional office settings but sometimes visit work sites to solve problems with existing equipment.
Mechanical engineers work hard, and often put in long days. According to the BLS, more than one-third of mechanical engineers worked over 40 hours a week in 2012. Candidates who continue their education to keep abreast of technological innovations will likely fill the best jobs opening up in the field.
Anything that involves force, energy or motion involves mechanical engineering. Because mechanical engineers design and work with all types of mechanical systems, careers in this field span across many industries. A mechanical engineer working in the aerospace industry could design the next big energy-efficient jet engine. The robotics industry employs mechanical engineers who build robots that help save lives. The entertainment industry also demands the talents of mechanical engineers who design grand, moving Broadway stages and thrilling roller coaster rides. According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, aspiring engineers can find a career in just about any industry, including automotive, biotechnology, computers, construction, energy, electronics, robotics, aerospace and entertainment, to name a few.
In 2014, the median annual wage for mechanical engineers was $83,060, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. However, the top 10 percent of mechanical engineers earned more than $126,430. There are many great opportunities for mechanical engineers with advanced degrees and certification, particularly in computer and electronic product manufacturing. The states with the highest-paying jobs for mechanical engineers include Alaska, New Mexico, California, Texas and Louisiana.
The map below shows details of the 10th, 50th, and 90th percentile earners for each state.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, available jobs for mechanical engineers are expected to increase by five percent between 2012 and 2022. Although the job growth for this sector is slower than the average of all occupations, those who are able to keep their skills current and stay abreast of the latest technological advancements in the field will fare better when looking for work in this competitive market.
Despite the outlook for the profession as a whole, there will be some areas of growth in the field. For example, mechanical engineers who pursue jobs in the transportation industry will see more growth as organizations focus on new automotive technology innovations, such as clean diesel and hybrid-electric cars. Also, there will be an increased need for mechanical engineers in the oil and gas extraction industry.
The states adding the most jobs in mechanical engineering are:
The BLS reports that a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering is necessary for most entry-level positions in the field. Students may also choose to complete a two-year pre-engineering degree and find related work as a mechanical drafter. They can then transfer to a four-year school to finish the remaining baccalaureate requirements. Most employers prefer employees to earn a bachelor's degree from a program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
Bachelor degree coursework includes intermediate and advanced mathematics, life and physical sciences, engineering and design. Students may spend time in the computer lab, too, working with advanced computer-aided design (CAD) software. Students typically take related courses that will prepare them to specialize in one or more sectors of mechanical engineering. For example, medical engineering technology coursework focuses less on theory and more on the practical application of design principles. Internships and co-ops in mechanical engineering are often required as part of a degree program. They are indispensable in providing hands-on experience along with an opportunity to develop professional relationships with mentors and industry contacts. At many schools, students have the option of combining coursework for a bachelor’s and master’s degree as part of a 5-year program. Some colleges offer 5- and 6-year cooperative plans that combine classroom study with practical employment in the field.
In the United States, all mechanical engineers that offer services directly to the general public must hold a state license. Students may apply for a license after completing a bachelor’s degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program. To become licensed, individuals must pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam offered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying. After working for four years, engineers can take the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam to become Professional Engineers (PEs). Several states require continuing education in order to maintain licensure. Employers may honor licenses from other states provided that the original licensing requirements are equal or greater to those in the new state.
Certifications, such as those granted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, allow individuals to show competency in specific fields of mechanical engineering. These fields include advanced control systems design, advanced materials mechanics, stress analysis, convection heat transfer, and dynamic systems. While optional, certifications can benchmark one’s skills for employers and help qualify individuals for career advancement. Joining professional mechanical engineering societies and organizations can also bolster credentials.
There are several academic options for those who want to become mechanical engineers. For example, students can attain a bachelor’s degree for comprehensive knowledge of the field. As students progress from bachelor’s through doctoral level programs, they build their knowledge and experience with every degree they earn—each one providing more detailed and in-depth information about specialized topics in the field, while preparing them for advancement in their careers.
Below are examples of common goals that mechanical engineering students have, and the specific degree choices that can help them meet those objectives:
|Career Goal and/or Educational Needs||Bachelor’s||Master’s||Doctorate||Online|
|I want to enroll in a degree program that gives me the flexibility to schedule my coursework around my full-time job and family responsibilities.|
|I want to get the foundation I need to obtain an entry-level job and earn my engineering license.|
|I want to prepare for a postsecondary teaching job, or to conduct original engineering research.|
|I want to enhance my knowledge in a specific area of mechanical engineering, allowing me to become an expert in a particular area.|
According to the National Science Foundation, in 2012 there were 20,889 mechanical engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States, making this degree the most popular sub-specialty in engineering.
The Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering, which commonly takes four years to complete, gives students the fundamental technical knowledge they need to obtain a license and get started. Through this program, students learn how to design, test and manufacture various devices and products, giving them a full understanding of how a project progresses—from the design phase to the assembly line. In addition, students learn how to use the tools of their trade, including computer-aided design (CAD) software.
Along with technical skills, students gain the communication, problem-solving and critical thinking skills needed to work effectively as part of a team, and to ensure that projects are both functional and safe to use.
The following are examples of the courses that undergraduates take, and the practical skills and knowledge that are associated with them:
Provides background about the engineering field and how engineering principles are used to solve problems in the real world.
Introduces students to how engineering design is related to product manufacturing and performance.
Covers the use of metals in engineering applications and how metals are selected for various products.
Provides an understanding of the fundamentals of heat conduction, convection and radiation transfer.
A master’s degree in mechanical engineering is designed for students who want to advance in their careers, particularly those who want to specialize in a specific area. Whether they are interested in robotics, nuclear energy, biomedical engineering, aerospace or automobiles, this degree program builds on the principles they learned as undergraduates—as well as the hands-on experience they gained in their jobs—by providing more in-depth education. A master’s degree program, which takes about two years to complete, lets students concentrate on a subsection of the discipline and gain expertise in their chosen area of interest.
Some examples of master’s degree courses are as follows:
Covers how to design and develop products, keeping in mind how they will be manufactured and used by consumers.
Explains the principles and phases of simulation modeling, and how it can be applied to various projects.
Provides an understanding of the tenets of patent laws and the relationship between engineering and patents.
Describes strategies for supervising engineering projects from start to finish.
Mechanical engineering doctoral programs put a heavy emphasis on research and theory, so often engineers will enroll in this degree program with an eye toward becoming an industry researcher or a college professor. When students complete their degrees—which can take about four to five years—they can expect to have the following skills:
Doctoral students are required to take the knowledge they have accumulated throughout their educational and professional careers and apply it to an engineering problem or question. As a result, Ph.D. students learn advanced research skills that allow them to understand scientific literature, construct and execute a research study, as well as analyze, interpret, and communicate findings.
By the time students have completed a doctorate, their math skills—both in theory and application—will be top-notch. Students in Ph.D. programs gain an advanced understanding of the principles of calculus, geometry and differential equations, and understand how to apply them to practical problems.
Engineers sometimes have an image of being solitary or introverted, but in reality they spend much of their time working with clients and colleagues. Verbal and written communication skills are vital to function effectively in a team, and to write reports and technical guides explaining their projects.
The engineering field is constantly evolving, and by the time students complete a doctoral program, they have a deep understanding of classic mechanical engineering concepts, as well as the latest techniques and tools that are moving the field forward.
Mechanical engineers work across all industries, and on all kinds of projects, from tiny devices to large structures. Depending on their individual skills and preferences, they can choose from several degree specialties that allow them to gain focused knowledge in the part of the discipline that interests them most. Following are some examples of mechanical engineering specialties, as well as the careers where they are used:
Biomedical engineering is where engineering principles meet health care, resulting in the development of medical devices such as prosthetic limbs, artificial organs and surgical instruments. Students in this concentration will gain engineering acumen, as well as an understanding of the physiological systems of the body, and learn how to combine the two..
Students in this specialty learn how to use engineering concepts to develop a wide range of products. This specialty focuses on topics such as planning, quality control and assurance, and the life cycle of products or devices.
Individuals in this area contribute to the building of new transportation systems and the improvement of existing ones, ensuring they are safe, efficient, and environmentally sound. Students who concentrate in this area learn about propulsion and control, vehicle dynamics, and the societal benefit--as well as problems--created by different kinds of transportation systems.
Online mechanical engineering degree programs are a great way for students to pursue an education while managing the other responsibilities in their lives. However, students should not take the decision of which program to attend lightly. Although online programs boast convenience and flexibility, they are not necessarily a good fit for every student’s needs. Below are some considerations students should keep in mind when choosing a school.
Mechanical engineering degree programs should be accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). This is an organization that is recognized by the US Department of Education, which means its seal of approval ensures that students will receive a quality education, learning the fundamentals of engineering as well as gaining an understanding of safety concerns and ethics.
Mechanical engineering programs do not all focus on the same subsections of the field. There are several concentrations of study, so students should consider what interests them most, and then pick a program that has a strong curriculum in that particular subject.
Although getting theoretical engineering knowledge is important, students should also consider the benefits of a program that will offer them hands-on, practical experience in the field. For example, some schools may require that students complete an engineering project where they work with their peers to design and construct a device that has real-world uses. Such work puts students in close contact with their professors, allowing them to get practical feedback and guidance.
Engineering and creative skills dovetail in the work of mechanical engineers. On the one hand, they rely on advanced math—such as trigonometry and calculus—as well as their mechanical acumen to apply engineering concepts to design projects. A solid foundation in research techniques and technological applications is necessary to identify problems and then come up with effective ways to address them. On the other hand, analytical skills are only half the picture: the best mechanical engineers challenge themselves to look outside the box to find the best solution. Many projects require the combined efforts of multiple professionals, so good communication skills are a must.
Some of the most advanced tools and technologies available are those used by mechanical engineers. They must often design devices that stretch physical constraints and perform under strenuous circumstances. Mechanical engineers may use a variety of machines that allow them to develop and test reliable machines and products, including:
In addition, mechanical engineers use computer programs such as:
Among other tasks, such programs allow engineers to model scenarios, run simulations, assess the physical qualities of materials and devices, and manage the manufacturing process.
Mechanical engineering is only one specialty in the larger engineering field. Individuals who enjoy math, science and analytical thinking may also choose a related field that emphasizes a different area of expertise. The following are some examples of related engineering careers.
Mechanical engineers gain many valuable skills and knowledge that can be used as a foundation to move into other careers in the engineering field. The following are some examples of related careers and the current salaries that these professionals earn.
This search tool is an easy way to find mechanical engineering degree programs offered at the undergraduate or graduate level, and to sort them based on specific criteria.
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