College Majors: A Student’s Guide to Engineering

College Majors: A Student’s Guide to Engineering

Engineering remains one of the most in-demand and rewarding career paths for creative people who like solving real, complex problems.

Engineering is a field that uses science and technology to create and operate machines, structures, infrastructures, and manufacturing processes. There are many different types of engineers, including engineers who design electronics and computer hardware, engineers who build spacecraft and submarines, engineers who devise processes to promote environmentally sustainable agriculture or workplace safety, engineers who invent processes for extracting oil and gas and harnessing nuclear energy, engineers who create new materials and novel medical processes, and engineers who construct parks, buildings, and the systems that support entire cities. A good engineer systematically and creatively uses the tools and resources around them to come up with practical solutions to the challenges with which they are presented.

Students interested in becoming engineers should have a solid background in math (algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus), science (chemistry, physics, and even biology), and computer programming. Skills like problem-solving, creativity, attention to detail, leadership, and the ability to communicate effectively and work with a team are also essential to succeeding as an engineer. For students considering majoring in engineering in college, the career options are limitless and the employment future is bright. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that 146,000 new engineering jobs will be created between 2020 and 2030. The median annual salary for engineers was nearly $80,000 in 2021, with the lowest paid engineering occupations earning $47,000 and the highest earning more than $130,000 a year. Engineering is a diverse field encompassing many kinds of work and numerous specializations, such as aerospace engineering, chemical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, industrial engineering, and mechanical engineering.

Aerospace Engineering

Every NASA mission from the first human spaceflight to the exploration of Mars has depended on aerospace engineers. But so do more commonplace things, like the navigation system on your phone, your satellite television service, and the weather report. Aerospace engineers design, operate, and maintain airplanes, rockets, missiles, and satellites. Aerospace engineers typically work for aerospace product manufacturers or for the U.S. government at the Department of Defense or at NASA. A few examples of job titles in aerospace engineering include avionics engineer (designs communication, navigation, and other electronic systems for aircraft and spacecraft), propulsion engineer (designs spacecraft engines), and mission specialist (oversees testing, operation, and maintenance of spacecraft and their related missions). A bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering or a science related to aerospace systems is required to become an aerospace engineer. Aerospace engineers who work for the government may also need security clearance.

Chemical Engineering

Chemical engineers impact virtually all aspects of modern life. Chemical engineers design and manage chemical processes for the production of foods, fuels, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals. Chemical engineers work at large-scale manufacturing plants, at water and waste treatment plants, and in recycling. They work in environmental health and safety, in health care and biotechnology, in agriculture and food processing, and in microelectronics and advanced materials design. They even work in the cosmetics industry. A few examples of jobs in chemical engineering include petroleum engineer (develops refining and extraction systems for oil and gas), environmental engineer (measures pollution and other environmental problems and devises solutions to address them), and materials engineer (analyzes materials used in manufacturing processes). A bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering or a related field plus practical experience from internships and cooperative programs is typically required to become a chemical engineer.

Civil Engineering

Civil engineers design, construct, maintain, and operate safe and durable infrastructure including roads, bridges, harbors, dams, pipelines, and water treatment systems. Civil engineers might specialize in construction engineering, structural engineering, transportation engineering, environmental engineering, or land development. Civil engineers are often employed by architectural and construction firms and by all levels of government, with a famous example being the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In civil engineering, you could be a surveyor (plots property boundaries), urban planner (works with public officials and the community to plan land use), transport planner (develops transportation strategies to address the needs of drivers and pedestrians), or water resources engineer (creates systems for managing water resources for consumption, industrial use, and recreation). A bachelor’s degree in civil engineering or a related field from an accredited program is required to become a licensed civil engineer.

Electrical Engineering

Electrical engineers design, test, and supervise the use of products, equipment, and systems that use electricity. Electrical engineers design electrical systems for everything from cars to computers and from communications systems to power grids. Electrical engineers are critically important to the development of sustainable technologies including renewable energy resources such as wind and solar power and to the development of personal technology including smartphones and computers. A few examples of jobs in electrical engineering include communications engineer (designs communication systems), electronics engineer (designs electronic equipment such as vehicle motors and household appliances), and design engineer (uses computer-aided design software to create new products). A bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering or a related field plus practical experience from internships and cooperative programs is typically required to become an electrical engineer.

Industrial Engineering

Industrial engineers work closely with manufacturing and production engineers to improve the quality and productivity of industries. Their work assists with the production and delivery of goods and services at every part of the supply chain, from the sourcing of manufacturing materials to final product delivery. Industrial engineers create systems that efficiently integrate workers, knowledge, processes, equipment, and materials. Industrial engineers study complex systems and organizations on site, often in settings like a factory or manufacturing plant. They also work in offices using computers to analyze observed data in order to solve problems or design more effective processes and procedures. A few examples of job titles in industrial engineering include industrial designer (creates blueprints and prototypes for new product designs), energy efficiency engineer (works with builders and manufacturers to help them improve energy efficiency), and supply chain analyst (optimizes supply chain processes). A bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering plus practical experience from internships and cooperative programs is typically required to become an industrial engineer.

Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineers design, build, and test mechanical devices and equipment. Mechanical engineering is one of the earliest and oldest engineering fields. The application of mechanical engineering dates back thousands of years and includes the invention of classic machines such as inclined planes, pulleys, and the wheel. Today, objects designed by mechanical engineers are involved in the building of a wide range of products, including batteries, medical devices, electric generators, combustion engines, heating and cooling systems, automobiles, and robots. A few examples of jobs in mechanical engineering include automation engineer (designs and builds self-operating machines), power train engineer (works in the automotive industry improving the performance of vehicles), and instrumentation engineer (designs and manages the equipment that controls other engineering systems). A bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering is typically required to become a mechanical engineer.

Engineering Projects and Activities