How to Assess Various Types of Engineering Degrees

Prospective engineering students should consider which degree will lead to their dream job, experts say.
Toward 50K Diverse Engineering Graduates

This article was authored by Ilana Kowarski and published in U.S. News on February 25, 2019.

Female engineer examining wires
Experts on mechanical engineering know how to invent, make and improve the mechanical components of devices like seatbelts and airbags. (Getty Images)

If your dream career is one where you are designing, building and retooling intricate structures and machines, then you may want to consider studying engineering. Students in this discipline learn how to create, maintain and improve useful objects such as planes, bridges or computers, and those who earn degrees in this technical field tend to have strong job prospects.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average median wage for U.S. engineers in 2016 exceeded $91,000, which was more than double the typical wage among U.S. workers.

However, both engineering students and university career services officials caution against pursuing an engineering degree simply to earn a large salary. They say an engineering program is only appropriate for a student who enjoys math and science and who excels in these academic subjects.

"The No. 1 trait to have in engineering would be problem-solving, so you just have to love getting a problem and then tackling it," says Jake Berkowitz, a college sophomore at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering in North Carolina. Berkowitz says engineering students need to be persistent enough to continue trying to solve a difficult problem even if they failed on a previous attempt.

Dona Gaynor, director of career management services at the Florida Institute of Technology, says engineering programs at colleges and universities tend to be exceedingly rigorous, so someone who has struggled in math or science courses in the past is probably not a good candidate for an engineering degree.

Nevertheless, though they acknowledge that engineering is difficult to learn, many engineers say they are glad they studied this complex subject, because it led them to fulfilling careers.

"Engineering is a way of solving problems, and engineers solve problems that change the world," says Penny Wirsing, an environmental engineer and current president of the Society of Women Engineers. "If you think about anything, anything that is in your world today, there was an engineer involved in it somewhere. And so when I talk to students about engineering, I ask them, 'Do they want to have an impact?'"

People determined to pursue either an undergraduate or graduate engineering degree have many options to choose from. There are a variety of types of engineering, each of which focuses on the conception and construction of a different type of technology. Engineering students typically are required to concentrate on a specific kind of engineering. For instance, they might specialize in aerospace engineering, a field that focuses on the production of aircraft and spacecraft, or petroleum engineering, a field where the primary goal is to design and build oil drills, natural gas pipelines and other technologies that assist the oil and gas industry. They could also focus on environmental engineering, a discipline which is devoted to inventing and implementing technological solutions to environmental problems, or materials engineering, which focuses on the creation of substances that can enhance quality of life, such as heat-resistant or corrosive-resistant metals.

"There are literally dozens of different engineering majors at various schools across the country," Thomas Wolff, associate dean emeritus of undergraduate programs in the College of Engineering at Michigan State University, wrote in an email. "Sometimes called the 'big four,' civil engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and chemical engineering are the largest in numbers, and taught at most engineering schools. Following those, materials science and engineering, biomedical engineering, environmental engineering, aerospace engineering, etc. are common, but not at as many places, so national enrollments are smaller."

Wolff notes that some universities house their computer science departments within their engineering schools, whereas other universities do not. "Beyond that, there are many other majors only found at specific schools, such as mining engineering, welding engineering, architectural engineering, etc."

Because of the fast pace of technological advancement in the 21st century, there are an ever-increasing number of engineering specialties. Some of these specialties focus on manufacturing products like automobiles that use well-established technology, and others concentrate on the development of cutting-edge tech products such as biological 3D printers that print out human organs for use in organ transplants. Biomedical engineering, a type of engineering that focuses on making products that improve human health, is a new but increasingly popular and influential engineering specialization whose practitioners are creating life-saving technologies.

Here are some brief definitions of the "big four" engineering specialties which clarify the differences among these four specialties.

  • Civil engineering: This field focuses on the best practices for planning and completing civil infrastructure projects, such as highways and sewage treatment systems. It also often includes lessons on how to envision and construct ambitious building projects that have a significant impact on their surrounding communities, such as skyscrapers and large developments.
  • Electrical engineering: This discipline allows students to learn how to design and construct the electrical underpinnings of machines like cameras and cellphones.
  • Mechanical engineering: Experts on this subject know how to invent, make and improve the mechanical components of devices like seatbelts and airbags.
  • Chemical engineering: People in this field know how to use chemicals to create everyday objects such as clothing and medicine.

Gaynor says prospective engineering students should let their intellectual passions and personal long-term goals guide their choice about what type of degree to pursue.

"I would tell them to think about what they are interested in and what they like to do, because some majors – for instance, civil engineering, mechanical engineering and even aerospace engineering – are a bit more hands-on types of career fields," she says. Gaynor notes that engineering specialties that involve creating and manipulating tangible objects differ enormously from fields like software engineering, which involves coding.

Gaynor adds that the decision about whether an undergraduate degree in engineering is sufficient or a graduate degree is necessary should be made based on a student's career goals.

"A student who wants to work in research and development perhaps, (and) that wants to get more involved in developing new products and ideas and new ways of doing things would definitely benefit from a graduate degree," Gaynor says. "And certainly anybody who wanted to move into academia or just pure research should definitely get a Ph.D."

She says a graduate credential is beneficial, for example, for engineers in certain highly technical engineering fields, like biomedical engineering, and it can be helpful for any engineer who wants to work as a teacher or researcher. However, Gaynor says an undergraduate degree in engineering will suffice for most entry-level engineering jobs, and says it is common for individuals with bachelor's degrees in engineering to obtain non-engineering positions, such as management jobs. Engineering degree recipients sometimes work as technical sales people who are responsible for selling high-tech products, Gaynor says, and others go on to pursue a professional degree of some kind such as a medical degree.

Samuel Malachowsky, a senior lecturer of software engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology's Kate Gleason College of Engineering in New York, says engineering students shouldn't stress too much about which engineering concentration they choose, because that decision will not wholly determine the arc of their career.

Malachowsky says there is so much crossover between engineering disciplines that engineers of different types can often work in similar jobs or team up on the same projects, and he says the two fundamental skills taught in engineering programs – design and process – are universal among all the various kinds of engineering.

"If you pick the wrong type of engineering, it's not necessarily a career-ender," Malachowsky says. "There are a lot of engineers who have studied under another banner — so maybe they started as an electrical engineer and now they're a computer engineer or vise versa. There's some space for lateral movement."