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Many students want to study engineering, or to pursue careers as engineers. In this guide, we’ll break down the mechanics of how you can do so. We’ll explore the multitude of engineering disciplines and the employment and income possibilities for each.
We’ll also include some specific advice for what you can do while still in high school to prepare for a career in engineering. Let’s get started!
There are five primary kinds of engineers, and numerous other engineering disciplines which are more specialized. This does not cover all engineering possibilities, and each field contains multiple specialties. These fields are often interrelated as well, and knowledge in one is often applicable to another.
We will provide links to the professional organization for each engineering discipline where available, you can use these to investigate these fields in more depth if one piques your interest.
These engineers work with the fabrication of chemicals and their byproducts. Generally, they transform lab processes into mass producible results, allowing for them to be used more broadly. They also create new equipment and processes for the creation of chemicals, work in testing of chemical elements, analyze practices to treat byproducts of production, and investigate how chemical manufacturing can impact the environment.
Most chemical engineers find work in manufacturing, in either development, testing, remediation, or other roles. Health care and biotechnologies also have openings for chemical engineers, in either manufacturing or research specializations. The American Institute for Chemical Engineers (AIChE) is the professional organization for chemical engineers.
Chemical engineers usually specialize in a subfield or work with specific products, such as nanomaterials or plastics. Depending on the position you are aiming for, you can find work with a bachelor’s, master’s or PhD. The more research oriented and senior the position, the more likely it is to require a PhD.
The median salary for a chemical engineer is $108,540, though this does not account for differences in education or experience.
Civil engineers deal with infrastructure projects, from roads and bridges to tunnels and dams. This includes planning, overseeing construction, maintenance, government regulations, and safety inspection. Every large public works project ever undertaken has been run by civil engineers.
Jobs for civil engineers often come at construction companies or government projects, but any firms undertaking large scale projects will need civil engineers. With the growth in energy infrastructure, many jobs are opening in that field. The American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) is the professional organization for the discipline, and is the oldest engineering society in the US.
A bachelor’s degree will qualify a civil engineer for most entry level jobs, but if you have higher career aspirations, a master’s or PhD in the field is generally necessary. Many civil engineers have very interdisciplinary studies in college, as their jobs can impact energy, urban design and planning, and many other fields.
The median salary for a civil engineer is $88,570, though this does not account for differences in education or experience.
Electrical engineers are responsible for designing, building, testing, and bringing to production electrical equipment and systems. This can range from consumer electronics, to electric cars, to power grids. Electronics engineers, on the other hand, focus primarily on communications systems and signal processing. While the fields are related, they are not interchangeable.
Jobs for electrical engineers generally come in the fields of research and product development. The best job opportunities are available to engineers who stay on top of current technological trends. Alternative energy sources and consumer electronics are the largest fields hiring electrical engineers, though government research and defense contractors are also common destinations. The Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is the professional organization for this discipline.
A bachelor’s degree is usually necessary to get a job as an engineer or technologist, though you can find some entry level positions with only an associate’s degree. Advanced research positions require a master’s degree or a PhD. There are increasingly online options for this, which can be a good option for currently employed engineers looking to further their education.
The median salary for an electrical engineer is $103,390, though this does not account for differences in education or experience.
Rather than focusing on specifically creating things, industrial engineers focus on processes and people, and how to manage the creation of different things. They model production methods, help make management decisions, and work to optimize the interaction between people and their working environment. Everywhere that processes are needed to flow smoothly in manufacturing, you can find industrial engineers.
Jobs for industrial engineers are most common in manufacturing, but there is a need for them across industries, including healthcare, service, logistics, banking, shipping, forestry, entertainment, the military, and governmental service. The continuous need to improve efficiency means that there will always be a need for industrial engineers.
A bachelor’s degree is required for most entry level industrial engineering positions. While associate’s degrees are available, these usually serve as precursors to transferring. Master’s and PhDs in industrial engineering usually specialize in some aspect of the field. While they are necessary for some roles, they are less popular than other advanced engineering degrees.
The median salary for an industrial engineer is $88,950, though this does not account for differences in education or experience.
Mechanical engineers are involved in the design and manufacture of mechanical devices, ranging from simple tools all the way to complex machinery. All mechanical engineers focus on the mechanics of motion, either in moving parts and systems, the motion of fluids in a hydraulic or hydroelectric system, or the transport and conversion of energy.
Many mechanical engineers work in research or product development, creating new systems. Others work in manufacturing or testing existing systems. There are further openings in energy, transportation, or robotics. Safety testing of vehicles and other moving equipment such as elevators is also done by mechanical engineers. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (AMSE) is the professional organization for the discipline.
A bachelor’s in mechanical engineering is needed for most entry level engineering positions. You can, however, get a technician job in mechanical engineering with only an associate’s degree, though most employers prefer a candidate with a bachelor’s. A master’s or PhD allows you to further specialize, though is not necessary for most positions. If you want to pursue research, however, a higher degree is usually preferred.
The median salary for a mechanical engineer is $90,160, though this does not account for differences in education or experience.
The five fields above are the most basic engineering disciplines, but there are many additional specialties. We’ll go through these below. These are either a specialization within one of the above fields, or require more specialized knowledge. While you can find programs in all of the above fields at most engineering schools, the below specialties are rarer, and if you want to pursue them you will need to specifically seek out universities which offer them.
Aerospace engineering is an offshoot of mechanical engineering which focuses specifically on things which fly. From planes to missiles to rocket ships, aerospace engineers are at the forefront of going higher, faster, and farther. Within the field, aeronautical engineers work with airplanes, while astronautical engineers work with space ships.
Many aerospace engineers go on to work for the government, in defense or for NASA. Other aerospace engineers work in the private sector, especially in research and development. Defense contractors, aviation firms, and new private space exploration companies are all major destinations. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) is the professional organization for the discipline.
You do not need to study aerospace engineering to work for NASA as an engineer. While they do hire many aerospace engineers for their rocketry program, they need chemical, electronic, and many other specializations as well to work on different aspects of the space program. We understand the desire to work for NASA, but don’t think that aerospace engineering is your only ticket.
Aerospace engineering is sometimes offered as a specialization within mechanical engineering, and sometimes offered as a major in its own right. Colleges in the National Space Grant Consortium often have strong aerospace engineering programs, as well as governmental partnerships which can help you land internships with federal agencies.
The median salary for an aeronautical engineer is $118,619, though this does not account for differences in education or experience.
Biomedical engineering focuses specifically on the creation of medical devices and technologies. This includes both materials meant to be used within humans, and novel medical devices.
Jobs in biomedical engineering are frequently in research and development, often working for hospitals, government agencies, and pharmaceutical companies. Many engineers work alongside scientists, doctors, or other researchers. The Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) is the professional organization for the discipline.
A bachelor’s degree will qualify you for some entry level positions, but most research positions require a master’s degree or PhD. Not all schools offer a degree in biomedical engineering; majoring in another field for a bachelor’s and then getting a master’s in the field is a common approach.
The median salary for a biomedical engineer is $92,620, though this does not account for differences in education or experience.
Computer engineers, also called software engineers, develop code and programs used in applications throughout industries. They create software applications and programs, and test and evaluate existing systems. Generally, these engineers fall into two specialities. Application engineers use different programming languages to develop distinct software for businesses or customers. Systems engineers focus on an organization’s internal computer system, including development, maintenance, and upgrades.
Computer engineers can find jobs in any industry which uses computer software, which is an increasing market sector every year. Thus computer engineers are not associated with any one industry, though many of them do end up in silicon valley technology companies. There are few pure research positions available in this field.
Most computer engineering jobs require a bachelor’s degree, though some entry level positions will accept an associate’s degree or certificate. Higher level positions sometimes require an advanced degree.
The median salary for a computer engineer is $110,140, though this does not account for differences in education or experience.
Environmental engineers use their skills to mitigate and reverse environmental harm caused by other projects, and specialize into a number of fields, including land management, recycling, public health, pollution control, and waste management. As the green sector continues to expand, so do opportunities for environmental engineers.
The jobs open to environmental engineers are diverse across specializations and industries. Major employers include governmental agencies, research labs, scientific consulting services, and architectural firms. Work covers regulatory compliance, research, and management. The American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (AAEES) is one of the professional organizations for the discipline.
A bachelor’s degree is required to begin working as an engineer. An increasing number of jobs also desire an advanced degree, usually a master’s. A PhD opens further employment possibilities as you become increasingly specialized.
The median salary for an environmental engineer is $92,120, though this does not account for differences in education or experience.
Materials engineering is a subset of chemical engineering, where engineers work to develop or improve materials used for various purposes, from metal alloys to plastics. This involves studying and manipulating materials at an atomic level. These engineers usually specialize in a single type of materials, such as ceramics, metals, or composites.
Materials engineers can work in research and development of new materials needed to fulfill specific roles in projects, or in devising new recycling techniques to repurpose existing materials. While many different industries need materials engineers, most work in aerospace, architecture, or electronics manufacturing, as these are the fields trying to improve the materials they use with the highest frequency. Materials engineers will also have a large part to play as an increased focus on recycling materials enters the industry. ASM International is one of the professional organizations for the discipline, though further professional organizations exist which specialize in specific materials.
A bachelor’s degree is required to work as a materials engineer. Some research positions appreciate an advanced degree as well. If you want to specialize more in the study of a particular material, an advanced degree may be necessary.
The median salary for a materials engineer is $95,640, though this does not account for differences in education or experience.
Molecular engineers create molecular scale devices to perform complex tasks. This is sometimes referred to as nanotechnology or nano-engineering, and is a rapidly growing field within engineering. The possible applications for this are broad. Because this is an emerging field, there are few degrees offered in molecular engineering itself. It is more often offered as a specialization within another field of engineering, such as chemical, environmental, or biomedical.
Many industries are interested in exploring this new technology, so there are job opportunities in many different fields. Notable industries interested in this are healthcare, pharmaceutical companies, transportation, and agriculture. Most jobs are currently in research and development, as this is still a very young field.
As mentioned previously, there are very few universities which offer degrees specifically in molecular engineering; more often it exists as a specialization within another branch of engineering. An advanced degree is preferred for most research positions.
The field of molecular engineering is still too new to have generated any meaningful data on salaries, but they are commensurate with other engineering disciplines.
Nuclear engineers work with nuclear technology and the devices relating to it. This covers designing and maintaining nuclear power systems, monitoring safety and environmental impacts, researching new applications of nuclear technology, dealing with radioactive waste, and medical uses of nuclear technology.
Jobs in nuclear engineering come in energy, governmental agencies, transportation, and medical research. The future of the field is seen as bright due to an increasing interest in nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels. The American Nuclear Society (ANS) is the professional organization for the discipline in the US.
You can get a job as a technician with an associate’s degree, but jobs as an engineer require a bachelor’s degree. Research positions generally require a master’s degree or PhD. Not all schools offer nuclear engineering. You will generally need a number of additional physics classes to specialize in this field.
The median salary for a nuclear engineer is $116,140, though this does not account for differences in education or experience.
Petroleum engineers work in the oil and gas industry, on the discovery, extraction, and refinement of fossil fuels. These engineers also work with byproducts of oil and gas, including petroleum products such as plastics.
Jobs in petroleum engineering are primarily in the energy sector, dealing with discovery, transporting, refining, or using oil and natural gas. There are other fields which employ petroleum engineers however, such as mining and manufacturing. While there is a push to reduce the use of fossil fuels, there will likely be positions for petroleum engineers for some time. Many of the positions do require relocating to the regions where the petroleum resources are extracted or refined. The Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) is the professional organization for this discipline.
An associate’s degree will qualify you to work as a technician in the field, and some specialized schools offer just these. A bachelor’s is required for most jobs as an engineer in the field. Master’s degrees are available, but as there is less of a focus on research in the field, they are less required to qualify for jobs. Some leadership positions do require advanced degrees.
The median salary for a petroleum engineer is $137,330, though this does not account for differences in education or experience.
A career in engineering begins with an undergraduate education. While you can get jobs as a technician in some fields with only an associate’s degree, getting a job as an engineer requires a bachelor’s degree. Getting a job in a research position requires an advanced degree in most cases.
When deciding on where you should go to study engineering, you should consider the following factors:
Many companies recruit directly from engineering programs, beginning in junior or senior year. Jobs fairs are held on campus which will allow you to meet representatives from a company, and learn what they offer. These can also be used to find internships with specific companies or industries.
Now we’ll give you a year-by-year guide to pursuing your education in engineering.
The first year is used to lay the groundwork. The courses in math and science will generally pick up right where you left off in high school, though they will likely move much faster. Use the slightly easier pace here to acclimate yourself to college, the coursework will increase in difficulty soon.
Professors don’t always care if you attend class, but they tend to look more favorably on students who attend regularly, and are more willing to be flexible with students who they can see are putting in the effort. Not all of your professors will be great teachers; many are hired for their skill at research and teach out of obligation, rather than passion. You can talk with other students in your program to find professors who are notorious; while some may be inevitable, creative scheduling can save you a lot of headaches.
You should begin looking for positions in research labs as soon as you can. Schools generally have an internal website where these are posted. These are a great way to earn some extra money, and build valuable practical experience in engineering. Plus, they look great on a resume, and the lab directors you work for are a great source of references later. You should try to find a position in a lab or doing research as quickly as you can.
Your courses in second year will begin to differentiate themselves by discipline. You will still be doing introductory work, but these courses will introduce you to the concepts you will need to master for your engineering major specifically. The pace of work will pick up here. It won’t ease up for the rest of your tenure in undergrad.
As you advance into higher level courses, you should try to establish relationships with professors in your field. You won’t end up being friends with all of your teachers, but building these relationships over time will ensure you have strong references when it comes time to apply to jobs or grad programs.
You should start looking for summer internships, either doing research in a lab or working with a company. Your school has a career department to help you find these positions, and you should take advantage of these resources.
In your junior year, you will start taking advanced courses specific to your major. You will also have the opportunity to begin specializing in some cases, though this varies by engineering discipline. We recommend spacing out your general education requirements through all four years, so you have a break from high level engineering courses.
If you have not done so already, you should try to gain experience in a lab. At this point, you have enough skill and knowledge to contribute more actively to research. If you have built a relationship with professors, then you can approach and ask if they have research positions available to you. This won’t always yield the desired result, but many professors are happy to find a place for students, especially volunteers.
You should begin attending career fairs, and look for internships which you may be able to parlay into long term employment. This is when you should start investigating the careers available, and speaking with recruiters on campus. Your department will have a career center, so you should make use of their resources.
You will have the opportunity to take elective courses in your discipline in your senior year, to more fully explore your areas of interest. You should match these to the careers you’ve looked into and enjoyed, to better position yourself for the future.
If you are attending an ABET certified program (which you should be), you will be able to take the Fundamentals in Engineering Exam in your senior year. Your program will help you set this up; they have a vested interest in your performance on this exam. Most schools post statistics for how students do on this exam. While you do not need to take this test to find engineering positions, it is the first step to becoming an officially licensed professional engineer, which is required for some roles.
You should begin looking for and applying to careers while still in your senior year. WHile you still have to graduate successfully, many firms are eager to hire fresh graduates. There may be more competition for jobs depending on your desired field. NASA, for instance, is generally inundated with applicants for open positions.
Graduate programs in engineering are akin to other master’s or PhD programs. Many of them want to see that you have completed research experience in undergrad, and have experience working in a laboratory setting. You will have an advisor for your college, you should work closely with them when applying to advanced degree programs.
Most graduate schools want you to have a GPA over 3.5, and for you to score in the 90th percentile or above on the GRE. For more information on applying to graduate programs specifically, see our guide to grad school applications.
Engineering is a profession which requires a professional license. Not all engineering positions require you to have a license, but it is required by some. In order to become a professional engineer, follow these four steps:
Much like the Bar exam certifies lawyers, this process certifies an engineer to practice. Some states require a further exam for structural engineers.
The FE exam is offered online, and is available to take by anyone who has a degree in engineering or a related field, or is in the last year of an ABET certified bachelor’s program.
The PE exam is offered twice a year. Both exams are used nationally, though eligibility requirements vary by state to take the PE exam. The cost of the exam and scoring is determined by the state, as each is administered by the local state board.
Your college will host career fairs, and you should begin attending these by your junior year. While you may or may not find a career through one, they will give you a better sense of the kinds of jobs available within your discipline, and let you determine which kind of work you’d like to do.
You can also find engineering positions online. Sites like Indeed and LinkedIn have job postings frequently, but you can also find jobs posted on engineering specific sites. These allow you to search more narrowly, and will provide opportunities you are less likely to find on other sites. Here are a handful of sites which are dedicated to engineering positions:
Most engineering positions require an engineering degree, though students with degrees in math or the natural sciences can find positions in some fields.
In this section, we’ll cover what you can and should do while you’re still in high school to prepare for a career in engineering. These tips will help you be a top candidate at engineering programs, and allow you to pursue your studies to the highest level. Of course, if you change your mind about what you want to study, these tips will still help prepare you for college generally.
This is a good time to begin planning and exploring your options. Most students only have a vague idea of what they want to study in 9th grade, but if you start exploring now, you’ll find out sooner if this is actually a topic you enjoy.
The most important thing you can do to prepare, however, is to do well in your classes. You want to get into honors track classes and have a high GPA starting now. Your GPA and overall academic preparation is the most important thing engineering programs look at, and this is the best time to start working on that.
Math and science are your most important classes for an engineering program. You should take the most advanced math courses you can, beginning now. You may have some choice as to which science classes you take, or it may be standardized by your school. We recommend only taking physics and chemistry once you have a sufficient mathematical background to succeed in them.
Outside of the classroom, you should be looking for activities you enjoy that have the potential to tie into your interests. Any activities that allow you to explore math or science will help you, even if they are not directly related to engineering. The best thing for this year is to find activities you enjoy and will be willing to stick with for an extended period of time.
Most schools will allow you to begin taking AP courses in your sophomore year (though some will open it up earlier). We recommend taking as many as you can succeed in. Start slowly, to familiarize yourself with the increased work and the format of AP classes. See our guide to AP exams for more advice on which classes to take, and how to approach the exams.
You should look for ways to become more involved in any organizations you’re a part of. If there are no clubs which explore topics you are expressly interested in for engineering at your high school, consider founding one. Most high schools do not offer courses in engineering, so extracurriculars are the best way for you to begin gaining practical experience.
Look for programs you can involve yourself with over the summer. Paid summer courses are one avenue, but internships or individual projects can also be quite beneficial. Teaching yourself to code or creating something with Arduino will give you hands-on experience difficult to gain elsewhere.
You should continue doing well in school, and take the most advanced math and science classes possible. If your school offers an IB curriculum, it will generally be open to students starting in junior year. Read our guide to IB programs to learn more about the IB program.
This is also the year you will take the PSAT, and should begin studying in earnest for the SAT or ACT. While your performance on standardized tests is less important than your GPA and course load for colleges, they still consider it when making admissions decisions. You should prepare for these tests and do well on them to maximize your chances of admission.
You should look for internships or other ways to demonstrate your interest in engineering through your extracurriculars, while maintaining and deepening previous activities. Your summers are the best place for this, as the summer before your senior year is one of the last chances you have to accomplish something that admissions officers will see.
There are numerous summer programs devoted to engineering, or you can explore on your own. Either way, you should try to accomplish something quantifiable during the summer. If you can’t find a program in engineering itself, physics, math, and other STEM subjects often offer similar benefits.
You should begin considering where you want to apply to college during the spring of your junior year. We recommend doing at least a few college visits over the summer, to learn what you’re looking for in a program, and what aspects of a college appeal to you. We also recommend beginning work on your applications during the summer before your senior year. This will give you more time to work on them, and reduce the amount of work you will need to do during the school year, when you will have many other demands on your time.
In 12th grade you apply to colleges. Even as you are applying, don’t let your grades drop. While your senior year grades may not appear on your application, especially if you apply in the early rounds, colleges will check to make sure you have maintained your academic performance through the end of high school.
You should continue taking the most advanced math and science courses possible. Calculus is a prerequisite for most engineering coursework in college, and you should take it in high school if possible.
We recommend taking at least some time in your essays to highlight your interests in engineering fields. You don’t need to devote all of your essays to engineering pursuits, and highlighting your other interests can provide good color and contrast to your application. However, if a university asks for an essay on why you want to major in engineering, you should dive deep into your practical experience with the field, and why that has caused you to want to study the subject.
Your activities list is also a good place to show off your interests and passions outside the classroom. Your independent projects can be included with your other activities, especially if you devoted a significant amount of time to creating something.