Maybe you’ve heard a little bit about the field of engineering—from your mom or a teacher or Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory—and think it might be the right path for you. First of all, rock on. But, secondly, it’s important to realize that “engineering” is just the tip of the iceberg, encompassing many subspecialties and sub-sub-specialties, with new ones emerging all the time.
You don’t become “just” an engineer; you become an astronautics engineer, which falls under aerospace engineering, which falls under mechanical engineering. Or you become a ceramics engineer, which falls under materials engineering, which falls under chemical engineering . . . The possibilities are practically endless, and truly, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an area of life that doesn’t involve some form of engineering.
Though they work in widely differing areas, what’s true for practically all types of engineers, however, is a knack for solving problems. They must think analytically, creatively, and critically; troubleshoot issues as they arise; work well in teams and on individual research; and have a healthy dose of curiosity and desire to understand how things work. They also tend to require at least a bachelor’s degree, and most work full time in labs and offices.
Engineering is a challenging field, relying heavily on math and other foundational sciences like physics, biology, and chemistry, regardless of the specialty you choose. But it also leads to some of the most groundbreaking, exciting careers available. Not to mention, engineering salaries are almost always far above average, and the job security is pretty enviable.
So if you’ve always been the problem solver in your house—if you’d be happy to spend an afternoon taking your alarm clock apart just to put it back together again or wander around the grocery store thinking of more efficient ways they could stock the shelves—keep reading for a basic breakdown of the main branches of engineering and just a few of the subspecialties they entail.
No big surprises here: chemical engineers work with chemicals! But that doesn’t mean they’re all in HazMat suits all the time. They do things like create and test food products, figure out safe handling and disposing of dangerous chemicals, design pharmaceutical drugs, analyze manufacturing processes to lessen the environmental impact, and more. You can find “ChemEs” in disparate industries as well, from health care to textiles to electronics.
Biomolecular engineers deal with biological molecules, and, indeed, they work on a very small scale! They manipulate the building blocks of things in the natural world in areas like food science, genetic research, and even natural fuels.
The cool new stuff that surrounds you, from the soles of your shoes to the surface of your computer screen to the shell of the car or bus or plane you’re traveling in, it all comes from the development labs of materials engineers. (They even work with biological materials, like skin grafts!)
You already know engineers design the stuff we need and use. They also figure out how that stuff should be made, from start to finish. The people planning and refining the various stages of those production processes are, well, process engineers.
As people and the areas they inhabit spread across the globe, civil engineers design the space they venture into. Cities could not rise from the deserts of Dubai or stretch from the shores of Lake Michigan through suburban Chicago without these engineers and the buildings, roads, tunnels, and other infrastructures they create. They’re the ones who look at an empty map and see a city, and they consider the environmental and financial costs, governmental regulations, and materials needed to make it happen—right down to the dirt underneath. Where will the drinking water come from? Where will the waste go? Can the buildings withstand a natural disaster? Civil engineers tackle these issues and more on large and small scales.
Geotechnical engineers provide the foundation for their peers in civil engineering—literally. They’re the ones analyzing rock and soil, and designing the supporting materials before bridges, roads, and the like are built.
You know how you’re able to drive over bodies of water without a care in the world? Structural engineers design things like bridges and dams and ensure their safety.
When you need to get from point A to point B, you can probably take one of several routes. Transportation engineers are behind those routes, from designing highway systems to airports to harbor ways.
Look around you. How much of what you see relies upon electricity? Electrical engineers were probably involved in some capacity in most of those items. Cell phones, GPS systems, MRI machines, computer hardware: if it has an electrical current, it had an electrical engineer. They design, test, and improve these products, and work in areas as varied as you might imagine. From medical to sonar equipment, manufacturing to government, there are few industries untouched by electrical engineering.
From creating software that measures seismic activity to designing a lighter laptop, as societal needs and technological advances shift, the computer industry and its engineers respond—or, given how much we rely on computers, maybe society and technology respond to computer engineers?
Lenses aren’t just for those snazzy glasses you’re wearing. They’re used in everything from fiber optic cables to microscopes to DVD players. Optical engineers design these lenses, lasers, and other devices—anything using light.
AC/DC: awesome band. Also a foundation of power engineering, a specialty concerned with power generation and distribution. (Think nuclear plants, coal projects, wind farms, hydroelectric plants, etc.)
The engine in your car, the turbine providing your town with power, the elevator you ride in the mall: the work of mechanical engineers is everywhere. When a problem calls for a mechanical solution, they respond with everything from newly developed conveyor systems to robots to prosthetic limbs. They create these machines and devices, often from the research stage to sketching them out them using computer-aided design (CAD) all the way through to testing the product and overseeing production. And mechanical engineers tend to keep themselves busy—on this planet and off.
Aerospace engineers are continuously improving flight safety and travel conditions. They also design, build, and test space shuttles and exploration materials, like satellites and rovers.
When you think about acoustical engineers, you may think of the music industry. And they do work in that capacity, perfecting things like concert hall acoustics. But they also develop other forms of noise control, such as sound buffers and absorbers, which allow people to hear more clearly and avoid distracting, even damaging noise levels.
The manufacturing of any given item is the result of a system of processes, whether it’s a box of cookies or a car. Manufacturing engineers design, improve, and oversee those systems, from the machines doing the heavy lifting to how the products get from the factory to the store.
See also . . . interdisciplinary engineering!
These engineering fields might not fit so neatly under the more wide-reaching umbrella terms, but they certainly offer some fascinating opportunities. As the word “interdisciplinary” suggests, they tend to reach across the disciplines. For example, if you were to study agricultural engineering, you would learn about everything from the basic tenets of chemical engineering to climatology. This is just a sampling of some of the interdisciplinary engineering subspecialties you might encounter.
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