Almost every area of modern life is touched in one way or another by the contributions of engineers. From the cell phone in your hand to the buildings in which you study, from the cars and trains and airplanes you take to the merchandise you buy, engineers are key players.
“Engineers are making a difference in all our lives, changing the world for the better,” says Sina Y. Rabbany, Dean of Hofstra University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “There is perhaps no other career that spans so many areas.” That breadth means an Engineering degree is one of the most versatile undergraduate degrees you can get, according to Aaron Arvia, a graduate of Michigan Technological University who works in animatronics for Hasbro, Inc. “Any company that makes any product anywhere needs some kind of engineer, and usually many different types of engineers,” he says.
Of course, the path to life as an engineer is college-level study. And insiders tout Engineering majors as among the most rewarding fields. “Engineering is one of the few college majors that are verbs,” says Jim McGuffin-Cawley, an Engineering professor in the Case School of Engineering at Case Western Reserve University. “It’s all about action and activity.” For anyone considering an Engineering career, the good news is that it offers so many options. At the same time, that very diversity also poses the challenge of selecting the right major. Here’s a look at the various paths available, along with some tips on how to choose the best one for you.
If you enjoyed the challenges of high school chemistry, one option worth exploring is Chemical Engineering. This field involves the use of chemistry (as well as physics and other disciplines) to solve problems in chemical production, drug manufacturing, and scores of other applications. Work may include designing and testing manufacturing processes, establishing procedures to improve efficiency or safety, and designing the layout of equipment. Some chemical engineers operate in specialized fields such as plastics, food production, or nanomaterials, where tiny bits of matter are manipulated.
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Civil engineers work on large-scale projects. They apply their skills to efforts such as the construction of roads, bridges, dams, and water distribution systems. Typical tasks include preparing project cost estimates, analyzing results of soil tests and other data, and planning the development of structures or transportation systems. Completing reports and documentation for government permits may also be a responsibility.
It’s no coincidence that “mechanical” and “machine” are such similar words, as machines are at the heart of Mechanical Engineering. Professionals in this field design machines as well as systems of which they’re a part. Mechanical engineers also design, build, and test tools, engines, sensors, and other devices. As with other types of Engineering, those working in this area may focus on any number of specialties. Just some of them are robotics, automotive technology, and heating and cooling systems.
This branch of Engineering is all about flight. Engineers who pursue this area design aircraft, space vehicles, missiles, satellites, and their components. Most concentrate on either vehicles that fly within Earth’s atmosphere or vehicles and equipment used in space. The work of aerospace engineers includes not only designing equipment but also testing it and diagnosing malfunctions. They also evaluate safety factors and design products related to aviation or space travel.
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Solving environmental problems is the main agenda for environmental engineers. Their work focuses on areas such as controlling air pollution, reclaiming wastewater, and dealing with chemical contamination. Among other tasks, environmental engineers may assess the environmental impact of construction projects, conduct waste management studies, or inspect industrial and governmental facilities for compliance with related laws and regulations. They may also play a role in areas ranging from recycling to policy development.
Interested in the power behind the devices and systems we all count on? If so, Electrical or Electronics Engineering might be a good choice. Engineers in these fields design, develop, and test equipment. Electrical engineers tend to focus on motors, power generation systems, radar and navigation devices, communications systems, or other equipment. Electronics engineers specialize in electronic devices in areas such as communications and transportation, whether that means designing the next generation of phones or the newest global positioning system (GPS) equipment.
With biomedical engineers, the knowledge of Engineering principles is applied to medical and biological advances. Their work ranges from designing artificial limbs and internal organs to developing, testing, and maintaining equipment used in health care and the life sciences. They may also evaluate the safety of biomedical equipment, develop computer applications for medical devices, or prepare reports and guidelines for equipment use.
Other types of engineers include nuclear engineers, petroleum engineers, industrial engineers, computer and hardware engineers, mining and geological engineers, agricultural engineers, health and safety engineers, and materials engineers.
Within the various fields, you may also specialize in different technologies or applications. For example, specialty areas within the overall field of Bioengineering include Bioinstrumentation, Biomaterials, Biomechanics, Clinical Engineering, Rehabilitation Engineering, and Systems Physiology.
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How to choose a field
With so many career possibilities in Engineering, just where should you start in selecting a major? Perhaps the best approach is to reach out to those in the know. After all, nobody knows more about Engineering than, well, engineers. It only makes sense to connect with qualified professionals if you really want to know what it’s like to work in their field.
College Engineering professors can be an excellent resource. They’re accustomed to fielding questions from students, so don’t hesitate to request an appointment and pose any questions you might have. Ideally, this will be at a college you’re attending or planning to attend, but that’s not a necessity. Instructors at local colleges can be just as helpful.
A similar strategy can be followed with working engineers. If someone in your circle of family and friends works as an engineer, they can be an ideal connection. If not, perhaps one of them works at a company that employs engineers and would be willing to make an introduction. Even without a personal contact, you may be able to conduct an informational interview with one or more engineers by contacting local employers or professional societies.
A different approach is to seek out firsthand experience. Opportunities such as summer or part-time jobs, job shadowing, and internships are all worth considering. Check with local employers, school counselors, or college career advisors to identify possibilities.
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National or international associations are another great source of information that can help you decide which Engineering field to pursue.
For example, the National Society of Professional Engineers provides a wealth of information that can help you explore career options. Free student memberships are offered to students enrolled full-time in an Engineering program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) or an Engineering or Pre-engineering program that has a transfer agreement with one or more ABET-accredited Engineering programs. Among other benefits, this entitles you to receive digital versions of PE magazine, which offers up-to-date articles on education, licensing, employment, ethics, legal and liability issues, and other topics.
Associations for specific Engineering fields also offer useful info, like the American Society of Civil Engineers or the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. If you’re not yet close to a decision, simply perusing these websites can be informative; you’ll find news about current happenings and, in many cases, information targeted specifically to students. You can find an extensive list of such organizations at engineering.com, or just combine the name of any Engineering field with “association” or “society” in a search engine.
Related: What Can You Do With an Engineering Degree?
The Occupational Outlook Handbook is also informative. This government publication (accessible at bls.gov/ooh) presents a detailed look at each major Engineering field, including educational requirements, job overviews, expected salaries, and projections of the need for new engineers.
Books available in libraries or bookstores can also provide details on different majors and career fields, including Is There an Engineer Inside You? A Comprehensive Guide to Career Decisions in Engineering by Celeste Baine; Dream Jobs in Engineering by Colin Hynson; and Studying Engineering: A Road Map to a Rewarding Career by Raymond Landis.
Questions to ask yourself
While gathering information is essential, that’s only part of the process. It’s also important to look inward.
Matthew Oehlschlaeger, Associate Dean and professor of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, suggests evaluating where your academic interests are strongest.
“Think about whether your interests are technological—such as with airplanes, computers, or robots,” he says. “Or consider if they fall in more scientific areas such as chemistry, Newtonian mechanics, or electromagnetism. Then you can choose an Engineering discipline in which you can develop a career focused on that interest.”
Don’t overlook practical considerations during your college search. For example, if you’re interested in staying close to home, what colleges and Engineering programs are within driving distance? If you hope to move to a specific location after graduation, what is the job demand there in your chosen field, and who are the major employers?
To get a general idea of future possibilities, do some online research. Browsing through job sites such as EngineerJobs.com, Indeed.com, and CareerBuilder.com can give you a real-world idea of what’s happening with employment in Engineering.
As you consider factors ranging from eventual job prospects to the courses you take, keep in mind that once you choose a major, that commitment can always be changed. In fact, there may be more choices than you realize—some even outside Engineering itself.
“Not all Engineering students go on to work as engineers,” Oehlschlaeger says. He notes that an Engineering degree provides an excellent background for pursuing a career in any field in which problem-solving and decision-making are of paramount importance, including medicine, law, business, and public policy.
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Knowledge is power
The more you know about the career possibilities offered by different areas of Engineering, the better prepared you’ll be to make a solid choice. And then you can move ahead in turning your plans into reality.
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