Engineering plays a vital role in driving economic growth and development worldwide. Engineers are responsible for designing and building the infrastructure that supports transportation, commerce, and other essential aspects of modern life. With the increasing demand for sustainable and innovative solutions, the need for engineers is greater than ever.
Choosing the right engineering major is crucial for students who want to make a meaningful impact in their field. This post will explore the different types of engineering majors available, including the top options for students. It will also provide insight into the length and cost of studying engineering, to help students and their families make informed decisions about their education.
First things first, what is engineering? Engineering is the creative application of scientific principles that are put in practice to design, invent, build, improve, and maintain machines, structures, systems, devices, processes, and materials. The principles are utilized singly or in combination, to construct or operate machines, manufacturing processes, and apparatus with full cognizance of their design (Royal Academy of Engineering, 2016).
Engineering as a discipline borrows heavily from mathematics, chemistry, and physics, as well as other courses, such as natural science, social science, and humanity. These courses are taught to students to help them understand the aforementioned scientific principles and gain knowledge that can be brought to bear on practical problems using two natural resources—materials and energy.
Since engineering as an occupation has an extremely wide reach, students are often afforded the freedom to pick their field of interest. Depending on what one wants to become, he or she can choose to study general engineering or specialize in a specific engineering principle. Generally, because of the broadness of the field, the coursework begins broad with foundational and introductory courses and ends with the major engineering areas.
As a curriculum, an engineering major is a program or course of study that concentrates on a particular specialty, supplemented by disciplines in both mathematics and science. Depending on the institution and the program, students are expected to study industrial practices to prepare for a hands-on career or/and theoretical principles to lay the foundation for a research career.
As with other academic majors, engineering students complete the core courses and a number of elective courses, which enable them to gain in-depth knowledge of specific areas of study. They learn how to apply specific engineering principles (say, mechanical, electrical, chemical, and more) to meet the needs of different businesses or groups of people. Moreover, they gain comprehensive knowledge about how to make systems work better and invent new products for public use.
All engineering programs (undergraduate or graduate) have minimum requirements that must be met by students in the college or university. Aspiring engineers should understand what the core requirements are for most of the learning institutions. Similarly, online colleges for engineering degrees may ask for additional requirements to ensure that students are successful in a non-traditional setup.
Incoming undergraduate engineering students should demonstrate a solid background in science and mathematics. As such, the more courses a student takes in these subjects in high school, the better. Besides, taking advanced courses, such as at the Advanced Placement (AP) level, can help nail a spot in an undergraduate engineering class.
In addition, engineering programs require applicants to meet a stipulated GPA requirement. Even though the GPA range varies, many colleges and universities require a score of at least 3.0. Alternatively, incoming students need to demonstrate that they were at least in the top 25% of their graduating high school class.
Moreover, in many engineering schools, students are required to take standardized testing. The most common tests are ACT and SAT with SAT II subjects in maths and/or science discipline. The middle ACT and SAT scores for top engineering colleges and universities fall in the range of 29 to 35 and 630 to 800, respectively (ACT, 2018).
The core requirements for graduate engineering applicants in the U.S. is a bachelor’s degree from an institution accredited by the American Chemical Society and Accredited Board for Engineering and Technology or other authorized national body. International students applying for Master’s programs in the U.S. may be required to prove the validity of their undergraduate programs.
The minimum GPA requirements vary, but many engineering schools require master’s degree applicants to have a score of 3.0 for undergraduate work. Even more, schools require applicants to pass standardized tests, such as the GRE, before they are accepted in a masters program. Some programs such as the New York University Management and Management of Technology accepts a GMAT score in place of the GRE.
Moreover, international students whose English is not the first language are required to take TOEFL exams.
The PhD requirements for engineering students are certainly higher and more strict than those of master’s programs. Most notably, the GPA score for incoming PhD engineering students is higher (greater than 3.0), and so is the threshold for GRE scores.
Some programs such as the PhD bridge require students to present solid proof of remarkable performance in an MS program and evidence of publications, research, and other curricular and extracurricular contributions to engineering (Online Engineering Programs).
Between 2003 and 2009, approximately 41% of undergraduate engineering students ultimately left the major (Painter, Snyder, & Ralston, 2017). In this regard, retention in engineering programs continues to be the center of attention for researchers as countries strive to diversify and expand their engineering workforce.
One potential precursor to students completing their engineering studies may be the reason for initially choosing the major (Painter, et al, 2017). Students pursue different engineering majors for an assortment of reasons, including:
According to Philip Greenish, chief executive officer of the Royal Academy of Engineering (2003 to 2017), most of the issues that face countries around the world, such as water availability, climate change, and energy security, need engineers to fix them (Painter, et al, 2017).
Some students recognize the problem at hand and believe they can gain the engineering knowledge and skills to devise the perfect remedy. As a result, they go all out to take engineering courses that help them positively contribute to society.
In addition, some students are driven by an interest in concepts related to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). According to a study published by ASEE, interest is a significant part of the Social Cognitive Career Theory and is recognized as a predictor of major selection in college (Painter et al, 2017).
The same study posits that interest is a valued aspect of the decision to pursue engineering. It is associated with academic satisfaction, which mediates the urge and intention to persist. From this, we can deduce that students who join engineering out of interest in STEM are more likely to complete their studies.
Outcome expectations in engineering manifest on three fronts: employment prospects, financial goals, and social recognition (Shehab, Walden, & Wellborn, 2015). Generally, outcome expectations have been pinpointed as predictors for engineering major selection and academic performance.
First, students take engineering for their lucrative financial rewards. As you will notice, year over year, engineering has been ranked among the highest-paying jobs. The promise of top pay draws students to engineering, and many are ready to endure the difficult academic journey.
Second, freshmen undergraduates enter college hoping to pursue a course with good employment prospects. Engineering happens to be one such course since, as a profession, it is diverse and offers endless career options for graduates.
Lastly, social recognition is another aspect that influences students to take engineering courses. Social recognition refers to the intrinsic work beliefs that are tied to engineering. For example, people believe engineering brings prestige, and naturally, engineers are smart individuals who are respected in society. The urge to claim a spot in the echelon of engineers and earn the respect that comes with it propels students to study engineering.
Moreover, contextual factors or aspects within the environment can play a significant role in a student’s career choice. In most cases, the contextual factors influencing students’ decision to pursue engineering persist in the form of family and friend’s influence.
Seeing a sibling or extended family member who succeeds or thrives in engineering contributes to a student’s self-efficacy beliefs with respect to an engineering career. Put simply, engineers beget engineers (Godwin, Potvin, & Hazari, 2014)
Engineering is one of the most sought-after professions, and the reason behind it is vivid. The occupation offers diverse career options and brings prestige to students who pursue it. Most importantly, engineering is one of the highest paying careers in the world, and the financial security that comes with it is simply irresistible.
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) survey, the starting salary for the class of 2019 engineering graduates in the U.S. was projected to be $69,613 (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2019). But, before jumping on the mesmerizing returns, one has to first consider the high cost of studying engineering.
Generally, engineering is one of the most expensive programs in college. To get a clear picture of how much studying engineering costs, this section looks at the prices in one of the world’s popular academic destinations—the USA. It discusses the tuition fees and the cost of accommodation.
Even though it is a popular program in many universities and colleges, engineering is without a doubt one of the most expensive courses of study. The average undergraduate tuition and fee in the best engineering institutions in the U.S. are $13,072 for state residents and $44,742 for out of state students in the academic year 2019/2020 (College Tuition Compare, 2020).
The fee varies from institution to institution, with Purdue University-Main Campus posting the lowest undergraduate tuition fee of $28,794. On the other hand, Carnegie Mellon University has the highest fee at $57,119. The following are the tuition fees for the best engineering universities and colleges in the U.S. for the year 2019/2020 (College Tuition Compare, 2020):
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
University of California-Berkeley
California Institute of Technology
Carnegie Mellon University
Source: College Tuition Compare
In addition to tuition fees, one should factor in other elements such as accommodation, living expenses, and transportation costs. This way, one should be able to understand the total cost of studying an engineering course in the U.S. The cost of living varies widely depending on four factors:
The figures below represent the average accommodation and transportation at key student cities in the U.S. (Das, 2016):
Source: Career360 (2016)
Engineering is a career that epitomizes the saying “the roots of education are bitter but the fruits are sweet.” Truth be told, at the end of engineering study awaits a lucrative salary, but the academic journey itself is not for the faint of heart. Put differently, engineering courses are not for people who do not put a lot of hard work in education.
The programs are notoriously difficult and engineering students take comparatively longer to graduate than their peers in other degree programs. For this reason, it is important for students to perfectly understand how long it will take to complete an engineering degree program.
Typically, a bachelor’s degree in engineering requires four to five years of full-time study. Mostly in the U.S., it takes four years to finish a bachelor’s degree in engineering, but in many countries in Europe, three years of academic study are required. Either way, students should be prepared for a grueling, but exciting journey embodied by challenging coursework and projects (Degree Query, 2020).
Theoretically, master’s degree programs are structured to be completed in two years of full-time study. However, this is not always the case for many graduate students, especially those who are already employed. In this case, many students enroll for part-time or online studies, which often take longer to complete than full-time studies.
On average, it takes three years to complete a master’s degree in engineering, even when the programs are stipulated to take two years. In an annual survey by US News, it was found that 55.4% of graduate engineering students finish their online master’s programs in three years (Friedman, 2017).
Earning a PhD in engineering is arguably the steepest and lengthiest part of the discipline’s ladder. Unlike the master’s degree program. which is both professional and research-focused, the traditional doctoral degree program is a research degree and it can take twice as long as the bachelor’s degree (O’Shaughnessy, 2012).
It requires a dissertation and usually involves high-level research at government research labs, tenure-track faculty positions at universities, and competitive industry roles that are hard to come by. That being said, the compensation for engineering PhD holders is lucrative and totally worth the hassle.
While engineering programs are difficult and take longer to complete, a look into the compensation by numbers justifies the time and effort put in the academic journey. Year after year, engineering dominates the charts for the highest-paying jobs. Of course, respective engineering salaries vary based on various factors including field of specialization, level of education, and the region of the world.
In 2016, engineers in the U.S. earned a median annual wage of $91,010, which was more than double the median wage for all workers (Torpey, 2018). Further, the most recent (2017) data show that engineers have an average salary of $111,636, representing a 2.11% increase from 2016’s figures (Data USA, 2018).
Engineer salaries may also vary depending on the focus of the career. According to data from Data USA, the yearly income for common engineering jobs is $125, 284 for software developers, $116,006 for chemical engineers, $113,611 for aerospace engineers, $105,216 for miscellaneous engineers, including nuclear engineers, $98,013 for civil engineers, and $93,139 for those with mechanical engineering careers (Data USA, 2018).
Source: Data USA
Source: ASEEDesigned by
“What type of engineer should I be?” is a familiar question for many high school graduates who aspire to pursue a career in engineering. As mentioned several times in this post, degrees in engineering can lead to numerous career options. If you are at a crossroads with your engineering career decision, the following information will help you settle on the right career.
Aerospace or aeronautical engineering is a branch of engineering that entails the study of the design, construction, and operations of aircraft. The branch has been broadened to cover the design, construction, and operations of all flying machines or simply, any vehicle that operates above the Earth’s surface. As such, it also includes astronautical engineering, a sub-branch that focuses on spacecraft.
Where to study aerospace engineering
Based on the QS World University Ranking by subject, as of 2019, the following are the top universities to study aerospace engineering (Top University, 2020)
Average entry-level salary – $84,879 (Payscale, 2020)
The following are some of the possible careers for aerospace/astronautical engineering majors:
Civil engineering deals with the design and construction of infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, dams, buildings, and water supply systems. It is a branch of engineering that is pivotal to responding to the growing social problems such as waste disposal, housing, and water resources conservation. Civil engineering leads to various business opportunities, like engineering contractors and constructors of any kind. If you see yourself in this role, you can follow those before you and pursue an online master’s degree in construction management.
Where to study civil engineering
Based on the QS World University Ranking by subject, as of 2019, the following are the top universities to study civil or structural engineering (Top University, 2020).
Average entry-level salary – $73,592(Payscale, 2023)
Civil engineering graduates can choose different career paths and specialize in one of the following areas:
As the name suggests, this is a branch of engineering concerned with the use of chemical and biological processes to create useful materials or substances. It is a diverse subject that blends natural and experimental science, primarily chemistry and physics, with life sciences, mathematics, and economics.
Where to study chemical engineering
Based on the QS World University Ranking by subject, as of 2019, the following are the top universities to study Chemical engineering (Top University, 2020).
Average entry-level salary – $78,963 (Payscale, 2023)
A degree in chemical engineering is a gateway to numerous exciting career opportunities including:
This is a multidisciplinary STEM field that combines biology and engineering principles to help inventors, researchers, and innovators design and create medical equipment and systems, such as machines for diagnosing medical problems, artificial organs, surgical robots, and advanced prosthetics. Biomedical engineering is also referred to as Bioengineering, BioMed, or BME.
Where to study biomedical engineering
Based on the QS World University Ranking by subject, as of 2019, the following are the top universities to study biomedical engineering (Top University, 2020)
Average entry-level salary – $70,557 (Payscale, 2023)
Biomedical engineering is a diverse field with different areas of focus. The exact nature of the jobs you can find in this niche vary depending on the specifics of each role. Some of the possible careers for biomedical engineering major include:
Industrial engineering, also known as manufacturing engineering, is the study of the organization and conduct of industrial operations. It entails the design of manufacturing systems, and the ability to control, evaluate, and predict data obtained from such systems.
Where to study industrial engineering
Based on the QS World University Ranking by subject, as of 2020, the following are the top universities to study industrial or manufacturing engineering (Top University, 2020).
Average entry-level salary – $71,707 (Payscale, 2023)
Industrial engineering majors can enjoy a flourishing career in one of the following occupations:
This an engineering discipline that involves the designing, prototyping, developing, and operating of computer systems. It blends computer science and electrical engineering. At its core, computer engineering focuses on computers and digital hardware devices, as well as the software that controls them.
Where to study Computer engineering
Based on the QS World University Ranking by subject, as of 2019, the following are the top universities to study Computer engineering (Top University, 2020).
Average entry-level salary – $50,927 (indeed.com, 2020)
There are different jobs within the scope of computer engineering with several commonalities among them that make this occupation an excellent choice. Computer engineers generally work for computer companies and hold positions such as:
Software engineering (SE) deals with specifying, designing, building, implementing, testing, and maintaining software systems. It places a great deal of emphasis on the soup-to-nuts software development process while applying the systematic practice to ensure products are reliable and safe. It combines electrical and mechanical engineering principles, with the fundamentals of computer science to develop new software products. Additionally, there are numerous institutions offering online software engineering degrees due to its popularity and demand in practically most industries.
Where to study software engineering
Based on the QS World University Ranking by subject, as of 2019, the following are the top universities to study software engineering (Top University, 2020).
Average entry-level salary – $77,770 (Payscale, 2020)
Software engineering is a demanding field, but for degree holders, there are numerous promising career opportunities including:
Mechanical engineering is one of the earliest and broadest fields of engineering. It deals with the application of engineering principles to mechanical problems. In other words, mechanical engineering is concerned with the design, building, testing, and maintenance of mechanical systems.
Where to study mechanical engineering
Based on THE World University Ranking by subject, as of 2020, the following are the top universities to study mechanical engineering (THE Ranking, 2020):
Average entry-level salary – $75,351 (Payscale, 2020)
Mechanical engineering major holders acquire enough knowledge to discharge duties in a wide spectrum of positions including:
Electrical and electronics engineering is the study of systems that depend on electrical power for their operations. Put differently, it is a field of engineering that concentrates on the application of electricity in devices and machines.
Electrical engineering degrees mainly focus on the large-scale production and supply of electrical power, whereas electronics engineering deals with smaller electronic circuits, such as those on mobile phones and computers.
Where to study electrical engineering
Based on the QS World University Ranking by subject, as of 2020, the following are the top universities to study electrical engineering (Top University, 2020).
Average entry-level salary – $80,462 (Payscale, 2020)
As technological advancement intensifies, no country can afford to ease up on their efforts to conduct engineering in a safe and highly innovative way. But to maintain good engineering standards of design, development, operation, and maintenance of critical infrastructure, each nation should aim to deliver qualified and professional engineers.
The type of engineering professionals required by each country or regional block varies widely. For example, engineering in Africa is largely focused on mitigating the challenges of sustainable development and capacity building. On the other hand, countries such as Chile and India are focused on the energy sector and urbanization, respectively (Royal Engineering Academy, 2016). As such, each nation should create and implement policies that inspire students to pursue courses where demand is high.
Additionally, there is a need to encourage more women to take engineering courses. This is because traditionally, women have been under-represented in the engineering field and current data show that more needs to be done to close the gap. For example, in the U.S. in 2018, out of the 136,233 bachelor’s degrees in engineering awarded, only 21.9% were issued to women. (ASEE, 2018). There is no doubt, there is massive potential for engineering discipline to grow in importance and countries should motivate women to be major partners in this growth.