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How to Become a Systems Engineer

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If engineering were an orchestra, systems engineers would be the conductors, keeping a firm handle on sections and the whole to make each performance a success. Systems engineers oversee each step of a technical project, or system—from operations, testing and cost to manufacturing, assessment and disposal—to ensure it is as efficient as possible. System components might include people, machinery, software, policies, and more. Unlike industrial engineers, who tend to optimize manufacturing and supply chain procedures, systems engineers usually focus on complex engineering processes. Nonetheless, some schools and organizations combine systems and industrial engineers into a single group.

Systems engineering demands a firm grasp of both business and engineering. Because system engineers’ skills are beneficial to nearly every industry, most professionals have some sort of specialty, as do many degree programs. Students pursuing a master’s degree in systems engineering from John Hopkins University, for instance, can choose to focus on biomedical systems; cybersecurity systems; human systems; software systems; modeling and simulations; or project management. Whatever path they choose, systems engineers’ broad skills and knowledge set them apart from other engineers.

Steps to Becoming a Systems Engineer

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Systems Engineering (4 years)

Anyone considering a career in systems engineering (SE) should begin with an accredited bachelor’s degree in systems, industrial, or another engineering discipline (followed by SE-focused graduate study). The predominant entity which approves engineering programs is the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Though the nature of systems engineering often calls for a master’s education, a bachelor’s degree is usually enough to get graduates in the door. Some schools offer five-year combined BS/MS programs. One can choose from on-site and online degrees.

Admissions Requirements for Systems Engineering Bachelor’s Programs

The competitiveness of systems engineering programs varies from one college to the next, as do admissions requirements. The following are examples of common undergraduate SE admissions criteria drawn from real colleges. Note that online systems engineering programs may have additional requirements.

  • A high school diploma or equivalent
  • A cumulative high school GPA of at least 3.5 (varies)
  • A minimum SAT score of 1250 or ACT score of 28
  • An admissions essay, which usually addresses one’s education and career goals

Systems Engineering Course Examples

Systems engineering curricula depends on how general or specialized a program is, and even then they vary. The following examples demonstrate the types of courses systems engineering students often take.

  • Calculus
  • Linear algebra
  • Physics
  • Fundamentals of engineering
  • Statics and mechanics
  • Project management
  • Engineering economics
  • Engineering quality and reliability

Systems engineering undergraduates who wish to improve their employment and earnings prospects are encouraged to pursue master’s degrees. It is not uncommon for one to enter the field with a bachelor’s degree to gain a bit of experience before attending grad school.

Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree in Systems Engineering (2 years)

Many employers prefer to hire candidates with master’s degrees in systems engineering, especially in positions with managerial potential. Doctorates are generally only required for university and research positions. There are two primary types of master’s in systems engineering programs: 1) master’s degrees in highly specialized concentrations, and 2) general programs for engineers already working in specific disciplines. Which type one chooses can influence his or her coursework significantly, but that’s not the case with most admissions requirements.

Admissions Requirements for Master’s Systems Engineering Programs

The following admissions requirements are common in systems engineering graduate programs:

  • An ABET-accredited bachelor’s degree in engineering, systems engineering, mathematics, statistics, quantitative management, or a related field
  • A cumulative undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher (varies)
  • Undergraduate coursework in calculus and statistics
  • A statement of purpose
  • Two or three letters of recommendation from professors, employers, and others who can speak to a candidate’s abilities and potential
  • A “satisfactory” GRE score

Systems Engineering Course Examples

Master’s degrees in systems engineering require a balance of core and elective courses; programs with specialty tracks have additional, more-targeted course requirements. Examples of common SE coursework include:

  • Digital Simulation Techniques
  • Systems Architecture
  • Computer Programming for Engineers
  • Systems Design
  • Decision Support Systems for Systems Engineers
  • Thesis or Senior Design Project
  • Problems in SE

Step 3: Gain Real-World Experience (4 years or more)

No systems engineering course could truly replace the benefits (and necessity) of hands-on experience. While there are no guarantees, earnings and managerial prospects usually improve with experience, as does one’s knowledge base and, in turn, job field marketability. Job experience also prepares one for Professional Engineer (PE) licensing, which requires at least four years on the job.

Step 4: Become a Professional Engineer (PE)

Earning a Professional Engineer license from the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) is voluntary, but highly recommended as it certifies one’s engineering savvy. Systems engineers with PE credentials can usually take on more responsibilities, pursue high-level management positions, and increase their earnings. While each state licensing board sets its own PE requirements, the following path is by far the most common:

Take the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam

According to the NCEES, passing the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam is the first step toward becoming a professional licensed engineer. The 6-hour, computer-based exam was designed for soon-to-be and recent systems engineering bachelor’s graduates. The FE exam is offered in seven distinct disciplines, including Industrial and Systems Engineering. Topics include: mathematics; engineering sciences; ethics and professional practice; engineering economics; probability and statistics; modeling and computations; human factors; quality; and systems engineering, among others. The FE in Industrial and Systems Engineering 2017 first-time pass rate was 68 percent.

Get Professional SE experience

The NCEES only allows systems engineers with at least four years of approved work experience to sit for the exam. Many professionals move on to graduate school before or during this stint, but not all states require master’s degrees for PE licensure.

Pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam

Like the FE exam, the PE exam is offered in several engineering disciplines, including industrial and systems engineering. Unlike the FE, it requires at least four years of post-college work experience in one’s specific discipline. The PE Industrial and Systems is an 8-hour pen-and-pencil exam offered each April. Topics include: systems, definition, analysis, and design; facilities engineering and planning; work design; supply chain and logistics; and quality engineering. Exam fees vary by state. The NCEES reports that 80 percent of first-time industrial and systems test-takers passed the exam in 2017.

Step 5: Consider Professional Certification

Professional certifications are voluntary credentials that validate a professional’s knowledge and skillset, whether general or with respect to a certain organization or program. According to the US Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop, the most in-demand systems engineering certification is the Certified Systems Engineering Professional from the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE). Other organizations that offer professional certifications include:

Step 6: Consider a PhD in Systems Engineering

There are fewer doctorates in systems engineering than bachelor’s and master’s degrees because, in part, only professors and researchers are usually required to have them. Some professionals seek them anyway, whether out of professional interest or to boost their earnings and job potential, although that’s never guaranteed. Doctoral candidates must take some core coursework, but spend most of their time writing and defending their dissertations. Some colleges require fellowships or assistantships, qualifying examinations, or work published in academic journals. Many PhD programs in systems engineering admit students with bachelor’s degrees, who then complete their master’s and PhDs concurrently.

Career Outlook & Salary for Systems Engineers

A systems engineer’s career and salary potential depends on several factors, including education, experience, and geography. The following estimates and projections are drawn from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, which combines systems and industrial engineers into a single group.

Salary Estimates for Systems Engineers

On average, systems engineers earn more than twice the salary of the average earnings for all US workers. According to the BLS, these professionals earn average of $84,310 per year (May 2016). The detailed distribution of earnings that year was:

Percentile10%25%50% (Median)75%90%
Annual Wage$54,070$67,330$84,310$105,230$129,390

Top Paying Industries

Systems engineers working in the following industries earned the most that year:

  • Aerospace product and parts manufacturing ($97,520 average)
  • Computer and electronic product manufacturing ($92,890)
  • Engineering services ($87,900)

Top Paying States

Location is another important factor influencing systems engineers’ salaries. According to the BLS, the following states paid the most on average in 2016:

  • Alaska: $125,740
  • Louisiana: $107,520
  • Wyoming: $107,230
  • California: $104,720
  • Washington: $103,980

Career Outlook for Systems Engineers

The BLS projects that demand for systems engineers grow by 1 percent nationally between 2014 and 2024, slower than the average for all occupations. Much of this sluggish growth stems from a decline in manufacturing. According to the Bureau, prospects are much better for systems engineers working in healthcare and professional, scientific, and consulting services.

Most Promising States

Employment growth is also a factor of location. Demand for SEs is expected to grow the fastest in these states between 2014 and 2024:

  • Nevada: 115.4 percent growth in positions nationwide, 2014-24
  • Utah: 32.8 percent
  • Colorado: 24.5 percent
  • Idaho: 23.6 percent
  • Oregon: 20.7 percent