Analyzing problems, developing and testing prototypes, and using computer-aided design are at the heart of a mechanical engineer’s responsibilities. These skilled professionals know the ins-and-outs of different machinery such as refrigeration equipment, air-conditioning systems, internal combustion engines, and gas turbines. They also are involved in the design of elevators, escalators, and virtually all types of machinery.
A bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering is typically required to work in the field, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, Dec. 2015), but there are related subfields of engineering (e.g., aerospace engineering) with overlapping competencies and training. Other subfields of note are alternative energy and remanufacturing—the process of rebuilding products after they have worn out. A graduate of a mechanical engineering school can also seek a Professional Engineering (PE) license after they have gained at least four years of experience in the field and passed two comprehensive examinations. The PE credential allows engineers to do consulting work or be employed in some governmental positions. A mechanical engineer can seek additional education through a master’s or doctoral-level program, which can lead to even greater opportunities in leadership and salary prospects.
This guide provides the step-by-step details to obtaining a mechanical engineering education and pursuing a career. It was formulated using information from the BLS and various professional associations, detailing this career field’s typical education, licensing, pay, and job growth.
Mechanical engineers generally need at least a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering or mechanical engineering technology, according to the BLS (BLS Dec. 2015). Students are advised to seek out programs accredited by entities recognized by the U.S. Department of Education’s Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), including the gold standard in engineering: the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
Mechanical engineering undergraduate programs are available at multiple degree levels and require different time commitments. For example, some programs allow students to earn an associate degree as they work toward a bachelor’s degree. There are varying formats for these degree programs, as well. These include traditional campus-based pathways, as well as programs that combine online and brick-and-mortar coursework. Additionally, there are even fully online programs in mechanical engineering at the bachelor’s level.
Requirements for bachelor’s programs in mechanical engineering differ from school to school. A student’s high school grade point average (GPA) can be an important qualifier, but so too can a student’s score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). A high school transcript can help to paint a picture of a student’s past interests and successes, and may provide some indication of their potential for future success. Some admissions materials that that may be required for mechanical engineering schools include:
Students in a bachelor’s program often complete many core science and math classes before taking upper-level mechanical engineering coursework in areas including:
A master’s degree is not necessary to enter the mechanical engineering field, but as mentioned above, it can lead to greater opportunities with respect to breakthrough innovations, coveted research grants, or leadership positions. In fact, CareerOneStop (2017)—a site sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor—reported that 20 percent of people working as mechanical engineers had a master’s degree, compared to 52 percent with a bachelor’s.
In their search for programs, students may find differing program pathways. A master’s degree, for example, typically takes at least two years of post-bachelor’s work to complete, but there are also combined bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, which may take five years of full-time, accelerated study. Additionally, there are other dual degree programs combining a master’s and an MBA. Students also can consider online master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, particularly if they are working full-time, live in rural areas, or have inflexible schedules.
As with bachelor’s degrees, enrollment requirements for master’s degrees in mechanical engineering vary, but generally, the admissions process for graduate-level education is more rigorous. Often students need to apply both to a university’s graduate school and to the engineering department itself. Students also should consider the options available in these programs. For example, they may be able to choose between a non-thesis or thesis program. Some of the typical admissions requirements for master’s-level mechanical engineering schools include:
Many master’s degree programs require core coursework in four-to-six areas to help students build advanced knowledge. Examples of these core classes include:
After completing the initial core coursework, students may be able to specialize their classes or select electives that allow them to customize their degree. Just keep in mind that degree requirements vary from school to school, and while some schools require students to complete a certain number of math courses for their program, others may instead focus on greater breadth across the curriculum. Available Master’s of Science in Mechanical Engineering (MSME) concentrations include:
Experience is integral to becoming a mechanical engineer. Not only can it be a starting point to formulate new ideas or concepts, but it also can be central to building the skills needed to work on more complex projects. Additionally, as mentioned in the introduction, having at least four years of professional experience is imperative for those who want to obtain professional engineer (PE) licensing.
Experience can unlock opportunities in other ways, too. In fact, mechanical engineers who know how to use the most up-to-date software tools—including those in computational design and simulation—or who are knowledgeable about three-dimensional printing can find their skills in demand.
For mechanical engineers, PE licensure can be an indicator of a high level of competence to clients, supervisors, and colleagues, although this credential is not always necessary to work in the field. Graduates of mechanical engineering schools should check with their state board of licensing for more details on regional requirements. It’s important to add, however, that only licensed PEs can work as consulting engineers or private practitioners, and the PE designation is also necessary for employment in many governmental positions where the safety and welfare of the public is concerned. Here is a general overview of how to obtain PE licensure:
Pass rates for the PE vary by subject area. In the mechanical engineering testing fields mentioned above, they range from 68 to 77 percent for first-time takers, according to the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying.
There are numerous organizations offering mechanical engineering certification. According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), certification can be a way to validate skills, increase marketability, garner respect, and build confidence and credibility. It can be a step that interests some professionals in the field. Below is a list of organizations that offer mechanical engineering certification:
Engineers seeking more education can look into PhD programs in mechanical engineering. These degrees may be of interest to engineers who enjoy research; want to make significant advancements in the field; or have a desire to teach future generations of engineers. Before starting a doctoral-level program, students often need to find a PhD advisor to guide and support them throughout their program. A PhD is a rigorous degree, and the expectations should be clear to candidates beforehand. Some components of a PhD program can include a/an:
Prospective mechanical engineers may be interested to learn the average annual salaries in the field. According to the BLS (May 2016), the average annual salary for the 285,790 mechanical engineers across the U.S. is $89,800, significantly higher than the average mean wage for all occupations nationally ($49,630). Mechanical engineers working in architectural, engineering and related services earned the highest wages, followed by those employed in scientific research and development services.
In more detailed terms, here’s a breakdown of the annual wage percentiles of mechanical engineers in the U.S.:
United States (285,790 mechanical engineers employed): $89,800 average annual salary
Additionally, data from Payscale (July 2017), a site using self-reported salaries, indicates that mechanical engineers with project management skills, experience with ANSYS simulation software, or experience with Finite Element Analysis software have the potential to make even more money.
Job opportunities for mechanical engineers are expected to grow 5 percent from 2014 to 2024, according to the BLS (Dec. 2015). This is slightly slower than the average growth projected across all occupations during that same decade (6.5 percent). It’s important to note that the growth rate can vary by sub-industry. For example, those working in nanotechnology, alternative energies, and remanufacturing may encounter greater job opportunities.
Prospective mechanical engineers may want to consider membership in mechanical engineering associations. These groups may offer student memberships at a discount and provide opportunities in training and development, research, networking, and more. Here are the most prominent mechanical engineering professional associations and societies:
As with other engineering disciplines, mechanical engineering is complex, and the success of a mechanical engineering project can often be mission-critical. Given that, it is essential to learn from the best, and these professors represent the most accomplished and involved in the field, ready to inspire and impart their knowledge to a new generation of engineers.