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How to Become an Engineer: Steps and Requirements by Specialization

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From bridges to smartphones, automobiles to medicines, so many things we use every day have been built by engineers. Engineering itself is divided into a variety of subdisciplines that cover an enormous spectrum of industries and materials, but one thing all forms of engineering share in common is the innovative mindset.

For how much the world relies on engineers, it is no surprise that engineers have one of the highest average salaries in the U.S. That said, demand for some subdisciplines is much higher than others. Each subdiscipline follows its own career path, with its own set of courses, licenses, and certification exams. However, there are also core similarities in the career paths of all engineers.

Read on to learn exactly how to become one of over a dozen different types of engineers, step by step.

Essential Steps to Becoming an Engineer

After graduating from high school, prospective engineers typically need to earn a bachelor’s degree from a school accredited by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET). ABET employs more than 2,200 engineering experts from the public and private sectors to evaluate critical factors in an engineering program and ensure that they’re up to industry standards.

Admission requirements for undergraduate engineering programs vary from school to school, but a competitive GPA of 3.0 or higher, strong ACT or SAT scores, several letters of recommendation, and personal essays generally are needed. A strong background in math and science is also recommended.

While some schools offer specific engineering majors, such as water resources engineering or nuclear engineering, prospective engineers more often major in an engineering discipline, such as civil, electrical, or chemical engineering. These majors focus on the fundamentals of engineering and offer electives for students to explore the deeper nuances of engineering across specialties. Typical core-curriculum courses in these engineering programs include calculus, linear algebra, physics, chemistry, and general engineering. This step typically takes four years to complete.

In their senior year, engineering students may sit for the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam offered through the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). The six-hour exam focuses on chemical engineering, civil engineering, electrical and computer engineering, environmental engineering, industrial and systems engineering, mechanical engineering, or other disciplines and can earn one licensure as an engineer in training (EIT) or an engineering intern (EI). While not a requirement for all types of engineers in all states, this certification provides a mark of distinction and prepares engineers for further licensure.

In sum, while the order and timeline occasionally vary, the general career trajectory for engineers usually abides by the following path:

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree from an ABET-accredited university
  • Establish licensure through the NCEES FE exam
  • Earn a master’s degree in a subdiscipline of engineering
  • Gain practical experience in the field
  • Earn a professional engineering (PE) license in a subdiscipline of engineering
  • Attain further professional certification or join professional societies

While most engineers will follow the above career path, each discipline of engineering has its own requirements, coursework, certifications, and professional resources. Read on to learn exactly what steps are necessary to become each type of engineer.

How to Become an Aerospace Engineer

After graduating from an accredited university program, many prospective aerospace engineers pursue a master of science (MS) in aerospace engineering from an ABET-accredited program. They may choose to further specialize in an area, such as fluid dynamics, aerospace control, aerospace design, aerospace structures, aerodynamics, computational fluid dynamics, and propulsion.

Coursework includes topics on fracture mechanics, aeroelasticity, orbital mechanics, statistical theories of turbulence, nonlinear control systems, and the dynamic behavior of materials. Admission requirements vary from school to school but may include a competitive GPA, GMAT or GRE scores, work experience, letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose. This step typically takes two years to complete.

After graduating from a master’s program, most aerospace engineers focus on gaining practical work experience. After four years of experience, aerospace engineers can sit for the professional engineer (PE) licensure. There is no specific aerospace exam so many take the mechanical engineering PE exam, either focusing on thermal and fluid systems or machine design and materials. While not a requirement for aerospace engineers in all states, the licensure does provide a mark of distinction.

Later in their careers, aerospace engineers may join professional societies or organizations related to their field of practice. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) offer networking, professional development, and advocacy programs that apply to aerospace engineering.

How to Become an Automotive Engineer

After graduating from an accredited university program, prospective automotive engineers typically attend a master’s program in automotive engineering. Automotive engineering master’s students can specialize in a variety of disciplines, such as advanced powertrains, advanced vehicle manufacturing, chassis and advanced materials, electrification, intelligent vehicle systems and design, and vehicle performance and control.

Core coursework explores topics such as thermofluid processes, internal combustion engines, automotive body structures, embedded control systems, and hydrogen and fuel cell systems. This step typically takes two years to complete.

After graduating from a master’s program, most aerospace engineers focus on gaining practical work experience in the field. When combined with ABET-accredited undergraduate and master’s degrees, four years of work experience can qualify an automotive engineer to sit for exams to obtain licensure as a professional engineer (PE). While there is no exam tailored to automotive engineering, there are exams for mechanical engineering for machine design and materials and mechanical engineering for thermal and fluids systems. While not a requirement for all automotive engineers in all states, it does provide a mark of distinction.

Later in their careers, automotive engineers may join professional societies or organizations related to their field. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) is a global association of over 125,000 engineers and experts working in automotive, aerospace, and commercial-vehicle industries. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) is a nonprofit focused on providing networking, professional development, and advocacy across several sub-disciplines of mechanical engineering.

How to Become a Biomedical Engineer

After graduating from an accredited undergraduate program, many prospective biomedical engineers go on to pursue a master’s degree. Students typically focus on instrumentation, imaging, computational medicine, neuroengineering, or genomics. Typical coursework in biomedical engineering master’s programs covers advanced systems physiology, computational neuroscience, applied partial differential equations, biomechanics of movement, and fluid mechanics. This step typically takes two years to complete.

Following completion of a master’s program, many biomedical engineers focus on gaining practical experience in the field. Four years of such experience, when combined with undergraduate and master’s degrees, can qualify one to sit for licensure exams as a professional engineer (PE). Applicants must pass an eight-hour, 80-question exam in biological engineering. While not a requirement for all engineers in all states, the PE license does provide a mark of distinction and can qualify a professional to lead certain public projects.

Later in their careers, biomedical engineers may choose to pursue a doctorate in the subject—but this step is optional. Admissions requirements and coursework vary heavily from engineer to engineer and school to school. More frequently, biomedical engineers choose to join professional societies, such as the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) or the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Bioengineering Division.

For more information about this career path, readers can visit How to Become a Biomedical Engineer.

How to Become a Chemical Engineer

After graduating from an accredited undergraduate program, many prospective chemical engineers choose to earn a master’s degree in chemical engineering. Typical core coursework includes thermodynamics, transport phenomena, advances in pollution prevention, polymer science and technology, chemical reaction engineering, and nanoscale engineering. Students can specialize in thermodynamics, surface science, catalysis, and electrochemical systems. This step typically takes two to four years to complete.

Following a master’s program, many chemical engineers focus on gaining practical experience in their field. After four years of relevant experience, chemical engineers can sit for the PE exam, which requires a eight-hour, 80-question exam in chemical engineering. While not a requirement for all engineers in all states, the licensure can act, in all cases, as a mark of distinction.

Later in their careers, chemical engineers may choose to join a professional society, such as the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), which provides further continuing education, collaboration, and certification options for established experts in the field.

How to Become a Civil Engineer

After graduating from an accredited undergraduate engineering program, civil engineers typically pursue a master’s degree in the subject. Coursework includes structural design, fluid mechanics, civil engineer applications and drafting tools, and solid or hazardous waste management. Further specialization is available in construction engineering, structural engineering, environmental engineering, power systems engineering, or water systems engineering. Dedicated master’s programs exist for these subdisciplines as well. This step typically takes two years to complete.

After earning their master’s degree, many civil engineers focus on gaining practical experience. After four years, they can sit for the PE exam. Applicants must pass an eight-hour, 80-question exam in their chosen specialization: construction, geotechnical, structural, transportation, or water systems engineering. While not a requirement for all engineers, earning such a license does provide a mark of distinction.

Later in their careers, civil engineers may choose to join a professional society for networking, professional development, and further professional certification related to their specialization. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) offers professional certifications in coastal engineering, geotechnical engineering, navigation engineering, ocean engineering, ports engineering, and water resources engineering. Eligible candidates for these certifications will need their PE license, a graduate degree, and eight years of relevant work experience.

For more information about this career path, readers can visit How to Become a Civil Engineer.

How to Become a Computer Engineer

After earning an undergraduate degree from an accredited university, many aspiring computer engineers enroll in a master’s program. Typical coursework covers controls and signals, nanostructures, nonlinear control systems, advanced protocols and network security, and distributed systems and middleware. Students can specialize in computer science, cybersecurity, data science, and software engineering, either in a dedicated master’s program or as a specialization in a computer engineering program. This step typically takes two years to complete.

Following earning their master’s degree, computer engineers focus on gaining work experience in their field of specialization. Four years of such experience can qualify a candidate to sit for licensure as a professional engineer (PE). The eight-hour, 80-question exam focuses on software engineering or computer engineering. While not a requirement in all states, the PE license does act as a mark of distinction. Further vendor certifications, such as those for software development provided by the IEEE Computer Society, may also boost one’s credentials.

Later in their careers, computer engineers can join a professional society, such as the Association of Computer Engineers and Technicians (ACET), which provides support services and networking opportunities for computer engineers, or the International Association of Computer Science and Information Technology (IACSIT), which hosts conferences and journals for working professionals.

For more information on this path, check out How to Become a Computer Engineer.

How to Become an Electrical Engineer

After graduating from an accredited bachelor’s program, many aspiring electrical engineers enroll in a master’s program. Students may either pursue a master’s of electrical engineering, a master’s of electrical and computer engineering, or a master’s of nanoengineering.

Baseline electrical engineering programs offer additional tracks in electronics, power systems, and nanotechnology. Typical coursework includes mixed-signal integrated circuit design, solid-state electronics, microprocessors, and electromagnetics. This step typically takes at least two years to complete.

After earning their master’s degree, electrical engineers focus on gaining work experience in their field. After four years, they can sit for a PE exam that focuses on either electrical and computer engineering; electronics, controls and communication; or power systems. While not a requirement for all engineers in all states, PE licensure does act as a mark of distinction.

Later in their careers, electrical engineers may choose to get involved with professional societies. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) sets electrical engineering standards, hosts industry conferences, publishes scientific journal articles, and offers both networking and continuing education opportunities.

For more information about this career path, readers can visit How to Become an Electrical Engineer.

How to Become an Engineering Manager

After earning an accredited bachelor’s degree, aspiring engineering managers typically enroll in a master’s degree. The most relevant graduate programs are in business administration (MBA), technology management (MSTM), or engineering management (MEM or MsEM).

Engineering management coursework generally focuses on financial management, the economics of engineering, human resources, quality control, and accounting. Technology-focused management coursework covers project management, operations management, and health and safety. This step generally takes two years to complete.

After earning their master’s degree, many engineering managers go into the workforce. With four years of work experience, engineering managers can sit for the PE exam, which would earn them licensure as a professional engineer (PE). Exams for this license may be taken in any area of engineering specialty. While not a requirement for all engineering managers in all states, licensure does act as a mark of distinction.

Later in their careers, engineering managers may choose to join a professional society and seek further board certification. The American Society for Engineering Management (ASEM), which sets standards for the profession, offers the Engineering Manager Professional Certification (EMPC), in addition to networking and collaboration opportunities for engineering managers.

For more information about this career path, readers can visit How to Become an Engineering Manager.

How to Become an Industrial Engineer

After earning an accredited bachelor’s degree, many aspiring industrial engineers choose to pursue a master’s degree, where they study warehousing systems, linear optimization, Bayesian statistics, supply chain systems, operations research, and manufacturing systems. This step typically takes two years to complete.

After earning their master’s degree, industrial engineers focus on gaining relevant work experience in the field. Four years of experience, when combined with undergraduate and graduate degrees, qualifies them to sit for licensure as a professional engineer (PE) and take the eight-hour, 80-question exam in industrial and systems engineering. While not a requirement for all engineers in all states, it acts as a mark of distinction on an industrial engineer’s record.

Later in their careers, industrial engineers typically join professional societies or attain further certifications in specialized areas. Numerous certifications as well as networking and educational options exist through the Institute for Supply Management, the American Production and Inventory Control Society, the Society for Manufacturing Engineers, and the Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals.

For more information about this career path, readers can visit How to Become an Industrial Engineer.

How to Become a Materials Engineer

After graduating from an accredited undergraduate program, many aspiring materials engineers choose to pursue a master’s degree. They can concentrate in several areas, such as electronic materials, metals, polymers, structural materials, or general studies. Typical coursework covers advanced materials principals, vector calculus, ordinary differential equations, thermodynamics, polymer physical science, and diffusion, kinetics, and transport.

After earning their master’s degree, many materials engineers focus on gaining relevant work experience. With four years of work experience, they can then sit for the PE exam, which consists of 80 questions in metallurgical and materials engineering, administered in an eight-hour session. While not a requirement for all materials engineers in all states, licensure does act as a mark of distinction.

Later in their careers, materials engineers may join a professional society. The American Society for Metals (ASM) offers certification in various areas of materials engineering, as well as opportunities for advocacy, networking, and continuing education.

How to Become a Mechanical Engineer

After earning a bachelor’s degree from an ABET-accredited university, many prospective mechanical engineers elect to pursue a master’s degree (MSME). Areas of concentration include general studies, energy conversion, manufacturing and materials processing, robotics, thermofluids, or dynamics and control. Typical coursework covers areas such as engineering fluid dynamics, principles of combustion, multiphase flows, energy and propulsion, and convective processes. This step typically takes two years to complete.

Following their master’s degree program, mechanical engineers typically go into the workforce. With four years of work experience, they are eligible to sit for licensure as a professional engineer (PE). They will be required to pass an eight-hour, 80-question exam in either HVAC and refrigeration, machine design and materials, or thermal and fluids systems. While not a requirement for all mechanical engineers in all states, licensure does act as a mark of distinction.

Later in their careers, some mechanical engineers decide to pursue a doctorate to delve deeply into the research aspects of their profession. Admissions requirements and coursework for such programs will vary widely, often tailored to the applicant. This is an optional step and often takes between four and five years to complete.

Further certifications, continuing education, and networking opportunities exist in professional societies for mechanical engineers, primarily the American Society for Mechanical Engineers (ASME). More specialized and industry-specific certifications for mechanical engineers are available from the Association for Facilities Engineering (AFE) and the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI).

For more information about this career path, readers can visit How to Become a Mechanical Engineer.

How to Become a Nuclear Engineer

After graduating from a bachelor’s degree program, many aspiring nuclear engineers pursue a master’s degree in their chosen profession. Specializations and concentrations are available in nuclear science and technology, fission nuclear technology, applied plasma physics, or radiation detection and application.

Typical coursework includes nuclear fuel management, radiological safety, reactor physics, radiation physics, reactor engineering, and radioactive waste control. This step typically takes two to four years to complete.

After earning their master’s degree, nuclear engineers typically focus on gaining practical work experience. After four years, they can sit for licensure as a professional engineer (PE). Candidates must pass an 85-question, 9.5-hour exam. While not a requirement for all nuclear engineers in all states, licensure does act as a mark of distinction.

Later in their career, nuclear engineers may pursue further board certification through the American Board of Science in Nuclear Medicine (ABSNM). The most common types of advanced certification are in nuclear physics and instrumentation, radiopharmaceutical science, radiation protection, and molecular imaging. These certifications solidify a nuclear engineer as an expert in his or her own niche of nuclear engineering.

In addition to the ABSNM, nuclear engineers may choose to join a professional society for networking, continuing education, and advocacy opportunities. Relevant societies include the American Nuclear Society (ANS), the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management (INMM), the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), and the World Nuclear Association (WNA).

For more information about this career path, readers can visit How to Become a Nuclear Engineer.

How to Become a Robotics Engineer

After earning an accredited bachelor’s degree, aspiring robotics engineers can choose to pursue a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering, systems engineering, electrical engineering, or artificial intelligence, among others.

Alternatively, robotics may itself be a concentration of a master’s in mechanical engineering. Typical coursework explores robot dynamics, robot control, concepts of systems engineering, project management, computer vision, intelligent sensors, and human-robot interaction.

After earning their master’s degree, many robotics engineers go to work. Four years of work experience can qualify them to sit for licensure as a professional engineer (PE). While no PE exam is specifically tailored to robotics, candidates may sit for the eight-hour, 80-question mechanical engineering exam in machine design and materials. While not a requirement for all robotics engineers in all states, professional licensure does act as a mark of distinction.

Later in their careers, many robotics engineers choose to join a professional society, such as the IEEE’s Robotics and Automation Society, which offers continuing education, conferences, workshops, competitions, and scientific publications. Further professional resources include the ASME’s robotics department and the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).

How to Become a Safety Engineer

After graduating from an accredited university program, many prospective safety engineers choose to pursue a master’s degree either in occupational safety or safety engineering. Typical coursework covers hazard analysis and waste elimination, risk assessment, policy issues in prevention, human performance, crisis leadership, electrical systems safety, and safety-critical design. This step typically takes two years to complete.

After earning a master’s degree, many safety engineers focus on gaining relevant work experience. After four years, they are eligible to sit for licensure as a professional engineer (PE). However, there is no direct exam for safety engineers available through the NCEES. A safety engineer may choose a particular area of focus or they may sit for certification through the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP) as a Certified Safety Professional (CSP). While not a requirement, certification acts as a mark of professional distinction.

Later in their careers, safety engineers may choose to join a professional society, such as the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP)—which also offers certification—or the IEEE’s Product Safety Engineering Society (PSEP). Both societies are hubs for networking, continuing education, and advocacy opportunities amongst fellow safety professionals.

How to Become a Systems Engineer

After earning their accredited bachelor’s degree, many aspiring systems engineers choose to pursue a master’s degree in systems engineering. Typical coursework includes classes in system architecting, design optimization, decision support systems, computer programming for engineers, and digital simulation techniques. Students can sub-specialize in biomedical systems, human systems, cybersecurity, software systems, simulation systems, and project management. This step typically takes two years to complete.

Following a master’s degree program, systems engineers focus on gaining relevant work experience. Four years of work experience, in combination with their undergraduate and master’s degrees, can qualify them to sit for licensure as a professional engineer (PE). To be licensed, they must pass an eight-hour, 80-question exam on industrial and systems engineering. While not a requirement for all engineers in all states, professional licensure does provide a mark of distinction and can lead to wider career opportunities.

Some systems engineers may then opt to pursue a doctoral degree; however, this is an optional step and one reserved for systems engineers who are interested in the research side of their profession. Admissions requirements and coursework are highly individualized, with doctoral programs often revolving around the development and defense of a dissertation.

Later in their careers, systems engineers may choose to join a professional society, such as the Institute of Industrial and System Engineers (IISE), which provides networking, continuing education, and advocacy opportunities. The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) offers many of these resources, as well as further certification as a systems engineering professional. More specialized certifications are available through the Association for Facilities Engineering (AFE) and the North American Transportation Management Institute (NATMI).

For more information about this career path, readers can visit: How to Become a Systems Engineer.

Additional Resources

Even though this article covers fifteen different career paths, there are many other disciplines and subdisciplines in engineering. Those looking for more engineering options can read the following career profiles: