Pursuing a mechanical engineering degree can be a professionally and financially rewarding undertaking. Mechanical engineers’ work shapes just about every physical aspect of human life, so their talents are always in demand.
Pursuing a mechanical engineering degree is an excellent idea for a natural problem solver with an innovative, creative, or analytical mindset. And even if these attributes do not describe you now, earning a degree in mechanical engineering shapes the way you think. The education you receive will teach you to apply analytical tools and creativity to solve complex problems. It is a great degree to pursue overall.
How to Become a Mechanical Engineer
Mechanical engineering is a regulated profession, and in countries like the United States, the practices and practitioners of mechanical engineering are licensed and governed by law. Becoming a qualified mechanical engineer requires a significant level of education. The most common path to becoming a mechanical engineer requires earning a four-year bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from a college or university.
There are, however, additional paths to enter the mechanical engineering discipline. Many universities and colleges offer two-year, associate-level degrees in fields like mechanical engineering technology. These degrees provide access to the world of mechanical engineering, typically in roles that assist degreed mechanical engineers with machinery and design.
To become a fully qualified mechanical engineer, the best route is to study mechanical engineering at a four-year university or college and earn a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering. The degree will make you eligible to work in just about any starting role as a mechanical engineer.
Mechanical Engineering Degree
General education and introductory engineering courses
Every university and most colleges will have an engineering department where you can pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. Engineering is a technical, math-heavy pursuit, and so many of your courses will be math, science, and technology-related during your first two years of study.
Mechanical engineering degrees are challenging, and you can expect to take at least 17 credit hours of courses a semester. During the fall and spring semester of your first and your second year, expect to take the following general education courses:
- Calculus One and Two
- Physics One and Two
These courses are math and science-focused, and they will provide the foundation of knowledge needed to succeed in the advanced engineering courses taken later in the program. For those who have completed advanced placement (AP) course exams in high school, colleges and universities may provide credit to skip some of the required general courses, but this is not the same for everyone.
On top of the general education courses within the first year, students will also take introductory level engineering classes. These are typically 100-level courses and are required as part of the college of engineering’s core offerings. The courses will have titles like Engineering Analysis 101 and 102 or Statics of Engineering 101.
General education and mechanical engineering core courses
In addition to continuing general education studies, the third and fourth years of study are typically spent diving deep into the different aspects of mechanical engineering. Third- and fourth-year students will cover topics inside the core curriculum of mechanical engineering. These classes are much more advanced, and they build upon the math, science, and general engineering courses taken in the first two years. Typically, mechanical engineering core programs consist of five major areas of study:
- Design and Manufacturing
- Mechanics and Materials
- Dynamics and Controls
- Thermal Sciences
- Engineering Labs and Technologies
Becoming a Licensed Mechanical Engineer
Graduating with a mechanical engineering degree from a four-year college or university qualifies a student as a trained mechanical engineer. There is more to being an engineer than just holding a diploma; mechanical engineers are disciplined professionals who adhere to ethical standards and commit to competence and promote the public good. Engineers certify through a national certification in mechanical engineering with two successive examinations: the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam and the Professional Licensed Engineer Exam (PE).
The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) manages the FE and PE exams and issues both credentials to engineers who meet the strict standards. Both credentials enhance the stature of a mechanical engineer by showing their commitment to the profession and a heightened level of knowledge. FEs and PEs work on critical projects that will support the everyday lives of millions of people, like automobiles, HVAC systems, or airplanes.
What Does a Mechanical Engineer Do?
FE and PE-certified mechanical engineers fill important roles once hired at engineering firms and businesses. These roles span numerous industries and applications but often fall under engineering services, research and development, and manufacturing businesses. Because of the highly technical nature of a mechanical engineer’s job and the significant amount of education and training required for licensure, mechanical engineers command a substantial salary for compensation. FE qualified engineers typically start below a six-figure salary, while PE qualified engineers easily command six-figure salaries.
As a mechanical engineer, you will most likely work in an office where you prepare, review, or approve engineering documents for things like designs, applications, and studies. Engineers may occasionally visit worksites where a problem or a piece of equipment needs their personal attention. The following are a few examples of what type of work a mechanical engineer might do at different companies.
At a hardware manufacturing company, mechanical engineers play an important role in designing and manufacturing new and existing products to sell to customers. In the design part of the business, a mechanical engineer works as part of a design team to create new tools, parts, or machinery sold by the company. To develop new hardware, the design team of mechanical engineers would work together to understand the problem they want to solve, create the requirements for the hardware that will solve the problem, and then work together to create the part.
Part creation often takes place on the computer, using computer-aided design software programs that allow the engineers to create, analyze, and test the hardware on a computer before it is made. This type of engineering work can be very engaging, and it is important that mechanical engineers on these teams can harness their creative abilities to create new, excellent hardware.
Testing engineers work closely with design engineers to create new products. After a mechanical engineer working on a design team creates a new part, it is time for the testing engineer to take over and test that part as a prototype. Testing engineers work at any company that creates new products for customers.
At a car manufacturing company like Ford, testing engineers work to analyze the new prototype cars that are being created. Each year, Ford rolls out a new line of vehicle models, either as updates to previous car models, like the Ford F-150, or as new car models like the 2021 Ford Bronco. These new car models and the parts they are composed of started as prototypes. A testing engineer likely prototyped the new body shape of the 2021 Ford Bronco by putting it through a wind tunnel to see how aerodynamic it was.
Another well-known business where mechanical engineers work is Boeing. Boeing employs thousands of mechanical engineers to work on aircraft manufacturing and design aspects. One area where Boeing employs mechanical engineers is called quality assurance. Quality assurance is the process of checking that the parts that are manufactured on an airplane meet the required specification to operate safely. The mechanical engineers who work in these roles are typically called quality engineers. They have a very important responsibility to ensure that all the airplanes that Boeing creates are safe to fly. Specifically, a quality engineer is assigned a certain grouping of parts or assemblies, and they are trained to inspect everything for defects. Quality engineers stamp their parts for approval when they meet all specifications and pass them on to the next process.
Mechanical engineers often work with complex systems that manage multiple processes within an entire system framework. One of the most common systems engineers work with is building HVAC systems. These systems provide heating, cooling, and ventilation for buildings, and they are essential in making interior spaces livable for occupants. In massive buildings like the Empire State Building, a team of mechanical engineers is in charge of managing the internal HVAC systems of the building. These HVAC system engineers balance the demands of the building based on occupancy and thermal load with the cooling and heating output of the large HVAC machinery. Without these systems kept in check, buildings would not hold large numbers of people.
Mechanical Engineer Career Outlook and Salary
Overall, the mechanical engineering profession is a well-regarded pursuit, with a significant amount of professional dedication and study required to reach the highest levels of responsibility and compensation. As a mechanical engineer, you will solve real problems with real implications for the lives of ordinary people. This responsibility is not for everyone, but it is certainly for those who want to take on challenging work, solve complex problems, and produce tangible results.
Mechanical engineering as a career has numerous opportunities for advancement and specialization. For mechanical engineers who are seeking employment at a large engineering company, the typical career path looks like this:
- Entry-level engineer. Entry-level engineers work as part of a team or alone on a specific engineering task or process. They are guided in their work by a Senior Engineer, and there is likely an engineering team leader that oversees the entire technical area of work. Development at this level is typically provided by moving around to different processes and tasks, allowing new engineers to gain experience. The average entry-level salary for a mechanical engineer is $50,000 to $90,000.
- Senior engineer. Senior engineers have experience in multiple aspects of the technical business, and they often work with entry-level engineers to complete technical tasks and projects. Senior engineers will be given small or informal levels of leadership responsibilities of entry-level engineers. This is for the entry-level engineer’s benefit and for the Senior Engineer to demonstrate their leadership ability. The salary range for a Senior Engineer is $75,000 to $120,000.
- Engineering team leader. Engineering team leaders manage a group of entry-level and senior engineers. They track the team’s progress, advise on technical problems, and report to higher management on the engineering processes. The average salary range for an engineering team leader is $125,000 to $175,000.
- Executive engineer. After the team leader level, career progression begins to move into executive and organizational leadership levels. These levels are responsible for engineering processes, but they typically do not directly perform engineering functions. Instead,executive-level engineers manage multiple processes and the teams that perform them. The average salary for an executive-level engineer is $150,000 and up.
Find the latest interviews with subject matter experts and people working at the forefront of their field and get advice on Mechanical Engineering directly from some of the world’s leading authorities. Learn more about all the different pathways and opportunities available in tech today.
- How did you first get into mechanical engineering (what kind of degree or work experience led you to the field?)
- Why get a master’s in mechanical engineering, and why now?
- What’s the best way to prepare for a mechanical engineering program? What kinds of skills or experience should students have?
- What else will students learn?
- What types of jobs are mechanical engineering graduates finding? Is there a favorite company or organization amongst students?
- If you had to choose one or two books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, etc. to be included on a required reading list for mechanical engineering, what would it be?