A master’s degree in mechanical engineering is a logical but often overlooked option for recent graduates. Mechanical engineering is vast, but the educational foundations attained in an undergraduate program have primarily remained the same for decades.
Although underlying math and physics principles don’t change, the methods by which we apply this knowledge are constantly evolving. An undergraduate degree in this field provides a robust knowledge base that can be applied in various ways. However, this often comes at the expense of specialization.
A recent graduate with a mechanical engineering undergraduate degree will have a breadth of experience and background in the field but might lack depth in a specialization.
After all, this field covers everything from space exploration to finding the right HVAC system for a grocery store. As a fresh grad finding your niche can be done through work experience; however, you may not always land the job you want and might end up going down a completely different career trajectory than you originally planned. Due to the broadness of the mechanical engineering field, completing a mechanical engineering master’s degree program can help hone the necessary skills needed to pursue your desired career path.
Why a Mechanical Engineering Master’s Degree Program?
In recent years, having a specialized set of skills has become increasingly important due to rapid economic transformations. In particular, one sector has recently seen some drastic shifts. A decade ago, 3D printing was somewhat of a novelty. Once a domain of hobbyists, this form of additive manufacturing is quickly becoming a cornerstone of product development. From rapid prototyping to specialty items, 3D printing is just beginning to show its full potential. However, most undergraduate programs still primarily view 3D printing as somewhat of an afterthought, usually reserved as an elective course. This is just one of many examples.
On top of already being a broad career field, mechanical engineering is becoming more diversified than ever as it is slowly integrated with other practices such as electrical engineering and data science. Paradoxically, the whole engineering field seems to be simultaneously getting more specialized but broader at the same time.
Take, for example, auto manufacturing. Once a strictly mechanical domain, manufacturing a hybrid or fully electric car requires specialized knowledge of electronics, programming, and, increasingly, artificial intelligence. So how does one gain a competitive edge and possess the necessary specialized knowledge that today’s mechanical engineer requires? One of the best options is completing a master’s program. All the information you need to get started will be covered below.
What is a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering?
Completing a mechanical engineering master’s degree will include building on a certain aspect of the core knowledge obtained during an undergraduate degree program. It also might require learning some fundamentals from other engineering practices.
Most master’s programs offer the choice between a full-time or part-time class load. A full-time curriculum is the preferred option for those solely focused on learning. However, those currently employed in their field may opt for a part-time class load to balance their schooling and work.
Most master’s programs provide specialized curriculums for areas in mechanical engineering that you might be interested in. Here is a glance at some of these specializations:
A master’s degree focusing on acoustics (the study of how sound waves form, propagate and interact with the physical world) could lead to working in music production hardware design and noise mitigation.
A master’s with a focus in bioengineering is the perfect fit for those interested in life sciences. This field entails biomedical computation, regenerative medicine, biomedical imaging, and other such fields in medicine.
A relatively new discipline that deals primarily with computational models and simulations. Those holding a master’s in this field may find themselves working in the automotive, aerospace, and defense industries as they all require extensive thermal and aerodynamic modeling.
Fluid Mechanics, Fluid Dynamics, Thermodynamics, and Heat Transfer
A Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering with a focus on any of these four topics is beneficial for researching and developing new products. For example, fluid mechanics and fluid dynamics are crucial for developing new air/spacecraft. Likewise, advances in thermodynamics and heat transfer are necessary for developing newer, more efficient internal combustion engines or thermal power plants.
HVAC and Refrigeration
HVAC & Refrigeration is an exciting discipline of engineering that deals with climatizing several types of spaces. For those interested in sustainability, earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering with a focus on HVAC & Refrigeration can lead to a career in green building design. Creating more efficient heating and cooling systems for new buildings is a crucial aspect of fighting climate change, although often overlooked.
Manufacturing and Materials
Manufacturing is more complex than ever, and frequent technological advances require robust knowledge of manufacturing processes and material science. One way to obtain this knowledge is by earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering focused on this field. Those who complete such a degree may develop new manufacturing methods such as 3-D printing during their career.
Mechanics and Vibration
This field of study focuses on how vibrations affect mechanical systems. Earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering focusing on mechanics & vibrations can lead to a lucrative career in the automotive and aerospace industries where reducing vibrations is critical.
Online Mechanical Engineering Master’s Degree Programs
Over 30 universities offer online master’s degree programs in mechanical engineering. Some programs are fully online, whereas others offer hybrid courses where class time is split between virtual and in-person learning. The main benefit of online courses is that they provide flexibility. This is especially important to professionals already working full-time jobs who may not be able to attend in-person classes. Students themselves can decide when and how they will complete their coursework.
Here are a few examples of courses one might sign up for while completing an online master’s degree in mechanical engineering :
- Additive Manufacturing
- Solid Mechanics
- Systems, Measurement, and Controls
A hands-off approach is characteristic of an online mechanical engineering master’s program. Attendance is mandatory for many in-person classes, whereas online lectures can be recorded and watched at a student’s discretion. In-person programs will usually require university lab sessions outside of normal class times. These labs are time-consuming and offer even less flexibility in terms of scheduling than normal lectures. Many online mechanical engineering master’s degree programs will utilize virtual or at-home labs instead. Virtual reality (VR) can create an immersive lab experience from the comfort of your own home during the hours you desire. You might think that a virtual lab can’t beat hands-on experience, but thanks to advances in VR technology, online labs can be just as effective of a learning tool. Likewise, manufacturers increasingly use virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) for modeling, simulations, and troubleshooting. A typical virtual lab project would walk you through a simulation of how you would conduct the lab project in person. Data gathered from an actual project would then be given to a student to analyze and write a report on. At-home labs are slightly different but offer nearly the same degree of flexibility with scheduling. An at-home lab will require a student to conduct simple lab projects with materials and equipment obtained from the university. Although this may require one to travel to the university once or twice to get the equipment, it is still far more convenient than completing lab projects in person.
Another beneficial aspect of earning a mechanical engineering master’s degree online is improved networking abilities. Online learning platforms make it easy to connect with fellow students and professors through chats, message threads, and other social networking features. Learning to network with other professionals successfully online is crucial for future career prospects.
Tuition and Scholarships
An obvious question to ask when considering obtaining a master’s degree is affordability. But just how much should you expect to pay?
The answer to this question varies due to several factors. Tuition costs will differ between online and in-person programs. Likewise, out-of-state tuition is going to be significantly higher than in-state tuition. The cost of getting an online degree may be substantially reduced because your current living accommodations won’t need to change. Ultimately, the most significant factor will be the university offering the program itself.
Most universities have a per-credit payment structure. The cost per payment can vary dramatically depending on which university you decide to attend. For example, The University of Washington charges $535 per credit for Washington state residents and $985 per credit for nonresident or international students. Prestigious universities will charge significantly more. Columbia University charges a flat rate of $1,936 per credit hour regardless of state residency.
Several options exist when it comes to financing your post-graduate education. Traditional financing options, such as student loans and grants, will be used. Federal financial aid is the most common way to fund your education. This aid offers about $20,500 in unsubsidized loans per year, but it may be possible to borrow more through supplemental “Direct PLUS Loans” if needed. Federal loans are the preferred method of financing secondary education due to relatively low-interest rates and generous deferment options. However, private student loans may be an option if one does not qualify for these loans or needs additional funding. Scholarships are also available to help cover educational costs.
There is a wide range of scholarships available for students wishing to pursue a STEM degree. Some of these scholarships are offered by universities directly, whereas others may be provided by businesses looking for fresh talent. Your qualification for these scholarships can depend on your previous academic achievements, racial and ethnic background, socio-economic background, and other such attributes. An excellent resource for finding the correct scholarship for your graduate program is scholarships.com.
Obtaining a master’s degree usually requires the completion of between 30 to 36 credits. The pace at which these credits are completed, at least in the context of online learning, can be determined mainly by the student’s scheduling needs. Depending on a student’s preference, a master’s program can be completed in just over a year or spread out over several years.
Not all mechanical engineering master’s degrees are structured in the same way. Some programs may be course-based only. Others may require you to complete a thesis. A thesis is a project that integrates a student’s coursework and pushes them to demonstrate an understanding of the topics covered in their master’s program. A thesis may only involve the university itself or a partnership with industry professionals.
Internship opportunities may be included in some master’s programs. These allow you to apply the methods and skills you learned to a real-world application and may be required as an alternative to completing a thesis. Exposure to the industry can offer valuable knowledge that may not be gained in a classroom.
Career and Salary Outlook
Once you have completed your in-person or online master’s in mechanical engineering, new doors will be open career-wise.
Some master’s degree earners may simply work as mechanical engineers right out of school (and often with higher pay than their counterparts with bachelor’s degrees). Others may choose more specialized fields such as HVAC, technical sales, and aerospace.
Some newly emerging job opportunities for those holding a master’s degree in mechanical engineering include the following:
- Mechatronics: An interdisciplinary branch of engineering that integrates mechanical and electronic systems. Engineers working in this field may participate in automation projects for the manufacturing sector.
- Green Energy: A branch of engineering that focuses on generating electricity more sustainably. Engineers in this field typically work on alternative power sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal.
- Electric Vehicle Manufacturing: EV manufacturing companies, such as Tesla, frequently hire mechanical engineers who can help the organization design and perfect new electric vehicles.
- Biomedical Engineering: Although considered a separate discipline, those with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering might find jobs in the biomedical field. This career track involves innovating/improving medical devices such as prosthetic limbs and nanorobots for surgery.
As of June 2020, the median annual pay for mechanical engineers was $90,160, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The job outlook for this career field is 4% which matches the cumulative national growth rate for all careers. A mechanical engineer will generally work in an office setting though they may travel to worksites on occasion.
Master’s in Mechanical Engineering FAQs
The information provided was meant as a brief introduction to what earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering may entail and why one would go about doing so. Below are some common questions that may be asked if you are considering furthering your education in this field.
Useful prerequisite courses generally include exposure to applied mathematics (such as calculus, differential equations, linear algebra), physics, materials science, and other STEM subjects.
This often depends on the university program. A placement exam may be required for students that have not completed certain prerequisites. It is best to inquire with individual mechanical engineering programs.
Typically, a bachelor’s degree will be required in a relevant field of study, such as engineering, physics, mathematics, and other sciences. Your undergraduate grade point average is often a consideration as well.
Some programs may waive GRE/GMAT requirements in lieu of relevant work experience.
Some campus visits will likely be needed. The number of visits depends on whether you take fully online or hybrid classes, where some in-person attendance is mandatory. Thesis projects and internships may also require campus visits.
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- 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?