Engineering: Types of Engineering Majors and Possible Career Paths


Even though it is possible to earn a Bachelors Degree in General Engineering, most students who major in the subject specialize in a particular discipline of Engineering. When considering and applying to different colleges, it is important to have a specific type of engineering specialization in mind. Many schools will ask you to specify your discipline during the application process and although there is usually some flexibility if you want to transfer from on specialty another, typically it cannot be done as a first-year student.

Roughly speaking, the engineering degrees offered in colleges throughout the United States can be divided into four different categories:

  1. First, you have the “Big Four,” category – it includes: Civil, mechanical, electrical and computer engineering (which is usually considered different from computer science).
  2. Secondly, you have the “medium four” category that contains: Aerospace, chemical, industrial/manufacturing and biomedical engineering.
  3. Next there are the “Smaller Ten,” which contains: Architectural, agricultural, engineering management, physics, general engineering, mining, materials, environmental, petroleum and nuclear engineering.
  4. Finally, you can focus specifically on a specialty such as ocean engineering and so forth.

What Exactly does an Engineering Major Learn?

Many college students who are interested in engineering go into it thinking that it is a ‘science’ degree. Although engineering is definitely related to the sciences, engineering is emphatically not a science – it’s a separate thing that deserves it’s own category. At the core of it, engineering is about problem solving – engineering majors have the task of finding practical solutions to real problems and need to work faster than the scientific method would allow in most cases. Broadly speaking, you can think of the sciences as primarily focused on theory and engineering as primarily focused on the practical. Scientists focus more on research and discovery of ideas, engineers focus more on solving problems that exist in the real world. If you want to understand this difference better, you can check out this article from About.com.

Engineering majors generally pick a particular specialty, but they also get a chance to take more generic math and science courses. It depends on the school’s specific curriculum. You may start with learning the theory of your specialty to lay the groundwork for more practical coursework in the future. It’s also likely that you’ll get chances to apply what you’ve learnt – whether that means shadowing actual engineers or working on projects that have real world applications.

Many Universities will supplement your education by offering courses in business, law, and ethics. Having a background in these areas help make you a well rounded candidate for employment. No matter what you do, though, engineering is a cutting edge major. Engineering is a field that pioneers scientific breakthroughs that have real world applications, and that can benefit the general public.

How Difficult is it to get Accepted into Engineering in College?

Engineering -Types of Engineering Majors and Possible Career Paths

We’ll be frank – on average, engineering degrees are pretty challenging when compared to other majors in most schools. If you want to coast through college, you should probably pick something else. Most students currently studying for their engineering degrees in college laid the groundwork in high school. As a high school student they probably focused on taking more challenging courses such as:

  • Algebra II
  • Biology
  • Calculus
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • A Foreign Language
  • Trigonometry

If you want to major in engineering, you’ll need to maintain a high grade point average throughout high school. Depending on the college you wish to go to this typically means you need at minimum a 3.0 grade point average or above. With college becoming more and more competitive, you should be thinking about taking science and math advanced placement classes while maintaining a grade point average closer to 4.0 than 3.0.

The better or more prestigious colleges want to know that you’re a well rounded individual. Due to the heavy competition, you’ll want to round out your CV by participating in an extracurricular activity or two – whether its sports, music, volunteering, or something else.However, your primary focus should be on getting good grades and scoring well on standardized tests (SAT or ACT).

On top of that, you’ll want to try as best you can to demonstrate that you’re actively interested in the field. You can do this by attending engineering camp over the summer, or participating in youth engineering/science competitions or getting internship level work experience if possible. By doing these things, not only are you demonstrating that you have a prior interest, you’ll also get some practical experience of what engineering is like – this will help you work out if you really want to pursue a degree in engineering or not.

What if You Aren’t so Great at Math?

All engineering degrees require extensive math courses to ensure that future engineers have the fundamental building blocks that they will need to be effective in the workplace. However, engineering is not all about math. What engineering focuses on is finding better ways of doing things. Essentially it is about using reasoning and logic to solve problems effectively. However, the truth is that if you struggle with math at a high school level, majoring in engineering might prove extremely challenging for you – that’s not to say that it can’t be done, but you should know that most of your classmates in college will have a firm grasp of mathematics, and you might need to work three times as hard to keep up.

Math is a good way to simulate problem solving in the real word. Math simulates the kind of thinking that you will need if you want to be successful as an engineer in the real world. It is important to note that with a little determination, hard work, and discipline, most people should be able to understand and do well at maths at the high school level – if your grades in math are subpar, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle when applying to an engineering program at the college level.

Is an Engineering Major a Good Fit for You?

Engineering undergraduates usually have the opportunity to work on projects with practical real world consequences. The skills you learn can also be applied to your own projects – whether that just means tinkering with stuff over the weekends or whether it means trying to start a business from your dorm room. Google began as a university supported research project by two engineering majors at Stanford. For those of you less ambitious than the Google founders, you’ll be glad to know that an engineering major improves your chances of getting stable and secure employment at above average salaries.

There’s almost always a need for new engineers in the labor marketplace. You’ll further increase your chances of getting hired after you graduate if you participate in summer internships and build relationships with people in the industry, either through your career center, through alumni, or just through old fashioned networking.

Starting salaries are well above average for most freshly-graduated engineers – on average, you can expect a starting salary of $60,000, but if you’ve got the right specialty, it’s possible to get paid 6 figures in your first real job.

Essentially, engineering is a good major for you if:

  • You like problem solving
  • You are interesting in math and science
  • You constantly like to find new ways to go about doing thing
  • You find working with technical equipment enjoyable
  • You enjoy being challenged
  • You express interest in fixing problems our world faces
  • You like figuring how things work
  • You think practical applications are more interesting than theory

Engineering Salaries and Career Prospects

One popular engineering specialty is civil engineering. Civil engineers have excellent opportunities – you might find yourself trying to solve problems in any of the following areas: energy use, transportation, water treatment and so forth.  As a civil engineer, you can positively impact society and bring new ideas to life.

When it comes to the fastest-growing specialties in engineering, some of the most exciting opportunities include:

  1. Biochemical Engineering: Biochemical engineers will study living systems and will help resolve or solve problems in relationship to food distribution and the environment.
  2. Biomedical Engineering: Biomedical engineers will contemplate ways to extend life expectancy, improve public health, and develop tools to ensure wellness.

The highest paying engineering specialties (according to the BLS) include:

Engineering Specialty Salary
Petroleum Engineers  Average Salaries: $127,970
Computer Hardware engineers Average Salaries: $101,600
Nuclear Engineers Average Salaries: $101,500
Aerospace Engineers Average Salaries: $99,000
Chemical Engineers Average Salaries: $94,590
Electronics Engineers(excludes computers) Average Salaries: $92,730
Electrical Engineers Average Salaries: $87,770
Marine Engineers and naval architects Average Salaries: $87,770
Mining and geological Engineers Average Salaries: $87,350

Today, we live in a very technical world and most engineering jobs will utilize technology one way or another. If you’re a Luddite, engineering may not be for you. You can only make improvements on things you understand, and one part of being an engineer is not only being able to use, but being able to understand the latest technological developments in your field.

Final Thoughts on Engineering Degrees and Careers

With an engineering degree, you’ll be well positioned for the future – salaries are consistently above average, and good engineers are always in demand. You’ll also get the chance to positively impact society and solve real world problems.

Breaking into the field of engineering can be challenging, but for the right kind of person, it can ultimately be very rewarding, financially and otherwise. You’ll get a chance to apply your knowledge to the real world and find solutions to some of society’s most pressing problems. Keep in mind however that pursuing engineering, both as a degree and as a career, is a challenging feat, and it’s not right for everybody. If you’re thinking about applying to an engineering program, make sure that you do your research and you’re well prepared for the work that’s involved.

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