Mechanical engineering is a grab bag of active and sedentary work, oversight, and record maintenance, and above all, the application of expertise in the service of business objectives.
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Mary Kearl
Noodle Expert Member

September 23, 2021

Careers in mechanical engineering are abundant for those with the analytical and mechanical skills to stand out. If you're a problem solver who is good with their head and hands, mechanical engineering may be the field for you.

Mechanical engineers design machines across a broad range of industries. Depending on your specialization, you could end up working on anything from a micro-battery to a heating and cooling system for a skyscraper. No endeavor is too small or too big to require mechanical engineers.

You can get your mechanical engineering career started with nothing more than a bachelor's degree; or, you can earn a graduate degree and ascend to the ranks of upper management. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates that there will be 20,200 new mechanical engineering jobs created over the next decade. Mechanical engineering offers a wealth of opportunities from the entry-level all the way to the top.

If you want to learn more about how to become a mechanical engineer, read on. In this article, we'll cover:

  • What is a mechanical engineer?
  • Pros and cons of becoming a mechanical engineer
  • Education needed to become a mechanical engineer
  • Licensure and accreditation for mechanical engineering
  • Kinds of careers in mechanical engineering
  • How to find a mechanical engineering job

What is a mechanical engineer?

Mechanical engineers need problem-solving skills to handle their everyday responsibilities, which typically include:

Analysis

Engineers utilize their analytical skills throughout the design and building process, including at the very beginning when they assess how their build can solve a problem.

Design devices

The modern engineering design process relies on computer-aided engineering programs like AutoCAD.

Troubleshoot

Practically nothing is built correctly on the first try. Engineers test their products, then analyze the results, and make adjustments.

Oversee production

Mechanical engineers can help oversee the production of devices they've designed.

A day in the life of a mechanical engineer

Scott Duncan, a mechanical engineer with General Dynamics Mission Systems, writes about a typical day on the job on the company's website. Describing his duties and responsibilities, he notes: "I jump around tasks frequently. Some days I am hands-on and test components I design in CAD (computer-aided design) programs or conduct failure analysis on equipment from our antennas." Other days aren't as active; he may spend an entire day at his desk, "updating our extensive diagrams and writing white papers or technical reports for the customer." He conducts oversight on projects, reviewing "new developments to make sure the mechanical factors have been addressed"; he needs to be especially vigilant about "hidden costs due to product mounting or deployments that need documentation updates."

In short, mechanical engineering is a grab bag of active and sedentary work, oversight, and record maintenance, and above all, the application of expertise in the service of business objectives.

What is it like to be a mechanical engineer?

According to the BLS, mechanical engineers should expect the following working conditions:

Office environment

Most mechanical engineers work in offices, but can visit offsite locations ro repair or inspect equipment.

Schedule

Most have full-time jobs. They may work over 40 hours per week.

Teams

You'll likely be asked to collaborate with engineers, technicians, and other related professionals.

Pros and cons of becoming a mechanical engineer

Pros of becoming a mechanical engineer

Generous compensation

The average salary for mechanical engineers is $72,090, according to PayScale. Many also enjoy opportunities to earn bonuses and commissions and participate in profit-sharing. Mechanical engineers in Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle, can expect to earn at least 10 percent more than their peers in average-paying cities. (Of course, those cities cost at least 10 percent more to live in than your average city.)

Job satisfaction

On average, people in the role rate their job satisfaction 3.7 out of 5, based on data from 4,496 mechanical engineers provided by PayScale. Payscale classifies a 3.7 score as "highly satisfied."

Strong job prospects

Mechanical engineering employees who specialize in training in the most up-to-date software tools for design and simulation are positioned for career success. Work experience in three-dimensional printing and producing virtual simulations can provide a significant competitive advantage, according to the BLS. PayScale reports that skills like project management, finite element analysis (FEA), and engineering design can increase your salary by as much as four percent.

Cons of becoming a mechanical engineer

Lack of gender diversity in the field

The gender imbalance in the profession may be as high as a 9:1 male-to-female ratio, per Payscale.

Shrinking job growth in certain specialties

Manufacturing sectors of mechanical engineering may have limited job prospects for certain engineering disciplines. Manufacturing has been on the decline in the US for some time. Reuters reported that output hit a ten-year low in September 2019, and doesn't show signs of turning around. Ongoing training is required to stay on top of the field and versatile enough to pivot with market changes.

Education needed to become a mechanical engineer

Typically, entry-level candidates have bachelor's degrees from one of many mechanical engineering colleges. Potential courses and mechanical engineering program offerings include:

Chemistry

Engineering-focused chemistry may address the construction and make-up of materials. There also are programs that require chemistry as an overall graduation requirement outside of engineering coursework.

Computer programming

You'll likely learn a common language, such as Python, in an introductory programming course. Programming can help during design and testing especially.

Design and manufacturing

Stanford University students who select a Product Realization Concentration can take a Manufacturing Processes and Design course in which they "acquire professional level information and experience with properties of materials and manufacturing processes."

Dynamics and controls

Dynamics is the behavior of motion. Stanford offers multiple courses, including "Vehicle Dynamics and Control," which focuses on vehicular mechanical systems, and "Engineering Thermodynamics," which discusses energy.

Energy systems

Energy systems engineering is a distinct discipline from mechanical engineering; it typically emphasizes renewable energy. Energy systems—the way energy moves—are themselves an essential component of mechanical engineering. You'll probably learn about energy systems through other coursework.

Engineering

All classes in an engineering program are relevant to the discipline. Still, you may take an introductory course that discusses the basic principles of engineering and related issues, such as ethics in the field.

Heat transfer

This course is all about how heat moves through processes like conduction, radiation, and convection. The course may require a lab component.

Materials science

This subject focuses on structures and how they act at an atomic level. At Stanford, material science is a distinct concentration.

Math

Mechanical engineering is built on mathematics. You may be asked to complete courses in calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, and statistics.

Mechanical design

Design is a significant aspect of a mechanical engineering degree, and the process is typically discussed as a component of other classes. New York University has multiple design courses, including machine design, which covers tools and building challenges.

Physics

Another essential aspect of engineering, physics, influences everything you do. You'll likely take at least an introductory physics course and discuss it in other coursework.

Thermal sciences

Thermal sciences are the study of heat, including how it moves and is stored.

Top mechanical engineering bachelor's programs

_California Institute of Technology_

Caltech's mechanical engineering program seeks "to produce graduates who will attain careers and higher education that ultimately lead to leadership roles in academia, industry and government."

_Carnegie Mellon University_

The CMU program focuses more on preparing students for professional success than further academics. Students are encouraged to further specialize through a minor. CMU also offers an integrated master's program, which can help you earn both an undergraduate and a graduate degree in less time.

_Georgia Institute of Technology - Main Campus_

The "broad and flexible" Georgia Tech curriculum includes 15 elective hours. The school emphasizes creativity and produces entrepreneurial professionals.

_Massachusetts Institute of Technology_

MIT is known for combining academics and creativity. It emphasizes communication, in addition to technical skills, to foster leadership and creativity after graduation.

_Purdue University - Main Campus_

Purdue's program emphasizes teamwork and leadership and cultivating a love of learning beyond a bachelor's degree. The program website lists several professional and emerging skills for students, including collaboration, ethics, leadership, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

_University of California - Berkeley_

Berkeley's degree "seeks to provide students with a broad education emphasizing an excellent foundation in scientific and engineering fundamentals." Graduates can further their education in another program or seek work. They can pursue careers or education in labs, government agencies, academics, and business.

_University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign_

This program offers students access to top-level professors and labs. Students receive a thorough education and go on to pursue excellent careers in the field.

The U.S. Department of Education's Financial Aid website offers information about FAFSA and other sources of aid for students seeking a four-year degree.

If you're still in high school, you can still explore steps to becoming a mechanical engineer. Get a first taste of the field by attending an engineering summer camp.

Top mechanical engineering master's programs

A master's degree in mechanical engineering isn't always necessary, but can be helpful (and, in some instances, required) for senior management positions. Some schools offer combined five-year and six-year bachelor's and master's degree programs for engineers. PhDs are usually necessary for higher education teaching and research positions.

California Institute of Technology

Caltech's master's program is designed to help students getting ready to pursue a PhD; it focuses heavily on research.

_Cornell University_

Cornell's mechanical engineering master’s is designed to be the last education you complete. It offers a research focus, and students can complete coursework from other departments to create a well-rounded education.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MIT offers several engineering master's track options, including a manufacturing-focused master's that "combines in-depth, group-based graduate subjects and a project-based thesis experience at leading companies to accelerate students' engineering and leadership skills."

_Northwestern University_

Northwestern combines research opportunities and coursework to prepare graduates for academic and professional careers. The program typically takes at least one year, though it's possible to finish within nine months.

_Princeton University_

Princeton offers an engineering master's that "is particularly suited to those interested in obtaining a more fundamental understanding of their field or broadening their experiences to include disciplines outside of their particular technical focus areas." Students do not need to conduct research or complete a thesis. Instead, they work with faculty to design a program corresponding to their interests.

Stanford University

Stanford offers an industry-focused degree, meaning students typically enter the workforce after graduating rather than earn a PhD. While a thesis is not required, students can conduct research.

University of California - Berkeley

Berkeley's mechanical engineering degree focuses heavily on leadership. Students focus on relevant issues dealing with society, economics, and the environment rather than exclusively technical problems.

University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign

The University of Illinois offers two track options for its mechanical engineering master’s: thesis and non-thesis. Students who choose the part-time online option can take up to five years to complete their degree.

_The University of Texas at Austin_

UT Austin students can choose from several different specializations, including acoustics, biomechanical engineering, manufacturing and design, and nuclear and radiation engineering.

Top online master's programs in mechanical engineering

_Pennsylvania State University - World Campus_

Penn State's online program only has a few required courses, allowing students to hone in on their focus of choice. The program itself is identical to the on-campus program, meaning the same professors teach the same classes.

_University of Southern California_

Similar to the their Penn State peers, online USC students meet the exact same academic standards as their on-campus counterparts. With top-tier technical education, they can find careers in fields like aerospace, transportation, and manufacturing.

_Colorado State University - Global Campus_

According to the program website, graduates from this degree path are "both technically competent and able to balance business and management principles." They are conscious of the issues and requirements relating to design, finance, and the environment.

Licensure and accreditation for becoming a mechanical engineer

Whichever school you attend, make sure that it offers an ABET-accredited mechanical engineering program. Most companies prefer candidates with degrees from accredited programs, according to the BLS.

Licensure is not required for entry-level positions in mechanical engineering. However, you may want to consider becoming a licensed professional engineer as you advance in your career.

To qualify to receive state licensure for engineering, candidates must earn an engineering degree from an ABET-accredited program, take the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, gain four or more years of work experience, and pass the Professional Engineering exam.

Some states may require engineers to undergo continuing education to renew their licenses regularly. Licenses from one state are generally accepted in other states.

Kinds of careers in mechanical engineering

Mechanical engineering is as diverse a field as the types of products and devices engineers produce and design, which includes everything from medical equipment to elevators and escalators. Here are some common concentrations of mechanical engineering careers (with average salaries according to Payscale.com):

Automotive engineers

Do you have a passion for cars? You'll improve auto suspension, aerodynamics, and alternative fuels ($79,092).

Heating and cooling systems engineers

You'll work behind the scenes to ensure airplanes, trains, cars, schools, and computer rooms maintain controlled temperature and humidity settings ($68,440).

Robotic engineers

As a pioneer in robotics, you'll be a part of a team that specializes in planning, building, and sustaining robots ($85,389).

Other occupations with similar job duties and promising starting and median salaries, per the BLS, include:

Drafters

These professionals typically hold associate's degrees; drafters' median annual income is $57,960.

Materials engineers

You can usually get this position with a bachelor's degree; engineers' median annual income is $95,640.

Mathematicians and statisticians

Roles in this field likely require a master's degree; the median annual income for these professionals is $93,290.

Mechanical engineering technicians

These jobs typically require an associate's degree; technicians' median annual income is $57,960.

Natural sciences managers

You can earn this position with a bachelor's degree; natural science managers' typically earn a median annual income of $137,940.

Nuclear engineers

These professionals likely hold a bachelor's degree; their median annual income is $116,140.

Petroleum engineers

You probably need a bachelor's degree to become a petroleum engineer. You'll likely earn a median annual income of $137,330.

Physicists and astronomers

Jobs in this field typically require a doctoral or professional degree. Physicists and astronomers earn a median annual income of $128,950.

Sales engineers

You can land this job with a bachelor's degree; the median annual income is $108,830.

Where to find a mechanical engineering job

According to the BLS, the top locations for mechanical engineering jobs are:

Michigan

Over 40,000 mechanical engineers are employed in the state.

California

More than 28,000 mechanical engineers are employed in the state.

Texas

Nearly 22,000 mechanical engineers are employed in the state.

Metro areas with the highest employment of mechanical engineers

Detroit, Michigan

Nearly 28,000 mechanical engineers are employed in the area.

Los Angeles, California:

Over 10,000 mechanical engineers are employed in the area.

Chicago, Illinois

Nearly 9,000 mechanical engineers are employed in the area.

What industries have jobs for mechanical engineers?

There are almost 300,000 mechanical engineers employed in the US, according to the BLS' 2020 data. The top sectors hiring the position include: Architectural, engineering, and related services (20 percent), machinery manufacturing (14 percent), transportation equipment manufacturing (12 percent), computer and electronic product manufacturing (8 percent), and scientific research and development services (5 percent).

Which companies are the top employers of mechanical engineers?

The job website Indeed ranks the top employers of mechanical engineers, based on overall company rating, number of job openings, and approval ratings of the CEO. Companies that made the list include:

Apple

Mechanical engineers at Apple work on product development and testing. One benefit to working at Apple is you can work all over the world at one of the company's many sites.

Arup

Arup is a multinational company that specializes in building and design. Mechanical engineers can work on all sorts of projects, from hospitals to highways. According to Indeed, Arup has an excellent culture, and employees enjoy a good work-life balance.

Boeing

Boeing is known for commercial and defense aviation and space technology, meaning mechanical engineers, especially those with an aerospace background, are highly sought after. Boeing is an especially high-paying company.

Google

Google has long been a standard-bearer for workplace happiness, including excellent job flexibility and culture. Here, engineers typically focus on building and testing hardware and software.

John Deere

According to Indeed, John Deere employees are usually satisfied with their work and have access to further education. They may work on product design or improving assembly lines.

Johnson & Johnson

While J&J is a medical company, it needs mechanical engineers to operate production. Employees are typically happy, enjoying flexibility and education options.

Microsoft

One thing that makes Microsoft engineers who create and refine hardware and software happy is access to tuition reimbursement. They may not worry about tuition anyway because Microsoft employees are typically well-paid.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Many kids dream of working for NASA when they grow up, so it's no wonder this is the top-ranked company on Indeed. According to the website, management is excellent, the work environment is positive, and it's possible to balance work and life. Add in good benefits, and it's no wonder everybody wants to work for NASA.

United States Department of the Navy

Working for the Navy means you can work pretty much anywhere. According to Indeed, there are many opportunities for advanced education, and Naval engineers typically "feel a strong sense of purpose."

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