What is Mechanical Engineering: Career, Salary and Degree Information - Best Value Schools

What is Mechanical Engineering: Career, Salary and Degree Information

Staff Writers by: Staff Writers

A career in mechanical engineering is exciting and rewarding. You get a chance to employ your learned skills and creativity to solve real-world problems − all while earning a good salary. It is particularly a great option if you are fascinated by mechanical systems and have excellent analytical and critical thinking skills. Below is a detailed look at what a career in mechanical engineering entails.

Getting Started as a Mechanical Engineer

This section will offer you information on mechanical engineering, what it takes to become a mechanical engineer and the job outlook for mechanical engineers.

What Is Mechanical Engineering, and What Do Mechanical Engineers Do?

Mechanical engineering is a science discipline that employs engineering principles to design, build, maintain, and troubleshoot mechanical systems.  Mechanical engineers work mainly entails researching, designing, developing, building, and testing mechanical and thermal systems, tools, and devices. 

Alongside mechanical skills, a mechanical engineer should have a working knowledge of many other areas, including mathematics, electricity, physics, structures, computers, and an understanding of the social, economic, and environmental factors affecting their projects.

Common Responsibilities and Duties for Mechanical Engineers

The top duties of a mechanical engineer include:

  • Using computer-aided design software to design or redesign mechanical and thermal systems or subsystems
  • Analyzing the functioning of mechanical and thermal devices
  • Troubleshooting thermal and mechanical devices for problems, determining the cause of the problem, and repairing the system
  • Overseeing the installation, operation, and maintenance of a mechanical system
  • Reading and interpreting mechanical engineering blueprints, technical drawings, and reports
  • Researching, designing, building, and testing mechanical products
  • Maintaining contact with customers and product users about product effectiveness
  • Recommending design modification on mechanical products
  • Estimating and creating product development budgets
  • Submitting bids for potential engineering projects and preparing contracts once awarded the projects
  • Developing procedures and tools for testing new products

What Does It Take to Become a Mechanical Engineer? 

To become a mechanical engineer, you require a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, professional certification and licensing, and specific skills.

Education Requirements for Mechanical Engineers

Typically, mechanical engineering entry jobs require a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering or any other related course. Other mechanical engineering related courses include:

  • Bachelor of Engineering
  • Bachelor of Science
  • Bachelor of Science Engineering
  • Bachelor of Technology
  • Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering
  • Bachelor of Applied Science

Most mechanical engineering courses are designed to equip students with practical skills in engineering principles with less focus on theoretical content. A degree in mechanical engineering in the US usually incorporates 120 credits. 

Most universities incorporate internships as part of the course requirements for a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering to prepare students for the work environment. While the standard schedules for completing a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering are four years, some universities offer 5 or 6 years programs that enable them to graduate with both a bachelor’s and master’s degrees. 

Other universities and colleges offer a six-year co-operative program that incorporates both classwork and practical work, enabling them to earn an income while still in school.

Usually, in the final years of pursuing a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, students are required to select a concentration. Mechanical engineering concentrations include:

  • Design and manufacturing
  • Robotics and mechatronics
  • Energy and environment
  • Automotive design
  • Aeronautics
  • Nuclear engineering
  • Thermal fluid science
  • Engineering Mechanics
  • Computational design
  • Biomedical engineering
  • Cryogenics

Critical Skills for Mechanical Engineers

For you to excel in a career in mechanical engineering, you require both technical and soft skills as follows:

  • Mechanical skills
  • Mathematical skills
  • Analytical skills
  • Creativity skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Communication skills
  • Creative thinking
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Computer and IT skills
  • Teamworking skills
  • An awareness of the market
  • Research skills
  •  

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations for Mechanical Engineers

Although most entry-level mechanical engineering jobs in the US do not require any licenses, certifications, or registrations, they become a requirement as one proceeds in their career path. 

They are a key requirement if you are pursuing a career in public service or leadership or working independently. If working in the private sector, these credentials increase your employability and your salary negotiation abilities. 

The most common state-required mechanical engineering qualifications, licenses, certification, or registrations include:

  • A degree from an ABET-accredited institution
  • A pass on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam –  you can take the FE exams within a year of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Graduates who take this exam and pass are often referred to as engineers in training or engineer interns.
  • At least four years’ experience in mechanical engineering or any other related field under a licensed professional engineer
  • A pass on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam. After completing and passing the FE exams, you are required to work in the mechanical engineering field for at least four years before taking the professional Engineering exams

While mechanical engineering certifications and licenses are specific to a given state, most states accept other state’s certifications. The National Society of Professional Engineers provides and maintains the engineers code of ethics as well as licensure standards. 

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers offers additional certifications that engineers can voluntarily pursue to boost their workplace credibility.

Common Mechanical Engineering Jobs

Mechanical engineering job titles vary according to the area of specialization and industry. Some of the top mechanical engineering job titles include:

  • Manufacturing engineer
  • Systems engineer
  • Petroleum engineer
  • Waste management engineers
  • HVAC engineer
  • Automotive engineer
  • Agricultural engineer
  • Robotics engineer
  • Aerospace engineer
  • Tribology engineer
  • Environmental engineer
  • Bioengineer
  • Marine and Ocean engineer
  • Nuclear engineer
  • Design engineer
  • Materials engineer
  • Biomedical engineer
  • Plant maintenance engineer
  • Fire engineer
  • CAD technician
  • Test Engineer

How to Further Yourself in a Career in Mechanical Engineering

To further your mechanical engineering career, you may require further education and acquire more industry and state-recommended licenses and certifications. Undertaking a master’s mechanical engineering program is recommended for supervisory positions such as a senior mechanical engineer or mechanical engineering manager. 

You may also need to do a business administration course to equip yourself with management skills. On the other hand, if you are keen to pursue a mechanical engineering career in academia or research, pursuing a Ph.D. is paramount. 

A master’s degree in mechanical engineering requires you to complete 30-60 credit hours within two years. A Ph.D. in mechanical engineering takes 4-7 years and requires you to do extensive research and publish scholarly papers.

Beyond furthering your education, you can advance your career in mechanical engineering by taking advantage of opportunities offered by your employer for capacity building. Also, take up challenging responsibilities and projects that offer you an opportunity for growth. Develop networks within the industry. Attend industry events and read industry-related content to stay up-to-date with the recent trends.

Where Can a Mechanical Engineer Work?

Mechanical engineers can work in practically any field as long as there are mechanical systems involved. The US Bureau of Statistics lists the following as the most common industries where mechanical engineers work:

  • Architectural, engineering, and other related services. Mechanical engineers come in handy in the architectural and construction industry to offer their expertise in designing and installing mechanical and thermal systems such as elevators and air conditioning.
  • Machinery manufacturing. Mechanical engineers play a vital role in designing, building, maintaining, troubleshooting, and repairing manufacturing machinery.
  • Transportation equipment manufacturing. Mechanical engineers specializing in automotive are employed in vehicle manufacturing firms to help design and build upcoming vehicle models. 
  • Scientific research and developmental services. Through advanced research, both in academia and the corporate sector, mechanical engineers can innovate new technologies.
  • Computer and electronic product manufacturing. Mechanical engineers use computer-aided software to come up with innovative designs for various mechanical products. Their expertise may also be sort after in design and building various electronic systems.
  • Aerospace. Mechanical engineers who specialize in aeronautical engineering are often hired or contracted by aerospace and defense firms to design, build, and test helicopters, rockets, satellites, and missiles.
  • Government and federal agencies. Federal and state governments hire mechanical engineers for projects such as military and civilian infrastructural projects, NASA, and the development and installation of mechanical systems in government premises.
  • Academia. Mechanical engineers who pursue further education up to a Ph.D. can work as university professors or consultants in mechanical engineering research. On the other hand, a mechanical engineering graduate can take up an entry-level job as a university professor’s assistant.

In most cases, mechanical engineers work in an office as part of a team. However, they may occasionally visit worksites to oversee a project. Most mechanical engineers are employed on a full-time basis to work for an average of 40hours per week.

Growth Prospects for Careers in Mechanical Engineering

The US Bureau of Statistics estimates a 4 percent growth rate for employment in the area of mechanical engineering in the next 10 years. Most of the demand is expected to come from the manufacturing industry, specifically in the automotive area. Mechanical engineers will come in handy in the new era of hybrid and electric vehicles. 

Generally, the prospects for mechanical engineers are good. However, those with excellent software, three-dimensional printing, computational design, and design simulation skills will have an added advantage. 

There is an increasing demand for mechanical engineering professionals who can create virtual simulations of their designs before proceeding with the actual development, building, and simulating stages. 

These skills are essential for most firms as they reduce their product development schedules and costs. There is also an increasing demand for female engineers.

Expected Salary for a Mechanical Engineer

According to the US Bureau of Statistics, the median wage for mechanical engineers in 2019 was $88,430, with the lowest 10% earning about $57,000 and the highest 10% earning $138,020 on average. Generally, entry-level mechanical engineers earn $60,000 -$65,000. Engineers with more experience, certifications, and in management positions earn over $100,000 per year.

Mechanical Engineering FAQ

Below are answers to the most common mechanical engineering FAQs

What Are the Various Fields of Specialization in Mechanical Engineering?

Mechanical engineering courses offer a wide range of specialization options, including fluid mechanics, thermal engineering, materials engineering, design and manufacturing, automation and control, aeronautics, oil, gas, mining, thermal engineering, biomechanics materials engineering and processing, etc.

What factors determine a mechanical engineer’s salary?

The most important factors that affect a mechanical engineer’s salary include:

  • Level of education. Mechanical engineers who pursue further studies either in the line of mechanical engineering or in complementary areas such as business management and leadership attract higher salaries and better-paying positions.
  • Licenses, certifications, and registrations. Some of the best paying positions require that an engineer has all the necessary state-recommended certifications and licenses as well as other professional licenses.
  • Experience. Mechanical engineers who have been in the field for longer tend to get management-level jobs compared to entry-level engineers.
  • Scope of the engineer’s job. Generally, engineers who take up a more complex and wider scope of work are paid more.
  • Uniqueness of the engineer’s skill set. Skills such as software, three-dimensional printing, computational design, and design simulation skills are highly sought after, making them attract higher salaries.
  • Previous projects. Engineers who have an outstanding track record on previous projects tend to have a higher negotiating power either with their current employers/clients or when seeking new opportunities.

What Are the Best Mechanical Engineering Schools?

With so many universities and colleges offering engineering programs, the key is to choose one accredited to offer mechanical engineering. For instance, in the US, go for an ABET-accredited institution and program. 

According to QS World University Ranking by Subject, the following are the top 20 institutions for Mechanical, Aeronautical, and Manufacturing Engineering courses in the world in 2020: 

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  2. Stanford University
  3. University of Cambridge
  4. Harvard University
  5. Delft University of Technology
  6. The University of California, Berkeley (UCB)
  7. Imperial College London
  8. University of Oxford
  9. Politecnico di Milano
  10. University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
  11. Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
  12. ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
  13. Georgia Institute of Technology
  14. Tsinghua University
  15. National University of Singapore (NUS)
  16. EPFL
  17. California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
  18. RWTH Aachen University
  19. The University of Tokyo
  20. Purdue University

The QS World University Rankings by subject employs a methodology that compares the different universities according to their academic reputation, research impact, and employer reputation.

What Is the Average Salary of a Mechanical Engineer?

The average salary for mechanical engineers ranges between $46,000 on the lower range and over $100,000 for the highest-paid mechanical engineers.

What Experience Do You Need to Become a Mechanical Engineer?

Generally, you do not need to have any work experience for an entry-level mechanical engineering job. However, some experience may increase your credibility and give you a competitive edge even in entry-level jobs. 

To receive a professional Engineering certification, you should have at least four years’ experience working under a professional engineer to be able to sit for the Professional Engineering exam.

How Do You Make a Successful Career as a Mechanical Engineer?

Aside from furthering your education and getting the required certifications, below are some tips to help you advance in your career in mechanical engineering:

  1. Think of the bigger picture. Don’t just focus on your daily tasks and duties; think about how your work fits into the project’s vision and the company’s mission. This is in regards to timelines, product efficiency, and project costs.
  2. Equip yourself with complementary knowledge and skills. For instance, the mechanical engineering fields often mingle with electrical engineering and software engineering. Have at least a working knowledge of these areas and other relevant areas.
  3. Be a team player. Engineering projects are not a one-person undertaking; rather, they are collaborative. You will work with fellow mechanical engineers, mechanical technicians, other engineering professionals, as well as professionals from other departments, including accounts and finance, and marketing.  Endeavor to be an easy-to-work-with person and ensure timely and efficient communication with other team members.
  4. Adhere to industry standards and code of ethics. Failure to do so may lead to the loss of license or being sued.
  5. Build and maintain professional networks. Stay in touch with your classmates. At the workplace, build professional relationships with your colleagues and people in the industry. Whenever there is an opportunity, take part in writing technical papers and participate in technical societies. Join a mechanical engineering professional body near you, e.g., the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
  6. Get a mentor. Reach out to an experienced and accomplished mechanical engineer who might be interested in mentoring you. You could also check in with mechanical engineering societies near you to determine whether they have a mentorship program whereby you could be a signed a mentor. 

How Do You Decide an Area of Specialization for an MS in Mechanical Engineering?

If you are clear about the mechanical engineering field you would like to build your career in, identify MS courses specific to that area and sign up. However, if you are interested in different areas or are simply not clear which way to go, make an effort to actively engage in different areas. 

You could take a full-time job in one area and volunteer part-time in another. Attend industry events and workshops in various areas. Engage with experienced professionals in the given areas and read widely about case studies, projects, and different fields’ futures.

Also, take a look at the course outline for the various MS in mechanical engineering specialization to identify which MS programs have more units that would be of interest to you. 

Then, choose a field to venture into depending on your liking for the field, skill sets, and job prospects in the field. 

Consider which MS courses are offered in your country and whether you would need to travel abroad. Since some MS programs offer you an opportunity for extensive research, choose a specialization that you are curious about.

Some of the top MS Specialization in mechanical Engineering in universities across the globe include:

  • MS Computational Mechanical Engineering
  • MS Applied Computational Mechanics
  • MS Mechatronics
  • MS Design and Mechanical Engineering
  • Advanced Manufacturing systems MS
  • MSc Maintenance Engineering
  • MSc Industrial Mechanical Engineering
  • MSc Automotive Engineering
  • MSc Marine Technology

What Is the Highest Level of Education You Can Get in Mechanical Engineering?

The highest level of education you can get in mechanical engineering is a Ph.D. While it is not necessary for advancement in your career, it is crucial if you are keen to join academia in the capacities of a professor or to do extensive research and write scholarly papers in regards to different mechanical engineering subjects.

How Do You Decide on a Program for Mechanical Engineering?

When deciding between an on-campus and online mechanical engineering program, consider each option’s advantages and disadvantages. For instance, while an online program would be cheaper and convenient to do from whichever location you are at, it may limit you in terms of practical work. On the other hand, on-campus programs are more expensive and require to be near the location of the institution, but they offer you a great opportunity for practical work.

Which Specialization in Mechanical Engineering has a Good Scope in the Future?

While the US Bureau of statistics indicates overall growth in demand for mechanical engineers in the next decade, a few areas might be of greater interest in the near future. These include:

  • Automotive engineering. This far, mechanical engineers have been crucial to the automotive industry. It is expected that their demand will increase exponentially as more and more companies move from internal combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles. Mechanical engineers will help design, build, test, and improve electrical and hybrid vehicles. They will continue to be sought after to design and build assembly lines and robotics for automotive manufacturing companies.
  • Biomechatronics.  This field of science endeavors to merge the functioning of the human body with a machine by designing and building robotics with refined movements that mimic the human musculoskeletal structure. Mechanical engineers play a crucial role in biomechatronics, designing, and building the mechanical sensors and controllers that operate the robots. Mechanical engineers will also come in in the areas of industrial design, autonomous robots, mechanical maintenance, algorithm creation, robot behavior control, and robot application research.
  • Nanoengineering. Nanoengineering is the field of science that manipulates materials at the smallest level to ensure that they offer optimal performance. Mechanical engineers are particularly keen on the qualities and properties of various materials they use to make various mechanical and thermal systems. As such, they will continue to be engaged in nanoengineering to produce stronger composite materials.
  • Manufacturing. Manufacturing has continued to improve since its wake in the industrial revolution era. It will continue to evolve for improved production efficiency that increases output while reducing operating costs. Mechanical engineers are at the forefront of designing innovative manufacturing systems and tools.
  • Biomedical engineering. Biomedical engineering is one of the fastest-growing fields, with an expected 23% growth by 2024. This is a result of the increasing demand for sophisticated medical devices and equipment.
  • Water and environmental engineering. With the mounting pressure to create a green ecosystem, mechanical engineers have increased demand to build energy-efficient water and energy systems such as windmills and solar infrastructure.
  • Data science and computational engineering.  Computational engineers require a multidisciplinary skillset in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, mathematics, data sciences, and computer science to build computer algorithms and systems for application in transportation, energy, physics, and data science.

What Is the Future of Mechanical Engineering and Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

As mechanical engineering continues to evolve from the traditional systems to mechatronics, there is an increase in the incorporation of AI in system design. AI offers mechanical systems an ability for the systems to make decisions and respond accordingly. 

Ultimately, this leads to higher production efficiency at reduced costs. AI is already being implemented in a wide range of mechanical engineering systems, including virtual reality, medical imaging, nonlinear control, robotics, process control, quality control, manufacturing design, and thermal systems, among others.

Where Can You Find Mechanical Engineering Jobs?

There are several ways you can find a mechanical engineering job, including:

  • Professional engineering magazines, websites, and job boards
  • Newspaper job advertisements
  • Online job websites such as GlassDoor, Ziprecruiter, and Indeed
  • Alumni newsletter and job board
  • Recruitment fairs and exhibitions
  • Referral by family, friends, and mentors
  • Checking for openings at the various engineering firms near you

The field of mechanical engineering is unlimited. There is a wide range of specialization options to choose from depending on your interest, skillset, and job outlook. Generally, the mechanical engineering industry will see a 6% growth in the coming decade, with the biomedical engineering field being the fastest growing. 

Depending on your career plan, you may need to further your education by pursuing an MS and, in some cases, a Ph.D. in your area of interest. With that said, even without an MS or Ph.D., you can still find a well-paying job in mechanical engineering with a bachelor’s degree

Ensure to get the recommended state and professional licenses and certificates as you advance in your career. Continue to build networks, find a mentor, and continuously improve both your technical and soft skills.

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