So You Want to Be an Engineer…
College Transitions “So you want to be…” series is designed to help career-minded high school students think intelligently about their postsecondary journeys. These blogs provide a thorough examination of the financial, academic, and personal factors one should consider when exploring various professions.
The branches of engineering
There are more than 25 different areas of study within the engineering discipline, including, but not limited to: Civil, Mechanical, Biomedical, Chemical, Electrical, Geological, Architectural, Industrial, Aerospace, Software, and Nuclear Engineering.
There are also many sub disciplines within each umbrella category as well. For example, the broad field of chemical engineering encompasses areas such as process engineering, corrosion engineering, and materials engineering. Naturally, these varying fields can involve very different courses of study. However, all engineering disciplines share certain core competencies that must be mastered in order to enter this highly-competitive profession.
Do you have an “engineering mind?”
Because engineering degrees dominate lists of top-paying bachelor’s degrees, a good number of high school students (and their parents) understandably elect to explore it as a career option. Here’s a word of warning on that subject: this is rarely a skill-set that appears suddenly in late-adolescence when it’s time to select a college major—for most, it is evident from early childhood.
From a very early age, those with an “engineering mind” can often be found taking things apart and putting them back together. Some may enjoy repairing machinery or electronic equipment, teaching themselves computer programming, or tinkering with inventions. In essence, these individuals possess both a passion and an aptitude for figuring out how things work. This combination of innate ability and zeal is essential in a discipline that requires a high level of perseverance and diligence.
Fact: engineering programs are challenging
The attrition rate for engineering students is higher than for most majors. In fact, some studies have found that 50% of engineering majors change majors or drop out prior to graduation. The primary reason why students drop out of engineering programs is a lack of preparedness for the high level of rigor. It’s important to keep in mind that top engineering programs at schools like MIT and Caltech have the lowest freshman drop-out rates, in large part because their classes are comprised exclusively of students who took multiple high-level math courses in high school.
Beyond the sheer challenge of the material is the time commitment required outside of the classroom. While the average college course requires two hours of outside study for every one hour in the classroom, engineering courses require an estimated four hours. Student surveys have revealed that average number of hours working outside of the classroom for engineering majors is almost 20 hours per week, almost double the amount of time of communications, marketing, and criminal justice majors. Only architecture students self-report studying more hours.
Why do students drop out?
The aforementioned segment addresses the overarching reasons for high attrition rates, but it is worth also examining insights revealed by student surveys. In studying the attrition of their own engineering majors, the University of West Virginia found that three of the main reasons students left the discipline were: 1) lack of academic success; 2) no longer believing they could be successful in engineering; and 3) it simply wasn’t worth the massive amount of work. However, the most fascinating answer, and also the most commonly reported was “Engineering majors offered do not match my interests.” The best way to avoid the fate of discovering this in college is to take related courses while still in high school to determine if engineering is truly for you.
What courses should I take in high school?
No matter what type of engineering you plan on studying, it’s a good bet that exceptional math skills will be required. Plan on taking AP Calculus and AP Statistics while in high school. Not surprisingly, advanced science courses are also a must—Chemistry, Biology, and Physics of the honors or AP variety are recommended.
Nationwide, only 63% of public high schools offer physics and just 50% have a calculus course. By graduation, just 39% of U.S. high school students complete a physics course and only 16% take Calculus. While these numbers have roughly doubled since the 1990s there is still a lot of room for growth. If your goal is to study engineering and your high school offers these courses, we highly recommend taking them. If these courses are unavailable in your school, seek out opportunities online or at a local two-year or four-year college.
Partaking in any computer science program offered by your high school is a must for all would-be engineers. Some schools offer Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and AP Computer Science. All engineers need to be tech-savvy and formal training in high school can give you an edge.
Additionally, it would be unwise to neglect English and other areas of the humanities. Engineers in today’s marketplace are often required to be strong writers and communicators. Soft-skill areas such as adaptability and collaboration are also great assets for anyone entering the world of engineering.
Do I need to attend a prestigious undergraduate school?
The engineering field tends to be fairly egalitarian—employers are more interested in your ability to produce than the selectivity of your undergraduate college.
As in any field, schools with large and/or successful alumni networks can be of help, especially in given geographic regions. However, an examination of starting and mid-career salary data from over 200 engineering schools reveals a pretty level playing field.
For example, Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ is ranked by U.S. News as the 69th best engineering program. Its graduates have an average starting salary of $71,000 and an average mid-career salary of $140,000. Compare that to MIT, ranked first overall, where graduates enter the field with an average early-career salary of $89,000 and enjoy an average mid-career salary of $155,000.
Clearly, MIT grads enjoy a salary advantage, but we wanted to highlight the fact that the choice between attending a highly-selective or moderately-selective engineering program may not influence your pay or career trajectory as much as you might think. After all, both $140k and $155k are phenomenal average salary numbers and not as different as one might expect given the 71-place gap in the U.S. News rankings.
However, the selectivity of your undergraduate institution may determine where you work. Although there appears to be little, if any, relationship between the name on your diploma and numbers on your paycheck, undergraduate brand can still have an influence on the companies to which you have access. Our Top Feeders list shows that if you want to work as an engineer for some of America’s most sought-after employers, having a degree from a selective institution can certainly help your chances.
Visit our Dataverse for a list of best programs in the following areas:
Consider a 3:2 Program
If you remain dead-set on attending a big name program in spite of the data above, a 3-2 engineering program is an avenue worth exploring. This format allows students to earn a bachelor’s degree at any one of a host of participating colleges in three years and then apply to a more prestigious engineering school. For instance, Columbia University’s prestigious engineering school partners with almost 100 liberal arts colleges across the country, from Ivy-caliber schools like Middlebury to Marietta College in Ohio, which has a 69% acceptance rate. Students apply to Columbia during their junior year, and if accepted, spend the next two years earning a BS in engineering.
For a complete list of 3:2 programs as well as the number of affiliated colleges, visit our Dataverse.
Overall, the picture is quite rosy for engineers. With 139,000 new jobs expected through 2026, there will be ample opportunity for future graduates. Yet, it is important to note that the ten-year job outlook for engineers varies greatly by branch and, of course, is always subject to change based on technological developments, environmental factors, and shifting political landscapes.
For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that openings for civil engineers will grow significantly through 2026 due to the nation’s aging infrastructure and need to replace roads, tunnels, bridges, and dams. From aging structures to aging humans, the need for biomedical engineers should be in high demand over the coming decades as the elderly population in the U.S. continues to need more and more medical care. Likewise for petroleum engineers, ever-increasing oil prices and an older-than-average workforce should lead to healthy job growth. However, the oil and gas industry is notoriously boom or bust so this is very difficult to project with any certainty.
CT’s bottom line
Explore engineering as an area of study if you have an aptitude and passion for a related subject matter. Don’t try to read the industry tea leaves when selecting a branch of engineering to study; Pick a specialty area that is of high-interest and within your academic wheelhouse.
Earning an engineering degree from any school, no matter the level of prestige, requires an exceptional level of commitment and fortitude. Those who conquer the academic challenge and enter the marketplace with a bachelor’s in any engineering field will be well-positioned to earn substantial compensation relative to other degree holders.
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew’s experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.