Welcome to the fourth installment of College Transitions’ “So you want to be a…” series. Designed to help career-minded high school students think intelligently about their postsecondary journeys, these blogs will look at the financial, academic, and personal factors one should consider when exploring various professions.

engineering_1Many types of engineers

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. 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 in unparalleled. A gulp-worthy 60% of freshmen engineering students eventually drop-out or change majors. Over 40% don’t even make it through year one. The primary reason why students drop out of engineering programs is a lack of preparedness for the high level of rigor. Beyond the sheer challenge of the material is the time commitment required outside of the classroom. While the average college course requires 2 hours of outside study for every one hour in the classroom, engineering courses require an estimated 4 hours. Students at 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.

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 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. If these courses are unavailable in your school, seek out opportunities online or at a local community 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.

It’s also wise not to neglect English. 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 colllege.

As in any field, schools with large and/or successful alumni networks can be a 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 and a general lack of correlation between prestige and pay.

For example, Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ is ranked by U.S. News as the 82nd best engineering program. Its graduates have an average starting salary of $64,900 and an average mid-career salary of $124,000. Compare that to MIT, ranked first overall, where graduates enter the field with an average salary of $68,600 and enjoy an average mid-career salary roughly $6,000 less than a typical Stevens grad.

We’re not making the argument that Stevens Institute of Technology is “better” than MIT; we are merely highlighting the fact that the choice between attending a highly-selective or moderately-selective engineering program may not influence your pay or career trajectory.

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 3 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 70% acceptance rate. Students apply to Columbia during their junior year, and if accepted, spend the next two years earning a BS in engineering.

Job outlook

In making a case for STEM education, politicians frequently bemoan our country’s “shortage” of engineers. These speeches leave the impression that anyone with a bachelor’s in engineering will have 15 job offers before his/her graduation cap flies into the air. It’s true that an engineering degree of any variety is typically about as sound an educational investment as exists, but like any other industry, has its fair share of unemployment (7%).

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 2022 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 demands 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 & gas industry is notoriously boom or bust so this 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.

To read previous installments of the “So you want to be a…” series, click the links below:

So you want to be a lawyer…

So you want to be a doctor…

So you want to be a teacher…

Andrew Belasco
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.