Mechanical engineering degrees

Early mechanical engineers may have worked primarily with combinations of simple concepts and precise mathematics, but in the age of Apple, Google and other 21st-century technology, what is mechanical engineering? It might surprise you to learn that it's essentially the same formula that it's always been — just with a whole host of new and exciting materials and computational tools that engineers of the past would barely believe.

Specifically, mechanical engineers plan, design and construct machines, engines and tools. Mechanical engineering education differs from other engineering degrees primarily in its deep focus on the application mechanical and thermal physics, which other disciplines may only study briefly. Electrical engineering, for example, does require an understanding of thermal and mechanical ideas, but the properties of electricity itself take precedence over detailed study of advanced mechanics.

That isn't to say, however, that mechanical engineering jobs haven't changed since the microcomputer revolution. The processing power and modeling capabilities of modern computers have increased the world of possibilities available to mechanical engineers, and mechanical engineering degrees have increased in scope to match the evolution of the discipline at large. These programs are distinctive from software engineering or systems engineering degrees, but they do still have a strong emphasis on computers and technology.

Degrees in mechanical engineering

Q&A with a mechanical engineer

We asked Dominic De Rubis, a Senior Principal Mechanical Engineer at BAE Systems in New York, to tell us about his mechanical engineering experience, from college to the professional world.

1. What made you decide to study mechanical engineering?
I have always been interested in how things work — energy, materials, the physics and interactions between the two.

2. Where did you get your degree?
I got my mechanical engineering BS from Columbia University.

3. What's the most important thing you learned in your degree program?
The ability to realize designs in the working world and learning to understand the various impacts certain designs choices have on ultimately how the item may be created and used.

4. What's the best thing about being a mechanical engineer?
The best thing about being a mechanical engineer for me is being involved with qualification testing. There is a lot that goes into it, but being able to witness a product perform under environmental duress is pretty cool (and a little unnerving).

5. How much education did you have before getting your first mechanical engineering job?
At the time, I had a B.S. in Physics and then received my BS in Mechanical Engineering.

6. What advice would you have for mechanical engineering students who are just starting out?
Mechanical engineering is a vast field with many opportunities. Learn, learn, learn — be a sponge. And lean into other disciplines (electrical, systems, etc.) and philosophies as well — it provides great insight into how to make cognizant engineering decisions.

There are mechanical engineering careers out there for graduates with all levels of mechanical engineering degrees, from the preliminary to the extremely advanced. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that job prospects should be best for graduates who study cutting-edge technology such as 3-D printing, nanotechnology and alternative fuel transportation. However, these concentrations might not be available at the undergraduate level, so it's always a good idea to check with individual programs to see what your options may be.

Associate degrees

Mechanical engineering education at the associate level gives students a strong introduction to the principles of mechanics, heat, electricity, magnetism and higher mathematics. Programs at this level typically serve as doorsteps into bachelor's programs, where upper-division courses can provide depth and structure to the preliminary information covered in introductory classes.

Students at this level should be aware that mechanical engineering degrees are not quite the same thing as mechanical engineering technology degrees. Degrees in mechanical engineering technology typically focus on the tools and tech that are used to support the work of mechanical engineers, which can provide useful vocational skills but may not transition as easily into further education as their more theoretical counterparts. It's important to choose the right program for you, depending on whether you intend to continue your education beyond the associate degree level.

Bachelor's degrees

The bachelor's degree is commonly understood as the base level of education necessary to find entry-level employment as a mechanical engineer. Degree plans at this level concentrate heavily on vital subjects in the discipline, including:

  • Materials science
  • Fluid mechanics
  • Engineering design
  • Thermal science
  • Rigid body dynamics
  • Differential calculus

Graduates with mechanical engineering bachelor's degrees often parlay their education into a job as a mechanical engineer or mechanical engineering technician, but the precise nature of the machines on which they work can depend heavily on the industry where they're employed. Companies that employ mechanical engineering graduates include Boeing, 3M, Intel, Westinghouse, Lockheed Martin, Trane, General Electric, Texas Instruments and NASA, among many others.

Master's degrees

Competition for top mechanical engineering jobs can be strong, and more and more employers now prefer candidates with master's degrees over those whose education stops at the bachelor's level. Some graduate programs allow students to enhance their versatility by developing their engineering skills across the board, while others encourage specialization in single research topics. These could include:

  • Heat transfer
  • Fluid flow
  • Solid mechanics
  • Material composites
  • Biomedical engineering

A master's degree in mechanical engineering also opens doors to careers in research and academic practice, since many opportunities for research assistants, associate professors and other scholarly professionals often list a master's degree as a minimum educational requirement. Positions in academic leadership or independent research typically require a Ph.D. or other post-graduate degree.

Online degrees

Advancements in distance learning technology have made online mechanical engineering degrees a real possibility, particularly for those who have access to a regional campus or learning center for any hands-on laboratory work that may be necessary. Courses in mathematics, physics, systems analysis, simulation and the finer points of engineering software tend to lose little in the translation to the virtual classroom, and the use of computers is such a major part of the engineering profession as a whole that the online learning adjustment period can be fairly brief.

If you're thinking about earning a mechanical engineering degree online, make sure that you choose a reputable and accredited institution. A few longstanding brick-and-mortar universities, including Penn State and Purdue, offer master's degrees online, and associate and bachelor's degrees can be found through distance learning as well. When you know which level of degree you'd like to pursue, start comparing mechanical engineering schools that offer online degrees or programs near you.

Professional certifications

To stay on top of their field, mechanical engineering graduates can join organizations and associations of like-minded professionals that help them keep a finger on the pulse of new technologies and trends. Here's a list of a few professional associations that might benefit graduates with mechanical engineering degrees:

  • American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)
  • American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)
  • Pi Tau Sigma (Mechanical Engineering Honor Society)
  • Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE)
  • Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME)
  • Society of Women Engineers (SWE)

Some of these associations, particularly ASME, offer certification exams that professional engineers can take to demonstrate their expertise in a certain area of the profession. While certifications are not often required for employment, they can help candidates stand out in the hiring process and may increase job prospects.

1. "Are Certifications Worth the Effort?", American Society of Mechanical Engineers, https://www.asme.org/career-education/articles/certification/are-certifications-worth-the-effort
2. Certification and Accreditation, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, https://www.asme.org/shop/certification-accreditation
3. Lone Star College, http://www.lonestar.edu/Mechanical-Engineering-AS.htm
4. Paramount California University, https://pcu.edu/program-major/associate-degree/Mechanical-Engineering.asp
5. Penn State World Campus, http://www.worldcampus.psu.edu/degrees-and-certificates/mechanical-engineering-masters/courses
6. Penn State York, http://www.yk.psu.edu/Academics/Degrees/31750.htm Mechanical Engineers, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/mechanical-engineers.htm
7. Purdue University, https://engineering.purdue.edu/ProEd/programs/masters-degrees/mechanical-engineering
8. University of Michigan Department of Mechanical Engineering, http://me.engin.umich.edu/academics/ugsh/bachelors
9. University of Nevada Reno, http://www.unr.edu/degrees/mechanical-engineering/ms
10. University of North Dakota, http://und.edu/academics/extended-learning/online-distance/degrees/mechanical-engineering/index.cfm
11. University of Texas at Tyler, http://www.uttyler.edu/academics/undergraduate-majors/mechanical-engineering-degree.php
12. University of Washington, http://www.me.washington.edu/students/orgs/professional.html

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