The engineering and construction fields contain some of the oldest occupations on Earth, and they're no less important now than they were thousands of years ago. In fact, with the advancements in technology that have been made over the last several years, the cutting edge of engineering careers may be more exciting than ever.
If you have a knack for systems thinking and sensitivity to the details of a problem at hand, a degree in one of the many disciplines of engineering might be right up your alley. What's more, the growing number of engineering and construction schools online can give you the chance to train for an engineering career without taking undue time away from your existing career or family responsibilities.
Here's a table of some figures pulled from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) about the number of campus-based and online engineering schools in each region of the country:
|Region||Total No. of engineering schools||No. of online engineering schools|
|Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI)||166||13|
|Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO)||47||7|
|Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK)||122||22|
|Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD)||93||19|
|Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV)||193||40|
|Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI)||170||24|
|Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.)||178||28|
|New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME)||75||7|
|Total (all 50 states)||1044||160|
Entry-level engineering degrees
Professional engineers typically start out earning engineering degrees at the bachelor's level, although some take their undergraduate study in related disciplines such as physics, math, computer science, ecology and chemistry. Here's some detail about entry-level degrees at engineering and construction schools online and on campus:
- Associate degrees - Most two-year degrees in engineering focus on training students for jobs as engineering technicians, technologists and other operators of the essential mechanical and electronic gear of the modern engineering field. Many degree plans at this level teach you how to use industry software and operate vital field equipment while also providing a few semesters worth of general education courses that should transfer into most bachelor's degree programs when you choose to move to the next level.
- Bachelor's degrees - Four-year undergraduate degrees in engineering could be called the true entry-level degrees in engineering, since bachelor's degrees are typically listed as the minimum educational requirement for full-fledged engineering careers. Coursework typically includes calculus and other advanced maths, foundational physics and chemistry courses, general materials science study and detailed examinations of important elements of your particular engineering discipline.
- Non-degree study - Professional certificate programs in certain aspects of engineering may help you enhance your job prospects by training in high-demand skill areas that aren't typically included in standard degree plans at engineering or construction schools, online or on campus. The list of undergraduate certificates for engineers may include energy engineering, safety engineering, business management, engineering information systems, engineering leadership and engineering project management.
Online engineering degrees are becoming more and more prevalent, with some engineering schools going as far as to offer programs that don't require you to visit campus even once before graduation. If the schedule flexibility of online coursework interests you but you aren't ready to let go of the traditional classroom environment all together, institutions near you may offer hybrid programs that feature a split between distance education and campus-based courses.
Advanced-degree engineering programs
Graduates with bachelor's degree in a non-engineering discipline typically go on to earn a master's before looking for engineering work, and some undergraduate-educated engineers opt to continue through a graduate program to give them an edge in training before hitting the job market. Here are a few bits of general information about graduate and post-graduate degrees at campus-based and online engineering schools:
- Master's degree programs - Graduate degrees offered on campus and online at engineering schools tend to have less common coursework across disciplines and embrace a greater range of specializations than their counterparts at the bachelor's level. Study plans in biological engineering, biomedical engineering, interdisciplinary engineering and engineering management become more prevalent among master's degrees than they are for undergraduates, and degrees that combine engineering skills with business, finance or other administrative disciplines become available as well.
- Doctorate programs - A master's degree is often satisfactory for engineers who hope to apply their knowledge in mechanical, electrical, biomedical and other engineering settings, but those who hope to go on to educate the next generation of engineers or contribute to the discipline through dedicated academic research are likely to need a doctoral degree to find the jobs they want. Some traditional and online engineering schools offer programs that can allow you to go straight from your bachelor's degree into a Ph.D. program, if you know from the start that you want to work toward a career in research or education.
- Graduate and post-graduate certificates - A wide array of graduate certificates in engineering may be available as well, depending on the institution. Non-degree study in subject matter such as embedded systems, construction management, information assurance, nondestructive evaluation, renewable resources, environmental protection, waste management, nonlinear dynamics, information science and wireless and digital communications can all be found at engineering and construction schools online and around the country.
Some advanced degrees in engineering may require laboratory courses or on-site fieldwork that prevents the curriculum from being offered fully online, but master's degrees and even doctorates in many disciplines can be found through distance education programs that allow you to attend courses on your own time. Aspiring engineering managers can also pursue MBA programs with a concentration in graduate engineering, which can also be found online.
Q&A with an expert
Why would you encourage someone to consider an engineering degree?
Engineering is about creativity coupled to scientifically rigorous approaches to problem solving and analytical thinking. And that kind of education prepares one for success in nearly any endeavor.
What are the most common educational paths for professional vs. academic engineering careers? What are the main differences?
Academic careers require the Ph.D — with just a few exceptions (community colleges and the like). Professional careers typically do not require the doctorate, although if one wants to do high-level research in an industrial setting, or in a government lab, the doctorate will generally be very helpful. But one can have an outstanding, successful, fulfilling career without going all the way to the Ph.D.
Can a bachelor's degree in engineering give graduates a good chance at starting their careers or would you recommend that students earn a master's before heading out into the workforce?
That depends on the specific field within engineering. In civil engineering, the MS is almost required these days. In other disciplines there are plenty of opportunities for someone with just the BS.
Are there good career prospects for engineers on the current job market? Why or why not?
Today's STEM graduates have more career opportunities available now than at any other previous time in U.S. history. That's because there is an estimated 2 million worker shortfall in manufacturing over next decade, with six of every 10 positions going unfilled due to a skills gap. This shortfall has created competition among companies for the best manufacturers, engineers, scientist and technicians. This means that the competition for talent is going to become even fiercer.
What does it usually take for engineers to move on to advanced positions? Are continued education and experience on the job equally important or can one take precedence over the other?
Forward-thinking companies today recognize the importance of creating a strong internal talent pipeline, providing unique opportunities for employees to grow their career in a lattice, rather than ladder, format. Unlike previous generations who worked within a straight succession plan, today's workforce demands engaging, innovative experiences that connect diverse groups of people to solve global problems in unique ways.
Types of engineering careers
Whether you want to go straight out of undergrad into a mechanical engineer career or stick it out through the gauntlet of graduate work and conduct research for a living, it's helpful to know what to expect when you hit the job market. Here's a table of some high-demand job categories in engineering, along with data from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics about their salary expectations, employment growth projections and minimal education requirements:
PROJECTED JOB GROWTH(%)
|Operating Engineers and Other Construction Equipment Operators||$53,030||383,480||9.6%|
|Environmental Engineering Technicians||$54,800||17,310||8.6%|
|Civil Engineering Technicians||$54,670||71,150||5%|
|Engineers, All Other||$99,410||142,030||3.6%|
|Architectural and Engineering Managers||$148,970||188,290||2.8%|
|Electrical and Electronics Engineering Technicians||$65,050||126,950||0.2%|
Common misconceptions about engineering degrees
Aspiring engineering students may often be level-headed and reasonable, but that doesn't mean that there aren't a few mistaken ideas out there floating around about traditional and online engineering degrees. Take a look at this quick list of misconceptions and make sure you've got the right information:
Misconception: The job market isn't good enough to justify paying for a mid- or top-tier engineering degree.
- Fact: Local or regional fluctuations notwithstanding, the job market for engineers is projected to be better than most others over the next several years. BLS data indicate that employment in certain disciplines of engineering will increase at rates nearly triple that of the market at large, and salary figures for recent grads aren't too shabby either. USA Today named engineering degrees No. 1 on the list of highest-paying degrees in 2015, reporting an average starting salary of roughly $63,000 and average lifetime earnings of more than $3 million.
Misconception: Any online engineering program is ultimately as good as another.
- Fact: Degrees earned at accredited online engineering schools are just as generally valuable as those earned on campus, but it is still case that some "degree mill" schools are out there preying on the unwary. The best way to avoid being taken in by a false college is to make sure that the program you choose is accredited by a reputable agency before enrolling — the U.S. Department of Education maintains a searchable accreditation database to help you sniff out impostors.
Misconception: Online engineering schools can be a shortcut to a high-paying, stable career.
- Fact: Even though studying at engineering and construction schools online can make it more comfortable for busy professionals or students with families to fit a degree into their schedule, the actual coursework and exams that you take on the way to graduation are no easier than the in-class work at a comparable brick-and-mortar university. It might even be safe to say that coursework in online engineering schools bears a challenge that campus-based degrees don't have, if only in that you're accountable to no one but yourself for whether or not you do the work week after week.
How can I enroll in an online engineering degree program?
The admissions requirements for individual campus-based and online engineering degrees tend to vary from institution to institution, but admissions representatives at any school of your choice should be able to give you a full rundown of what it takes to enroll. Take a minute to browse the listings of traditional and online engineering schools below, pick out a few that look like a good fit for you and reach out to someone on campus to find out how your passion for solving problems can become a career.