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Types of Engineering: Salary Potential, Outlook and Using Your Degree

Engineering professions typically fall under four different types: chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical engineering.
Two engineers wearing hard hats and safety vests consulting a clipboard

Know before you read
At SNHU, we want to make sure you have the information you need to make decisions about your education and your future—no matter where you choose to go to school. That's why our informational articles may reference careers for which we do not offer academic programs, along with salary data for those careers. Cited projections do not guarantee actual salary or job growth.

There are dozens and dozens of different types of engineering, but when it comes down to the basics, engineering is about using specialized bases of knowledge to solve a problem. Since we encounter a wide variety of problems, we have an equally wide range of engineering disciplines, many of which are highly specialized and designed to solve those problems.

In broad terms, engineering can be divided into four main categories — chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical. Each of these types requires different skills and engineering education.

What Are the 4 Main Types of Engineering?

Engineering is a vast and intricate field, encompassing a wide range of specialities. These are the four main types of engineering. Let's start by taking a look at Chemical and Civil. While SNHU doesn't currently offer programs that can prepare you for these areas specifically, this should give you a general idea about what to expect in each.

Chemical Engineering

Chemical engineering degree not currently available at SNHU.
  • 2021 median salary: $105,550, the U.S. Bureau of Labor (BLS) reports*
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree, BLS reports
  • Job growth outlook through 2031: 14%, BLS reports*

Infographic with the text 4 categories of engineering chemical, civil, electrical, mechanical Chemical engineers use their knowledge of sciences — such as chemistry, biology, physics and math — to solve problems that affect the use or production of chemicals, food, drugs and more, according to BLS. They often work in offices and laboratories, and nearly all work full-time, BLS reports.

Chemical engineers use their knowledge in the sciences and manufacturing to bring chemical processes developed in a laboratory to a commercial or industrial process to create products and then evaluate and improve those processes, according to the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Chemical engineers translate processes developed in the lab into practical applications for the commercial production of products and then work to maintain and improve those processes. They rely on the main foundations of engineering: math, physics and chemistry (though biology is playing an increasing role).

The primary function of chemical engineers is to design and troubleshoot processes for producing chemicals, fuels, foods, pharmaceuticals and biologicals, to name a few. They are most often employed by large-scale manufacturing plants to maximize productivity and product quality while minimizing costs.

Similar occupations include biomedical or nuclear engineering and occupational and health safety specialists or technicians, according to BLS.

Civil Engineering

Civil engineering degree not currently available at SNHU.
  • 2021 median salary: $88,050, BLS reports*
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree, BLS reports
  • Job growth outlook through 2031: 7%, BLS reports*

Civil engineers solve infrastructure problems. The projects they design, build and maintain span a wide range in both the public and private sectors, including bridges, roads, tunnels, dams and water and sewer systems, according to BLS. 

Infrastructure such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Erie Canal and the Thames Tunnel in London were all made possible because of the work of civil engineers. Those are just three on a list of dozens of civil engineering landmarks listed by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

They often split their time between an office and project sites. Similar occupations include construction manager, landscape architect and urban or regional planning, according to BLS.

Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineers design, build and develop mechanical and thermal sensing devices, such as engines, tools and machines. Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest engineering fields, according to BLS, and they can be found working on a vast range of products, from electric generators to batteries to refrigeration systems. 

Mechanical engineers analyze projects to determine how a mechanical device can be used and then design and test machines to help the project. They can also investigate equipment that has failed to determine how part of the mechanics needs to be repaired, according to BLS.

Similar occupations include materials engineer, petroleum engineer and mechanical engineering technician, according to BLS.

Electrical Engineering

Electrical engineers focus on the design, testing and manufacturing of electrical components, such as motors, navigation, communications systems and power generation, according to BLS. They work in a range of industries, including research, manufacturing, telecommunications and more, BLS reports.

Electrical engineering is one of the industry's broadest fields, which means what you do varies widely from one sector to another. From working with circuits to making computers and other electronics used to build fiber-optic networks or vision sensors for cars, many disciplines employ electrical engineers.

Similar occupations include electrician, biomedical engineer and architectural and engineering manager, according to BLS.

What Other Types of Engineering Are There?

There are nearly as many types of engineers as there are industries overall. Here's an overview of a dozen specific types of engineering.

Aerospace Engineering

Agricultural Engineering

Agricultural engineering degree not currently available at SNHU.
  • 2021 median salary: $82,640, BLS reports*
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree, BLS reports
  • Job growth outlook through 2031: 1%, BLS reports*
  • Agricultural engineers ensure power supplies, machinery, structures and facilities are running efficiently, according to BLS. They can also work with pollution and environmental issues concerning agriculture, BLS said.

Biomedical Engineering

Biomedical engineering degree not currently available at SNHU.
  • 2021 median salary: $97,410, BLS reports*
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree, BLS reports
  • Job growth outlook through 2031: 10%, BLS reports*
  • Biomedical and bioengineers work to combine engineering and science to research, design and create equipment, computer systems and software spanning several science fields, according to BLS. 

Computer Hardware Engineering

  • 2021 median salary: $128,170, BLS reports*
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s Degree, BLS reports
  • Job growth outlook through 2031: 5%, BLS reports*
  • Computer hardware engineers work with computer systems and components, such as circuit boards, processors, networks and routers to ensure they work with the latest software, BLS said. They research, design and develop these systems, according to BLS.

Environmental Engineering

Environmental engineering degree not currently available at SNHU.
  • 2021 median salary: $96,820, BLS reports*
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree, BLS reports
  • Job growth outlook through 2031: 4%, BLS reports*
  • Environmental engineers work to improve sustainability issues globally, such as unsafe drinking water and climate change, by combining the principles of biology, chemistry, soil science and engineering, according to BLS.

Health and Safety Engineering

Health and safety engineering degree not currently available at SNHU.
  • 2021 median salary: $99,040, BLS reports*
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree, BLS reports
  • Job growth outlook through 2031: 4%, BLS reports*
  • Health and safety engineers combine engineering, health and safety to develop and design systems to protect people and properties from harm, illness and injury, BLS said. They ensure the safety of products such as machinery, software and chemicals, according to BLS.

Industrial Engineering

Industrial engineering degree not currently available at SNHU.
  • 2021 median salary: $95,300, BLS reports*
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree, BLS reports
  • Job growth outlook through 2031: 10%, BLS reports*
  • Industrial engineers design systems that combine workers, machines and more use to create a product or service to eliminate wastefulness in production processes, according to BLS. 

Marine Engineering

Marine engineering degree not currently available at SNHU.
  • 2021 median salary: $93,370, BLS reports*
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree, BLS reports
  • Job outlook through 2031: 4%, BLS reports*
  • Marine engineers care for the internal systems of a ship, including the electrical, steering systems and more, BLS reports. They also design and build ships such as submarines, sailboats and tankers, according to BLS.

Materials Engineering

Materials engineering degree not currently available at SNHU.
  • 2021 median salary: $98,300, BLS reports*
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree, BLS reports
  • Job growth outlook through 2031: 6%, BLS reports*
  • Materials engineers study the properties and structures of metals, ceramics, plastics and more, BLS said. They monitor how new materials perform and design testing procedures for several different materials in products ranging from computer chips, aircraft wings and golf clubs, according to BLS.

Mining and Geological Engineering

Mining and geological engineering degree not currently available at SNHU.
  • 2021 median salary: $97,090, BLS reports*
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree, BLS reports
  • Job growth outlook through 2031: 2%, BLS reports*
  • Mining engineers design and work in mineral mines and sand-and-gravel quarries to ensure the removal of minerals such as coal and metals is done safely and efficiently for manufacturing and utility use, according to BLS. 

Nuclear Engineering

Nuclear engineering degree not currently available at SNHU.
  • 2021 median salary: $120,380, BLS reports*
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree, BLS reports
  • Nuclear engineers work on different systems and instruments that can benefit from nuclear energy, BLS said. They also research and develop nuclear equipment, such as medical treatments, ships and spacecraft, according to BLS.

Petroleum Engineering

Petroleum engineering degree not currently available at SNHU.
  • 2021 median salary: $130,580, BLS reports*
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree, BLS reports
  • Job growth outlook through 2031: 8%, BLS reports*
  • Petroleum engineers work to extract oil and gas from below Earth’s surface by designing and developing new methods, according to BLS.

Which Type of Engineering is the Best?

Engineering stands at the forefront of evolution in a world driven by innovation and constantly pushing the boundaries of what's possible. The plethora of engineering fields is a testament to humanity's quest to solve diverse problems, from constructing sustainable cities to harnessing the mysteries of the quantum realm.

But, a commonly asked question is: Which is the best type of engineering?

Well, "best" is subjective and relies on a multitude of factors that you must consider. While external metrics like salary, job growth and societal impact might influence this perception, it's equally important to consider your inclinations, strengths and passions.

For example, if you are deeply fascinated by the human body's micro-level intricacies, you might lean towards biomedical engineering. Conversely, if you're passionate about sustainably harnessing natural resources, you might resonate more with petroleum or environmental engineering.

The work environment could also be a critical factor for you. If you cherish team collaboration in a lab setting, you might find chemical or biomedical engineering fitting. On the other hand, if you prefer open spaces and hands-on fieldwork, you might gravitate towards civil or geological engineering.

No matter how niche, every engineering discipline contributes to society in some way. They also intersect and overlap in many ways. An aerospace engineer might rely on the insights of a materials engineer to choose the right components for a spacecraft. Similarly, a computer hardware engineer often collaborates with electrical engineers to ensure optimized system performance.

While each engineering field boasts unique allure and challenges, the best one for you hinges on aligning your aspirations and interests. By exploring the different types of engineering available, you can determine which is the best fit for you and your journey.

Discover more about SNHU’s engineering degrees: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you’ll learn and how to request information about the program.

*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill.

Joe Cote is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Follow him on Twitter @JoeCo2323.

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