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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 in hardhats and yellow safety vests looking at a metal clipboard on a construction site with the text Different Types of Engineering

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, designed to solve those problems. 

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

1. Chemical Engineering

  • 2020 median salary: $108,540
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Job growth outlook through 2030: 9%
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 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They often work in offices and laboratories, and nearly all of them work full-time, according to BLS.

Chemical engineers use their knowledge in the sciences as well as 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 the production of chemicals, fuels, foods, pharmaceuticals and biologicals, just 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.

2. Civil Engineering

  • 2020 median salary: $88,570 
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Job growth outlook through 2030: 8%

Civil engineers solve infrastructure problems. The projects they design, build and maintain span a wide range in both the public and private sector, 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.

3. 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.

Electrical engineering is one of the industries broadest fields, which means what you can do varies widely from one sector to another. From working with circuits, 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.

4. 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 of the engineering fields, according to BLS, and they can be found a huge 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.

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

Other Kinds of Engineering

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

  • 2020 median salary: $84,410
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Job growth outlook through 2030: 5%
  • Agricultural engineers work to ensure power supplies, machinery, structure and facilities as well as pollution and environmental issues concerning agriculture are running efficiently, according to BLS.

Biomedical Engineering

  • 2020 median salary: $92,620
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Job growth outlook through 2030: 6%
  • Biomedical and bioengineers work to combine engineering and science to research, design and create equipment, computer systems and software spanning a number of science fields, according to BLS.

Computer Hardware Engineering

  • 2020 median salary: $119,560
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Job growth outlook through 2030: 2%
  • Computer hardware engineers work with different computer systems and components such as circuit boards, processors, networks and routers to make sure they work together with the latest software. They research, design and develop these systems, according to BLS.

Environmental Engineering

  • 2020 median salary: $92,120
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Job growth outlook through 2030: 4%
  • Environmental engineers work to improve environmental issues globally such as unsafe drinking water, climate change, public and sustainability by combining the principles of biology, chemistry, soil science and engineering, according to BLS.

Health and Safety Engineering

  • 2020 median salary: $94,240
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Job growth outlook through 2030: 6%
  • Health and safety engineers combine engineering, health and safety to develop and design systems to protect peopleand properties from harm, illness and injury. They ensure the safety of products such as machinery, software and chemicals, according to BLS.

Industrial Engineering

  • 2020 median salary: $88,950
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Job growth outlook through 2030: 14%
  • Industrial engineers design systems that combine workers, machines and more to create a product or service to efficiently eliminate wastefulness in production processes, according to BLS.

Marine Engineering

  • 2020 median salary: $95,440
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Job outlook through 2030: 4%
  • Marine engineers care for the internal systems of a ship including the electrical, steering systems and more. They also design and build the ships such as submarines, sailboats and tankers, according to BLS.

Materials Engineering

  • 2020 median salary: $95,640
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Job growth outlook through 2030: 8%
  • Materials engineers study the properties and structures of metals, ceramics, plastics and more. They monitor how new materials perform and design testing procedures for a number of different materials in products ranging from computer chips, aircraft wings and golf clubs, according to BLS.

Mining and Geological Engineering

  • 2020 median salary: $93,800
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Job growth outlook through 2030: 4%
  • 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 in a safe and efficient way for manufacturing and utility use, according to BLS.

Nuclear Engineering

  • 2020 median salary: $116,140
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Nuclear engineers work on different systems and instruments that can derive the benefits of nuclear energy. They research and develop nuclear equipment for a number of different industries from medical treatments, ships and spacecraft, according to BLS.

Petroleum Engineering

  • 2020 median salary: $137,330
  • Typical required education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Job growth outlook through 2030: 8%
  • Petroleum engineers work to extract oil and gas from below Earth’s surface by designing and developing new methods, according to BLS.

Which is the Best Field in Engineering?

With so many different fields being in engineering a natural question is: Which one is the best? While most differ in work environment, salary, education and job growth, the answer to this question depends solely on the individual. Someone who wants to work in a medical facility, for example, will have a different ideal engineering field than someone who wants to work outdoors with geology.

Understanding your own background and career goals can go a long way in helping you determine which engineering field interests you the most. Successfully pairing your goals with the appropriate field could be your first step prior to pursuing the necessary education.

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.

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

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