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What is Engineering?

Two engineers discussing what engineering is

Understanding the Numbers
When reviewing job growth and salary information, it’s important to remember that actual numbers can vary due to many different factors — like years of experience in the role, industry of employment, geographic location, worker skill and economic conditions. Cited projections do not guarantee actual salary or job growth.

Even if you don’t work in a science or technical field, you’ve likely heard of the engineering profession. There are dozens of types of engineers, with each type applying the concepts of math, science and art to solve problems, according to Jennifer Gorczyca, an associate professor of engineering at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

Often, solving these problems involves building something new, like a physical structure or a system, or improving upon existing structures or systems. Engineers are inherently problem solvers, according to Gorczyca. She says that engineers of every specialty share the same core skills and aptitudes:

  • Analytical thinking and problem-solving
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Curiosity about how things work
  • Math and science background

What is a Simple Definition of Engineering?

Daivd Guo with the text David GuoPut simply, engineers make things work. In fact, according to Brittanica, the words "engineer" and "ingenious" have the same Latin root, which means "to create." Being innovative is actually in the job title.

Put a bit more eloquently, "engineering is a practical way for human society to change, modify and improve the physical world around us so that humans can have a better life," said David Guo, an associate professor of engineering at SNHU. Engineering involves all kinds of activities used to build, create or modify things such as machines, tools and even environments.

While there are dozens of types of engineering, four major categories include:

  • Chemical engineers: who use knowledge of sciences 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).
  • Civil engineers: who solve infrastructure problems and work on projects like building bridges, highways, tunnels and dams, BLS reports. 
  • Electrical engineers: who focus on the design, testing and manufacturing of electrical components, such as designing motors, navigation and communication systems, according to BLS. 
  • Mechanical engineers: who design and build mechanical devices, such as engines, tools and machines, BLS notes. 

What Exactly Does an Engineer Do?

"Engineers are trained professionals who follow scientific principles, design new tools and machines, and build, fabricate and/or manufacture products," said Guo.

That encompasses a wide variety of projects and applications, and while there are many sub-specialties of engineering, being able to solve problems is a key skill that leads to success in any area.

Gorczyca notes that “in practice, engineers look at the world and think about how to make it better.” This can involve hands-on fieldwork, computer simulations or a combination of both.

Engineering is not just about math and science, even though technical skills feature heavily in the profession. Engineers must also think critically and creatively and have an innate sense of curiosity. Variety and flexibility are part of what makes the profession attractive to so many; there's an opportunity to shape your career based on your unique passions and interests.

"You can forge your own path while applying mathematics, science and even art,” said Gorczyca. The wide-ranging options for an engineering career make the profession truly customizable.

How Do I Become an Engineer?

The best way to get started is the same for any field: consider your interests. Chances are, if you’re interested in engineering, you were interested in science and how things work from a young age, according to Guo.

You may even be passionate about creating new things. What interests you personally, and what are your goals professionally? The answer will likely steer you in the right direction.

Jennifer Gorczyca with the text Jennifer GorczycaOnce you have narrowed down your personal and professional interests, look for an engineering program that overlaps with those interests. The list of options is seemingly endless. For example, Gorczyca knows mechanical engineers who have worked designing:

  • Airplane engines and automobiles
  • Amusement park rides
  • Assistive technologies
  • Fabrics in the fashion industry and shoes
  • Sporting equipment and toys

And those are just examples within the field of mechanical engineering. There are countless options in other areas of engineering as well.

Next, identify a college program that offers the particular area of engineering that you want, and investigate the admission requirements. From there, talk with an admission counselor to narrow down the best fit field of engineering for you.

What Qualifications Do You Need to be an Engineer?

A bachelor’s degree in the engineering field of your choice is the main requirement for a career in engineering, according to BLS. 

"A master’s degree is not necessary, but having one can help you specialize in areas of interest and advance your career,” Gorczyca said.

With that bachelor’s degree, the career outlook for engineers is quite strong. According to BLS, the 2021 median salaries for four broad types of engineering are:

Other types of engineering also offer strong salaries, all with a bachelor’s degree as the typically required education, according to BLS. Some popular options include:

  • Aerospace engineering: With a median salary of $122,270, according to BLS, this area of engineering focuses on the design of spacecraft, satellites, aircraft and even missiles.*
  • Computer science with a concentration in software engineering: This area of engineering focuses on the design of software and computer design programs, and BLS reports a median salary of $109,020 per year.*
  • Game programming and development: With a median salary of $93,000 per year, according to BLS, this area of engineering focuses on computer programming and coding in a variety of career areas, including video game design.*

Whichever area of engineering you choose, know that the rewards come in knowing that you are making a real difference in the world while doing work that suits your interests and abilities.

The profession will also make you a lifelong learner. Engineering demands an in-depth understanding of scientific principles and hands-on experiences. It also requires the need to stay current in the industry with the latest tools, discoveries and knowledge surrounding each area of the field. Ongoing education will help you stay competitive in the job market.

What is the Day-to-Day Life of an Engineer Like?

Because the profession is so varied, a typical day is not very typical. An aerospace engineer may have a very different day than a chemical engineer, for example. An engineer working for a public agency may have a different working environment than someone working for a private corporation.

“Some engineers work in an office setting while others work in the field,” Gorczyca said. Engineers could also work on several projects simultaneously, according to Guo. He emphasizes project work as a major component of the daily lives of engineers. Project work involves:

  • Research
  • Modeling
  • Design
  • Prototyping development
  • Testing
  • Verifications

Teamwork and communication are also essential parts of day-to-day work for engineers.

The profession can involve some or no travel, lots of lead time on creating deliverables or very little lead time. By considering the type of projects that interest you most, the area of engineering in which you specialize will largely dictate the type of projects on which you work.

That variety is one of the things that Gorczyca likes the best about the profession.

“I have worked on projects related to automobile crashworthiness, sporting equipment including helmets and baseball bats and air filtration, to name just a few,” she said. Gorczyca also enjoys sharing her knowledge and expertise through writing articles for publication and in the classroom as a professor.

How Hard is it to Be an Engineer?

While engineering, like most professions, can be quite challenging, it is a profession that can bring about a great sense of achievement and success.

“For someone to choose this career, they will also have respect and job security because engineers are generally well-respected in the United States,” said Guo.

A strong sense of ethics, professional responsibility and accountability are key to success in this profession. "While any person can make mistakes, wrongful activities in engineering can cause more major harm and damage to humanity," said Guo.

For these reasons, having sound foundational STEM skills and a strong moral compass will help lead to success.

Engineering is a career based on problem solving and bringing new things into the world that did not exist previously. Guo finds a great sense of achievement and success to be the best parts of working as an engineer, and Gorczyca enjoys the challenge of shaping her career based on her interests and passions.

Ultimately, whichever part of engineering you choose, you will be providing inspiration, innovation and ingenuity to creating new things and making the world a better place, one project at a time.

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.

Marie Morganelli, Ph.D. is a freelance content writer and editor. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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