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Types of Engineering Degrees

Michael McCarthy

Written By: Michael McCarthy

Published: 8/5/2022

Engineering is a broad discipline encompassing work in a wide variety of industries. Most students pursue a focused course of study in a particular specialization rather than a general engineering degree. But with so many options, you might find it difficult to choose which engineering discipline to study.

As you read, ask yourself questions to help narrow your search. What kinds of technical problems excite your interest? Which branches of math and science appeal to you most? In what sort of work environment do you think you'll thrive? Read on to discover which varieties of engineering align with your answers.

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Types of Engineering Degrees

Most engineering programs highlight practical applications of science and mathematics, and students often develop nontechnical skills such as analytical reasoning and problem-solving. The key differences are in the fields that engineers apply their knowledge and skills to.

Below, we detail different types of engineering degrees to help you understand which majors might suit your educational interests and career goals. In general, bachelor's degrees cover the foundational principles of the disciplines and master's degrees feature specialized concentrations that let you focus on a specific subfield. This list is not exhaustive — for example, you can also pursue a degree in biomedical engineering and work in healthcare. But for each discipline listed here, you can follow the links to find rankings of degree programs, along with information about the curriculum and possible careers.

Civil Engineering Degrees

A civil engineering education trains students to create and improve public infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and dams. Students need to understand structural mechanics, the effects of forces, and how to navigate legal and policy restrictions on projects.

This category contains several subfield concentrations, such as materials engineering, and has some curriculum overlap with environmental engineering. If you pursue a master's degree, you'll most likely need to choose a concentration such as geomechanics, water resources, or construction engineering.

Electrical Engineering Degrees

A bachelor's in electrical engineering aims to produce engineers who can harness electricity for design and manufacturing. Coursework typically begins with basic circuitry and progresses through complex labs that use a range of transducers.

Some programs encourage double majors or minors in related fields such as environmental or mechanical engineering. Electrical engineering master's degrees contain more advanced coursework and often include concentrations, such as multimedia networking, robotics, or microelectronics.

Mechanical Engineering Degrees

During their mechanical engineering bachelor's programs, future practitioners study how to design, test, and build complex machinery to automate processes. Other types of engineers use these applications in their own work, including industrial, chemical, civil, and aerospace professionals. As such, you'll be exposed to the principles of other disciplines during a mechanical engineering program, such as materials science, nanotechnology, electronics, and manufacturing processes.

Almost all master's degrees require you to select a concentration, which might include thermofluids, design, or controls and manufacturing. This allows you to focus your education on courses that may help you seek the type of job you prefer.

Chemical Engineering Degrees

Education in chemical engineering focuses less on scientific theory than on applying chemistry while designing and creating products. You'll take many chemistry courses in a degree program, but also physics classes covering fluid dynamics and thermodynamics. Master's program concentrations include biochemical engineering, environmental chemical engineering, and petroleum chemistry.

As with other engineering careers, you may find yourself working alongside other varieties of engineers in settings ranging from manufacturing plants to research and design labs.

Software Engineering Degrees

A typical software engineering curriculum is full of math but not nearly as much hard science as other engineering subfields. This is because your goal as a software professional is more abstract: making computers perform specific functions.

Beyond all the math and logic coursework, bachelor's programs also contain classes on computer science topics such as programming languages, computer systems and networks, artificial intelligence, and database management. Common master's degree specializations include web engineering and game design.

Industrial Engineering Degrees

You might be interested in industrial engineering if you want to design the processes that make manufacturing facilities run. At the bachelor's level, you'll receive an education in materials science, systems design, electricity, automation, and quality assurance. An industrial engineering master's may let you specialize in an area such as advanced analytics, quality control, optimization modeling, or supply chain management.

Because safety is a crucial part of an industrial engineer's job, you'll spend lots of time learning how people interact with machines. This discipline features many commonalities with manufacturing engineering, and some employers may prefer one title to the other.

Aerospace Engineering Degrees

If you're dedicated to making flying machines, then you might consider a degree in aerospace engineering. These programs' curricula share some features with mechanical and industrial engineering degrees, but the special nature of airframes and flight dynamics sets them apart.

You'll usually learn about both space and atmospheric flight — commonly called astronautical and aeronautical engineering, respectively — during an undergraduate program. But you may be able to concentrate on one specialty during a master's degree program.

Systems Engineering Degrees

Systems engineers are the big-picture thinkers of engineering, and bachelor's degrees in this major are loaded with lessons on systems and their interactions. Master's programs usually allow you to focus on one type of system, such as human systems, software, or transportation.

You can potentially work in a variety of fields after graduating, helping managers improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their teams, processes, and organizations. Your work might encompass mechanical systems — such as automated robots in factories — or more abstract systems, such as workforce scheduling or algorithms for software.

Computer Engineering Degrees

The world runs on computers, and a computer engineering bachelor's degree may teach you how to build and improve them. Even distributed cloud networks ultimately rely on the computer hardware and infrastructure that these engineers design.

However, the increasing popularity of the cloud model means that this profession is growing slower than most engineering disciplines. A master's degree in this discipline may make you more marketable by helping you specialize in an area such as embedded systems, networking, or architecture.

Still undecided on your degree? Check out our hubs for the best online bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs to explore degree options in other fields.

Which Type of Engineering Should I Study?

Your answer to this question should account for your interests and abilities as well as your goals. All of these things can change, but we hope to give you some tools that might help you make the most informed decision you can. 

What knowledge do I already have?

Your current knowledge likely reflects your interests, because what we read on our own time tends to reflect subjects that intrigue us. But it's not crucial to hold existing expertise before starting a degree program — after all, college is all about exploring new avenues in your learning.

What am I interested in learning?

What gaps do you want to fill in your existing knowledge? Students are generally more engaged in school and perform better when they enjoy the subject matter. Therefore, there's a good chance that you'll do better in college or graduate school if you're excited by the material. You can read about engineering curricula and common courses on our individual program pages linked above for an idea of what to expect during each program. Many colleges also post the entire degree plan for their individual programs, so check each school's engineering department page.

What is the job outlook for careers in a particular major?

As mentioned, all engineering fields draw from a well of similar skills and abilities. However, not all of them enjoy the same job growth rate. Most types of engineering are growing at roughly the average rate for all U.S. occupations, which is about 8%. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the fastest growing engineering field is industrial, with a projected 14% growth rate in the 2020-2030 period. Nuclear engineering is facing the most dramatic slowdown, with the BLS predicting an 8% decline in new jobs in that same period thanks to a changing energy market. If you're concerned about your degree's marketability, keep an eye on BLS projections. You can also consult unemployment studies such as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's frequently updated Labor Market for Recent College Graduates page.

Which types of engineering pay the most?

The good news is that all forms of engineering tend to lead to lucrative careers. On the whole, petroleum engineering pays the most at a median annual salary of $130,850. BLS figures put agricultural engineering toward the bottom of the pay scale, but the $82,640 yearly wage for this profession is still nearly twice the median rate for all jobs combined.

What are my long-term education and career goals?

You can enter any engineering field with a bachelor's degree. But if you want to advance to roles with more responsibility and better pay, you might consider a graduate degree. Colleges offer master's degrees in most engineering disciplines, or you can pursue a master's in engineering management if you want to lead teams of engineers and engineering technologists. Earning a doctoral degree is another route if you're interested in advancing your discipline through original research.

Bottom Line

To thrive in any engineering discipline, you need an aptitude for complex mathematics, applied physics and chemistry, and critical thinking. But some varieties may appeal to you more than others — you can research the differences using the degree program pages on our site. It may also help to ask yourself a series of questions about your knowledge, your career goals, and the job-market outlook for each branch of engineering.

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