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What Does a Career in Mechanical Engineering Look Like?

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Mechanical engineering is usually more hands-on than other types of engineering, and roles for mechanical engineers appear in most technology fields.

But what is mechanical engineering, and what is a mechanical engineer? Mechanical engineers look at complex machine problems and imagine how new devices or improvements might solve those problems. They enjoy employment across a swath of industries and have a 4% projected job growth rate, according to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projections. 

How can aspiring professionals become mechanical engineers? This guide offers resources on the ins and outs of mechanical engineering, including FAQs, popular career paths, and salary potential.

What Does a Mechanical Engineer Do?

Mechanical engieers design and build heavy machinery, engines, and thermal sensors. This process starts with research to determine how the new device should work and includes extensive troubleshooting to ensure proper functionality. Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest and most versatile engineering subfields.

Some mechanical engineers work with power-producing machines, while others focus on buildings, transportation, or computer technology. 

Typical duties include data analysis to determine problems, redesign efforts to solve those problems, and prototype testing. In addition, some mechanical engineers monitor systems or machines for optimal performance. They may also oversee the manufacturing process to monitor scale and efficiency. 

Most companies only require a relevant bachelor's degree for entry-level employment. However, because it is such a broad and adaptable field, many learners also pursue a master's degree in mechanical engineering to specialize their skills. This additional expertise can expand job prospects and increase earning power. 

Some professionals also obtain professional certification in mechanical engineering. While not a standard requirement for most employmers, a certification verifies advanced skills and expertise, which can give job candidates a leg up on the competition.

Where Do Mechanical Engineers Work?

The automotive and manufacturing industries are the most popular arenas for this occupation, but mechanical engineers work in nearly every job sector. Additional industries include robotics and computer technology, petroleum and refinement, fuel cell development, and thermo-science. According to the BLS, the architecture, machinery manufacturing, research and development services, and aerospace industries have the highest levels of employment for mechanical engineers. 

Typical work schedules, settings, and job duties vary by industry. Most mechanical engineers work out of large offices and collaborate with scientists, designers, and technology experts. They generally work full time and frequently travel to sites in order to test equipment or scout locations for future projects. They often interact with advanced computer systems and may have managerial responsibilities if they are employed by a large company or contracting firm. 

A recent Glassdoor data set lists Illumina, Johnson & Johnson, Boston Scientific, and John Deere among the top companies that employ mechanical engineers in the United States. It also mentions cutting-edge technology companies like Microsoft, Apple, and SpaceX.

Skills

High-valued mechanical engineering skills include systems evaluation, operation monitoring, and quality control. Mechanical engineers also need solid critical thinking and quantitative reasoning skills, which can help them solve complex problems and make crucial judgments on the job.

New learners and working professionals can deepen these skills by pursuing additional education or professional certification. A typical undergraduate program in mechanical engineering develops technical knowledge and gives degree-seekers ample time to hone their skills through projects.

Career Information

Prospective engineering majors may wonder: "how much does a mechanical engineer make?" The table below outlines median mechanical engineer salary prospects. Overall, the median wage for this occupation is higher than the national median for all careers. Nevertheless, earning potential varies widely, depending on factors like local demand, professional experience, and industry of employment.

Salary and Job Growth for Mechanical Engineers

Median Salary

$88,430

Job Growth (2018-2028)

4%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Highest Paying Cities for Mechanical Engineers

Similar Careers

Materials Engineers

These professionals extract, process, and test the raw materials used to develop composite products like computer chips, aircraft equipment, and sporting goods. They study the basic properties of metals, plastics, and other nanomaterials to help create new products and improve existing ones. They often work with computer models and other technical equipment.

Mathematicians

Engineering requires advanced quantitative knowledge, so mechanical engineers are often also qualified to work as mathematicians. Professionals in this area analyze statistical information and apply mathematical principles to solve complex technical problems in science and engineering. They normally work as part of a team alongside other scientists and engineering experts.

Nuclear Engineers

Nuclear engineers research nuclear energy, keep nuclear reactors operating safely, and find new uses for nuclear power, which requires many of the same skills mechanical engineers have. They also develop the tools and processes needed to safely work with radiation and other highly sensitive materials. Most nuclear engineers work in industrial or medical settings, generating new forms of power or developing sophisticated biomedical devices.

Why Become a Mechanical Engineer?

Many learners choose to become mechanical engineers because the role aligns with their natural abilities and pre-existing skill profiles. Analytical people who enjoy technical challenges and have solid skills in identifying patterns through deductive and inductive reasoning thrive as engineers. The occupation is also a great fit for students interested in mathematics, technology, or the physical sciences.

Mechanical engineers identify mechanical problems and work to build new tools and machines to solve those problems. Finding those solutions requires patience, technical know-how, and effective time management. Success is often determined by experimentation, trial and error, and consistent troubleshooting. As such, mechanical engineers often derive satisfaction from designing efficient and streamlined engineering solutions to increase productivity and improve societal infrastructure.

How to Get Hired

Aspiring mechanical engineers need an accredited undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering or a related field, and savvy degree-seekers will seek a course of study that builds skills in additional areas. If you want to work in the technology sector, for example, enrolling in a program that builds skills in computational dynamics and nanotechnology will broaden your employment prospects.

Additional tips for landing work as a mechanical engineer include starting professional networking before graduation, pursuing additional certifications that verify transferable skills, and seeking out continuing education opportunities after graduation. Many mechanical engineering programs offer career development initiatives, as do professional organizations like those listed below. These programs are a great way to jumpstart your engineering career.

Mechanical Engineering Professional Organizations

American Society of Mechanical Engineers

This organization promotes the multidisciplinary practice of engineering in allied science and other areas. It offers certification and accreditation resources as well as continuing education opportunities for new and experienced mechanical engineers.

Institution of Mechanical Engineers

Established in 1947, IME boasts over 120,000 members in 140 countries. It offers extensive training opportunities and regularly releases useful information on industry sectors in need of skilled mechanical engineers.

Society of Women Engineers

This society engages in sustained advocacy efforts to support women working in engineering and technology. It offers scholarships for new learners, supports outreach initiatives, and recognizes exemplary work and research in mechanical engineering.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Is Mechanical Engineering Important?

Engineers in this subfield create machines and mechanical structures required for manufacturing and commerce. As such, they are in demand in a wide variety of industries.

Is Mechanical Engineering a Stressful Job?

Most job-related stress for engineers stems from safety issues. Mechanical engineers work with heavy tools and machinery, which requires care, attention, and alertness.

How Do I Get Started in Mechanical Engineering?

Most working professionals get started by earning a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering or a related field. This gives them the advanced instruction in science, math, and design that they need to succeed in their careers.

Is Mechanical Engineering a Good Career?

The current outlook for mechanical engineers remains stable due to wide demand across job sectors. Mechanical engineers have the skills needed for a variety of industries, including the automotive and manufacturing industries.

Image Credit: Monty Rakusen | Getty Images

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