What Are the Different Types of Engineering?

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By Hannah Muniz

Published on December 3, 2020

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Engineering is one of the most popular and lucrative majors college students can pursue. An in-demand STEM field, engineering offers an array of professional opportunities in many industries, such as those related to oil, renewable energy, and medicine.

In fact, there are so many types of engineering that students often aren't sure which they want to study. One of the first steps to figuring out whether an engineering degree is right for you — and, if so, which field you should choose — is to learn about the key differences among the major engineering branches.

The 5 Types of Engineering

Engineering is a broad term that encompasses any scientific or technological branch that deals primarily with designing and developing machines, engines, and other products or architectural structures. After all, to "engineer" something means to create, build, or design it.

Some types of engineering are considered subfields of other broader kinds of engineering.

Some types of engineering are considered subfields of other broader kinds of engineering. For example, environmental engineering is often described as a subset of civil engineering. Moreover, some branches, like industrial engineering, are considered interdisciplinary because they combine aspects from multiple disciplines.

There are also some types of engineering that fall into more than one category, as well as those that don't fit neatly in any category, such as nuclear engineering, biological engineering, and rehabilitation engineering.

Most sources divide engineering into the following five branches.

Civil Engineering

Often thought to be the oldest engineering discipline, civil engineering focuses on constructing, designing, and maintaining physical structures used by the public, such as dams, bridges, tunnels, roads, airports, subway systems, and water supply systems. Many of these engineers specialize in building eco-friendly architecture in an effort to combat climate change.

Civil engineers work in many industries, like transportation, urban planning, and space. Some famous civil engineering projects include the Great Wall of China, the Panama Canal, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Eiffel Tower.

Popular Subfields

  • Architectural engineering
  • Coastal engineering
  • Construction engineering
  • Earthquake engineering
  • Energy engineering
  • Environmental engineering
  • Forest engineering
  • Geotechnical engineering
  • Highway engineering
  • Hydraulic engineering
  • Mining/geological engineering
  • Municipal/urban engineering
  • Ocean engineering
  • Railway systems engineering
  • River engineering
  • Sanitary engineering
  • Solar engineering
  • Structural engineering
  • Sustainable engineering
  • Traffic engineering
  • Transport engineering
  • Utility engineering

Chemical Engineering

In the broadest sense of the term, chemical engineering deals with chemicals. These engineers design and manufacture materials and products by using scientific principles from the fields of chemistry, biology, math, and physics. They may also come up with innovative processes to use and transform energy.

Chemical engineers can work with microorganisms, food, pharmaceuticals, and fuels, and they often perform experiments and other tasks in labs. Many use computers to help design experiments.

Popular Subfields

  • Biochemical engineering
  • Biomedical engineering
  • Biomolecular engineering
  • Biotechnological engineering
  • Cellular engineering
  • Corrosion engineering
  • Food engineering
  • Genetic engineering
  • Materials engineering
  • Metallurgical engineering
  • Microbial engineering
  • Molecular engineering
  • Paper engineering
  • Petroleum engineering
  • Pharmaceutical engineering
  • Plastics engineering
  • Polymer engineering
  • Process engineering
  • Textile engineering
  • Tissue engineering
  • Welding engineering

Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineering entails the development and production of mechanical systems and other devices in motion. These professionals use problem-solving, critical thinking, and the principles of math and physics to transform concepts into fully functional products, like ships, firearms, household appliances, turbines, and vehicles.

Today's mechanical engineers rely on many of the same core components that have been utilized for thousands of years, including wheels, springs, screws, and axles.

Popular Subfields

  • Acoustical engineering
  • Aeronautical engineering
  • Aerospace engineering
  • Agricultural engineering
  • Astronautical engineering
  • Automotive engineering
  • Manufacturing engineering
  • Marine engineering
  • Mechatronics engineering
  • Power plant engineering
  • Robotics engineering
  • Sports engineering
  • Thermal engineering
  • Wind engineering

Electrical Engineering

A relatively new branch of engineering introduced in the 19th century, electrical engineering focuses on electrical equipment and electronics. These engineers design, test, and maintain devices that use or produce electricity, from small objects like microchips, lights, and computers, to large-scale projects like satellites and power station generators.

Most electrical engineers complete tasks in an office or lab, though on-site work is also common.

Popular Subfields

  • Computer engineering
  • Data engineering
  • Electronics engineering
  • Hardware engineering
  • Information technology engineering
  • Mechatronics engineering
  • Microelectronic engineering
  • Nanoengineering
  • Network engineering
  • Optical engineering
  • Power engineering
  • Telecommunications engineering
  • Web engineering

Industrial Engineering

The final major engineering branch is industrial engineering, which combines engineering with general business practices to reduce costs, improve quality, and increase efficiency. These specialists often find employment in industries related to service, entertainment, and healthcare, among others. As an industrial engineer, you must be able to work well with people and prioritize safety and productivity.

Industrial engineers' primary tasks may include designing facilities and information systems, managing inventories, overseeing personnel assignments, and ensuring workplace safety.

Popular Subfields

  • Apparel engineering
  • Component engineering
  • Financial engineering
  • Fire protection engineering
  • Manufacturing engineering
  • Safety engineering
  • Supply chain engineering
  • Systems engineering
A scientist in protective gea rhandles a petri dish under a chemical hood.
Reptile 8488 / E+ / Getty Images

What Salary Can You Earn With an Engineering Degree?

You can expect to make a high salary with an engineering degree. You also shouldn't have much trouble landing a job with just a bachelor's degree, as most engineering positions do not require candidates to have completed graduate school. That said, there are plenty of master's of engineering programs that will set you up for success.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, professionals working architecture and engineering jobs make a median annual income of $81,440 — about $40,000 more than the median income for all jobs in the U.S. Naturally, though, certain types of engineering jobs can bring in higher wages than others, depending on factors like demand and industry.

Here are the median salaries for some of the most popular engineering branches.

Engineering Type Median Salary (May 2019) Job Growth Rate (2019-29)
Petroleum Engineers $137,720 3%
Computer Hardware Engineers $117,220 2%
Aerospace Engineers $116,500 3%
Nuclear Engineers $113,460 -13%
Chemical Engineers $108,770 4%
Electrical and Electronics Engineers $101,250 3%
Materials Engineers $93,360 2%
Marine Engineers $92,400 1%
Biomedical Engineers $91,410 5%
Health and Safety Engineers $91,410 4%
Mining and Geological Engineers $91,160 4%
Environmental Engineers $88,860 3%
Mechanical Engineers $88,430 4%
Industrial Engineers $88,020 10%
Civil Engineers $87,060 2%
Agricultural Engineers $80,720 2%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is the Hardest Engineering Major?

Engineering is a notoriously challenging field for college students. These majors require lots of homework and classes that cover high-level topics like advanced calculus and physics. But some engineering majors may be less exacting than others.

The general consensus is that engineering majors that place the heaviest emphasis on math and science — such as chemical engineering — tend to be more challenging for students.

Engineering majors that place the heaviest emphasis on math and science — such as chemical engineering — tend to be more challenging for students.

A 2016 study examined the average time students in different majors spent preparing for class each week. The majors that required more prep time were considered more difficult.

Here is a quick recap of the three hardest and three easiest engineering majors based on the number of hours students spent preparing for class in a typical week:

Top 3 Hardest Engineering Majors true
  1. Chemical engineering (19.66 hours)
  2. Aero and astronautical engineering (19.24 hours)
  3. Biomedical engineering (18.82 hours)
Top 3 Easiest Engineering Majors true
  1. Industrial engineering (15.68 hours)
  2. Computer engineering and technology (16.46 hours)
  3. Civil engineering (17.40 hours)
A pair of engineers in hard hats and yellow vests check out a laptop computer while the sun sets behind a row of wind turbines.
aydinmutlu / E+ / Getty Images

Should You Major in Engineering?

Engineering is an in-demand tech field with tons of options for specializations and industries to work in. When determining whether you should major in engineering, think about your interests, skills, and professional goals.

Here are three questions to consider before deciding whether to declare an engineering major.

Are You Good at Math and Science?

Math and science are the two biggest staples of engineering degrees, no matter which type of engineering you study. For most undergraduate engineering programs, you'll take classes in subjects like calculus, algebra, statistics, physics, chemistry, and biology; you'll also likely have to take several labs.

Do You Enjoy Solving Problems?

All engineering features problem-solving. Your main duty is to think of workable solutions to issues so you can ultimately make the world a better, safer, and more efficient place. If you consider yourself a strong critical thinker, an engineering major may be a good fit for you.

Are You Prepared to Work Hard in School?

Many students consider engineering majors to be some of the hardest programs available. If you're thinking about pursuing this popular STEM field, you need to be aware of the expectations that'll be placed upon you while in school. In addition to several hours of homework each week, engineering programs may also require you to maintain a minimum GPA.

Feature Image: Prapass Pulsub / Moment / Getty Images

Feeling first-day-of-college jitters? Learn what to expect and how to prepare for the first day of class. Looking for a good school in the Southwest? Check out our list of the top 10 online colleges in the southwestern United States. Students can make college life easier by bringing 10 documents that are essential for study, work, and other aspects of student life.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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