The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment opportunities for mechanical engineers will increase by 9% from 2016 to 2026, slightly faster than the average rate of growth for the rest of the economy. Certain related fields, however, should experience significantly faster expansion. For example, the BLS projects that demand for petroleum engineers will grow by 15% during the same time period.
In addition to strong job prospects, mechanical engineering careers also offer exceptional earning potential. In 2018, mechanical engineers earned a median salary of $87,370, more than double the median pay for all other occupations. Architectural and engineering managers earned a median salary of nearly $141,000 that same year. While you can qualify for most of these lucrative positions with a bachelor's degree, some senior-level roles may require a master's degree.
This page provides an overview of mechanical engineering career paths, including additional information on educational requirements, available concentrations, and advice on finding a job after graduation. It also features an interview with a licensed mechanical engineer and professional engineering career advisor.
Skills Gained in a Mechanical Engineering Program
Mechanical engineers work in a wide variety of fields, including automotive research, heating and cooling systems design, electric generator inspection, and robotics development. As such, mechanical engineering programs must introduce students to a broad set of skills and knowledge. To prepare for more specific roles in their chosen industry, engineering students may also participate in internships, cooperative education experiences, on-the-job training, or professional certification programs.
- Communication Skills
- Mechanical engineers must know how to communicate effectively with diverse audiences. To inform design efforts, engineers often need to speak directly with clients to understand their needs. They may also collaborate with architects, computer scientists, and other experts to address specific challenges.
- Math Skills
- Math lies at the heart of engineering. To develop the skills needed to design, analyze, and troubleshoot complex mechanical systems, engineering students typically must complete substantial coursework in calculus, trigonometry, physics, and statistics. They also hone advanced math skills through project-based learning.
- Computer Skills
- Mechanical engineers use computers in nearly all facets of their work. For example, many engineers use specialized software to run simulations, design machinery, and generate component specifications. While students develop computer competency throughout their curriculum, many choose to take elective classes in areas like electronic circuitry, software engineering, and database management.
- Mechanical Skills
- Mechanical skills refers to the ability to design and build physical tools, machines, and other devices. An engineer working in the aeronautics industry, for example, must be able to build and repair jet engines. A nuclear engineer may need to maintain and upgrade safety and emergency response systems.
- Problem-Solving Skills
- Engineering answers the question, "how?" In preparation for their work developing solutions to challenges, engineering students learn about mathematical models for analyzing problems and frameworks used to evaluate design choices. They also study forensic engineering, the process of identifying the causes of failed designs and implementations.
Why Pursue a Career in Mechanical Engineering?
Careers in mechanical engineering offer you the chance to solve problems, drive discovery, and help shape the world. For example, a mechanical engineer in the aerospace field might design robotic probes used to explore the far reaches of the solar system. An engineer working for a medical device manufacturer might develop new diagnostic tools to help detect disease earlier and save lives.
Mechanical engineering jobs also offer exceptional salaries. According to the BLS, mechanical engineering technicians earned nearly $18,000 more in 2018 than the median pay for all other occupations. This role typically requires only an associate degree or postsecondary certificate. Continuing your education and pursuing a specialization can lead to even higher compensation. For instance, aerospace engineers, chemical engineers, and computer hardware engineers all commanded median salaries above $100,000 in 2018. Petroleum engineers can earn even more, with a median salary in 2018 exceeding $137,000.
Working in mechanical engineering also provides ample opportunity for career advancement. From 2016 to 2026, the BLS projects that demand for engineering managers will increase by roughly 6%. Many engineers also seek licensure as a professional engineer (PE), allowing them to take on leadership roles and provide engineering services directly to the public as independent contractors.
How Much Do Mechanical Engineering Graduates Make?
The earning potential of mechanical engineering graduates depends on several factors, including chosen industry, job location, and the degree earned. For example, according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, mechanical engineers with a graduate degree earn approximately $20,000 more per year than those with just a bachelor's.
The amount of professional experience you have also plays a large part in shaping your overall compensation. Median salaries tend to increase as mechanical engineering majors advance in their careers.
Thomas Anderson is a licensed mechanical engineer with 10 years of experience and is proud to be a licensed professional engineer. He enjoys helping other engineers improve and discover their communication skills to obtain the career of their dreams. As the founder of Engineer Your Career, Thomas uses his talent and experience to provide the best possible future for others by mentoring, coaching, and creating content for young engineers.
- What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of working as a mechanical engineer?
Engineers answer the question of "how?" How do we get to the moon? How do we cross a river? How do we fly like a bird? We design, create, and innovate using the scientific method. An engineer works between scientific discoveries and the applications that meet societal and consumer needs. It's not easy. Day to day, project to project -- tasks, duties, challenges, and parameters change. Engineering is a constant problem-solving process, with many problems happening at the same time. There's always a problem to solve, and that's why I love it.
- What should students look for in a mechanical engineering program?
Your engineering education is very important. It's important to pick a college you enjoy, one that emphasizes good teaching, and has a well-established student engineering program. Be sure to pick an engineering school that is ABET-accredited, is the proper size for you, specializes in areas that you're interested in, and meets your tuition goals.
Also consider the difference between an engineering technology program and a standard engineering curriculum. An engineering technology program can limit your ability to obtain your engineering license down the road.
- What types of jobs does a mechanical engineering degree prepare students for?
Mechanical engineering is the application of the principles of engineering, physics, and material science in order to design, analyze, manufacture, and maintain various mechanical systems. It is one of the broadest branches of engineering and can vary widely from job to job. A mechanical engineering graduate can land a position with NASA, Dick's Sporting Goods, Disney, Ford, Coca-Cola -- you name it. There are many different opportunities out there.
- Are certificates and certifications important for aspiring mechanical engineers? If so, which ones can make an individual stand out?
Certificates and certifications are very important to an engineer. Below are the most popular options for mechanical engineers.
One of the most essential credentials an engineer can obtain is the engineer-in-training (EIT) certificate, earned bypassing the fundamentals of engineering (FE) exam. The FE exam is the first step in earning your professional engineer (PE) license. To perform consulting work, work for the government, or stamp [approve] critical engineering documents, you will have to first pass the FE and then the PE to become a registered, licensed engineer. Each state has its own licensing requirements in order to protect the safety, health, welfare, and property of its people.
A project management professional (PMP) certificate is for those engineers who would like to gain knowledge and certification in project management. It was created by the Project Management Institute (PMI®), a nonprofit organization whose goal is to advance the profession of project management.
LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It is a popular green building certification developed by a nonprofit organization, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The USGBC uses a rating system for the design, operation, construction, and maintenance of commercial buildings, homes, and neighborhoods. The program helps building owners and operators to be environmentally friendly and use resources more responsibly. The USGBC also certifies engineers and other professionals.
Lean Six Sigma is a methodology that relies on a collaborative team effort to improve performance by systematically removing waste and reducing variation. It combines lean manufacturing/lean enterprise and Six Sigma to eliminate eight kinds of waste. Lean Six Sigma not only reduces process defects and waste, but it also provides a framework for overall organizational culture change.
- What job search advice can you share for those in your field?
In my conversations with young engineers, one question prevails over the rest: "I've filled out hundreds of online applications and I have only gotten a few responses. How do I land my first engineering job?" It's too common. Get out and start networking. Talk to professionals, join engineering organizations, volunteer, and go to conferences. It's difficult to land an entry-level job without a network. So get yourself out there and start building a network.
How to Become a Mechanical Engineer
Earn Your Degree
Entry-level jobs such as drafter, industrial engineering technician, and mechanical engineering technician typically require only an associate degree or a postsecondary certificate. Many community colleges offer programs in mechanical engineering that can be completed by full-time students in two years or less.
To become an engineer, however, you must first earn a bachelor's degree. Most employers prefer to hire candidates who attended a school or program that holds accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). If you hope to pursue your PE license, you must have an ABET-accredited undergraduate degree and at least four years of relevant professional experience. You must also pass both the FE and PE exams.
Although it is usually not required, a master's degree in mechanical engineering may give you a competitive edge when applying for managerial or supervisory positions. Graduate programs often combine advanced instruction in engineering concepts and practices with coursework in areas like project management, financial administration, and organizational development.
Finally, colleges and universities often require faculty to hold a Ph.D. in their area of expertise. A doctorate in mechanical engineering may also prepare you for opportunities in policy or research and development.
How Many Years of College Does It Take to Become a Mechanical Engineer?
Most bachelor's programs in mechanical engineering consist of 120 credits, which full-time students usually complete in four years. Part-time learners may need up to eight years to meet all their program's graduation requirements.
You can graduate faster in one of several ways. If you already hold an associate degree, you may be able to transfer up to 60 credits toward a bachelor's, allowing you to finish your education in as little as two years. Some online programs also feature accelerated tracks, allowing you to advance through your coursework as soon as you demonstrate mastery of core concepts and skills.
Master's programs in mechanical engineering usually require two years of additional study. Doctoral candidates may need 4-7 years to earn their degree.
Concentrations Available for Mechanical Engineering Majors
- Design and Manufacturing
- Students who specialize in this area usually complete a generalized course of study to prepare for careers in a wide variety of industries, including medical device development, transportation, and computer manufacturing. Coursework covers subjects such as design optimization, additive manufacturing, design ideation, and manufacturing processes.
- Energy and the Environment
- After completing a concentration in energy and the environment, students are prepared to embark on careers at oil, natural gas, solar, wind, and hydroelectric power companies. They may also work for the government, ensuring compliance with state and federal regulations. Learners often take classes in areas like modern climate control engineering, energy audits of buildings, and pollution and waste technology.
- Robotics and Mechatronics
- Mechatronics is an interdisciplinary branch of engineering that focuses on the design and development of both mechanical and electrical systems. This concentration applies to diverse fields, including machine vision, servo-mechanics, and structural dynamics. To prepare for this work, students explore topics like assistive robotics, the "internet of things," and biologically inspired devices.
- Automotive Design
- Many mechanical engineers work for car or auto parts manufacturers, designing internal combustion engines, anti-lock brake systems, and other components. The growing presence of self-driving cars and trucks should lead to increased demand for engineers with expertise in areas like collision avoidance, autonomous navigation, and remote communication systems.
- Aeronautical Engineering
- Aeronautical engineers design, build, test, and maintain both aircraft and spacecraft. Students specializing in this area usually take courses in flight dynamics and simulation, propulsion, and stability and control. They may also complete an internship or field experience with a government agency or aerospace and defense corporation.
What Can You Do With a Mechanical Engineering Degree?
Your professional opportunities in mechanical engineering largely depend on the type of degree you earn. With an associate degree or postsecondary certificate, you can take on entry-level positions, supporting the work of engineers by recording and analyzing data, preparing layouts and specifications, and ensuring that project instructions and blueprints are followed.
With a bachelor's degree, you can work as a mechanical engineer, leading the design and construction of various devices, tools, engines, and machines. A bachelor's also allows you to apply for licensure as a PE. To serve as a biomedical, chemical, nuclear, or petroleum engineer, you may need to supplement your undergraduate coursework with specialized elective classes.
For some supervisory roles, companies may prefer to hire candidates with a master's degree. Finally, if you plan to teach or conduct research at a college or university, you typically must earn a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering or a closely related field.
Bachelor's Degree in Mechanical Engineering
To work as a mechanical engineer, you must have at least a bachelor's degree. Undergraduate programs typically begin with general education classes in subjects like English and the humanities. Students then advance into major-specific coursework, exploring topics like solid mechanics, dynamics and vibrations, and manufacturing systems and controls. These programs also usually offer significant instruction in physics and advanced mathematics.
Many colleges also require or strongly encourage their students to participate in an internship or complete a field-based capstone project. This gives students the opportunity to apply their classroom learning in a real-world engineering context and grow their professional network.
- Mechanical Designer
Mechanical designers, also known as drafters or design technicians, create plans for various devices and machines such as refrigerators, elevators, and assembly line equipment. They usually work under the supervision of a mechanical engineer. While a bachelor's degree is not necessarily required for this role, designers who hope to advance will ultimately need to earn licensure.
Average Annual Salary: $59,035
- Mechanical Engineer
Mechanical engineers design, develop, and evaluate mechanical devices. They analyze problems, use computer-aided design (CAD) software to create blueprints and specifications, and test device prototypes. They may also oversee the manufacturing process. Most mechanical engineers hold a bachelor's degree.
Average Annual Salary: $69,694
Master's Degree in Mechanical Engineering
Earning a master's degree in mechanical engineering prepares you for specialized and supervisory roles. Most master's programs consist of 30-60 credits, with full-time students usually earning their degree in one or two years.
Mechanical engineering graduate programs typically feature advanced coursework in subjects like fluid mechanics, energy utilization, and CAD. Students can also customize their degree plan and prepare for specific careers through electives in areas such as automotive manufacturing, aeronautics, or bioengineering. When hiring engineering managers, many companies prefer candidates who have taken graduate-level classes in business administration.
Finally, a master's degree may help improve your chances of earning admission into a doctoral program.
- Senior Mechanical Engineer
Senior mechanical engineers oversee the work of junior engineers and engineering technicians. They typically hold licensure as a professional engineer, which allows them to serve as supervisors, approve projects, and provide engineering services directly to the public. While the licensing process requires only a bachelor's, many senior engineers opt to pursue an advanced degree.
Average Annual Salary: $96,274
- Aerospace Engineer
Aerospace engineers design, construct, and test aircraft, spacecraft, and satellites. They often develop expertise in a particular facet of aerospace engineering, such as thermodynamics, celestial mechanics, or guidance and control systems.
Average Annual Salary: $82,656
Doctoral Degree in Mechanical Engineering
You must hold a doctoral degree to qualify for college and university teaching positions or senior research and development roles. While most academics pursue a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, some may elect to earn a doctor of engineering science (Eng.Sc.D.) degree to prepare for more practice-oriented careers.
The time needed to earn a doctorate can vary considerably. Most programs begin with three years of full-time coursework, followed by a comprehensive examination. After passing the exam, Ph.D. students conduct research and write their dissertation. Eng.Sc.D. students may instead complete a doctoral project.
Ph.D. candidates generally earn their degree in 4-7 years. Most full-time Eng.Sc.D. students graduate in three or four years.
- Research and Development Manager
Research and development managers oversee the design and production of new technologies and products. They often hire and manage teams of engineers, create departmental budgets, and offer strategic advice to senior leadership.
Average Annual Salary: $96,644
- Principal Mechanical Engineer
Principal mechanical engineers often act as chief engineering officers, though in larger organizations they may work alongside other lead engineers. Principal engineers supervise managers and team leaders, marshal human and financial resources to achieve project goals, and play a key role in shaping overall organizational strategy.
Average Annual Salary: $118,162
Where Can I Work as a Mechanical Engineering Graduate?
Mechanical engineers work across the country in a wide variety of industries, designing and developing new products. Others conduct research for colleges, universities, and government agencies.
After you graduate, your professional opportunities will be shaped by where you live, the industry in which you choose to work, and the degrees, certifications, and licenses you have earned.
Job and earning prospects for mechanical engineering graduates can vary considerably from state to state. According to the BLS, nearly 44,000 mechanical engineers worked in Michigan in 2018, many of them employed by the automotive industry. That same year, only 430 mechanical engineers worked in Alaska, but they earned an annual mean wage of $128,690 -- the highest in the nation.
Generally speaking, urban centers offer better job opportunities and higher salaries than more rural areas. Smaller communities, however, typically boast lower housing prices and overall costs of living. Before making a decision to relocate, think carefully about your and your family's needs.
- Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services
This industry includes firms that provide services such as the design and construction of residential and commercial buildings, bridges, and other infrastructure. Related services include landscape and environmental engineering assistance.
Average Annual Salary: $97,310
- Machinery Manufacturing
Manufacturing companies in this sector build the machines used to perform specific tasks or create other products. For example, an engineer working in this area may design a machine that shapes metal furniture frames.
Average Annual Salary: $84,240
- Scientific Research and Development Services
Many mechanical engineers work to discover new technologies or innovative uses of existing technologies. They may also develop new manufacturing processes. Most work in academia or corporate research and development departments.
Average Annual Salary: $103,720
- Aerospace Product and Parts Manufacturing
Aerospace and defense firms manufacture airplanes, helicopters, rockets, satellites, and missiles. Though not directly employed by the government, aerospace contractors often work closely with federal agencies.
Average Annual Salary: $103,000
- Federal Executive Branch
The federal government hires mechanical engineers for myriad projects such as developing space probes for NASA, building stamping machines for government mints, responding to emergencies, and assisting with numerous military and civilian infrastructure projects.
Average Annual Salary: $99,370
How Do You Find a Job in Mechanical Engineering?
Before you begin applying to jobs, update your resume, list of references, work portfolio, and any professional social media profiles on sites such as LinkedIn. You can then use national job search engines like Indeed and ZipRecruiter to look for open positions. You may also find jobs through career centers hosted by some of the mechanical engineering professional associations listed below.
As you apply for jobs, work on growing your professional network. Consider earning a professional certification or an advanced degree to signal additional expertise and improve your prospects.
Professional Resources for Mechanical Engineering Majors
Established in 1880, ASME promotes the art, science, and practice of mechanical engineering and allied sciences. In addition to administering a professional certification program, the society provides free and online access to continuing education resources, establishes various equipment and process standards, and organizes research events on topics like nuclear power and fluid engineering.
IMechE represents more than 120,000 mechanical engineers working in 140 countries around the globe. It hosts a library of digital resources for engineering professionals, offers advice and financial support to students, and provides in-person and customized training programs for individuals, teams, and organizations. IMechE also publishes Professional Engineering magazine.
SME supports manufacturers through collaboration, technological innovation, and human resource development. The society hosts an annual conference and a series of research seminars on subjects such as additive manufacturing applications and the aerospace and defense industry. SME also offers multiple professional certification programs for early-, mid-, and late-career engineers.
SAE specifically serves engineers and related technical experts in the automotive and commercial vehicle industries. The organization publishes scholarly journals and technical papers, supports aspiring engineers through a scholarship program, and provides formal certification and free professional development opportunities on topics like powertrain technology and safety and accident reconstruction.
Known today by the acronym for its original name in French (College International Pour la Recherche en Productique), CIRP primarily represents engineering academics and researchers. The organization offers a wealth of resources for students and practitioners, including the Journal of Manufacturing Science and Technology and a dictionary and encyclopedia of production engineering. CIRP also releases papers authored by scientific technical committees in disciplines like life cycle engineering, precision engineering, and electro-physical and chemical processes.