What Are the Different Types of Engineering?

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Updated on April 19, 2024
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  • Engineering entails the design and creation of devices, machines, and structures.
  • The field is typically divided into five main branches, with hundreds of subfields.
  • Students who major in engineering can generally expect to earn a high salary.
  • Many consider engineering a challenging major due to its emphasis on math and science.

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 oil, renewable energy, and medicine.

In fact, there are so many types of engineering that students often aren't sure which kind 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.

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What Are the 5 Main Types of Engineering?

To engineer something means to create, build, or design it. As such, engineering entails any scientific or technological branch that deals with designing and developing machines, engines, and other products or structures.

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

Other types of engineering may not fit neatly into any one category. These include nuclear engineering, biological engineering, and rehabilitation engineering.

Most sources divide engineering into the following five branches.

1. 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 today's engineers specialize in building eco-friendly architecture to combat climate change.

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

Civil Engineering Subfields

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  • 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

2. Chemical Engineering

In the broadest sense of the term, chemical engineering deals with chemicals. These engineers design and manufacture materials and products using scientific principles from 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. Often performing experiments and other tasks in labs, many also use computers to design experiments.

Chemical Engineering Subfields

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  • 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

3. 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 functional products, such as ships, firearms, household appliances, turbines, and vehicles.

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

Mechanical Engineering Subfields

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  • 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

4. Electrical Engineering

A newer 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 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.

Electrical Engineering Subfields

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  • 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

5. Industrial Engineering

The final 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.

As an industrial engineer, you must work well with people. Industrial engineers' primary tasks may include designing facilities and information systems, managing inventories, overseeing personnel assignments, and ensuring workplace safety.

Industrial Engineering Subfields

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  • Apparel engineering
  • Component engineering
  • Financial engineering
  • Fire protection engineering
  • Manufacturing engineering
  • Safety engineering
  • Supply chain engineering
  • Systems engineering

What Salary Can You Earn With an Engineering Degree?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, architecture and engineering workers reported a median annual income of $91,420 in May 2023 — about $40,000 more than the median salary for all jobs in the U.S. Certain types of engineering jobs may offer higher incomes depending on factors like demand and industry.

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

Median Annual Salaries by Engineering Type
Engineering Type Median Salary (May 2023) Job Growth Rate (2022-32)
Petroleum Engineers $135,690 2%
Computer Hardware Engineers $138,080 5%
Aerospace Engineers $130,720 6%
Nuclear Engineers $125,460 -1%
Chemical Engineers $112,100 8%
Electrical and Electronics Engineers $109,010 5%
Materials Engineers $104,100 5%
Marine Engineers $100,270 1%
Health and Safety Engineers $103,690 4%
Mining and Geological Engineers $100,640 0%
Biomedical Engineers $100,730 5%
Environmental Engineers $100,090 6%
Mechanical Engineers $99,510 10%
Industrial Engineers $99,380 12%
Civil Engineers $95,890 5%
Agricultural Engineers $88,750 6%

What Is the Hardest Engineering Major?

Engineering is a notoriously challenging field. 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.

In general, engineering majors that place heavier 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 various majors spent preparing for class each week. Majors that required more prep time were considered more difficult. Here's a quick recap of the hardest and easiest engineering majors, according to this study.

Top 3 Hardest Engineering Majors

  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

  1. Industrial engineering (15.68 hours)
  2. Computer engineering and technology (16.46 hours)
  3. Civil engineering (17.40 hours)

Should You Major in Engineering?

When determining whether you should major in engineering, ask yourself the following questions about your interests, skills, and goals.

  • Minus

    Are You Good at Math and Science?

    Math and science are the two biggest staples of engineering degrees. 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.
  • Minus

    Do You Enjoy Solving Problems?

    All engineering types feature problem-solving. Your main task is to identify workable solutions so you can 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.
  • Minus

    Are You Prepared to Work Hard in School?

    Many consider engineering majors some of the hardest majors. If you're thinking of pursuing an engineering degree, be aware of these high expectations. In addition to several hours of homework each week, engineering programs may require you to maintain a minimum GPA.