Understanding how and why machines work isn’t necessarily intuitive. Some devices that seem simple on the surface, such as conveyor belts, actually rely on intricate technology and precise handiwork.
A mechanical engineering degree teaches someone how to build contraptions with moving parts, ranging from little objects like watches to enormous vehicles like space shuttles. Robot-building teams often include mechanical engineers, and medical device manufacturing also involves mechanical engineering.
“It really is pretty hard to think of something that exists in the world that a mechanical engineer hasn’t had a hand in designing,” says Robert Hurlston, chief engineer and co-founder with Fidelis Engineering Associates, a Michigan-based engineering consultancy.
What Is Mechanical Engineering?
Hurlston, who has a doctorate in nuclear engineering, says the distinction between mechanical engineering and other areas of engineering is that it tends to focus on moving objects like cars and planes as opposed to stationary objects like bridges and buildings.
Karen Ohland, president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, explains that mechanical engineering is a fundamental component of the engineering field as a whole. “It’s one of the oldest engineering professions. Many of the other branches of engineering have come out of that – biomedical and chemical and aerospace all have at their core mechanical engineering.”
The goal of mechanical engineering, she says, is “creating something that never existed before” in order to solve a problem.
Recent federal legislation aimed at increasing domestic production of semiconductor chips and encouraging the development and use of environmentally friendly technology will likely drive up the need for mechanical engineers, experts say.
Evelyn N. Wang, the department head in the mechanical engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Engineering, says mechanical engineers help make autonomous vehicles and other cutting-edge devices, not just traditional fuel-based cars.
“Our major is much more broad than that now,” she says. “It’s really evolved, and it’s becoming very interdisciplinary.”
While mechanical engineers may design internal combustion engines or build gears for common gadgets, they could also help to create devices that are invisible to the naked eye or build massive objects such as power plants, Wang says.
“The emergence of data science” has increased the number and variety of job options for mechanical engineers, says Allen Robinson, a former head of the mechanical engineering department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who is now director of the university’s Africa division.
Combining “machine learning” with engineering can help address a wide range of formidable technical problems, “from water desalination to gene expression,” says Robinson, who has a doctorate in mechanical engineering.
Mechanical engineering as a field is increasingly popular among women, many of whom choose to study it in order to come up with technological solutions to major global problems like climate change, Wang says. “Times have changed,” she says. “This is not a degree just for men. In fact, at MIT, we have 50% women pursuing the degree at the undergraduate level.”
Jobs for People With Mechanical Engineering Degrees
Problem-solving and clear communication skills are emphasized in mechanical engineering programs.
Joe Heaney, president of both Lotus Biosecurity, a company that develops sanitation technology solutions, and New York Energy and Environmental company, which focuses on energy-efficient construction projects, notes that individuals with mechanical engineering degrees are well-suited for technical sales positions that involve explaining and customizing a technology firm’s products for prospective clients.
Mechanical engineers are also involved with research and development at many scientific laboratories, according to Heaney, who earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
“Traditionally, mechanical engineering graduates have often gone into manufacturing, helping to design many of the home products and appliances that we use on a daily basis,” Bala Balachandran, chair of the mechanical engineering department at the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, wrote in an email.
“With the emergence of advanced technologies, the door is now open for mechanical engineers to become involved in nanotech — for instance, in designing medicines and devices that work at a very tiny scale,” says Balachandran, who has a doctorate in engineering mechanics. “In addition, mechanical engineers are playing a major role in areas like robotics, whose applications extend across a number of domains. Industrial AI is another area that comes to mind.”
Robert Rabb, associate dean for education at the Pennsylvania State University College of Engineering, describes mechanical engineering as “one of the broadest engineering disciplines.”
Mechanical engineers can work on ambitious government building projects and often advance quickly into project leadership roles, says Rabb, who has bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering. “Mechanical engineers are not at a desk all the time. We have to design, develop, build and test. This requires us to see and touch something besides a computer.”
These are some examples of jobs where a mechanical engineering credential is valuable, according to experts:
— Aerospace engineer
— Automotive engineer
— Biomedical engineer
— Business executive
— Construction engineer
— Intellectual property attorney
— Manufacturing engineer
— Management consultant
— Mechanical engineer
— Patent lawyer
— Production engineer
— Project lead
— Project manager
— Petroleum engineer
— Process engineer
— Product designer
— Quality engineer
— Sales engineer
— Structural engineer
— Technology specialist
— Thermal engineer
Mechanical Engineering Employment Prospects
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary among U.S. mechanical engineers in May 2021 was $95,300. It is possible to enter the profession with only a bachelor’s degree.
Experts note that it is optional but often beneficial for mechanical engineers to seek supplemental education in computer science or business.
“A mechanical engineering degree affords the individual a virtual Swiss Army knife of skill sets,” Keith F. Noe, a partner with Lando & Anastasi, LLP, a Boston-based intellectual property law firm, wrote in an email.
The skills cultivated via a degree in this field apply to a wide array of industries and work assignments, says Noe, who has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
“A mechanical engineer has opportunities to work in the automotive, heating and cooling, manufacturing and aeronautic industries, to name a few,” he explains. “Projects can be revolutionary or evolutionary.”
Some mechanical engineering projects involve designing new products while others focus on cost reduction, quality improvement or both.
“To use a sports analogy, a Mechanical Engineer is the utility player of the engineering world,” Tony Sanger, a senior vice president at the Turner & Townsend multinational consulting firm, wrote in an email. “The opportunities are endless.”
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Update 08/17/22: This article has been updated with new information.