What Is an Engineer and What Do They Do?

Engineers shape our world in incredible ways, from the smartphones in our pockets to the bridges that connect our cities. But what is an engineer? Essentially, engineers are problem-solvers who use science, mathematics, and creativity to design, build, and maintain various systems, structures, and technologies. Their work plays an integral role in driving innovation and improving the quality of life for people worldwide. This article provides a comprehensive guide on what it takes to become an engineer, what they do, and why you might want to consider a career in this exciting field.

Steps to Become an Engineer

The path to becoming an engineer involves several essential steps that equip you with the necessary skills and credentials. These are the goals you’ll need to achieve if you’re interested in an engineering career.

Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering

No matter your specialization, obtaining an engineering bachelor’s degree is crucial to becoming an engineer. This degree serves as the educational foundation upon which you’ll build your career. When choosing a program, ensure that it’s accredited by a recognized accrediting body, like the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) in the United States.

Enrolling in ABET-accredited engineering schools ensures you’re receiving a quality education that meets industry standards. You’ll spend four years studying a broad range of subjects including: 

  • Calculus 
  • Statistics 
  • Linear algebra
  • Physics
  • Chemistry

You’ll also complete specialized courses tailored to your chosen engineering track—such as civil, mechanical, or electrical engineering.

Complete an Internship

Internships offer invaluable real-world experience that complements your academic learning. Interning at an engineering firm, manufacturing company, or government agency will give you the chance to apply engineering principles, use specialized software, and work as part of an engineering team. This not only enhances your resume but also provides networking opportunities that can be beneficial when you enter the job market.

Gain Work Experience

After graduation, the next step is to secure an entry-level engineering position to gain professional experience. This work experience is particularly vital if you intend to become a licensed Professional Engineer (PE), as most licensure boards require a certain number of years of work experience. The type of job will depend on your engineering specialty—whether it’s designing circuit boards in electrical engineering or analyzing material stress in civil engineering projects.

Obtain Professional Licensure

Once you’ve accumulated enough work experience, you may opt to become a licensed engineer. While licensure requirements vary by jurisdiction, the process generally involves these steps:

  • Obtaining a bachelor’s degree in engineering from a program accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Commission (EAC)
  • Passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
  • Gaining work experience
  • Passing the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam.

Becoming a licensed engineer increases your career prospects and allows you to take on more responsibility. It’s also often a requirement for roles in consulting and public services.

Pursue Further Specialization or Education

As you gain more experience in the field, you may choose to specialize further or even go back to school for a master’s degree or Ph.D. in engineering. Specialized certifications can help you stand out in areas like project management, software engineering, or renewable energy systems. Graduate degrees, on the other hand, can open doors to academic positions, advanced research and development roles, and higher-level management positions within engineering firms.

Why Become an Engineer

Choosing a career is a major decision, and it’s natural to weigh the pros and cons of various professions. If you’re considering engineering, these are some compelling reasons to take the plunge.

Intellectual Challenge

Engineering is a field that continually pushes the boundaries of what is possible. Engineers tackle some of the world’s most complex problems, from addressing climate change through sustainable technologies to advancing medical devices that save lives. The intellectual rigor and problem-solving aspects of the profession can be immensely satisfying for those who relish a challenge.

Contribution to Society

Engineers play a critical role in shaping the future and improving the quality of life for people around the world. Whether it’s through the development of clean energy solutions, innovations in healthcare, or building infrastructure, engineers contribute positively to society in ways both big and small.

Job Stability

Given the constant need for engineering solutions across various sectors, engineers often enjoy a high degree of job stability. Even in economic downturns, the demand for qualified engineers remains robust, making it a relatively recession-proof profession.

Financial Rewards

Engineers are generally well-compensated for their skills and expertise. While the pay scale can vary depending on your specialization and location, the financial rewards are often one of the appealing aspects of a career in engineering.

Where Do Engineers Work?

Engineers find employment in a wide range of settings, each offering unique challenges and opportunities. These are some of the sectors where engineers commonly work:

  • Manufacturing companies: Engineers in manufacturing are involved in the design, development, and production of goods ranging from consumer electronics to automotive parts.
  • Engineering firms: These are specialized companies that offer engineering services across various projects, including construction, environmental studies, and software development.
  • Government agencies: Engineers working for the government may be involved in urban planning, public works, or national defense projects.
  • Academic institutions: Engineers with advanced degrees often find roles in academia, where they teach, mentor students, and engage in research.
  • Self-employment: Some engineers opt for entrepreneurial routes, establishing their own engineering consultancies or tech startups.
  • Research institutions: Research engineers focus on advancing the state of the art in their field, often working in labs that are part of larger organizations or educational institutions.

Understanding where engineers work can help you align your interests and career aspirations. There are career options available whether you aim to contribute to innovative tech companies, engage in vital public works, or delve into groundbreaking research. 

Engineer Salary

As you consider your future career, it’s natural to focus on your financial prospects. Fortunately, engineering is a field that generally offers competitive salaries and benefits. Here’s a breakdown of what you can expect in terms of compensation.

Average Salary

It’s worth noting that your salary will depend on your experience, employer, and geographic location. Salaries also vary by specialization. For instance, the median salary for petroleum engineers is $131,800 per year, compared to $89,940 for civil engineers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Mechanical engineers fall in between, with a median annual salary of $96,310. 

Highest Engineer Salary

Some engineering specializations offer more competitive earning potential. Computer hardware engineers are among the highest-paying engineering careers, with median annual wages of $132,360, according to May 2022 data from the BLS. Electrical, electronics, and petroleum engineers also frequently earn six-figure salaries, even in the early stages of their careers. Advanced degrees and specialized certifications can significantly increase your earning potential.

Highest Paying States

Geography can play a pivotal role in your earning potential as an engineer. States with a high concentration of tech companies often offer higher salaries to attract top talent. For example, according to the BLS, the top-paying states for computer hardware engineers are California and Massachusetts. Additionally, urban areas generally offer higher compensation compared to rural locations. Keep in mind, however, that the cost of living in these locations may also be higher. 

Engineer Career and Job Growth

The career prospects for engineers are generally optimistic. As with salaries, they vary depending on the engineering specialty.

Job Market Trends

Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, renewable energy, and biomedical engineering are creating new opportunities for engineers. The integration of these technologies into existing sectors also ensures that experienced engineers will have opportunities to transition into new roles.

Projected Growth

The BLS projects that employment for engineers will grow at a rate of 7% from 2022 to 2032. This is faster than the average rate for all occupations, which is 3%. Some specializations are expected to experience accelerated growth. For instance, the projected growth rate for mechanical engineers is 10%.

Niche Specializations

As the engineering field evolves, niche specializations are becoming increasingly valuable. Some of the most popular career concentrations include: 

  • Cybersecurity engineering
  • Environmental engineering
  • Ocean engineering
  • Robotics
  • Nanotechnology

These are just a few of the areas where specialized skills can command premium compensation and offer excellent job prospects.

Engineering Degrees

A strong educational background is crucial for a successful career in engineering. Below are some of the key academic pathways you can consider if you’re interested in becoming an engineer.

Bachelor of Science in Engineering

A bachelor’s degree is the minimum educational requirement for most engineering jobs. Programs are usually four years long and offer specializations in fields such as: 

  • Mechanical
  • Civil
  • Electrical
  • Chemical

During this time, you’ll take a combination of general education courses and specialized engineering classes.

Master of Science in Engineering

A master’s degree in engineering allows for greater specialization within a particular branch of engineering and usually takes one to two years to complete. It can be particularly beneficial for those looking to move into higher-level managerial roles or specialized research positions.

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Engineering

A Ph.D. in engineering is aimed at those who wish to engage in advanced research and potentially enter academia. Programs can take four to six years to complete and culminate in the presentation of original research through a dissertation.

Online Engineering Degree Programs

In today’s digital age, online education is more accessible and flexible than ever before. Online engineering degree programs offer an alternative to traditional on-campus education and come with their own set of advantages and challenges.

Benefits of Online Engineering Degree Programs

Online engineering degrees make higher education more accessible to a wider range of students. They’re especially beneficial if you have other obligations outside of school. 


One of the most appealing aspects of online programs is the flexibility they offer. You can attend lectures, complete assignments, and participate in discussions at your own convenience, making it easier to balance work, family, and other commitments.


Online programs often have lower tuition fees and eliminate additional costs, such as commuting, parking, and on-campus housing. This can make obtaining an engineering degree more affordable. 

Access to Diverse Programs

Online education removes geographical barriers, allowing you to enroll in engineering programs that may not be available in your local area. You can pursue a degree in your preferred specialization without having to relocate. 

Networking Opportunities

Online programs often attract a diverse range of students from different parts of the world. This creates unique networking opportunities that you might not find in a traditional classroom setting.

Tips for Succeeding in an Online Engineering Program

While online programs are ideal for many students, they also require a separate set of skills. It’s important to enter such a program with an awareness of what obstacles you might face. 

Time Management

Successful online learning requires strong time management skills. Make sure to set aside dedicated time for studying and adhere to deadlines to keep up with the coursework.

Utilize Online Resources

Most online programs offer a variety of resources, from e-books to virtual labs. Make the most of these to enhance your understanding and knowledge.

Active Participation

Being physically removed from a traditional classroom setting doesn’t mean you should skimp on participation. Engage in online discussions, group projects, and other interactive elements of your course.

Seek Help When Needed

Online programs also offer access to professors and peers through digital platforms. If you’re struggling with the material or need clarification, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.

By weighing the benefits and equipping yourself with strategies for success, online engineering degree programs can offer a viable path to joining this rewarding and ever-evolving field.

Professional Certifications

In addition to formal education, engineers can also obtain professional certifications to further specialize in areas like project management, quality control, or specific engineering software. Such certifications are offered by various professional organizations and can significantly boost your career prospects.

Types of Engineers

Engineering is a broad field, and there are numerous sub-disciplines that one can specialize in. Each type of engineering has its own set of skills, methodologies, and career paths. These are some common types of engineering jobs.

Mechanical Engineers

Mechanical engineers are involved in the design, development, and maintenance of mechanical systems, which can range from machinery to vehicles. This is one of the oldest and most versatile forms of engineering.

Civil Engineers

Civil engineers focus on the design, construction, and maintenance of public and private infrastructure, such as bridges, roads, and buildings. They play a crucial role in urban development and environmental sustainability.

Electrical Engineers

Electrical engineers work on a wide array of technologies including circuit design, telecommunications, and power systems. They play a significant role in almost all sectors, from energy to information technology.

Chemical Engineers

Chemical engineers apply the principles of chemistry to solve problems involving the production of chemicals, materials, and energy. They often work in industries like pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, and food processing.

Aerospace Engineers

Aerospace engineers are responsible for the design and development of aircraft, spacecraft, and related systems and equipment. They work on projects that are literally out of this world. 

Biomedical Engineers

Biomedical engineers apply the principles of engineering to healthcare, working on medical devices, prosthetics, and healthcare technologies. They bridge the gap between medical and engineering disciplines.

Software Engineers

Software engineers specialize in the development, testing, and maintenance of software. They work in a variety of sectors, from finance to healthcare, and their skills are increasingly in demand as the world becomes more digital.

Engineering Licensure and Accreditation

For many engineers, obtaining licensure is an important milestone in their professional development. Licensing ensures that engineers meet established standards of competence and ethical practice. Meanwhile, accreditation verifies the quality of engineering programs, which is vital for ensuring that graduates are prepared for professional challenges.

Professional Engineering License

In the United States, the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam is the first step toward becoming a licensed Professional Engineer (PE). After passing the FE exam and accumulating a certain number of work experience hours, engineers can sit for the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam to become a PE.

Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)

Accreditation from ABET is considered the gold standard for engineering programs in the United States. This non-profit organization evaluates programs based on criteria such as faculty qualifications, curricular content, and facilities to ensure they meet quality standards.

Importance of Accreditation

Attending an accredited program is often a prerequisite for licensure and can be important for job placement and advancement. Moreover, it assures employers and other stakeholders that an engineer has received an education that meets nationally recognized standards.

Final Thoughts

Engineering is a dynamic and multifaceted field that offers a plethora of opportunities for those who are mathematically inclined, problem solvers, and innovators at heart. From the steps required to become an engineer to the diverse specializations and promising job prospects, a career in engineering presents numerous advantages.

Whether you’re intrigued by the intellectual challenges, drawn by the competitive salaries, or inspired by the chance to make a tangible impact on society, engineering offers something for everyone. The job isn’t just about technical skills; it’s also about creativity, collaboration, and the continuous desire to improve and innovate.

We hope this comprehensive guide has answered your primary questions, such as “What is an engineer?” and “What does an engineer do?”, and has provided you with the information you need to embark on this exciting career path. Now it’s up to you to take the next steps to become an engineer and contribute to shaping a better future.

Engineer FAQ

For those considering a career in engineering, questions often arise about the nature of the job, educational requirements, and more. These are some frequently asked questions about engineering.

What Degree Do I Need to Become an Engineer?

You will generally need at least a Bachelor of Science in Engineering to get started in this field. Some roles may require a master’s degree or higher, especially for managerial or specialized research positions.

What Do Engineers Do?

Engineers apply the principles of science and mathematics to design, develop, and maintain various types of systems, structures, and technologies. Their work can range from building bridges to developing software to designing medical devices.

How Long Does it Take to Become an Engineer?

It typically takes four years to complete a Bachelor’s degree in engineering, although some students might take longer if they pursue co-op programs, internships, or additional minors. A Master’s degree can add another one to two years, and a Ph.D. can take four to six years.

How Much Do Engineers Make?

The median annual wage for engineers was $100,030 as of May 2022. However, salaries vary widely based on specialization, experience, employer, and location.

What Skills Do I Need to Be an Engineer?

Strong analytical skills, proficiency in mathematics and science, and the ability to solve complex problems are essential for success in engineering. Soft skills like communication and teamwork are also important.

Are There Internship Opportunities for Engineers?

Yes, internships are an integral part of the engineering educational pathway. Many engineering programs incorporate internships or co-op programs to give students real-world experience before they graduate.

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