What Is Mechanical Engineering?
The principles and problem-solving techniques employed by mechanical engineers can be used in virtually every major industry today, and not just engineering. A mechanical engineer’s expertise in force, energy, design, and motion helps organizations and businesses develop safe, reliable, and efficient ways of operating on a daily basis.
Mechanical engineers also help improve our quality of life through advancing technologies we use every day. The job outlook for workers in this valuable field looks bright, too. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 2% growth in available positions by 2031, equivalent to 6,400 new jobs.
What is a Mechanical Engineering Degree?
An undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering teaches students to be problem solvers through the design, manufacture, and operation of components, devices, or systems. The curriculum covers a wide range of topics taught through a combination of classroom learning and hands-on experiments.
Though every program will differ slightly, you can expect to study mechanical, systems, and thermal-fluid sciences and topics including manufacturing engineering, energy systems, and thermodynamics. Successful completion and understanding of the content taught relies upon a strong mathematical and scientific foundation.
Most mechanical engineering degree programs also help students develop effective communication and collaborative skills in preparation for joining the workforce. Students work with modern computational skills as they develop their problem-solving skills.
What to Expect in a Mechanical Engineering Degree Program
Types of Mechanical Engineering Degrees
Mechanical engineering degrees can be pursued at the undergraduate level as well as graduate levels.
Upon completion of an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, many students choose to pursue an advanced degree that prepares them for senior engineering positions or careers in research.
A master’s program typically takes two years to complete, though some undergraduate programs offer a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree program that takes five years. The curriculum will incorporate classes, theoretical training, and hands-on exercises in advanced design, thermal science, materials science, manufacturing, and energy. Graduate-level programs offer the opportunity to focus on specialty areas, including aeronautics and robotics.
Types of Mechanical Engineering Classes
Every accredited mechanical engineering degree program will have slightly different requirements based on the priorities of its administration and faculty. The curriculum will generally consist of 120 credits, approximately half of which will include the university’s general education requirements and foundational science and math classes that are prerequisites for the engineering program. The other half will represent mechanical engineering-focused courses. Here is a list of the classes typically offered:
- Introduction to Engineering Design
- Computing Fundamentals for Engineers
- Fabrication and Machine Tool Practices for Engineering
- Automotive Engineering and Design
- Computer-Aided Design
- Fluid Mechanics
- Electronics and Instrumentation
- Transfer Processes
- Vibrations, Control, and Optimization
- Product Engineering and Manufacturing
- Materials Engineering
- Statistical Methods for Product and Process Development
Skills Learned in a Mechanical Engineering Degree Program
A degree in mechanical engineering will teach you both the technical skills you need to perform in an engineering role and the soft skills you’ll need to excel within an organization. These include:
- Use of equipment for data collection
- Statistics and data analysis
- Computer software use
- Part, process, and product design
- Technical writing and drawing
- Test method development
- Problem solving and decision making
- Mechanical aptitude
- Time management
- Effective communication
How Long Does it Take to Get a Mechanical Engineering Degree?
Mention that this program can vary in length based on multiple factors including
- Previous education (degree completion)
- Online learning
- Part-time vs full-time learning
- Accelerated program availability
Mechanical Engineering Degree Specializations
While a mechanical engineering undergraduate degree will expose students to all aspects of the field, there are a few specific areas of specialization that students choose from and focus on during their fourth-year electives. Different schools emphasize different specialty areas, but offerings may include:
- Fluid Mechanics or Hydraulics
- Machine Design and Solid Mechanics
- Materials Engineering and Processing
- Automation, Robotics, and Control
- Biomedical Engineering
- Thermal Engineering
- Welding and Joining
- Ground Vehicle Systems
- Transportation Systems
- Combustion and the Environment
- Oil and Gas
- Nuclear Energy
- Marine Engineering
What Can I Do with a Mechanical Engineering Degree?
For entry-level positions, mechanical engineers need a bachelor’s degree which takes about four years to complete. Depending on the role or employer, you may need a master’s or doctoral degree.
Master’s degrees often take full-time students two years to finish, while a doctoral degree can take up to five or more years depending on your graduation requirements. Whatever the level of your education, many colleges and universities today offer dedicated majors for mechanical engineering or mechanical engineering technology.
Mechanical Engineering Salary and Career Information
Earning a degree in mechanical engineering opens the door to numerous high-paying careers and opportunities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, mechanical engineers earn a median salary of $95,300 and have an anticipated job growth over the next ten years of 2%. The top 10% of earners in this field earn more than $136,210 per year.
According to Indeed.com, these are some of the top paying jobs available to mechanical engineering graduates:
- Automation engineer ($90,024 per year)
- Design engineer ($100,882 per year)
- Powertrain engineer ($102,363 per year)
- Research and development engineer ($92,781 per year)
Mechanical Engineering Career Paths
- Median Salary: $102,627
- Career Outlook: +2% (2021-2031)
- Required Education: Bachelor's Degree
Senior mechanical engineers create and improve mechanical systems for products as well as participate in planning every step of the design and development process until the product is produced.
- Median Salary: $72,316
- Career Outlook: +2% (2021-2031)
- Required Education: Bachelor's Degree
Project engineers oversee technical staff on engineering projects, ensuring that they are completed on schedule and within budget and that they meet specifications.
- Median Salary: $88,881
- Career Outlook: +2% (2021-2031)
- Required Education: Bachelor's Degree
Robotics engineers are responsible for designing and maintaining robots and their electronic systems.
Best Mechanical Engineering Schools in the U.S.
1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT is a private research institution and one of the leading schools in technology and science. The school was established in 1861 and serves approximately 11,600 students. Its Department of Mechanical Engineering offers two undergraduate and two graduate programs:
- BS in Mechanical Engineering
- BS in Mechanical Engineering and Ocean Engineering
- MS in Mechanical Engineering
- Mechanical Engineer’s Degree (ME)
2. Cornell University
Established in 1865, Cornell is a private Ivy League institution in Ithaca, New York. Its Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering offers both a bachelor’s and master’s in mechanical engineering. Undergraduates must maintain a 2.0 or higher GPA to remain in good standing. Learners need a C- or higher grade in all major required classes. Master’s students must complete 30 credit hours with a 2.5 or higher GPA for graduation.
3. Stanford University
Established in 1891, Stanford is a private research school in California. The school serves about 17,300 students and offers BS degrees in the following areas:
- Mechanical Engineering
- Product Design
- Biochemical Engineering
Graduate learners can pursue a general MS in Mechanical Engineering or follow a specialized track in biochemical engineering, design impact, or an individually designed, customized master’s degree.
4. Duke University
Founded in 1838 in Durham, North Carolina, Duke is a private institution with approximately 15,700 students. The school offers bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees in Mechanical Engineering. The school prides itself on immersive experiential training in areas including hands-on design, research, and entrepreneurship. Doctoral students choose from the following specializations:
- Aerospace engineering
- Dynamics, controls, and robotics
- Materials science and biomaterials
- Mechanics, design, and computing
- Thermal fluids and energy
- AI materials
5. University of California-Berkeley
UC Berkeley is a public research institution with approximately 42,400 students. Established in 1868, UC Berkeley’s mechanical engineering program features three undergraduate and two graduate degree programs. Learners can also pursue a dual BS/MS in Mechanical Engineering. While applicants for fall 2023 do not need to submit GRE scores, the mechanical engineering programs require prospective master’s students to submit three letters of recommendation that can speak to their likelihood of success in a rigorous program as well as any test scores from ETS.
6. Northwestern University
Located in Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern is a private research institution with about 22,000 students. Learners can follow concentrations in diverse areas including microfluidics, tribology, composite materials, and biomimetics. The BS in Mechanical Engineering requires 47 courses, including foundational topics like statics, dynamics, and differential equations. Graduate students can earn both an MS and PhD, including cross-disciplinary programs in robotics and product design and development.
7. Rice University
A private research university in Houston, Texas, Rice offers a BA and BS in Mechanical Engineering. Graduate learners can also pursue a non-thesis Master of Mechanical Engineering. Research-focused master’s students can earn an MS, which includes the writing of a traditional master’s thesis. Rice also offers a highly selective PhD program in the field, which requires a doctoral dissertation for graduation.
8. Johns Hopkins University
Located in Baltimore, Maryland, Johns Hopkins is a private research institution established in 1876. Undergraduate mechanical engineering students can choose from tracks in aerospace engineering or biomechanics. Johns Hopkins also offers full- and part-time master’s programs, along with a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. The part-time master’s program is designed for working professionals and features both hybrid and fully online learning formats.
9. University of Pennsylvania
Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the University of Pennsylvania is a private academic institution that was founded in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin. Penn’s Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics program offers undergraduate and graduate programs with a strong emphasis on analysis, modeling, practice, and teamwork. The undergraduate program offers many opportunities to explore research and participate in student-run projects, while graduate students have the choice of four different degree programs as well as a dual master’s degree combining mechanical engineering with any of the other disciplines in Penn’s engineering school. Penn also offers a dynamic, hands-on, research-focused Ph.D. Program in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics.
10. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Undergraduates can pursue a BS Degree in Mechanical Engineering. This 128-credit program allows students the freedom to choose a variety of specialization or technical electives to tailor the degree to meet their needs. UM’s graduate learners can earn both a master’s and PhD. Learners pursuing a master’s degree can choose from UM’s coursework-only, coursework plus final research project, or coursework plus thesis tracks.
Online Degree in Mechanical Engineering Programs
How Long do Online Courses Take to Complete?
While traditional, in-person mechanical engineering degrees generally take four years to complete, the flexibility that online degrees offer means that you can take your courses on an accelerated basis and finish your program in less time. Or, you can take classes on a part-time basis and finish in the time frame that works best for you.
Here are some of the factors that will impact the amount of time you’ll need to complete your degree include:
Whether the classes offered by the online program you attend are synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous classes are scheduled in real time, requiring attendance at a specific time during which the entire cohort logs on. By contrast, asynchronous classes are pre-recorded and available for viewing whenever it is convenient for the student.
Whether the classes are fully online or are offered in a hybrid format that requires in-person attendance for specific classes, labs, or programs
Whether your program offers an accelerated degree option. This option is particularly suitable for students who have earned their general education credits at another school and who simply need to complete their mechanical engineering requirements.
Admissions Requirements for Mechanical Engineering Degree Programs
Mechanical Engineering is a demanding field of study, and admission to an undergraduate program can be competitive. Applicants should have either a high school diploma or have completed a General Education Diploma (GED). Beyond those basics there is tremendous variability in admission requirements, but you can expect to be asked for the following:
Official transcripts from your secondary/high school education reflecting courses taken as well as the grade earned in each class and overall grade point average (GPA). Most schools will require achievement of a minimum GPA, or a minimum GPA in math and science classes.
Completion of basic math and science classes including statistics, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, physics, and chemistry.
Standardized test scores – either the SAT or ACT – with most reserving admission for those students who have achieved a minimum score.
Personal statement demonstrating writing ability
Personal recommendation from a faculty member or other unrelated adult
Mechanical Engineering Scholarships
To find more scholarships for mechanical engineering students, check out our scholarship tool.
Mechanical Engineering Degree FAQ
Does earning a mechanical engineering degree automatically provide me with Professional Engineer licensure?
- No, but it is the first step. A Professional Engineer (PE) license requires completion of a four-year college degree. You also must work under a Professional Engineer for at least four years, pass two competency exams and earn a license from your state’s licensure board.
What are the top skills that a mechanical engineer needs to have?
- Mechanical engineers need technical skills based on creative design and knowledge of engineering fundamentals and soft skills including leadership and time management.
Is becoming a mechanical engineer a good career choice?
- Pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering can lead to high-paying salaries and a wide range of rewarding career opportunities.
I am not good at math. Can I still become a mechanical engineer?
- Though you will need to take math classes and understand mathematical principals to earn your mechanical engineering degree, there are many successful mechanical engineers for whom math was challenging. Don’t let a weakness in math stop you from pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering.
Are there certifications in mechanical engineering that will make me more valuable as a mechanical engineer?
Yes. There are many certifications that can qualify you for higher salaries and specific job specializations. Here are some of the most popular certifications:
Assistive Design Certificate
CAD and Digital Manufacturing
Certified Energy Manager
Certified Manufacturing Engineer
Certified Quality Engineer
Certified Systems Engineering Professional
Digital Manufacturing and Design Technology Certification
EPA Operators Safety Certification
Master Certified Electronics Technician Certification
How Much Do Mechanical Engineers Make?
Mechanical engineers earn a median salary of $95,300, with the top 10% of earners in this field earning more than $136,210 per year. Here are some of the top paying jobs available to mechanical engineering graduates today:
Automation engineer ($90,024 per year)
Design engineer ($100,882 per year)
Powertrain engineer ($102,363 per year)
Research and development engineer ($92,781 per year)
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