People who like to think big and who can easily imagine all the technical components and engineer-specific challenges on a project might want to consider a degree that leads to a career in systems engineering. Not a profession for those who prefer to focus on one specific aspect of a task, systems engineering involves integrating multiple aspects of large projects that can range from computer information systems to military defense.

"Systems engineers are people who have to have a big-picture view of engineering and are able to take other disciplines and really get them to work together," said James Nemes, professor of systems engineering at Penn State University.

Systems engineering is a people-oriented engineering discipline, since it takes a holistic view of engineering problems and focuses on the organizational challenges of developing a system. Training is available at a variety of degree levels and online degrees in systems engineering could be beneficial to those already working in an engineering field who want to advance their training.

The bachelor's degree in systems engineering is the standard minimum qualification in the field. In a survey of engineers by the U.S. Department of Labor's O*Net website, 61 percent had a bachelor's degree and 17 percent continued on to a master's degree in systems engineering. That said, it's possible to earn a systems engineering degree at any level:

  • Associate of Applied Science: This two-year associate degree generally focuses on a specific type of system, such as information or defense systems. It can be the launching pad for a four-year degree.
  • Bachelor of Science: This four-year bachelor's degree offers a strong foundation in math and science as well as a broad engineering education. Most engineering jobs require a minimum of a bachelor's degree for an entry-level position, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Master of Science or Engineering: At the graduate level, students pursue specialized coursework and complete an independent project applying engineering concepts to a systems engineering problem.
  • Ph.D.: This academic degree prepares graduates to teach and lead a research and development team, either in an academic or commercial setting.

In addition, some colleges offer a graduate certificate focusing on a particular area of systems engineering, such as command and control systems, computational modeling, military operations or software system development.

The systems engineering curriculum covers the identification, modeling, design and management of complex systems and processes. In addition to core courses in math, statistics and science, systems engineering could include classes in discrete systems modeling, dynamic systems, operations research, systems modeling and design, and more.

Although engineering is a hands-on profession, online degrees are becoming more common as mid-career professionals seek continuing education programs that fit around work and other life priorities. These programs provide flexibility in a number of ways. Some allow students to take up to five years to complete a degree while concurrently working at a job. Others allow students to take up to nine credits without officially being admitted. However, entry into some of these programs can be rigorous and often require that students have an undergraduate degree in an engineering field or have graduated in the top part of their class.

Graduates of systems engineering programs can look for careers in aerospace, aviation, defense, government, manufacturing, transportation and more. As a systems engineer, an employee could work as an engineering manager, lead or principal engineer, operations research analyst or project manager.

Graduates of systems engineering programs could also pursue a job in information technology. The systems engineer in information technology position ranked 49th out of 100 on the 2010 "Best Jobs in America" list published by CNN Money. Specifically, these types of engineers can be involved with finding and designing the solutions to computer-related issues, such as applications, systems administration and networking. According to CNN Money, this specific field is expected to grow 13 percent during the next decade.

  • Key industries: Aerospace, aviation, defense, government, manufacturing, software
  • Salary: According to 2009 data from CNN Money, top-performing systems engineers can make more than $100,000 and still find opportunities for advancement. Starting salaries for engineers--all types--are among the highest of all college graduates, according to the BLS.
  • Websites to check out: www.incose.org (International Council on Systems Engineering) and engineerjobs.com (for companies with systems engineering job leads)