Whether it's a microchip or a wind-up clock, if it's working it could be due in part to a mechanical engineer. These engineers are the people who come up with the solutions to many of today's modern problems and who drive the change leading to advancements. Whether on a small or grand scale, they figure out how things work and then discern if there is a way to make them work better. Their skills are often innate; however, an education in mechanical engineering can help improve their inborn talents and give them the analytical, mathematical and scientific prowess they need to develop a lifetime career.
The most popular mechanical engineering degrees
Mechanical engineering is one of the original engineering disciplines, dedicated to designing all types of mechanical devices. Mechanical engineers are experts in applied physics. They can be involved in every step of the research and development process--they develop product specifications, design the product, implement and oversee production, and test and troubleshoot the machines.
Some of the machines mechanical engineers design and develop include combustion engines, generators, industrial robots, and many others. In fact, nearly any type of technology has a mechanical component and that's true from the small motor in a child's toy to the components turning the turbines on a wind farm.
Mechanical engineers typically need a bachelor's degree to enter the field, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, training is available at a variety online engineering degree levels, including:
- Associate degree: The two-year Associate of Applied Science in mechanical engineering technology offers targeted training in specific engineering support skills such as testing and CAD drafting. This can be a stepping stone to a four-year degree.
- Bachelor's degree: The four-year Bachelor of Science degree builds a foundation of science and math knowledge with applied coursework in mechanical engineering.
- Master's degree: At the graduate level, programs emphasize specialized coursework and an independent capstone project. Master's thesis projects might apply existing research to engineering problems or execute an original design.
- Doctoral degree: The highest academic degree involves extensive original research or design work. The Ph.D. can lead to an academic teaching or research career, or a lead role in industry research and design.
- Advanced certificates: Online certificates in mechanical engineering offer mid-career professionals the opportunity to update their training and hone skills in a specific area such as microengineering or bioengineering.
The mechanical engineering curriculum covers basic science and math coursework as well as applied study in acoustics and noise control, combustion, fluid mechanics and more. In addition, students can take courses in specific applications such as aerospace engineering, bioengineering, materials science, nanotechnology, nuclear engineering and more.
Benefits of online degrees in mechanical engineering
Online mechanical engineering degrees are an attractive option for students who require the flexibility to work as well as study. These programs are often more career-focused than campus programs, attracting a professional student body and a faculty of active practitioners. As a result, both formal instruction and peer-to-peer learning engages engineering practices.
Hands-on design practice is a feature of most online degree in mechanical engineering. Online students could complete studio requirements on the job or by visiting a local campus computing facility. The growing use of virtual labs, which allow students to access high-tech software or lab simulations online, also helps students master practical skills in the online environment.
What it takes to succeed in mechanical engineering
A degree in mechanical engineering leads to a career as a design engineer, test engineer or, with an associate degree, an engineering technician. Experienced engineers or master's degree holders can advance into engineering manager roles. The Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies biotechnology, materials science and nanotechnology as three emerging areas for mechanical engineering careers.
Mechanical engineers are often problem solvers with sharp analytical and critical thinking skills, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's O*Net Online database. They can be creative, detail-oriented and persistent, all of which are qualities that can lead to innovation.
Mechanical engineering at a glance
- Key industries: Manufacturing and industrial robotics, transportation, computer hardware, energy, automotive, consumer products
- Median annual salary: $82,480 (BLS, 2010)
- Well-known employers: 3M, Boeing, Intel, Lucent Technologies
- Did you know? While some mechanical engineers can become administrators or managers, others work in fields such as maintenance, technical sales and even agriculture production.