Whether you were taking apart your toys and reassembling them in the nursery, or whether your first interest in engineering came in a high school physics class, the decision to become an engineer is an exciting and important one. However, it’s far from the last decision you’ll make regarding your career. The field of engineering is wide and varied, and new subdisciplines are continually being born as science and technology advance. While all engineers work with the basic principles of math and science, how those principles are applied and what the daily work looks like varies quite a bit from one branch to another. Let’s take a look at the primary engineering fields, how they vary, and which one might be right for you.
Chemical engineers use their knowledge of chemical and biological processes to produce or transform chemicals and other raw materials. This could mean everything from researching new drug compounds in the pharmaceutical industry, to establishing methods for extracting and refining oil with a petroleum company. What is common to all chemical engineering jobs is an understanding of physical processes and the effects they will have on specific materials. Because much of their work requires precision and safety with chemical compounds, you’ll often find chemical engineers working in laboratory settings.
Classes to ace: biology, chemistry
Possible careers: biomedical engineer, chemist, nuclear engineer
Reasons to thank a chemical engineer today: for any medicine you’ve taken, or the shampoo in your shower
When most people think of civil engineering, they picture bridges. While designing and building such structures is certainly one aspect of civil engineering, it is far from the only one. Civil engineers might also be involved in constructing a city’s sewage system, or designing a network of roads and highways. They have to consider both the materials they’re working with, as well as how people will be using it. Civil engineers are often, but not always, working with man-made structures, focused on their efficiency, safety, and maintenance.
Classes to ace: physics, materials science
Possible careers: building surveyor, urban planner, construction manager
Reasons to thank a civil engineer today: for the road outside your home, and the fact that your school is still standing
Electrical engineering is, as the name suggests, all about harnessing the power of electricity and electromagnetism. This ranges from work in telecommunications, to software applications, to designing circuit boards and computer networks. No matter the industry, electrical engineers are generally solving problems related to the processing and transfer of information and energy. You’ll find them working anywhere there is electricity, whether that’s at a top-secret government research facility or a local utility company.
Classes to ace: robotics, math
Possible careers: aerospace engineer, electrician, software developer
Reasons to thank an electrical engineer today: for the cellphone or computer screen on which you’re reading this
Mechanical engineering is a broad field that is responsible for the design, operation, and maintenance of machines and mechanical processes. A mechanical engineer might help to design the engine for a car, or oversee the operation of machines in a factory producing anything from canned food products to wind turbines. Whatever their specific role, a mechanical engineer applies the principles of mechanics and thermodynamics to solve problems and to make sure moving parts do what they should. They’re most often employed in industrial environments, working with machines directly or through computer-aided design (CAD).
Classes to ace: math, physics
Possible careers: operations manager, materials engineer, defense industry contractor
Reasons to thank a mechanical engineer today: for your car, your bike, or even your mechanical pencil
As science progresses and industries change, overlap grows among the various branches of engineering. As a result, there are now an increasing number of interdisciplinary fields available, in addition to the more traditional areas of engineering already mentioned. If you’re someone who finds yourself pulled in multiple directions, one of these newer branches may be the perfect way of combining your interests and utilizing your various strengths. Here are a few of the biggest interdisciplinary fields today:
Environmental engineering: Environmental engineering can be thought of as civil engineering applied to ecosystems, with an emphasis on the environmental impact of structures and processes. Possible jobs may be in water management, renewables, or in the design and construction of “green” buildings.
Applied engineering: Applied engineers use the principles of management and design to oversee systems and their integration. They may work in a variety of roles, from overseeing worker safety to integrating machines and processes across a factory for better efficiency.
Nanoengineering: One of the newest interdisciplinary fields, nanoengineering is engineering on a sub-microscopic scale, which currently involves work with such varied applications as carbon nanotubes and DNA synthesis. As technologies improve, nanoengineers will be able to work with an even wider range of materials and disciplines.
Regardless of their different disciplines, all engineers are problem solvers at heart. If you want to solve problems you can see and touch, civil or mechanical engineering might be perfect for you. If you want to solve problems involving chemicals and substances, chemical engineering may be a better fit. If you’re interested in the problems behind your phone screen or when the power goes off in your house, you might be most interested in electrical engineering. If you’re interested in the problems at the intersection of all these, an interdisciplinary field would likely satisfy your broader curiosity.
There will always be some overlap between fields, and much of the knowledge you’ll need is common among disciplines. Strong math and science skills, for example, are requirements for any engineer, so those classes will be important no matter what specialty you decide to pursue. There are real differences among the various options though, so it’s in your best interest to be mindful of those differences, and how they will fit with your own strengths and passions as you consider possible careers. Hopefully, this information will help you begin to think about your choices and set you on the best path toward an exciting and rewarding future. Good luck!