Generically, engineering is a profession that either involves applying certain very specific scientific principles to the design and construction of things like engines, machines and buildings, or changing the genetic structure of cells and various materials. When it is linked to particular areas of interest, engineering takes on completely different aspects in a variety of fields ranging from chemistry to aerodynamics and nuclear physics.
Broadly speaking there are five major academic fields of interest: civil engineering, chemical and electrical engineering, as well as industrial and mechanical engineering. Then there are a host of additional specialties ranging from biomedical engineering to computer engineering.
Career options are vast and varied and offer opportunities for every possible type of job in different environments including offices, laboratories and the great outdoors.
Different institutions offer varying degree opportunities. For example, the Pratt School of Engineering at North Carolina’s Duke University offers four major engineering disciplines: biomedical, civil and environmental, electrical and computer, and mechanical engineering. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offers a wider choice including undergraduate engineering degrees in aeronautics and astronautics, biological engineering, chemical engineering, civil and environmental engineering, electrical engineering and computer science, materials science and engineering, mechanical engineering and nuclear science and engineering.
Some university courses combine subjects, like electrical and computer engineering or chemical and biomolecular engineering, even industrial and enterprise systems engineering. You will need to choose an institution that has a course that meets your own personal needs.
Of course the specific undergraduate program you decide on will directly influence the salary you will be able to command once you graduate. You can enter the marketplace with an average pay of anything from $93,000 to $54,000, depending on your major. Your wages could rise to as much as $108,000 by the time you enter the mid-career, perhaps even more, later down the line.
Here is a list of the 10 highest paying undergraduate degrees in engineering. These programs are generally four or five years and you should enroll with a school that offers programs accredited by ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology).
1. Petroleum Engineering
Petroleum engineering commands the highest pay for graduates starting out as well as those who are in mid-career. With an undergraduate degree in petroleum engineering under your belt, you can expect to earn a starting median pay (SMP) of $93,000. This will increase to a mid career median pay (MMP) of about $157,000.
There are at least 19 universities and colleges across the US offering undergraduate degrees in this major. While most are public schools, there are a few private institutions including Marietta College in Ohio, Stanford University in California, and The University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.
Petroleum implies energy, and petroleum engineering aims to capitalize the natural resources we need to make petroleum. This means petroleum engineers work primarily with nature, unlike most other engineering disciplines. They are expected to utilize a range of complex modern technologies and continually explore and discover new procedures.
Career opportunities for petroleum engineers include drilling, production and reservoir engineering, and evaluation. Many petroleum engineers go onto become top executives in the industry.
Even though this degree is commonly referred to as an engineering degree, it may not fall under a school of engineering. For instance, the Stanford program is offered by the School of Earth Sciences.
2. Chemical Engineering
One of the things that appeals to many students embarking on a career in the field of chemical engineering is that it offers opportunities to make a positive impact on society. While it may not seem obvious at first, chemistry is the gateway to molecular science and much of engineering. Chemists and chemical engineers impact our lives in many different ways, from food and other material products to the environment around us.
As a qualified chemical engineer, you will be able to choose whether to work in development design or with chemical products and processes. You will have the chance to pursue a career in range of activities from extracting new gaseous fuels from coal, developing new drugs and antibiotics or studying the metabolic effects of new anti-cancer treatments in cells, to developing ways to remove harmful pollutants from the air or from water, and even developing and improving battery and fuel-cell systems for solar energy systems.
When you study chemical engineering, you start out learning fundamental subjects including chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics and even English. You then progress to fascinating subjects that involve elements like fluid flow and heat transfer, materials engineering and engineering thermodynamics, chemical reaction engineering and technical communication.
Chemical engineering is acknowledged to be a rigorous field of study, but you can expect an immediate SMP of $64,800, which should rise to an MMP of $108,000.
This is another engineering degree that may not be offered by a school of engineering, but rather by a school of chemistry.
3. Aerospace Engineering
Like most engineering degrees, an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering is firmly grounded in engineering fundamentals as well as mathematics and physics. More specifically, , through your studies you can gain a broad understanding of the design principles and applications related to aerospace. This means you will be taught about aerodynamics and vehicle dynamics, control, propulsion and various aspects of aerospace design.
Professional aerospace engineers are expected to be able to formulate, analyze and solve a wide range of problems including limiting constraints of economics, society, and the environment.
There are more than 60 institutions in the US that offer undergraduate degrees in aerospace engineering including the Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio.
With this undergraduate engineering qualification, you can expect to earn an SMP of about $59,400 and an MMP of $108,000.
4. Nuclear Engineering
While the starting median pay for a nuclear engineer is higher than that for an aerospace engineer, the mid-career median pay is a bit less. You can expect to earn an SMP of $63,900 and an MMP of $104,000 with this degree.
Although both aerospace and nuclear engineering require a comprehensive understanding of basic sciences and engineering, the advanced technical areas you study for aerospace and nuclear disciplines are completely different from one another.
As an undergrad student in nuclear engineering, you learn about nuclear engineering, plasma, and radiological engineering. You also learn about the generation of nuclear energy.
Careers for this major range from working in the energy industries to researching fission power reactors, thermonuclear fusion, and plasma physics. New materials are being designed all the time and nuclear engineers are at the forefront of new types of medical technology.
5. Electrical Engineering
The average starting pay with an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering is a little less than the wages of a nuclear engineer. But by the time you are in your mid-career, you will both be earning the same amount. Expect an SMP of $60,800, increasing to an MMP of $104,000.
Broadly, electrical engineers are taught to use science and technology, along with a range of quite specific problem-solving skills to design, construct, and maintain products, services and information systems. Subjects include electronics and often the closely related computer engineering.
While electrical engineering is often called a traditional degree, with increasing knowledge in science, technology, and engineering fundamentals, you can qualify from a number of contemporary career options. Some electrical engineers choose to stick with traditional roles, while others use the degree as a springboard into related fields and even as a starting point for careers in seemingly unrelated areas of interest like law, politics, and medicine.
6. Biomedical Engineering
Even though the biomedical engineering undergraduate degree has the lowest SMP on this list ($54,800), you can expect to earn an MMP of around $101,000 once you have some experience.
This is a particularly interesting engineering degree for anyone who has a bent for biology and medicine, because it applies the science of engineering to these two vital topics. A biomedical engineer has the opportunity to decide exactly which branch of biomedical science to pursue. Examples include formulating nanoparticles that are suitable for drugs or the delivery of genes; the development of artificial organs and human tissue; and the design of all types of high-tech medical instruments that can be used to detect or treat a range of diseases and illnesses.
7. Computer Engineering
While electrical and computer engineering are frequently lumped together in one degree program, if you want to be a computer engineer, you should choose subjects that give you more specific computer-based knowledge, either geared towards software or hardware. It is even better to find a dedicated computer engineering program that bridges electrical engineering and computer science.
A good computer engineering degree will link hardware devices and circuits with systems (networks and computer architecture), as well as software including the operating systems used in the industry.
Computer engineering is a rapidly evolving field, and currently an undergraduate degree in the field attracts an SMP of around $61,200. You can expect this figure to rise to an MMP of about $99,500.
8. Industrial Engineering
Industrial engineering is an immensely popular major, and you will find there are close to 300 accredited engineering graduate programs in the US. Upon graduation, you can expect an SMP of around $58,200, rising to an MMP of about $97,600.
Essentially this degree is a combination of the basic engineering courses, coupled with mathematics, statistical quality control, modeling and sometimes finance and accounting as well. There is usually quite a heavy focus on optimization problems particularly those that relate to logistics and transportation, routing, and inventory control. In some ways, industrial engineering is related to management science, but it is also very quantitative in nature.
9. Mechanical Engineering
Mechanical engineering is a traditional engineering discipline that offers incredible versatility and numerous potential areas of specialization. With a mechanical engineering undergraduate degree, you could find yourself working with engines, power plants, satellites, cars, airplanes, machine tools, household appliances, surgical equipment, prosthetic devices, or heating and refrigeration systems. You might even end up designing miniature robots for space exploration, needle-free injectors, low-cost radio-frequency identification chips, or perhaps working on ways to desalinate sea water. These are just some of the challenges mechanical engineers tackle!
Undergraduate programs generally combine a broad-based engineering science education with subjects on design and quantitative problem-solving, as well as communication skills. You learn both creative and analytical skills and methods, so that you have many choices when it comes to selecting a position.
Some institutions offer a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, while others offer degrees out of dedicated Departments of Mechanical Engineering. Some, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offer both, so students have an increased opportunity to identify the direction they want to take.
If this is the undergraduate degree you choose, upon graduation you can earn an SMP of $58,300 and an MMP of $97,400.
10. Materials Science and Engineering
Materials Science and Engineering is closely related to chemical engineering, although it doesn’t command as high a salary. With this degree you can expect to earn an SMP of $59,400 and an MMP of $93,600. Even though this degree lists as number ten, it commands an SMP in line with aerospace engineering and this SMP is ahead of biomedical engineering, industrial engineering, and mechanical engineering. But it doesn’t have the same maximum MMP potential.
Essentially a materials science and engineering degree gives you the opportunity to explore the structures and properties of different materials and analyze their relationships with one another. The aim is to respond to the needs of society by developing improved materials in areas such as energy, the environment, medicine, and manufacturing.
The possibilities within this field are diverse and fascinating. For instance, in a US study funded by the military, nanotechnological methods were used to study the structure of the scales on a certain fish, Polypterus senegalus. The aim was to find more effective ways to design body armor for humans!