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What is an engineering degree? The nuts and bolts of engineering

What is an engineering degree? It's education and training to use technology, math, and science to design and build the world around us.
Written by Melissa Sartore, Contributor
male technician helping a young female electrical engineer
Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

Engineers use scientific principles to design solutions to problems. An engineering degree teaches you the skills you'll need to enter the field.

Numerous specializations and subdisciplines exist within engineering. Popular careers an engineering degree prepares you for include:

  • Civil engineer
  • Mechanical engineer
  • Industrial engineer
  • Software engineer
  • Electrical engineer

If you want to know more about everything engineering is and can do for you, check out the information we've gathered for you here. 

What skills do engineering programs teach students?

Engineering programs teach you the fundamentals of the discipline and how to apply them. An engineering degree builds critical thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills alongside technical abilities in areas like modeling, programming, and design. 

The more advanced the engineering degree, the more in-depth the information. An associate program introduces you to engineering essentials while a graduate degree covers advanced coursework and research in the discipline.

What kinds of engineering degrees are there?

You can earn an engineering degree at any level. 

Many engineering jobs require a bachelor's degree. Advancing to managerial or senior roles may require a graduate degree. 

The type of engineering you study also dictates what degrees exist. Engineering subdisciplines include:

Associate degree in engineering

An associate degree in engineering typically lasts two years. The curriculum includes classes in mathematics, physics, and chemistry alongside courses in engineering fundamentals.

You learn about engineering drawing and graphics, electric circuits, material science, and computer programming. Lab classes and practical requirements give you opportunities to apply degree content to real-world engineering scenarios, challenges, and projects. 

With an associate degree in engineering, you can enter the workforce in roles such as engineering technician and technical support engineer. 

An associate degree also prepares you to continue onto a bachelor's degree in general engineering or any engineering discipline. 

Bachelor's degree in engineering

Engineering bachelor's degrees generally take four years. General education coursework accompanies fundamental engineering classes in statics, dynamics, material science, programming, and engineering economics. 

As you progress through a bachelor's degree in engineering, you take advanced classes in subsets of the discipline.

At the end of a bachelor's degree, you complete a capstone requirement. You may team up with classmates to complete an engineering project using everything you've learned through the program. 

The capstone prepares students for work in the engineering industry. Students often get to work with real clients on actual projects.

Bachelor of arts in engineering vs bachelor of science

Some schools offer a bachelor of arts (BA) in engineering. Others offer a bachelor of science (BS). In some cases, an institution may provide a pathway to both. These degrees differ in coursework and outcome.

A BA in engineering integrates more classes in the humanities and social science to prepare students for non-technical engineering positions. BA engineering coursework is typically general and does not focus on a specific engineering discipline. 

A BS in engineering requires more STEM coursework, including upper-level courses in a specific discipline. Most BS degree programs are ABET-accredited, which demonstrates that the program meets the industry standards of quality engineering education. BA degrees are not ABET-accredited.

Most prospective engineers are best served by a BS in engineering. An ABET-accredited BS in engineering meets the education requirements for professional licensing, which is required for career progression in many engineering disciplines.

Master's degree in engineering

A master's degree in engineering includes two years or less of coursework, research, and practical requirements. Most engineering master's programs begin with core classes in engineering methods and research. 

Because engineering is so multifaceted, master's degrees focus on one of the many specialized subsets of the field. 

You can earn a master's in electrical engineering, engineering management, mechanical engineering, or any other engineering discipline.

Depending on the program and your desired outcome, you may complete a research-based thesis or an internship or practicum. If you want to continue on to a doctorate in engineering, a thesis is your better option. 

With a master's degree in engineering, you may enter engineering manager and senior engineer roles.

Doctoral degree in engineering

A doctorate in engineering may fall into one of two categories. 

A doctor of engineering, or D.Eng., emphasizes technical expertise. A doctor of philosophy in engineering, or Ph.D., focuses on theoretical research. 

Both doctoral degrees have research components, but the former culminates in a portfolio while the latter ends with a dissertation.

Doctoral degrees in engineering last three to five years. Within an engineering doctorate, you choose a specific focus area. 

Doctorates in engineering open opportunities to work as engineering executives, applied researchers, and instructors at colleges and universities. 

Who accredits engineering programs?

In addition to schoolwide accreditation, undergraduate engineering programs should hold programmatic accreditation from ABET's Engineering Accreditation Commission.

 Earning an engineering degree accredited by ABET signals to your colleagues and potential employers that you've completed a program that meets the standards established by experts in the field. 

Students who want to pursue a professional engineering license should complete an ABET-accredited bachelor's degree program. Master's degree and doctoral programs are less frequently ABET-accredited because they are more customizable than bachelor's degrees.

How hard is an engineering degree?

Engineering is a challenging, exciting, and rewarding field. Having a background or affinity for mathematics and science benefits engineering students. A determined student can pick up these skills as they study.

Engineering programs blend theory and practice with individual and group coursework. Projects, assignments, and assessments require problem-solving and analytical skills at all levels of study as you prepare yourself for an engineering career. 

Engineering courses can be difficult. Dedication and self-motivation factor as heavily into success as technical and practical skills.

This article was reviewed by Sierra Gawlowski, PE

A headshot of Sierra Gawlowski, a smiling brunette woman.

Sierra Gawlowski, PE, earned her BS in civil engineering and is a licensed professional engineer in the state of Washington. She has worked for a private engineering consulting firm as well as for public agencies. 

Sierra enjoys mentoring engineering students and junior staff. She also leads a project team for Engineers Without Borders and currently sits on the board of directors for Kilowatts for Humanity.

Gawlowski is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network. 

Last reviewed May 22, 2022.

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