How to Become a Mechanical Engineer (+ How Long it Takes)
Want to know how to become a mechanical engineer?
Well, the pathway to this rapidly-expanding industry (and a comfortable $88,000+ median salary according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) — doesn’t have too many shortcuts.
Just like when you’re designing a robotic arm or a hydraulic scissor-lift table, you need to think methodically and stick to a process.
Let’s talk about how to become an engineer, how long it takes, and the different paths you can follow to get there.
You’ll spend more time studying and practicing than ever before, so get ready for your biggest project yet!
Prepare Early via High School Coursework & Practice
Types of Engineering Disciplines
Experimenting with each discipline to see what you enjoy and what comes naturally is good. It’ll help you choose courses, decide whether or not you want to go to college (and where), and prepare you for your future career.
Best High School Courses for Future Mechanical Engineers
High school can be overwhelming socially, emotionally, and physically, and the desire to fine-tune your skills to prepare for your adult career can be a hefty task to bear.
However, choosing appropriate coursework now can introduce you to basic engineering concepts that often shock first-year college students to the core.
A future engineer should prioritize STEM courses, like:
Science (biology, chemistry, physics)
Technology (programming, computer science, coding)
Engineering (introductory engineering, robotics)
Math (trigonometry, differential equations, calculus, algebra, geometry)
Whenever possible, take honors-level or AP classes in STEM subject areas.
On top of learning more in-depth concepts that you’ll undoubtedly encounter later (either in college or your career), high marks on AP exams can also help you earn college credit while still in high school.
In other words, you can get standard first-year courses, like calculus or biology 101, out of the way before you graduate HS!
Getting Involved Outside of School
Furthering your STEM education is vital for a future in engineering. However, the engineering field is about putting knowledge into action (i.e., using your understanding of thermodynamics to design a heat-resistant engine).
Take any opportunity you can to get involved outside of school hours:
Join your school’s robotics, 3D printing, coding, or computer club.
Apply for summer internships during your junior and senior years (even if it’s only an apprentice role).
Begin building robots, tinkering with CAD, or reverse engineering household items.
Attend engineering or technology camps in your free time.
The grades and coursework are important, but nowhere near as crucial as practical engineering work experience.
Why wait until college when you can get a jumpstart on your future now?
Earn a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Mechanical Engineering
Not having a degree won’t necessarily disqualify you from a future engineering position. However, an engineering degree (which does cost a cool $62,297) is the “traditional” route toward a future in the mechanical engineering industry.
Now, here’s what you should know about a B.S. in mechanical engineering before you start applying:
Choosing an Engineering School
There are about 300 universities across the United States that offer a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. In other words, you have a few options!
But before you enroll in the first program that accepts your application or offers the most scholarship money, make sure to choose a reputable college that’ll fluff your resume!
ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) is the governing board that identifies engineering programs offering top-notch educations. While not mandatory for all entry-level jobs, most employers prefer college grads to have a degree from an ABET-accredited program.
Learn which mechanical engineering programs are ABET-accredited here.
Top Mechanical Engineering Programs
In an industry where concept knowledge can be the difference between a successful career and an impending lawsuit, it helps to attend one of the nation’s top mechanical engineering programs.
The top mechanical engineering programs in America are:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Georgia Institute of Technology
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
University of California, Berkeley
Of course, the glowing reputation bumps up the price tag considerably. So, weigh the pros and cons of whichever degree programs you qualify for and select the one that’ll better angle your career’s trajectory!
Types of Coursework in a Mechanical Engineering Program
Aside from mandatory liberal arts coursework and occasional electives, most of your undergraduate coursework will be STEM-related.
A standard mechanical engineering curriculum will include:
Computer science, computer programming
Dynamics and controls
Mechanics and materials
Design and manufacturing
The further you get into your undergrad program, the more “free slots” you’ll have for electives. Unless your school has strict elective requirements, stick to courses within the engineering department to expand your knowledge base.
Obtain Mechanical Engineering Certifications
Mechanical engineering certificates are kind of the “middle-ground” in terms of education. You can effectively dodge the standard four-year degree (and all of the coursework and debt that come with it) and strengthen your grasp of crucial concepts in the engineering field.
So, what’s the point of a certificate, and how does it improve your outlook?
Engineering Certifications vs. Engineering Degrees
If all you have is a CAD certificate on your resume, landing a job could be difficult. But, mechanical engineering degrees are slowly disappearing from the list of requirements.
The reason for this is simple:
The more candidates who earn a mechanical engineering degree, the less valuable a degree becomes. With a job pool flooded with recent college graduates, a certificate backed by field experience can be the determining factor in who secures the position.
Why spend $60,000 or more on a degree that winds up being useless?
Types of Mechanical Engineering Certificates
In reality, there are dozens of mechanical engineering certificates out there that serve as artificial resume boosters. But the quality of certifications will always matter more than the number, and you want to make sure you walk away with more knowledge than you walked in with.
Some examples of mechanical engineering certificates worth earning include:
CAD certifications (i.e., Autodesk)
Many certification programs require the completion of 5-11 courses. You’ll also have to pass a final exam to solidify your expertise.
Try sticking to certificates offered by well-known engineering institutions rather than meaningless online certificates.
Is an Associate’s Degree in Engineering Worth It?
An associate’s degree in engineering is usually not worth the investment by itself because any company requiring an engineering degree will set the lowest bar at a bachelor’s.
However, earning an associate’s degree at your local community college can help tackle some gen-ed requirements that you can later transfer to a four-year program — all at a steep discount. Plan out which undergraduate program you’d like to attend first to ensure no credits go to waste.
Enroll in an Online Mechanical Engineering Program
If you have the engineering itch but you work in an unrelated field, you may feel overwhelmed. After all, getting your footing in a whole new industry can seem daunting
But, there’s no need to quit your job to pursue a full-time degree.
Instead, take the more convenient route:
Online engineering programs!
Ready to get the ball rolling on your mechanical engineering career?
Here’s what you need to know:
Some online mechanical engineering programs are wide-open to anyone willing to put in the work. However, it’s not unusual for online engineering programs to have specific prerequisites (like certain math and science requirements or a degree in a related field).
Examples of Online Mechanical Engineering Programs
Given the hands-on nature of mechanical engineering, it’s somewhat rare to find an entirely online program.
Let’s peek at some online mechanical engineering programs worth looking into:
Keep in mind that some online programs require a 50:50 ratio of online to in-person courses. And since you’re likely taking courses part-time (2-3 per semester), an online program could take twice as long.
Don’t assume that completing coursework at your convenience and from the comfort of your own home makes it the “easy” option — it’s just as grueling!
Work Your Way Up into a Mechanical Engineer Position
For many of us, the time and money required of an undergraduate program aren’t realistic for our current lifestyles. But assuming concepts like kinematics, thermodynamics, and CAD come naturally to you, working your way up into a mechanical engineering position may be a viable alternative.
It certainly sounds too good to be true, but it’s not! Let’s review how this path differs from the more traditional routes.
Experience Over Education
Big-name companies may skip over any applicant without a degree. But having a degree merely shows that you’re a skilled test-taker, can schmooze professors, and paid your way to success.
Smaller companies are more willing to give a hobbyist or entrepreneur a chance with a lower-level role (i.e., draftsman, technician, assistant, junior mechanical engineer).
How Long Does It Take to Work Your Way Up?
There’s no set answer for this question, as your career progression depends on taking risks and a desire to learn new skills.
For example, it could take four years to jump from a junior mechanical engineer to a senior position and another two years to claim a managerial role.
But then again, the path to success isn’t always a smooth 45-degree angle.
Without a degree, many mechanical engineers find themselves job-hopping every few years to shake off their “newbie” stigma and redefine themselves as skilled experts.
Turning an entry-level position into an evolving career is made easier by:
Practicing in your free time to hone your skill, enabling you to take on higher-level projects within the company
Pursuing outside certifications or an online degree program to boost your earning potential and career progression
Becoming a team player and putting the company over your own ego
Never settling for mediocrity — always looking for ways to make a task simpler, add your own unique flair, or fast-track the project
Taking hold of the soft skills that make you a great employee in general (i.e., communication skills, leadership capabilities, etc.)
Part of the trick is being observant. If your supervisor isn’t adding more complex projects to your plate, your salary remains stagnant, or you recognize this as a dead-end position, begin applying elsewhere!
Develop a Portfolio With RocketGear
Whether you’re on track to earn a bachelor’s degree, thinking about a career change, or want to pursue freelance mechanical engineering, RocketGear can make the transition smooth and headache-free.
So, why RocketGear?
Similarity to College Programs
All undergraduate programs require basic coursework, like calculus or an introduction to mechanical engineering. With RocketGear, you can meet those same requirements at no more than $50/month — that won’t even pay for a single college class!
Are you tired of looming deadlines that seem to consume your free time?
At RocketGear, we believe that progress is success and that education should provide a path to success rather than an impassable obstacle. We lift the pressure of homework by aligning aspiring engineers toward the end goal.
Practice Makes Perfect
We at RocketGear can nurture what you learn in class and help you design a portfolio to earn a job post-graduation.
Engineering degrees are pricey and, for a lot of folks, life-draining.
If you’re contemplating college, enrolling in our courses can give you a glimpse into what mechanical engineering is all about. A RocketGear could provide the final nudge into an entry-level mechanical engineering position.
Check out some of our interactive courses!
Become a Professional Engineer
Just as doctors seek board certification and accountants become CPAs, a mechanical engineer’s next logical step is pursuing Professional Engineer (PE) status. That is, earning licensure that demonstrates a high level of expertise within the industry.
Let’s review the basics of this hotly-debated topic:
Do You Need to Become a Professional Engineer?
Becoming a Professional Engineer is certainly not a requirement for mechanical engineers.
However, it does give you a leg-up in the application process, as the title comes with ingrained respect, broadens your career prospects (i.e., government jobs and independent consultant), and can catapult your earning potential by as much as $16,000.
Of course, the PE license can give a hesitant employer a little peace of mind. After all, becoming a Professional Engineer usually requires a four-year degree, an internship, a four-year apprenticeship, and a challenging exam.
In other words, only committed and skilled engineers will hold this title.
How Do I Become a Professional Engineer?
The process of becoming a Professional Engineer varies from state to state, as each jurisdiction has its own board and requirements. Generally, here’s what goes into achieving this honor:
Attend an ABET-accredited, four-year mechanical engineering program.
Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering exam and pursue one of two pathways: Engineering internship or engineer-in-training.
Successfully complete an apprenticeship for four years (your engineering and professional skills will be under a microscope).
Ensure you meet your state’s unique standards for Professional Engineers.
Pass the nine-hour long Principles and Practice of Engineering exam (make sure you select the mechanical engineering version).
It could take anywhere between four and eight years to obtain Professional Engineer status.
You will snag hands-on mechanical engineering and earning wages as you go through this process. The examinations and apprenticeship are merely formalities.
So, How Long Does It Take to Become a Mechanical Engineer?
Any of the previously discussed routes can help you get your foot in the door and land your first mechanical engineering position. So, how long does it take to become a mechanical engineer?
Let’s take a closer look at how long each pathway could take.
The Bachelor’s Degree Route
With a full course load and unwavering commitment, an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering could take the standard four years.
However, you can fast-track graduation by completing gen-ed requirements (i.e., calculus, English, liberal arts) over the summer or winter breaks.
The Bachelor’s/Master’s Degree Program Combo Route
The Online Program Route
The convenience of online engineering programs comes with one glaring pitfall:
If you’re following the online route, you’re probably attending classes part-time while holding down another job on the side. With 1-2 classes per semester, an online mechanical engineering degree could take 4-8 years to complete.
The Certification Route
If an employer is down to two contenders, experience usuallywins. Someone with certificates and freelance engineering experience is typically more valuable than someone with nothing more than a Bachelor’s degree,
A basic SolidWorks certification could take just 3-6 months and land you an entry-level job.
The Pure Experience Route
“Working your way up” is stereotypically the path of most resistance, but the mechanical engineering field is by no means average.
Meticulously sharpening your skills, accepting freelance jobs, and pursuing opportunities at smaller companies could set your career in motion within a few months.
Becoming a mechanical engineer doesn’t have to mean taking out $30,000 in student loans or delaying your passion for another four years. To make matters even more complicated, all mechanical engineering routes have distinguished pros and cons.
For example, a bachelor’s degree could open up more opportunities on day one, but the debt is surreal for an entry-level engineer.
Meanwhile, hands-on experience will help you land a job when you have it, but finding a company willing to give you a chance can prove challenging.
Employers want just one thing:
An employee who will succeed and bring something to the table.
Practice your interview skills, commit to learning one new thing a week, stay current on modern engineering trends, and start today! While you’re at it, enroll in RocketGear’s introductory mechanical engineering courses to bring yourself one step closer to your future career venture.