Are you passionate about flight and space? Do you have a knack for mathematics and an eye for detail? If so, you might consider pursuing a career as an aerospace engineer.
What does an aerospace engineer do? What degree do you need to be an aerospace engineer? Read on to discover the answers to these questions and learn more about this career path.
In This Article:
- What Does an Aerospace Engineer Do?
- Potential Career Paths for an Aspiring Aerospace Engineer
- How To Become an Aerospace Engineer
- What Degree Do You Need To Be an Aerospace Engineer?
- Additional Credentials for Aerospace Engineering
- Essential Skills and Characteristics for an Aerospace Engineer
- Job Outlook and Median Salary for Aerospace Engineers
What Does an Aerospace Engineer Do?
Before you learn how to become an aerospace engineer, you should know exactly what these professionals do. Aerospace engineering is a subfield of engineering that focuses on aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, satellites and all of their related systems and equipment. An aerospace engineer is responsible for designing, developing, testing and informing the production of all these systems and pieces of equipment.
Although the exact job responsibilities will depend on an aerospace engineer’s subspecialty, employer and current project, they will generally perform the following tasks:
- Review project proposals, considering their technical feasibility and likely financial requirements.
- Evaluate whether project designs will both fulfill project goals and fit an acceptable safety profile.
- Determine whether designs will adhere to accepted engineering principles, environmental and other compliance regulations as well as customer requirements.
- Coordinate and oversee the design, manufacture and testing phases.
- Create prototypes of all new designs and test them for performance and safety.
- Inspect any malfunctioning equipment or systems to identify problems and develop solutions.
Aerospace engineers can choose from a number of subspecialties and career paths. Read on to learn more.
Potential Career Paths for an Aspiring Aerospace Engineer
Multiple career paths are open to aspiring aerospace engineers, but before you can choose one of them, you’ll need to decide which branch of aerospace engineering you’re most passionate about. The two main branches are:
- Astronautical engineering: Astronautical engineers specialize in the advancement of the science and technology of all types of spacecraft. These professionals may work on anything from a small satellite (“CubeSats”) and larger satellites to space rockets, missiles, space vehicles and probes. They also work on navigational systems for spacecraft.
- Aeronautical engineering: Aeronautical engineers specialize in designing, testing and improving all types of aircraft that remain within earth’s atmosphere. They design propulsion systems, study the aerodynamic performance of construction materials and explore ways of improving the fuel efficiency of aircraft to reduce their carbon footprint. Aeronautical engineers may work in the military or civilian aviation industries.
As you might expect, safety is of the utmost importance for both branches of aerospace engineering. Both types of aerospace engineers must pay careful attention to every detail and put their new designs through rigorous testing to ensure that they are safe for flight.
These two main branches of aerospace engineering contain multiple career paths, such as the following:
- Aircraft/spacecraft designer
- Design drafter
- Military aerospace engineer
- Payload/mission specialist
- Data processing manager
- Compliance officer
- Aerospace technician
How To Become an Aerospace Engineer
Now that you know the answer to the question, What does an aerospace engineer do? you may be excited to focus your passion for aircraft and spacecraft by working toward a career in the field. If you’re still in high school, consider talking to your guidance counselor about your plans. Ask whether you can take additional relevant courses to prepare for your intended career path, such as courses in mathematics, physics and chemistry. Communications courses may also be helpful, because engineers must be able to work collaboratively with others.
As your graduation date approaches, you should plan on applying to a university or college that offers a relevant degree. You might also consider earning a master’s degree, although this isn’t strictly necessary. Aerospace engineers will also need to acquire an engineering license, although a license isn’t always necessary to begin working at an entry-level general engineering job.1 If you plan on working for a government agency or a civilian company that handles government contracts, you may need to obtain a security clearance as well.
What Degree Do You Need To Be an Aerospace Engineer?
An aspiring aerospace engineer will need an engineering degree. However, there are many different types of engineering degrees, such as degrees in electrical engineering, robotics engineering and computer engineering. If you already know that your future lies in aerospace, then you may be best served by earning a mechanical engineering degree.
It’s ideal to look for a mechanical engineering degree that has an emphasis in aerospace engineering. Additionally, make sure that the program you choose has been accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET.
During your studies, you’ll take a wide range of classes, with a sharp focus on sciences and mathematics. For example, you can expect to take courses in chemistry, physics, calculus and differential equations. In addition, it’s typical for an engineering student in an aerospace emphasis program to study such topics as the following:
- Materials science and engineering, with a look at how materials’ actual atomic or molecular structures relate to their properties.
- The thermodynamics of propulsion as applied in air-breathing and rocket propulsion systems, including the thermodynamics of aircraft jet engines and gas turbine engines.
- AC and DC electrical circuits, with a look at filters, power transfer, op-amps and impedance.
- The application of the stochastic process to modeling and solving engineering problems, while exploring topics such as Markov chains, random walks and the Galton–Watson tree.
As an engineering student, you can expect a blend of classroom instruction and experiential learning in laboratories. You will also likely complete one or more capstone projects. These are major research projects that allow you to showcase your accumulated engineering knowledge.
Additional Credentials for Aerospace Engineering
It’s not necessary to earn a master’s degree in order to work as an aerospace engineer, but you may want to consider doing so if you aspire to pursue a supervisory role later in your career.1 In any case, even though an advanced degree isn’t necessary for most aerospace engineers, you will need to plan on earning a license.
The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) develops and administers two licensure exams for engineers. These are the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam and the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam. By passing these rigorous exams you will earn your FE and PE licenses, respectively.2
Essential Skills and Characteristics for an Aerospace Engineer
There are many important skills and characteristics that an aspiring aerospace engineer ought to cultivate. You will be given opportunities to develop these skills and traits throughout your time as an engineering student. Of course, you can also benefit from completing one or more internship experiences during your time in college or after graduating.
These essential skills and traits include the following:
- Critical thinking and analytical reasoning
- Communication skills
- Interpersonal skills and a collaborative approach
- Problem-solving abilities
- Innovative mindset
- Commitment to professional ethics, sound engineering principles and safety measures
Job Outlook and Median Salary for Aerospace Engineers
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates job growth for aerospace engineers to increase by 6% from 2021 to 2031 — as fast as the average. 3,700 new jobs are estimated to open for aerospace engineers from 2021 to 2031.3 In May 2021, aerospace engineers had a median annual wage of $122,270, according to the BLS.4
You can pursue your passion for aerospace engineering by applying for enrollment in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology at Grand Canyon University. The Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering with an Emphasis in Aerospace degree program teaches broadly applicable mechanical engineering competencies with a focus on aerospace concepts, such as flight control systems and aerospace design. Fill out the form on this page to get started today.
1 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Aerospace Engineers. Retrieved on July 19, 2023.
2 National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (n.d.). Exams. National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying. Retrieved June 22, 2023.
3 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 and 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is effective September 2022, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Aerospace Engineers, retrieved on June 22, 2023.
4 The earnings referenced were reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”), Aerospace Engineers as of June 2023, retrieved on June 22, 2023. Due to COVID-19, data from 2020 and 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may also impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the BLS. BLS calculates the median using salaries of workers from across the country with varying levels of education and experience and does not reflect the earnings of GCU graduates as Aerospace Engineers. It does not reflect earnings of workers in one city or region of the country. It also does not reflect a typical entry-level salary. Median income is the statistical midpoint for the range of salaries in a specific occupation. It represents what you would earn if you were paid more money than half the workers in an occupation, and less than half the workers in an occupation. It may give you a basis to estimate what you might earn at some point if you enter this career. You may also wish to compare median salaries if you are considering more than one career path. Grand Canyon University can make no guarantees on individual graduates’ salaries as the employer the graduate chooses to apply to, and accept employment from, determines salary not only based on education, but also individual characteristics and skills and fit to that organization (among other categories) against a pool of candidates.
Approved by the assistant dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology on July 18, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.