All engineers are professional problem-solvers who think outside the box to develop innovative solutions for real-world conundrums. There are many engineering specializations, including mechanical engineering. Mechanical engineering is a particularly versatile and diverse field that, broadly speaking, explores various types of systems and objects in motion.
You’ll find ingenious solutions developed by mechanical engineers in a wide spectrum of industries; these include aerospace, automotive, biotechnology and electronics, just to name a few. Are you curious about the process of how to become a mechanical engineer? This detailed career guide explains what you can expect while working toward meeting the requirements for mechanical engineer careers.
What Is Mechanical Engineering?
The work of mechanical engineers is vital for the everyday functioning and advancement of human society around the globe. It’s widely thought that the origins of mechanical engineering as a profession are rooted in the Industrial Revolution, yet the field can actually be traced back to ancient times.
For example, the first known potter’s wheel was developed around 3000 BC.1 Although the unknown person or people who invented it didn’t earn a degree in mechanical engineering, the potter’s wheel is still an example of how the principles of mechanical engineering can be used for the betterment of society.
As a recognized professional field in modern times, however, mechanical engineering owes its birth to the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the United States. This was a major turning point, during which budding mechanical engineers created all sorts of useful inventions that facilitated forward leaps in human capabilities. Today, mechanical engineers continue to be hard at work creating new inventions and improving existing ones.
As a discipline, mechanical engineering focuses on the design, development and creation of mechanical tools and machines. These include engines, autonomous vehicles, power systems, computers and factory production lines.
What Do Mechanical Engineers Do?
It’s tricky to nail down a list of daily job tasks for mechanical engineers because every day and every job can look a little different. A typical day in the life of a mechanical engineer will depend on the needs and goals of the employer, as well as the specialization of the engineer. In general, however, these professionals may do any of the following:
- Identify problems to be solved and meet with various stakeholders and other experts to identify possible solutions using mechanical and thermal devices
- Develop new or improve existing designs for mechanical and thermal systems with the use of sophisticated computer software
- Investigate equipment malfunctions to determine the source of the operational problems and troubleshoot solutions
- Create and test prototypes of new devices and systems
- Provide guidance on the manufacturing process for new devices
Some examples of specific devices that mechanical engineers may work on range from electric generators to gas turbines to escalators—and just about every other machine that involves movement or thermal transfer. A mechanical engineer may choose to specialize in a particular area, such as automotive technology or heating and cooling systems.
Becoming a Mechanical Engineer
There are a few requirements for mechanical engineer careers that you’ll need to meet. If you’re still in high school, you can get started right now on the process of how to become a mechanical engineer. Talk to your guidance counselor about the available courses that can support your career aspirations.
Try to take as many mathematics and science courses as possible, including classes like pre-calculus, chemistry and physics. Mechanical engineers need to be able to use advanced software, so computer applications and programming courses would also be helpful. In addition, look for extracurricular activities that you can use to bolster your college application, such as science fairs and clubs.
During your junior year in high school, you should start thinking about colleges. You’ll need a mechanical engineering degree from an accredited university. You don’t necessarily need to plan on going to graduate school, however, since a bachelor’s degree will qualify you to pursue entry-level positions.
Plan on taking the first exam toward earning your professional license soon after graduating with your bachelor’s degree. You can qualify for the second exam and obtain your professional license after gaining some work experience. You may also wish to pursue voluntary certifications to further boost your career qualifications, although these aren’t necessary for landing an entry-level job.
Earn Your Bachelor's Degree in Mechanical Engineering
After high school, the first step in the process of how to become a mechanical engineer is to earn your undergraduate degree. It’s possible to earn a general degree in engineering. However, if you already know that mechanical engineering in particular is your passion, then it makes more sense to choose a mechanical engineering degree.
Before enrolling, make sure your chosen degree program is accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET. This is because you may need a degree from an ABET-accredited school in order to qualify for professional licensure. In addition, employers generally prefer to hire engineers who have graduated from an ABET-accredited school.
A Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering degree is a multidisciplinary program. This degree brings together subject areas like chemistry, physics, mathematics and computer programming. Your degree program will teach you foundational competencies that will prepare you to pursue opportunities working on projects as diverse as spacecraft and medical nanobots. The curriculum will vary from one school to the next. In general, though, you can expect to study topics such as the following:
- Materials science and engineering
- Engineering experimental design and analysis techniques, with a look at statistical process control and process variability
- The principles and laws of thermodynamics, with an exploration of ideal gases, water vapors, entropy and the thermodynamics of reacting mixtures
- The processes and methodologies used in manufacturing, including computer-aided manufacturing
- The design of electro-mechanical systems
Internships are always helpful for college students, regardless of their major. However, for mechanical engineering degree students, internships are particularly important because this discipline emphasizes application over theory. The more hands-on learning opportunities you have, the better prepared you’ll be to pursue an engineering job after graduation.
Do You Need a Graduate Degree to Become a Mechanical Engineer?
Since mechanical engineers work on complex problems and are expected to have in-depth scientific knowledge, you might assume that the process of how to become a licensed mechanical engineer must include graduate school. Yet, this isn’t actually correct. All you need to become a licensed mechanical engineer is an undergraduate degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program.
It’s common for mechanical engineers to be hired with just a bachelor’s degree. However, if you’re interested in pursuing an advanced, research-intensive position, then you may need to think about going back to school for your master’s degree. In addition, mechanical engineers who decide they’d like to enter academia and become professors of engineering at a four-year university will need to earn a doctoral degree.
Are There Licensing Requirements for Mechanical Engineer Careers?
There are licensing opportunities for mechanical engineers. Once you earn your undergraduate mechanical engineering degree from an ABET-accredited program, you’ll be qualified to sit for the first of two exams. However, it’s not necessarily mandatory to acquire a license before you can land your first entry-level job. After all, specific requirements vary from one employer to the next.
The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) is the nonprofit organization responsible for overseeing and administering licensing exams for engineering professionals. Those who hold a qualifying undergraduate degree can sit for the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, which is offered at Pearson VUE test centers nationwide. The FE exam is six hours long, including a scheduled break. It features 110 questions on topics such as the following:
- Ethics of professional practice
- Engineering economics
- Electricity and magnetism
- Dynamics, kinematics and vibrations
- Material properties and processing
- Fluid mechanics
When preparing for the exam, be sure to study the NCEES FE Reference Handbook. This is available as a free download from the NCEES and is also available as a reference for use during the test. A passing score on this exam means that you will be a licensed engineer in training (EIT) or engineer intern (EI).
Qualifying for the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Exam
After you’ve gained at least four years of full-time work experience as an EIT or EI, you’ll be qualified to sit for the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam, also offered by the NCEES. This exam has fewer questions, but is more rigorous and is nine hours long, including scheduled breaks. When you achieve a passing score, you’ll be a licensed professional engineer (PE).
As a PE, you’ll be qualified to offer your engineering services directly to the public and to supervise the work of other engineers. Do note that your state may require you to periodically renew your license, so check the requirements of your state licensing board carefully.
Should Mechanical Engineers Earn a Certification?
It isn’t mandatory for mechanical engineers to earn a voluntary certification in addition to their license. However, doing so will deepen your knowledge and demonstrate your expertise in a particular area. It may also provide a pathway toward a more lucrative role.
There are various certification options available from professional organizations and governing bodies. If you’re interested in improving your skillset and adding more substance to your resume, you might consider exploring certification programs from the following organizations:
- American Society of Mechanical Engineers
- National Fire Prevention Association
- Associated Air Balance Council
- Green Building Certification Institute
- Association for Facilities Engineering
Essential Skills and Characteristics of Successful Mechanical Engineers
Throughout your time in college and your career as a professional engineer, you can work on cultivating the essential skills and characteristics needed for this field. Successful mechanical engineers need a combination of hard and soft skills. Some examples of crucial hard skills for this field include the following:
- Data analysis
- Computer literacy, including computer-aided design (CAD)
- The ability to understand and interpret reports and blueprints
- Technical writing skills
Of course, like virtually every other profession, mechanical engineers can also benefit from possessing other professional skills. For instance, they need to be skilled communicators who can clearly explain their design plans to stakeholders who might not possess a high level of technical knowledge. Other important skills for these professionals include the following:
- Active listening
- Sound judgment
- Project management
- Collaborative mindset
As you progress in your career, you’ll gain greater confidence in your abilities. It’s important to possess a commitment to continued improvement and professional development, which will help you flourish in your role.
Is There a Strong Demand for Mechanical Engineers?
Many different industries rely on the expertise of mechanical engineers. This is because mechanical engineers not only invent new solutions, but they can also improve upon existing technologies to make them more effective or more resource-efficient—or both.
These professionals will be needed to develop and perfect hybrid and electric cars, as well as autonomous vehicles. Manufacturing employers will also need to hire plenty of mechanical engineers to design equipment that meets the industry’s demand for increasingly complex automation machinery.
Are you interested in taking the first step in the process of how to become a mechanical engineer? Apply today for enrollment in the Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (BSME) degree from the College of Science, Engineering and Technology at Grand Canyon University. This degree program blends classroom instruction with purposeful, hands-on learning experiences to enable students to master the foundational competencies of mechanical engineering.
Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more about earning your mechanical engineering degree at GCU.
1 Retrieved from: Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Mechanical Engineering History Timeline, Pre-17th Century in January 2022
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.