Mechanical engineering is the art of using problem-solving techniques and applying them to the design and manufacturing of an object. Essentially, a mechanical engineer uses creative design and analytical knowledge to turn a concept into something real. Why is mechanical engineering important? Quite simply, engineers are the driving force behind the innovations that keep modern society running.
Here, you can explore the fundamentals of the field and read about the process of how to become a mechanical engineer. You’ll also read about the characteristics and education needed to be a mechanical engineer.
In This Article:
- What Is Mechanical Engineering?
- The Range of Mechanical Engineering Specialties and Careers
- What Do Mechanical Engineers Do?
- Why Is Mechanical Engineering Important?
- Learn How To Become a Mechanical Engineer
- Earn Your Baccalaureate Mechanical Engineering Degree
- Licensing Requirements For Mechanical Engineer Careers
- Skills and Characteristics of Successful Mechanical Engineers
What Is Mechanical Engineering?
Mechanical engineering is the design, development and fabrication of mechanical systems and equipment. Mechanical engineers apply the principles of engineering (like motion, energy and force) to design things that make everyday life better, safer or more comfortable. In essence, mechanical engineers use the tools of physics and mathematics to change the world around them.
A mechanical engineer could work on anything from air conditioners to medical devices to athletic equipment — and so much more. This is an exciting field not only because of the diverse range of career paths, but also because what mechanical engineers do can directly affect the world around them.
The work of mechanical engineers is vital for the everyday functioning and advancement of human society around the globe. It is widely believed 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. Although the unknown person or people who invented it didn’t have 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.1
As a formal discipline, mechanical engineering owes its birth to the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the United States. This was a major turning point when budding mechanical engineers created all sorts of useful inventions that facilitated great leaps in human capabilities.1 Today, mechanical engineers remain 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.
The Range of Mechanical Engineering Specialties and Careers
Mechanical engineers can work in a number of different industries, including:
- Consumer products
A mechanical engineer can also choose to specialize in a subfield. For example, within the automotive industry, an engineer may focus on autonomous systems. Within the bio-tech field, an engineer could focus on prosthetic devices. Within the aerospace field, an engineer may specialize in designing probes intended to land on Mars. No matter where your particular passions lie, you’re likely to find a subfield in mechanical engineering that will suit you.
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.
Specific examples of 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.
Why Is Mechanical Engineering Important?
Without mechanical engineering, we would not have things like engines, generators, elevators or even air conditioning. Although we might not even realize it, we most likely use mechanically engineered devices every day.
Mechanical engineering plays a critical role in manufactured technologies. From cars to airplanes to refrigerators, mechanical engineering enables you to perform many daily activities with ease, as it brings helpful technologies to our modern society. It is one of the most important subdivisions of engineering, because without it, many of the technologies we use every day would not be available.
Learn How To Become a Mechanical Engineer
Now that you know the basics of what mechanical engineers do, it’s time to take a look at how to be a mechanical engineer. The education needed to be a mechanical engineer can begin right now, even if you aren’t in college yet. 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.
It may be helpful 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 could also be valuable. 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 of high school, you should start thinking about colleges. To become a mechanical engineer, you’ll need a mechanical engineering degree from an accredited university. However, you don’t necessarily need to plan on going to graduate school, because a bachelor’s degree can qualify you to pursue entry-level positions.
Earn Your Baccalaureate Mechanical Engineering Degree
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.2
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 can teach you foundational competencies that can possibly prepare you to pursue opportunities working on projects as diverse as spacecraft and medical nanobots. Although the curriculum will vary from one school to the next, in general 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 can be 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.
Licensing Requirements For Mechanical Engineer Careers
The process of how to be a mechanical engineer involves licensing exams. Once you earn your undergraduate mechanical engineering degree from an ABET-accredited program, you’ll be qualified to take the first of two exams.2 However, it’s not necessarily mandatory to obtain a license before you can land your first entry-level job. After all, specific requirements vary from one employer to the next.
Consider 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.3 You may also wish to pursue voluntary certifications to further boost your career qualifications, although these might not be necessary for landing an entry-level job.
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 take 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:4
- 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.4 A passing score on this exam means that you will be a licensed engineer in training (EIT) or engineer intern (EI).
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 may 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
Arguably, the main characteristic of successful mechanical engineers is an enduring curiosity about the world around them. This curiosity drives engineers to create inventive designs intended to make life better. Mechanical engineers tend to be both highly analytical and intensely creative. They tend to love puzzles and brainteasers that require abstract thought. Mechanical engineers love a good challenge and enjoy thinking logically, but they aren’t afraid to think outside the box when a situation calls for it.
The Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering degree program at Grand Canyon University (GCU) can prepare you to pursue innovations in the field. Our engineering program is accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET. To learn more about GCU’s STEM programs offered by the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, fill out the form on this page.
1 Institution of Mechanical Engineers. (2023). Mechanical Engineering History Timeline, Pre-17th Century. IMechE. Retrieved June 5, 2023.
2 Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc (2021). Licensure, Registration & Certification. ABET. Retrieved June 5, 2023.
3 National Society of Professional Engineers. (2007, July 28). Demonstrating Qualifying Engineering Experience For Licensure. NSPE. Retrieved June 5, 2023.
4 The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying. (2023). FE Exam. NCEES. Retrieved June 5, 2023.
Approved by the engineering instructor of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology on June 19, 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.