What Is Mechanical Engineering?

Required coursework, job prospects, and average salaries for graduates

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Mechanical engineering is a STEM field related to the design, analysis, testing, and manufacture of objects ranging from children's toys to airplanes. More students study mechanical engineering than any other branch of engineering. The discipline is heavily grounded in physics, as mechanical engineers must be experts on the principles that govern motion, force, and energy.

Key Takeaways: Mechanical Engineering

  • Mechanical engineering draws heavily upon math and physics, and the major requires strong computing and problem-solving skills.
  • Mechanical engineering has more college majors and working professionals than any other engineering field.
  • Specializations within mechanical engineering include automotive, aerospace, electronics, robotics, and more.

Specializations in Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineering is a broad field with numerous sub-specialties. In the broadest terms, a mechanical engineer has the skills to take an idea and come up with the design specifications to make that idea a reality. The proper functioning of all of the products in our daily lives—from nail clippers to automobiles—relies upon the efforts of a mechanical engineer.

Many mechanical engineers spend a large portion of their day sitting in front of a computer using CAD (computer-aided design), CAE (computer-aided engineering) and CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) software tools. That said, many mechanical engineers also spend time in the laboratory testing designs or on the production floor overseeing manufacturing processes.

Mechanical engineers work for a wide range of employers since so much in our world depends upon the field. The following list contains the most common specializations within the field of mechanical engineering:

  • Automotive: Everything from the temperature control panel to the wheel bearings requires precise design specifications.
  • Aerospace: In the aerospace field, lives depend on engineers to design safe airplanes, helicopters, and spacecraft.
  • Electronics: Any part of an electronic device that moves or encounters a force relies upon the efforts of a mechanical engineer. From keyboard design to disk drives to charging plugs, good mechanical design is essential.
  • Education: Many mechanical engineers go on to earn advanced degrees and train the next generation of engineers. It is also common for engineering faculty members to act as consultants for industries.
  • Medical: Biotechnology often depends on mechanical engineers for the design and production of implants and prosthetic devices.
  • Military: From guns to missiles to aircraft carriers, the tools employed by an effective military depend upon reliable and precise design.
  • Robotics: From personal household robots to automated assembly lines, robotics is going to continue to be a growth field for the foreseeable future.

    College Coursework in Mechanical Engineering

    Mechanical engineers must have strong skills in math, physics, and computing. They will typically need to take math classes through differential equations and foundation courses in sciences such as chemistry, biology and calculus-based physics. Many courses will be specialized for the specific skills required of a mechanical engineer and can include topics such as these:

    • Principles of Design
    • Machining
    • Measurement and Instrumentation
    • Mechanical Properties of Materials
    • Thermodynamics
    • Fluid Mechanics
    • Control Systems
    • Manufacturing Processes
    • Hydrodynamics
    • Robotics

    In general, a mechanical engineering curriculum will involve a mix of lecture and lab courses. Students will graduate with strong computational and problem-solving skills.

    Best Schools for Mechanical Engineering Majors

    Because mechanical engineering is the largest and most common of all engineering disciplines, nearly every school that has an engineering program will offer a mechanical engineering major. Not surprisingly, the best schools for the field are also those that top the national rankings for engineering as a whole.

    All of the schools below have excellent graduate and undergraduate programs in mechanical engineering:

    • California Institute of Technology (Caltech): A small private technological institution located in Pasadena, California, Caltech often vies with MIT for the top ranking among engineering schools. Mechanical engineering is the most popular major.
    • Carnegie Mellon University: CMU is a mid-sized comprehensive university with strengths ranging from the arts to engineering. Mechanical engineering is the third most popular major after computer science and electrical engineering.
    • Cornell University: The largest of the prestigious Ivy League schools, Cornell also has the strongest engineering programs among the Ivies. Well over 100 mechanical engineers graduate every year.
    • Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech): Located in Atlanta, Georgia, this public university's price tag will be considerably lower than the private options on this list, and the engineering programs are among the best in the country. Mechanical engineering is the most popular major, and the program graduates nearly 600 students a year.
    • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT often tops the list of the best engineering schools in the United States if not the world. About 15% of all undergraduates major in mechanical engineering.
    • Purdue University - West Lafayette: Purdue is one of several large comprehensive public universities with excellent engineering programs. The university graduates over 400 mechanical engineers a year. Industrial, Electrical, and Chemical engineering are also popular.
    • Stanford University: With a 5% acceptance rate, Stanford is the most selective school on this list (although MIT and Caltech aren't far behind). Engineers make up about 20% of the undergraduate student body, and just under 100 mechanical engineers graduate each year.
    • University of California - Berkeley: Electrical engineering, biology, and computer science top the enrollments in STEM fields at Berkeley, but mechanical engineering comes in fourth place. The university has broad strengths, and the social sciences and humanities programs are as prestigious as the school's excellent engineering programs.
    • University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: With over 48,000 students, UIUC is the largest university on this list. Over 1,700 engineering majors graduate annually, and civil, computer, electrical, and mechanical engineering are all popular.
    • University of Michigan - Ann Arbor: One of the top public universities in the country, Michigan has many strengths in STEM fields among which mechanical engineering is the biggest program.

    Keep in mind that the engineering programs at these schools are all highly selective, and that there are dozens of other excellent colleges for studying mechanical engineering.

    Average Salaries for Mechanical Engineers

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median pay for mechanical engineers is $85,880 per year for an employee with a bachelor's degree. Close to 300,000 people are employed in the field, and job opportunities for mechanical engineers are projected to grow over the next decade. Payscale.com reports that the average pay for early career employees is $65,800, while mid-career mechanical engineers average $108,700. In general, engineering majors have higher earning potential than students who graduate in most other fields.