The engineering field is booming. From innovations in consumer electronics to better sources of energy to our relentless exploration of Earth and our solar system, different types of engineering power everything we do.
There’s so much exciting work to do in engineering today that it can feel difficult at times to narrow down your focus enough to pursue an education — and eventually a job and a career. The good news is, there are essentially four paths you can travel on your way toward becoming an engineer. Some of them overlap, and many of them contain sub-specializations. Imagine a tree branching and branching again. But you’ve got to start somewhere.
Here’s a guide to the four main types of engineering, as well as some honorable mentions and a look at why each of these disciplines is going to be even more important in the future than they are right now.
1. Civil Engineering
Of the many types of engineering out there, many have a direct impact on the quality of our daily lives. Civil engineering might sound dull, but it’s anything but mundane — it concerns the construction, improvement and maintenance of our country’s infrastructure. It’s a critical time for public interest in civil engineering, as many of our highways, water delivery systems, bridges and airports are in a dangerous state of disrepair. They need skilled hands and strong defenders in Washington come budget and tax time.
If you’ve ever found yourself spending an enjoyable afternoon solving spatial problems, building things with castaway items or drawing up blueprints for houses and spaceships, civil engineering is calling to you. Whether you find yourself dealing with fixing a single road or designing a citywide transportation network, you can put your interests in mathematics, material sciences and even geology and statistics to work in a career as a civil engineer — and help make modern life possible for the rest of us, not to mention keep our nation’s economy competitive with other industrial countries.
2. Electrical Engineering
The world changed on a fundamental level when we “discovered” electricity and learned to put it to work. But there’s still so much left to learn about this all-important field, especially now that alternative energies like solar and geothermal are finally making a dent in incumbent energy sources. If you’re interested in power, electrical engineering is an ideal place for you, because the future of residential and commercial power is to “wire everything up.”
Electrical engineering is the largest of the four main engineering disciplines. But it’s about smaller-scale disruptions, too, such as refining the technologies that power our personal computers, our household appliances and anything else that requires small electronic circuits to function.
Electrical engineering is for folks who are interested in power supply and generation, communications technologies, robotics, computers and big-data systems. Lots of us got our start in science working through electrical circuits and using up all Dad’s solder in the basement workshop. If that sounds familiar, check out electrical engineering for a rewarding and always-changing career in science.
3. Chemical Engineering
As another of the four core engineering disciplines, chemical engineering is an ideal fit for folks with multiple interests. Chemical engineers study biological as well as chemical processes in the pursuit of better or newer substances and materials. It’s an experimental science at heart, offering a potent combination of physics, chemistry and biology, plus a dash of economics and, of course, math.
If you’ve heard people describe you as being “analytical,” you might find chemical engineering to be a natural fit. You’ll be able to get involved in engineering useful chemical reactions and designing new processes, materials, techniques and tools for use in manufacturing, world commerce and even further scientific research.
Chemicals are at the heart of many human activities and innovations — and as a chemical engineer, you’ll be right in the thick of things. And don’t think of this field as “merely” having to do with chemicals, either — it has vast and ongoing applications in food, drugs and fuel, as well.
4. Mechanical Engineering
Mechanical engineering is one of the oldest types of engineering on this list. Long before germ theory and even before electricity, there were simple machines, the harnessing of forces and the deployment of stored energies. Expect to cover a lot of ground here, including technical drawing and mechanical design, fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, statistics and stress analysis.
Mechanical engineers have their hands in small machines as well as major mechanical challenges, such as dams and other physical infrastructure, transportation systems and industrial-scale manufacturing apparatus. No matter how small or large the machine, if it involves mechanical processes, it was likely a mechanical engineer who came up with its design.
Granted, the future has big changes in store for this type of engineering, too — it’s not just about keeping machinery going. Sustainable energy requires mechanical engineers to build and improve our growing number of wind farms, and the solar sector will always need mechanical engineers to improve manufacturing techniques or improve how solar installations pivot to track the sun.
Honorable Mentions: Computer, Aerospace and Aeronautical Engineering
There are many more disciplines worth mentioning, some of which are closely related to the four main ones you’ve just read about, and some of which are growing into major fields of their own.
Computers lie at the heart of most of our technologies these days, which makes computer engineering a career path with almost unlimited potential. The same goes for aerospace and aeronautical engineering as humanity looks more and more toward the stars as the next target for our ambitions.
Whatever you choose, know engineering is key to our future as a species — and we need lots of folks just like you to keep expanding our knowledge.