Electrical and Mechanical Engineering questions
January 4, 2009 5:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to choose between bachelor's degrees in mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. Other than jobs where you are actually "engineering" things, what jobs would each one be able to get? Also, I hear that engineering disciplines overlap in some ways. What are the similarities and differences between electrical and mechanical? Thank you.
posted by atm to Technology (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Are you not in an engineering school yet? You might consider getting into eng. school, taking the first couple classes in each discipline, and see where that goes.

Reason I say this, is that most EE students have to take basic ME classes, and vice versa, for breadth requirements.
posted by notsnot at 5:15 PM on January 4, 2009

Best answer: Disclaimer: I studied computer engineering, currently pretend to be an electrical engineer, and have to be reminded which way to turn a screwdriver when appropriate and hence, am not much of a mechanical engineer.

As an electrical engineer, most likely the only mechanically-oriented classes required would be statics, dynamics, and thermodynamics. Past that, any mechanical experience required would be picked up as needed.

As a mechanical engineer, most likely the only electrically-oriented classes required would be an applied circuit theory class. Again, past that, any electrical experience required would be picked up as needed.

All engineering disciplines overlap since practical experience tends to trump classwork. As notsnot suggests, I'm not sure you really need to make the decision - I had classmates that switched between the two disciplines after they started school. The one suggestion I'd have is to make sure you're studying an ABET accredited engineering subject. Some schools offer degrees in "Engineering Technology", which is not ABET-accredited and will be rejected as a qualification by many engineering companies.

As for jobs, I'm not sure what you really mean by jobs other than "engineering things." If you don't want to engineer, I'd suggest not becoming an engineer.
posted by saeculorum at 5:30 PM on January 4, 2009

Best answer: You should study the discipline you love (or the one you love the most) - let the career sort itself out later.
posted by Xhris at 5:43 PM on January 4, 2009

Best answer: Learning engineering is hard. The workload is high enough that it's incredibly advantageous to be actually interested in the subject itself. It's usually a bad idea to let "which is easier to get a job?" make your decision for you, not least because it primes you to exit college 3.5 years after the bubble in that field has burst (e.g., all those programmers and web developers who chose their major at the peak of the dot-com bubble, and graduated near the bottom of the valley -- or more recently, the current class of Harvard MBAs who are receiving career/grief counseling).

So I'd second the advice from above, and get some experience in both fields (internships/volunteering if you're in high school, taking intro classes if you're in college) and let that make the call for you. Thermo & fluids are enough of a pain to learn when you like them.

And while it's definitely true that back behind the scenes, most of the engineering fields are deeply interconnected (so you can move from EE to ME to acoustics to thermodynamics by just changing the name of the through and across variables in the differential equations), the connection is usually not made super-explicit. What is true is that regardless of specific discipline, there's a pretty specific (and, let's be honest, occasionally very annoying) Engineer Mindset and approach to tackling problems that you're going to pick up regardless of discipline, and which will help enormously in moving between fields. I started my career designing mechanical parts, and now teach EE at two colleges. (On the other hand, I started out in physics, so maybe I'm a bad example.)
posted by range at 5:55 PM on January 4, 2009

Best answer: You can do lots of things with an engineering degree that aren't engineering. I went to an all-engineering school and of my five roommates from senior year, two are in medical school, one is at Harvard Business School doing her MBA, and two are doing touchy feely designy PhD programs ("media sciences" or some such thing). I'm the only practicing engineer among them. I also have friends who went to law school. So why get these engineering degrees instead of another degree?

MBA program: an engineering background puts you on a track for getting into the high-tech business sector, which seems to be where you go if you want to be a venture capitalist. Also, taking lots of applied math can make you good for investment banking (I worked at an I-bank as an internship in a department filled entirely with former engineers). I can also say that, as an engineer, I appreciate it when my CEO has an engineering background so he/she can understand how my projects will go and why certain things like testing can take so long.

Law: patent law firms loooove engineers. Also, the couple of patent lawyers I've worked with (all with engineering degrees) get to be listed as co-inventors on most of the patents they work on, which is pretty cool.

Medicine: don't know enough about this, other than that biomedical engineering is more interesting/applied than straightup biology?

Touchy feely stuff: working on pretty technology (like Second Life) without actually doing math. Yay? It is not my thing.

Anyway, point is, all these people went into engineering knowing, for the most part, that they didn't want to be practicing engineers -- they just wanted the background engineering gave them in math, science, problem solving, analysis, and teamwork. They all pretty much got into the programs they wanted and are very happy with where they've ended up.

To answer your more specific question... the medical students did biomedical engineering, obviously, but the others are spread out pretty evenly between EE and ME degrees. It doesn't matter too much, because the elements of engineering that are valuable in other fields are pretty much identical between EE and ME. Do what sounds cool. Do you like letting the magic smoke out of electronics or do you like breaking stuff?
posted by olinerd at 5:57 PM on January 4, 2009

Best answer: At MSFT, we often hired EEs and MEs to do development work that is typically the domain of CS/E.
posted by jeffamaphone at 6:40 PM on January 4, 2009

Best answer: Find a school that has a fairly flexible program so you can get a solid grounding in the fields that you are not majored in. Maybe robotics?

what jobs would each one be able to get?
I think this has more to do with the individual's characteristics combined with non engineering coursework and experience.
IMHO an engineering degree combined with a few basic business classes (accounting, finance, econ, and a b.theory class or two) is the perfect degree for most 'business' jobs. It maters less what field the engineering degree is in, and more on your ability to translate the strengths of an engineering background into advantages in a more business-y job. The important strengths are things like being able to think abstractly, solid quant skills, being able to effectively communicate technical subjects, and the ability to program. Also, if there is an industry that you are particularly interested in, having a background in its most closely related engineering field will help. (I think Mech. Eng. is more broadly applicable, but I'm biased).
posted by nazca at 7:23 PM on January 4, 2009

Best answer: The one suggestion I'd have is to make sure you're studying an ABET accredited engineering subject. Some schools offer degrees in "Engineering Technology", which is not ABET-accredited and will be rejected as a qualification by many engineering companies.

Just to clarify actually ABET does accredit engineering technology programs but the degree is different and most non-engineers could confuse the two although professionals will not and it would exclude you from many positions.
posted by Octoparrot at 7:50 PM on January 4, 2009

Best answer: I'm trying to choose between bachelor's degrees in mechanical engineering and electrical engineering.
Many new engineers have this same question. And every engineering program that I've looked at does a really poor job of answering it. It is really hard to explain what being a ___ engineer is really like. Some offer first year introduction to engineering classes. But these are generally crap. I don't think they really give you a feel for the field. Often by the time you really know what a field is all about, you've taken enough classes to at least minor in it.

The best thing that I can think of is to sit in on as many seminars and upper level lectures as possible. Typically there are weekly seminars for grad students (its often mandatory for them) where other grad students and visiting faculty present their work. These will give yo a very good feel for the field. But bewarned that you have to do this with a large sample size. Many of the people presenting will be uninspiring and will be extremely poor at public speaking, so keep on going until you sit through a few fairly interesting talks.

Ask your advisor or one of your professors about doing this. They might give you a funny look, because often they only go because they have to, but they should help you out.

Also, in the first few weeks of the semester sit in on as many upper-level classes as you can. Actually if you are really keen, you could keep this up until you decide on a program.
posted by nazca at 8:03 PM on January 4, 2009

Best answer: most engineering programs don't actually require you to declare a major until at least your second year, which gives you some time to research and think about it.

one thing i would suggest is to try to talk to some actual engineers about what they do. maybe you have some older friends with engineering internships, or maybe the careers office at your college (or probable future college) can give you contact info for a few practicing engineers in different fields. many professionals will be willing to give you 20 minutes for a quick discussion of what their field is like, either on the phone or in person if you can make it to their office - just contact them politely and ask if they'd be willing to schedule an informational interview.

the other thing you should know is that there are a variety of different ways to use an ME degree, and i'm sure it's the same for EE. after i graduated, i worked in a factory designing components. we had to interface with the sales department and sometimes with actual customers, design our stuff, work with tech writers, drafters, manufacturing engineers to get the documentation put together, work with the production group to make sure they could actually produce the thing. there was also a lot of work related to improving manufacturing processes, to build things better or faster or cheaper. my current job is designing HVAC systems. i work in an office of less than 15 people and 99% of my time is spent on the computer. i know other mech engineers who spend most of their days doing field work, etc. so my point is, there are a lot of directions you can go.
posted by beandip at 9:19 PM on January 4, 2009

Best answer: olinerd's idea about patent attorneys listing themselves as co-inventors is really not the norm and is a really bad idea. briefly, it's a massive conflict of interest. now, carry on with the main topic.
posted by JimN2TAW at 10:00 PM on January 4, 2009

Best answer: Engineering programs in this country do an abysmal job of allowing students like yourself to envision their field of study.

I have a BS in EE and have been in IT for over 11 years now after spending 5 years at a large defense contractor as a EE. My buddy that was a EE is now a patent attorney. I have found that once you get an engineering degree, you can do anything.

Find out which engineering degree you're actually interested in and finish it. Engineering degrees are tough when you are interested in the subject matter; even tougher if you hate what you're studying (i.e.--like I did).

After that, your career may go in any number of paths depending upon your interests at graduation or even the economy.
posted by PsuDab93 at 8:38 AM on January 5, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everybody! This is very important to me, so I appreciate the great answers and I will think about all of them. If anyone wants to add anything or any new people want to answer too, I will subscribe to this thread and watch it for a long while. Thanks again!
posted by atm at 2:41 PM on January 6, 2009

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