What Do Engineers Do? Unraveling the Mystery of an Engineering Career

12/09/202319 minute read
What Do Engineers Do? Unraveling the Mystery of an Engineering Career

This blog post seeks to demystify the roles and responsibilities of engineers across different fields, providing students and parents with a clearer understanding of what a career in engineering entails.

Although engineering is a career path that has been around since time immemorial, there are some common misconceptions out there about what engineering is and what engineers do — that engineering is purely about mathematical and scientific skills for example, or that all engineers do the same kind of work. This post explores the diverse roles and responsibilities of engineers and helps future engineers see the many career prospects available for different engineering pathways.

Engineering — A Broad Spectrum

Engineering involves the application of scientific and mathematical principles for designing, building, and improving structures, systems, processes, and devices.

Engineers are master designers and problem solvers. They employ their expertise to create, design, test, and build practical solutions to various challenges faced by individuals, communities, and industries.

Engineering projects often require contributions from diverse professionals with different engineering backgrounds, and their success is crucial for ensuring public safety across vibrant social and economic infrastructures.

“I believe that a team isn’t complete unless it’s diversified. You need a group of people who can see an issue from multiple angles. You need people who have industry experience and can drive innovation. You need project managers and leaders to pull teams together and coordinate what everyone is doing. And you need people to design great solutions…”

- Drummi Bhatt, VP of Market Intelligence and Corporate Strategy for Mitsubishi

Engineers often develop technologies that greatly enhance our quality of life. They also bolster economic growth, by designing efficient manufacturing processes and infrastructure, that increase productivity and reduce costs.

In today’s age, where environmental sustainability poses a growing concern, engineers also address the pressing issues of renewable energy development and sustainable living. Last but definitely not least, they are crucial in ensuring the safety of important structures and buildings we inhabit and are tasked with expertly mitigating risks to maximize safety.

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Branches of Engineering

Engineering comprises several branches that all play essential roles in engineering designs, solutions, and innovations.

Civil Engineering

Civil engineers design and construct infrastructure projects many of us use every day — like buildings, bridges, roads, and water supply systems. They ensure the structural integrity and functionality of these projects, while also making sure safety is maximized.

Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineers deal with the design and development of mechanical systems and devices. They are the wizards behind modern and ever-evolving mechanical marvels, such as engines that propel automobiles or aircraft, infinite varieties of manufacturing equipment, and even robotics.

Electrical Engineering

Electrical engineers design, develop, test, and manage the manufacturing of electrical equipment in conjunction with other engineering specialists to create electronic controls, electric motors, and power generation systems for an endless variety of applications and uses.

Computer Engineering

Computer engineers focus on the design and development of computer hardware and software systems. They work on areas such as computer hardware, computer architecture, digital systems, software development, network engineering, and embedded systems.

“It is widely predicted that in eight years time, there will be more jobs in the fields of science, mathematics, technology and engineering than in any other discipline… In recent years, there has been an explosive interest from world-class educational institutions such as Harvard, MIT and Cambridge in students who have taken an interest in data, applied math and statistics - any STEM subject for that matter…”

- Engineering a Bright Future for the Class of 2023, Crimson Education

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A Day in the Life of an Engineer

Civil Engineering

A civil engineer's day may involve:

  • Holding meetings with clients or other stakeholders to go over the goals and needs of the project.
  • Making site inspections to evaluate a building project's viability and environmental factors.
  • Creating blueprints, drawings, and specifications for many types of constructions, such as buildings, bridges, and highways.
  • Working with contractors, architects, and other experts to make sure that rules and safety requirements are followed.
  • Managing the work being done during construction, keeping track of the progress, and resolving any issues that may come up.
  • Examining and approving project ideas, financial plans, and timetables.
  • Running testing and inspections to make sure that finished projects are high quality and long lasting.
  • Keeping abreast of codes and regulations that pertain to civil engineering.

“I think everybody has the potential to be an engineer. It's about their pathway, it's about who has encouraged them and what they have learned. There's a place in engineering for everyone because it is so broad and it's so creative.”

- Terri Reed, Assistant VP of Faculty Research and Chemical Engineering, University of Cincinnati

Mechanical Engineering

A mechanical engineer's day may involve:

  • Participating in team meetings to discuss projects.
  • Using computer-aided design (CAD) software to create and modify mechanical designs.
  • Conducting research and analysis to determine the feasibility and performance of mechanical systems or components.
  • Developing prototypes and conducting tests to evaluate the performance, reliability, and efficiency of mechanical devices.
  • Collaborating with other engineers and technicians to troubleshoot and resolve issues in manufacturing processes or equipment.
  • Reviewing and analyzing technical documents, such as engineering specifications, reports, and drawings.
  • Participating in design reviews and providing recommendations for improvements.
  • Keeping abreast of new technologies and industry trends in mechanical engineering.

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Electrical Engineering

An electrical engineer's day may involve:

  • Designing electrical systems (power distribution, lighting, control) based on project requirements.
  • Performing calculations and simulations for load capacity, energy efficiency, and system performance.
  • Developing and testing electrical circuits, equipment, and components.
  • Troubleshooting and resolving issues in electrical systems and devices.
  • Collaborating to ensure compliance with electrical codes and safety standards.
  • Supervising and approving electrical designs and proposals.
  • Managing installation, testing, and commissioning of electrical systems.
  • Staying updated on advancements in electrical technology and regulations.

Computer Engineering

A computer engineer's day may involve:

  • Participating in team meetings to discuss project requirements, progress, and milestones.
  • Designing and developing computer hardware components.
  • Writing and debugging software code for embedded systems, applications, or operating systems.
  • Conducting tests and simulations to evaluate computer system performance and reliability.
  • Working closely with other software engineers to ensure hardware–software compatibility.
  • Troubleshooting and diagnosing computer system and network issues.
  • Researching emerging technologies and trends in computer science and engineering.
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Engineers’ Work and Their Impact

Civil engineers work on a multitude of projects, often residential and commercial in nature or related to public infrastructure projects. They tackle issues related to structural design and integrity, the use and testing of construction materials, public safety, environmental impact, as well as transportation efficiency, among others.

Unsurprisingly, they have a profound impact on society, by creating safe and functional structures that support our economic growth and are crucial to the smooth flow of our day-to-day lives.

Mechanical engineers work on diverse kinds of machinery, equipment, and systems across industries. They often address problems relating to design, efficiency, reliability, and performance optimization.

As such, they play an indispensable role in enhancing industrial productivity, reducing energy consumption, and improving the functionality of systems. This work translates to improvements and innovations across the economy, greatly bolstering social welfare as a whole.

“STEM subjects not only provide students with logical and technical skills, but also encourage problem-solving, an invaluable skill to have across many aspects of life and can be applied to any career track.”

- Engineering a Bright Future for the Class of 2023, Crimson Education

Electrical engineers work on projects relating to electrical systems, power generation, telecommunications, among many others. They are often tasked to design and develop electrical networks, various forms of electrical devices, and circuits. Crucially, they tackle problems pertaining to power generation and distribution, as well as communications and electronic devices.

In today’s interconnected world, the contributions of electrical engineers are part of virtually everything we rely on to get through our modern day — lights, heating and refrigeration, illuminated displays, all manner of gadgets, devices, and sensors,  and even the economy we depend on.

Computer engineers work on projects pertaining to computer hardware, software, and computer networks. They address issues of system design, software development, network optimization, among others.

Anyone alive today is hyper aware that at this very moment computer sciences and computer engineering are great majors with tremendous career potential. Computer engineers drive advancements in computing power and now AI — enhancing productivity, innovation, and the emergence of new sectors in the economy.

Common Misconceptions About Engineers and Their Work

Because engineers fill so many different roles with knowledge unique to so many different kinds of applications and industries, almost any simple notion about engineers and their day-to-day work experiences are bound to be misleading.

Read the common “misconceptions” in the first column. If you’ve fallen for any of these misconceptions, it’s time to appreciate how varied the world of engineering work really is!

Engineers — Misconceptions vs. Truths
Engineers must love math...Only some engineering roles require regular applications of advanced math concepts, and the math concepts you need to master for many roles may in fact be limited in number and scope.
Engineers work in isolation and are poor communicators… Some engineers do work in isolation. Many engineers, however, work with and need to communicate effectively in small or large teams, especially for complex problem solving and for ongoing development and innovation work.
Engineering is only for men, not women...Truth #1 is that there is a gender gap in STEM fields, but before you think women don’t or can’t succeed in engineering, don't forget about NASA astronaut Ellen Ochoa, cutting-edge computer scientist Timnit Gebru, or data engineer Frances Haugen, former Facebook employee turned industry whistleblower!
Engineering is all about sitting at a desk all day and doing designs, calculations, and blueprints…Some engineers do this at their job, but, many engineering roles involve team meetings, and hands-on testing and inspection that takes place in the field, at outdoor infrastructure projects, in natural environments, or on shop floors…
Engineering means spending all day in cluttered spaces tinkering and building stuff…It can be this too, if that’s what you’re looking for! But some engineers enjoy finding roles in quiet office spaces doing research, design, and problem solving work. Some may advance in their careers and work as consultants or high-level managers in large corporate offices.
Engineers are not creative…Engineers ARE creative problem solvers by definition. Remember “Houston, we have a problem…” and the engineers who saved the Apollo 13 space capsule, while it was still thousands of miles from earth?
Engineering work is very specialized and requires years of postgraduate study…Many engineers learn a lot of what they know on the job, in the context of specialized applications. The truth is that undergraduate degrees — even some associate degrees — may qualify you for many well-paid entry-level jobs that serve as stepping stones to better jobs…
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Required Skills and Education for Engineers

By this point you must be starting to wonder –– what kind of education and qualifications does someone need to be an engineer?

Starting with soft skills, engineers are problem-solvers at heart. Problem analysis and problem solving skills are therefore part of a good engineer's DNA, allowing engineers to diagnose and address problems through innovative and effective solutions.

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Other skills like attention to detail, creativity, and teamwork are also helpful, as engineering often requires you to have a knack for generating unique solutions and approaches with the help of others as part of a team. Your team members typically contribute different kinds of specialized technical knowledge and insights needed to get the job done. Many projects would simply never succeed without this combination of specialization and collaboration.

In fact, contrary to the common notion that engineers are poor communicators, effective communication is a vital skill.

It’s crucial that engineers convey their findings and ideas effectively, especially when they often work on projects that are highly technical, involve the inputs of many team members, and the projects they deliver can have life and death consequences for users.

Educational pathways to becoming an engineer vary, but often involve the following steps:

1. High School Education

It’s essential that aspiring engineers complete high school with a strong grasp of STEM subjects, through rigorous coursework in math, physics, and chemistry. Other subjects like computer science can also be beneficial, especially in certain fields of engineering. Taking rigorous STEM classes in high school will give you a positive head start when you go on to pursue a college degree.

“You might have heard that you needed not just to be great at math, but you better love it [to be an engineer]. We have learned that you don't have to be great at math…You don’t have to love it, you have to be able to do it. It’s a tool in the tool belt. When people talk about medicine they don't talk about anatomy and physiology, but when people talk about engineering you hear: oh calculus and differential equations—instead of elegant solutions, creativity, and fun.”

- Terri Reed, University of Cincinnati

2. Undergraduate Degree

Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in engineering would typically be the next step. Engineering courses typically cover math, physics, chemistry, and engineering principles, with a variety of specialization options available in various engineering disciplines.

You’ll experience lectures and textbook readings that cover a range of essential concepts and methods with some hands-on lab work, and you’ll try your hand at applying concepts and methods to life-like design or problem solving challenges.

Like most BS degree programs, it will take you about four years to get your Bachelors in Engineering.

3. Graduate Education (Masters/PhD)
While optional, some niche or specialized engineering fields may benefit or even require a graduate degree. Postgraduate programs can also help you advance into more challenging career roles:

  • get exposure to intensive survey courses for your branch of engineering
  • develop more advanced or specialized knowledge and skills
  • boost your research skills — theoretical, practical, or both…
  • pick a postgraduate program with specialized instruction aligned with your unique goals for career advancement
  • pivot educationally, to adapt to changing trends or technology demands for example

But even at the undergraduate degree level, the value of attending a top engineering school cannot be overemphasized. These institutions have renowned faculty and alumni, state-of-the-art facilities, research opportunities, and strong industry networks.

These advantages really can make a big difference, favorably impacting the trajectory of your engineering career.

More resources for your next steps…

Stem Careers: How to Prepare for Admissions to a Top University

Crimson Education: Results-Focused Tutoring

Final Thoughts

Now we’ve shown it with scientific proof engineers play a multifaceted and indispensable role in society.

This means that as a qualified engineer you should quickly find your way to abundant employment options and opportunities. From developing sustainable infrastructure to spearheading advances in technology, engineering provides exciting  and reliable career paths.

Few professions match up to engineering in offering diverse employment prospects with chances to be on the front lines of innovations that can have a profound impact on society.

As for parents who are reading, know that supporting your child’s interest in engineering can lead to a fulfilling career with excellent chances for a very positive return on your educational investment.

Careers in engineering offer excellent future prospects and compensation, and getting a degree in engineering is a surefire way to cultivate skills that will be highly valued across many industries.

Encouraging and nurturing your child’s interest can therefore engineer the way to a bright future!

As the saying goes, “Time and tide waits for no man or woman.”

Take the first step towards securing admission to prestigious engineering schools right now. Book your FREE consultation with Crimson Education and find out how to partner with their network of top-ranked advisors and tutors. There’s nothing to lose, and a whole future to gain!