A bachelor’s degree in engineering is among the top degrees for the highest-paying business careers, but because the field is so broad, most colleges award degrees in specific disciplines. Some students have an idea which engineering discipline they want to work in, but many new college students have no clue. After all, most high schools don’t offer an engineering class specifically, so it’s not like you have much experience directly in this academic discipline. Some schools allow incoming freshmen to start off as a general engineering or undecided engineering major. Even if you must declare a major right off the bat, most engineering schools make it easy to switch between disciplines during your studies if you change your mind.
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A Common Curriculum
All engineering disciplines are part of this larger interrelated field of engineering. Many of the foundational skills and areas of knowledge needed to work in engineering are common across disciplines, so there’s a good deal of overlap in the coursework you would take for the different engineering majors, especially early on in the curriculum. In fact, some engineering schools have a common first-year core curriculum. The focus of this foundational curriculum is to build your knowledge base in subjects crucial to all disciplines of engineering, such as physics, calculus, computing and chemistry through introductory courses.
Additionally, general engineering classes may provide an overview of different engineering disciplines to help students find their path within the field of engineering. You may have the opportunity to explore lessons or modules in several different engineering disciplines or subdisciplines through these general engineering courses.
Having this common curriculum makes it easier to switch majors within the field of engineering, as well. Suppose you declare a major, like civil engineering, as an incoming freshman but realize during your first year of study that your interests lie more in computer engineering or mechanical engineering. Since most of the classes you took as a freshman are part of the core curriculum of either program, you can change your major with minimal consequences. You haven’t wasted your time or set yourself back a year or more from your original graduation date.
Besides your engineering core courses, freshman engineering majors also begin working on their general education requirements, taking courses such as English composition or a social science or humanities elective.
Multidisciplinary and Interdisciplinary Studies in Engineering
Engineers within the same discipline don’t always flock together. Many types of engineering projects require the skills and aptitudes found in different engineering disciplines. Recognizing this reality, many engineering colleges emphasize multidisciplinary collaboration, such as group projects with teams consisting of students representing different engineering majors.
Besides helping students practice their skills in communicating and collaborating across engineering disciplines, exposing students to multidisciplinary studies also allows them to better understand their own strengths and interests in the field. If you find yourself drawn to a different aspect of engineering, it may be time to consider whether switching majors, pursuing a minor or completing a formal or informal interdisciplinary concentration would benefit you.
A multidisciplinary experience doesn’t have to change your education or career plans to make you a better engineer. Instead of looking at every problem as one kind of engineer, you expand your perspective by learning how other disciplines approach a problem.
Switching Engineering Disciplines at the Graduate Level
Not every engineer goes to graduate school. There are plenty of engineering occupations where a bachelor’s degree is all you need for a secure and high-paying career, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, master’s and doctoral degree programs remain popular with engineers for a number of reasons, from the opportunity to gain more research experience to the personal fulfillment of learning more advanced theories and skills. A master’s degree may also raise your earning potential, commanding a wage premium of as much as 13 percent for some engineering disciplines, the BLS reported.
If you do choose to go to graduate school, you might decide to shift your field of study. Graduate engineering programs are often more specialized than undergraduate programs, so you can go for a program that builds upon the skills you already have, provided that you meet the prerequisites. For example, you could use a background in computer engineering to pursue a master’s in biomedical engineering degree with a concentration in computational biomechanics or a background in electrical and electronics engineering to study biomaterials and nanotechnology at the graduate level.
Some engineers pivot their education even further at the graduate level. Aspiring engineering managers often pursue a master’s degree in technology management, engineering management or business administration (an MBA), the BLS reported.