A college degree is a must if you want to become an engineer. In fact, engineering degree programs are notoriously difficult, and many students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects take longer to graduate than their peers is less demanding degree programs. You can earn an engineering degree in as little as two years or take as long as ten years working toward an advanced degree. It is important that students consider not only how long it will take to complete a degree program but also what work their degree will them to do.

How long to earn an engineering degree

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Engineering Associate’s Degrees

It is possible to earn an engineering degree in just two years. However, doing so won’t make you an engineer. In all disciplines of engineering, you need at least a bachelor’s degree to attain even an entry-level job – and in some disciplines, a master’s degree or higher might be required for entry-level roles.

The engineering degrees you can earn in two years are associate’s degrees, and they come in two forms. Some associate’s degrees teach students the basics of engineering in preparation for continued studies at a four-year college. Earning your degree this way may allow you to save money by paying a lower community college tuition rate rather than a pricy four-year college tuition rate for the first half of your undergraduate education. However, you can’t work as an engineer until you complete your bachelor’s degree.

There are also two-year degree programs in a field of study called engineering technology. With a two-year engineering technology degree, you can get a job. Instead of an engineer, you will be an engineering technician or technologist. You will work with engineering equipment or assist full-fledged engineers with implementing their designs rather than developing your own ideas.

Engineering technicians make well above the median wage for all occupations but considerably less than engineers in the same discipline. Civil engineering technicians earn a median wage of $51,620, compared to $84,770 for civil engineers.

Bachelor’s Degrees in Engineering

A typical bachelor’s degree program in any discipline of engineering requires four years of full-time study. However, students should know that an engineering curriculum is rigorous. To succeed in the challenging coursework required of engineering students, you will need to give yourself plenty of time for homework, projects and studying.

Even though a bachelor’s degree in engineering could theoretically be completed in four years, research now shows that fewer STEM students are graduating on time. In fact, fewer than half of Asian-American students, just one-third of white students, less than one-quarter of Latino students and less than one-fifth of black students attain their STEM degree within five years, the Higher Education Research Institute reported.

What happens to the rest of these STEM students? Some earn a STEM degree at a slower pace, while others switch to easier majors, transfer to different schools or drop out of college completely.

Engineering Master’s Degrees

Many engineering degree programs are designed to be completed in two years of full-time study. However, that doesn’t mean students are finishing their degrees that quickly. Many graduate students, especially those who are working full-time, have to study part-time in order to have enough time to devote to their studies. On average, it takes students three years to complete online master’s degree programs in engineering, even when those programs are meant to be completed in two years, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Of course, there are exceptions. Some students are able to earn their graduate degrees in less than two years by choosing accelerated programs with intense workloads. There are also engineering schools that offer accelerated dual degree programs that allow students to work toward their master’s degree and bachelor’s degree simultaneously and earn both degrees in just five years total.

Master’s degrees in engineering can be researched-based, requiring a thesis containing original research, or professional, requiring no research, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Doctoral Degrees in Engineering

Just as there are both professional and research-focused options for a master’s degree, there are also different options for a graduate degree. The traditional Ph.D. in engineering is a research degree. It requires a doctoral dissertation and takes an average of more than eight years to complete, CBS News reported. This is the degree you need for high-level research positions at universities, government research laboratories and competitive industry roles according to U.S. News & World Report.

For engineers who aren’t looking for a research degree, the professional Doctor of Engineering degree is a great choice. This advanced degree prepares students for technical leadership positions rather than for research and academia. A Doctor of Engineering degree can be completed in as little as three years, but students should be aware that some Doctor of Engineering programs are only open to candidates who already have a master’s degree.

The completion rate for Ph.D. programs in all subjects in the United States is low. Just 57 percent of students in doctoral programs succeed in earning their Ph.D. degrees within 10 years, according to CBS News.