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 who are pursuing 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 prepare them to do.
How Long Does It Take to Get an Engineering Degree?
Studies in engineering exist at every level of higher education, from the associate’s degree programs offered at community colleges to the Ph.D. programs at highly regarded universities in which candidates conduct original research. Of course, the extent of your engineering education affects the concepts and technical capabilities you’re able to learn, as well as what career paths are available to you.
Engineering Associate’s Degrees
An associate’s degree is the shortest degree you could earn in engineering. When you enroll in an associate’s degree program, 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. If you never advance your engineering education beyond the associate’s degree level, you can expect your future career opportunities to be limited to engineering technologist roles rather than full-fledged engineer positions.
The associate’s in engineering degrees that you can earn in two years come in two forms. Some associate’s degrees teach students the basics of engineering in preparation for continued studies at a four-year college. Think of these associate’s in engineering degree programs as the first half of a four-year bachelor’s in engineering degree program. 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. If you end up not transferring to a four-year school to complete your coursework, you won’t be able to be an engineer.
The other type of associate’s degree program pertaining to the field of engineering is two-year degree programs in a field of study called engineering technology. With a two-year engineering technology degree, you can get a job as soon as you finish your studies. Instead of an engineer, however, 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 and technologists do the important work that helps engineers implement and scale their ideas, but if you truly want to contribute to the latest and greatest technological innovations, you might find work as an engineering technologist to be unfulfilling.
Engineering technicians make well above the median wage for all occupations but considerably less than engineers in the same discipline. For example, as of 2020, civil engineering technicians earned a median wage of $54,080, compared to $88,570 for civil engineers, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Bachelor’s Degrees in Engineering
Generally, engineers need a bachelor’s degree to work in this occupation. In most branches of engineering, having a bachelor’s degree will allow you to at least get started in an entry-level position. In many engineering disciplines, you could spend your whole career working in professional practice with only this level of education if you chose to.
That’s not to say that having an advanced degree isn’t helpful, because it often is. There are some roles—such as engineering professor, researcher in academia and researcher in advanced research and development departments—that you can only hold with a higher level of education. However, for many areas of engineering, the majority of engineers report having only a bachelor’s degree. For example, 96 percent of automotive engineers, 91 percent of transportation engineers, 86 percent of civil engineers, 85 percent of nuclear engineers, 83 percent of mechanical engineers and 82 percent of chemical engineers reported a bachelor’s degree as their highest level of education, according to O*NET.
A typical bachelor’s degree program in any discipline of engineering requires at least 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 has shown that many STEM students are not 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.
Taking longer to graduate with your bachelor’s degree certainly sounds less than ideal, but it isn’t always a bad thing. Some engineering schools offer opportunities for co-ops, or cooperative education programs in which students gain professional work experience in their field before graduating. This experience is often paid, and they provide plenty of hands-on work experience, as well as opportunities to start networking within the engineering industry.
Co-op experiences are usually longer in duration than internships and may also be more demanding than a typical internship that you might complete alongside coursework, which is why participating in a co-op experience could slow down your progress toward graduation. Programs that include a co-op component tend to last four-and-a-half to five years instead of the typical four years of study. Considering the work experience you’re gaining and the pay you receive for working, though, this situation is more like bundling your first job in the field into your engineering education than simply falling behind and taking longer to complete your coursework. Students who participate in co-ops may be better prepared for the work that’s waiting for them in the engineering industry after graduation than students whose undergraduate education encompassed more limited fieldwork experiences.
Engineering Master’s Degrees
Suppose you decide to pursue an engineering education beyond the bachelor’s degree. Your next step might be a master’s degree, which is a graduate-level education. When you add the length of a master’s degree program in engineering to the time you have already spent earning your bachelor’s degree, you’re looking at a minimum of five or six years of schooling beyond high school to get to this level of education.
Many engineering degree programs at the graduate level are designed to be completed in two years of full-time study. 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. Either way, the advanced coursework that makes up a master’s degree curriculum in engineering is challenging.
Not all engineering graduate students finish their degrees in just two years. Many graduate students, especially those who are working full-time, have to study part-time. If they don’t want to quit their job, part-time study may be the only option that will give them enough time to devote to their studies to succeed in the program. 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. Perhaps more discouraging, only 55 percent of engineering graduate students actually complete their master’s degrees in three years, the U.S. News & World Report data showed.
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. These programs can cut down the time it takes to earn a master’s in engineering degree to just 12 to 18 months. 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.
Doctoral Degrees in Engineering
The engineering students who pursue a doctoral education are the ones who will spend the longest amount of time in school. Engineers who hold a Ph.D. may spend up to 12 years—and sometimes even longer—in college, between their undergraduate studies and their doctoral studies and research.
At the doctoral level, this research component (or lack thereof) plays a big part in how long it takes to earn your degree. 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. If you go straight from your bachelor’s degree to your Ph.D. program and you finish your doctorate in the average timeframe, you’re looking at 12 years of total engineering study.
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. In other words, a three-year doctoral program may bring your years of schooling up to a total of nine years, once you count the time it took to earn both a bachelor’s degree and 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.
How Long Does It Take to Become an Engineer With a PE License?
If you’re asking about the time it takes to not only earn a degree but also make strides toward your career in other ways—for example, “How many years does it take to become an engineer?”—the answer may be a little different, depending on whether or not you need to be licensed. Earning a Professional Engineering license isn’t a requirement for all engineering roles, and in many cases, you can start entry-level engineering positions without a license. However, if your goal is to be a licensed engineer, achieving licensure will make the process take a bit longer.
Typically, new engineers seeking licensure begin the process by taking the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, which they can do once they earn their bachelor’s degree in engineering from an ABET-accredited program. Passing the FE exams qualifies the candidate as an engineer in training, also called an engineer intern. The next step is for engineers in training to acquire work experience under the supervision of a licensed engineer. Generally, engineers in training must get at least four years of experience before they can sit for the second licensing exam, the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam. Since the license granted to engineers is awarded by the state, different states may set somewhat different licensure requirements.
You don’t have to pursue your Professional Engineering license immediately upon graduation. You may begin the licensure process later in your career if, for example, you decide that you don’t want to put in the time, effort and expense of earning and maintaining licensure unless you get to a point in your career where having a license would be beneficial.