The field of nuclear engineering revolves around a simple goal: applying science and math principles to develop ways to reap the benefits of nuclear energy and radiation. The work itself – and the studies needed to earn a degree in the discipline – is far from simple. Though most nuclear engineers start off their careers with a bachelor’s degree, nuclear engineering is one branch of engineering in which even some entry-level jobs may require an advanced degree. The coursework for a nuclear engineering student is rigorous and complex, but the six-figure median salary and the potential to make a difference in a field like medicine or energy production make the challenging degree path worthwhile.
Math and Science Requirements for Nuclear Engineers
Engineers need to first understand the principles of physical and natural sciences and mathematics before they can apply those principles to engineering design. For aspiring nuclear engineers, these college-level math and basic science courses typically include calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, general chemistry and laboratory physics courses, sometimes tailored to engineering studies. Some nuclear engineering programs also require students to take specialized mathematics courses for engineers, either instead of or in addition to other math courses.
The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) requires accredited engineering programs to include at least one year, or 32 college credits, of studies in science and math.
The Core Nuclear Engineering Curriculum
Studies in engineering science and design make up the bulk of a nuclear engineering student’s undergraduate curriculum. The core curriculum in this discipline includes classes such as introduction to nuclear engineering, principles of nuclear engineering, nuclear reactor design, nuclear reactor analysis, nuclear reactor theory, radiological safety, nuclear detection, materials science in nuclear energy, computer applications in nuclear engineering, nuclear engineering experiments and nuclear engineering systems and design. By the time students complete an ABET-accredited program in nuclear engineering, they will know how to apply math and science principles to work in a nuclear or radiological field developing nuclear designs, systems and processes or measuring and analyzing nuclear and radiation processes.
Nuclear engineering is a somewhat interdisciplinary field. In addition to classes specific in nuclear engineering, students take general engineering courses such as introduction to engineering principles and experimental physics and engineering. Core coursework might also draw from other disciplines of engineering. For example, nuclear engineering majors might take fluid mechanics, thermodynamics and heat transfer courses offered by the mechanical engineering department. Other classes might include mechanics of materials courses offered by the civil engineering department and courses in the principles of electrical engineering offered by the electrical and computer engineering department.
To meet ABET requirements, engineering science and design courses must account for at least one and a half years of your total college studies in an undergraduate program.
Hands-On Experience in Nuclear Engineering
Unfortunately, nuclear engineering is not among the fastest growing engineering disciplines. In fact, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a slower than average growth rate of just four percent for this branch of engineering, compared to the eight percent growth rate anticipated for engineering occupations overall. If you want a nuclear engineering job with a top employer, you will need more than just a degree.
ABET requires engineering programs in all disciplines to include a major design experience in the curriculum. For nuclear engineering students, a senior design project or capstone project might take the form of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can detect radiation detection or a nuclear reactor simulator.
However, to give yourself an edge in the job market – since every nuclear engineering graduating from an ABET-accredited program will complete some sort of senior design project – you may want to gain more work experience in your field during your education. Many nuclear engineers gain valuable training by participating in cooperative-education engineering programs.
Cooperative programs are full-time paid positions that typically last longer than a single semester, providing a greater breadth and depth of experience than the average internship.
Advanced Degrees in Nuclear Engineering
If you choose to continue your education beyond the bachelor’s degree, you will continue to study advanced mathematics and engineering principles and apply those principles to engineering designs. Typically, graduate students spend time learning in the classroom, in the laboratory and conducting their own research studies, according to the BLS. There are non-thesis professional master’s degree programs and doctoral programs in nuclear engineering as well as traditional research-based master’s and Ph.D. programs. Graduate degrees in nuclear engineering include specialized, advanced studies in subject matter such as reactor core thermal–hydraulics, nuclear reactor kinetics and dynamics, nuclear fuel management, neutron transport theory and environmental degradation of materials in nuclear power plants.
Who should consider a graduate degree in nuclear engineering? A master’s or doctoral degree is necessary to become a university instructor and for high-level research and development roles, the BLS reported.