If you have done well in science and math classes in the past, you’re probably thinking of majoring in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subject in college. That is often a smart choice, since STEM occupations often offer high wages, a positive job outlook and more prestige than many majors in the arts and humanities. Your next decision becomes whether you study engineering or a life or physical science such as biology, chemistry or physics. Both science and engineering are fields of study that will allow you to earn a good living while satisfying your own intellectual curiosity about the physical world around you, but they differ in key ways. The benefits of choosing an engineering degree over a science degree include the opportunity to focus on practical problem-solving, generally higher wages and more career opportunities at the undergraduate level.

Emphasis on Practical Application Over Foundational Knowledge

Historically, one of the biggest differences between science and engineering is whether the field of study emphasizes knowledge for its own sake or the use of scientific knowledge to design and develop components, equipment and processes. The life, natural and physical sciences focus on attaining fundamental knowledge about a subject through empirical, and often quantitative, methods. An engineer’s goal, on the other hand, isn’t to discover new scientific principles by observing phenomena, but rather to apply the principles attained through scientific research to solving real-world problems.

Neither role is intrinsically better than the other, and both are interconnected. While engineers apply the concepts studied by scientists to their designs, they also develop the instruments and equipment scientists use to observe and study the world, allowing for further scientific research. However, for individuals who are eager to be involved in hands-on work and to make a concrete difference in the world, an engineering career path can be considerably more appealing than a future spent in theoretical study.

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The boundaries between science and engineering are not clear in every instance, and scientists and engineers may work alongside each other in research teams.

Income Potential

On the whole, engineers earn more than scientists. Physical scientists earn an overall median wage of $78,790 per year, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Physicist, the highest paid occupation in the field of physical science, has a median wage of $118,830. For engineers, the overall median salary is $92,220, the BLS reported. The highest paid engineering occupation, petroleum engineer, has a much higher annual salary of $132,280,

Among physical science occupations, only physicist and astronomer have six-figure median wages. Five engineering occupations – petroleum engineer, computer hardware engineer, aerospace engineer, nuclear engineer and nuclear and chemical engineer – earn six-figure median wages.         

Less Need for Graduate School

Another factor to consider is if, and when, you would want to go to graduate school. Both engineering and science students can benefit from having an advanced degree such as a master’s degree or doctorate. However, in some occupations, a graduate degree is not a valuable aid to career advancement to specialized or management roles, but rather a requirement for even entry-level positions.

Generally, engineers can get an entry-level job in their discipline of engineering with just a bachelor’s degree. An undergraduate degree is enough to pursue your Professional Engineering (PE) license, if you choose to attain this optional license. You can advance to more challenging roles as you gain experience and don’t necessarily need a graduate degree to do so. Even engineering managers often have only a bachelor’s degree, though going for your master’s degree, Ph.D. or Doctor of Engineering (D.Eng.) can be beneficial. Generally, engineers need to go to graduate school if they want to work in academic research and development or aspire to teach at the college level, but not just to work in a typical engineering role.

In the physical science occupations, graduate school may be much more necessary. In fact, physicists, astronomers, biochemists, biophysicists and medical scientists all require a doctoral degree, according to the BLS. Even in physical science occupations in which a Ph.D. is not required, such as chemist and microbiologist, many positions in both basic and applied research call for candidates to have a Ph.D.

Nuclear engineering is an exception in that some entry-level positions might require a master’s degree or Ph.D., but there are still entry-level nuclear engineering jobs available in the private sector with just a bachelor’s degree, the BLS reported.

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