Do you love taking things apart and seeing how they work for yourself?
Do you enjoy working with people and coming up with technical solutions to real problems?
And do you like designing and building things that people can use and enjoy in their everyday lives?
If you answered ‘yes’ to all of these questions, then a career in mechanical engineering might just be right up your alley!
But how do you enter this fascinating – and high-paying – profession?
With a little luck, a lot of hard work and dedication, and a love for all things mechanical, of course!
Whether you’re exploring your career options or considering a career change, this step-by-step guide will help you get a better picture of what it takes to become – and succeed as – a mechanical engineer.
1. Make sure it’s what you want to do
Choosing a career is one of the most important decisions you’ll make in life, and it’s one that shouldn’t be rushed. After all, you don’t want to spend years studying something you’re not completely interested in.
So, if you’re considering a career in mechanical engineering (or any other field, for that matter, whether within engineering or not), the first step you need to take is to make sure it’s something you want to do.
A good start would be to do some research into the profession. This will help you get a better understanding of what exactly it entails and whether you can see yourself doing this job on a daily basis. You can check out the UK’s National Careers Service’s job profile on mechanical engineers, for example, which provides detailed information on duties, working environment, salaries and entry requirements. Likewise, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics provides similar guidance for aspiring mechanical engineers in the US.
Reading as much as you can about mechanical engineering can be extremely helpful in identifying whether the profession aligns with your goals, values and interests. For example, if you prefer working a strictly office-based job, you probably might not enjoy mechanical engineering, as it often involves visiting worksites.
You can also consider taking a career test – like our very own CareerHunter™ (shameless self-promotion right here!) – which will help you identify suitable career paths that match your interests, personality, motivations and skills.
2. Focus on relevant subjects at school
You’ll need to start your professional journey as a mechanical engineer quite early on, ideally while still in high school. This will help you develop your knowledge and interest in mechanical engineering as well as acquire the appropriate skills needed to get into and succeed at university – and beyond.
The top subjects you should focus on at school are physics and mathematics (particularly pre-calculus and, if possible, calculus). Indeed, as mechanical engineering incorporates applied principles of physics and mathematics to design and manufacture mechanical systems, understanding the basics of both these subjects will give you a head-start in your formal training.
Computer science is another good subject to focus on, as is chemistry. Meanwhile, you shouldn’t discount seemingly irrelevant subjects like a foreign language, for example. Indeed, most universities don’t let just anyone in, so the more well-rounded and well-read you appear, the better off you’ll be when the time comes round to start sending university applications – especially if you want to get into one of the world’s best engineering schools.
3. Nurture your interest in mechanical engineering
It’s also important at this very early stage to take up various activities (extracurricular or otherwise) that will help you nurture your interest in – and develop the relevant skills you need to succeed in – mechanical engineering.
While still in high school, for example, you could sign up for any science fairs and competitions that your school is organising or participating in. But remember that it’s not about winning that math challenge or engineering contest; it’s about building and showcasing your skills.
You could also take up drafting and design classes, which will be particularly beneficial to your formal training, as mechanical engineering involves using CAD software to design technical plans.
In your spare time, meanwhile, consider taking up relevant hobbies like woodworking, welding, car repairs – essentially, anything that requires the use of hand and power tools. Take old machines apart to see how they work, try to solve problems by inventing or reinventing things, learn about how things are made, and generally do anything that will help you prepare for a career in mechanical engineering.
4. Get the qualifications
If you’re set on becoming a mechanical engineer, then the next step is to obtain the relevant qualifications. You’ll generally need a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering to enter this field, which primarily includes courses in mathematics, science, engineering and design. Alternatively, you can opt for a degree in mechanical engineering technology, particularly if you’d like to specialise in a particular area of mechanical engineering, such as automotive design, energy systems or applied mechanics.
Whether you choose to study at home or abroad, you must apply for degree programmes that are accredited by the relevant country’s regulatory body. In the UK, for example, this is the Engineering Council, while in the US, this is the American Bureau for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Make sure to check that your chosen degree programme is accredited, as this is often a requirement for licensure.
That said, you don’t always need to be licensed to work as a mechanical engineer, but it is often a legal requirement if you want to offer your services to the general public directly. The regulatory body of the country you hope to work in will provide further information on this, so it’s a good idea to check their websites to avoid any problems further down the road.
5. Gain work experience
What better way to get a taste of life as a mechanical engineer than gaining relevant work experience? Not only does work experience offer you valuable insights into the world of work, but it also looks good on your CV, whether you’re applying to university or your first job.
There are many different ways you can gain relevant work experience, including job shadowing a qualified mechanical engineer. Shadowing, or externship, placements, which last anywhere between half a day and an entire summer, will help you achieve a better understanding of what life as a mechanical engineer is like. That said, you’ll spend your placement almost like a fly on the wall, observing the person you’re shadowing go about their day. You won’t do anything, but it can be a great opportunity to ask questions and learn as much as you can about the job.
If you want to gain more hands-on experience, though, you could do an internship. Although some are unpaid, you’ll get practical experience on relevant projects while working with a designated mentor. Many companies offer week-long programmes and even summer placements, so it’s a good idea to check job boards (like our very own CareerAddict Jobs – again, some more shameless self-promotion) for local and international opportunities. Some degree programmes, meanwhile, offer year-long internship placements as part of the curriculum.
You could also do some voluntary work at home or abroad with organisations like Engineers Without Borders or Engineers Against Poverty. That said, you don’t necessarily have to find something within the engineering industry; any volunteering experience is always good – as long as you’re doing it because it aligns with your values and not just for the sake of adding something to your CV. Yes, it will help you increase your employability, but that shouldn’t be your top priority.
6. Further your education
As a mechanical engineer, you will shape future technology by using the latest developments in current technology, so it’s important that you’re always learning and staying up to date on industry news and innovations. Indeed, by maintaining and developing your knowledge and skills, you’ll become more employable, and it will be easier for you to advance your career.
There are thousands of online courses available you can complete on MOOC providers like Coursera and edX, or you can attend classroom-based courses and seminars if you prefer. In some cases, you’ll be expected to complete continuing education coursework to maintain your licence, so it’s a good idea to check what the requirements are on your country’s regulatory body’s website.
Meanwhile, you should consider joining a professional organisation – like the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in the US or the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the UK, for example. This will give you access to industry conferences and training, as well as the ability to network with like-minded professionals. Finally, you could also consider completing a doctoral degree, particularly if you’d like to move into a research or academic role. Indeed, most academic positions require a minimum of a PhD.
Pursuing a career in mechanical engineering is no easy feat, but this guide will hopefully provide you with a clear picture of what you need to do to get the ball rolling.
Are you thinking about becoming a mechanical engineer? What made you want to pursue this exciting career? Head over to the comments section below and let us know!