Research shows around one-third of students change their major at some point in their college experience. Change can be good and help you discover the best path for your skills and interests. However, knowing what you want to study before diving into a commitment can potentially help you get ahead faster.
Electrical engineering and mechanical engineering are dynamic areas of study that are similar, yet different in scope. If you’re interested in the applied sciences, you might be wondering which area of engineering is best for you. Here’s a look at the differences between electrical vs. mechanical engineering to help you make your choice and set you on the right path.
What is electrical engineering?
Electrical engineering is a branch of engineering that addresses the design, development, testing, and manufacturing of electrical systems. Electrical engineers work on building everything from electrical motors, to power station generators, and the minuscule microchips found in your smartphone.
The process of choosing which engineering program to study after high school in order to pursue an exciting and rewarding career can seem confusing and daunting at the same time. Of course, there’s always the option to change course once you’ve started down one path but decide you actually prefer a different one. Understanding exactly what electrical engineering is, however, can help you make the best choice.
What’s the history of electrical engineering?
When did it all start? While smartphones are relatively new, electrical engineering has actually been going on for hundreds of years. People have been studying various forms of electrical engineering since the Englishman Stephen Gray first demonstrated how electric conduction works in the first half of the 18th century. Following this, Benjamin Franklin became famous for his experiment flying a silk kite in a thunderstorm. He drew electricity from the surrounding clouds down the kite’s wire to charge a Leyden jar.
Later on, Michael Faraday and Joseph Henry invented the earliest electric motor and later demonstrated the principle of the generator. Another defining moment in engineering history happened when Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb people used in their homes in the late 1800s and brought electricity to New York City by building a full-scale central power station in 1882.
Today, electrical engineers are integral to the engineering design process, development, and creation of so many things. Our household appliances, manufacturing systems, vehicles, computers, and much more, depend on electrical engineers. Our modern world revolves around the talents of electrical engineers and their ability to help lead us into the future.
What is mechanical engineering?
Mechanical engineering is a very broad area of engineering that deals with applying the fundamental laws of nature and their principles to the creation and advancement of technology. Simply put, mechanical engineers deal with anything that moves. These engineers design, develop, and manufacture objects of the marketplace. These STEM professionals apply the principles of energy, force, and motion to ensure a product is reliable and functions safely.
Mechanical engineers need to understand:
- The laws of mechanics
- The laws of thermodynamics
- How forces act on solids and liquids
- The properties of engineering materials
- How heat flows through matter
If you love problem solving that involves putting physical parts together to make something that moves and applying your solutions to practical situations that involve math and physics, this area could be for you.
Mechanical engineers work in many fields and encounter a wide range of opportunities in their careers. If you study mechanical engineering, you may find yourself working in the following fields, as well as many others:
- Automotive industry
- Structural analysis
- Human health
Comparing Electrical vs. Mechanical Engineering
Knowing how much money you can make in a particular career shouldn’t be the defining point in what you choose, but it does matter. Here’s some data related to both areas and the career prospects of specializing in engineering in the U.S., as detailed by the U.S Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
Electrical Engineering Job Outlook
- Salary: $101,780/year, $48.93/hour
- Number of available jobs: 313,200
- Job growth: 7% (average)
- Licenses and Certifications: Professional Engineering (PE) license is required for higher-level positions. Licensing is at the state level and requires a degree from an Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)-accredited engineering program, related work experience, and a passing grade on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam.
Mechanical Engineering Job Outlook
- Salary: $95,300/year, $45.82/hour
- Number of available jobs: 299,200
- Job growth: 7% (average)
- Licenses and Certifications: Professional Engineering (PE) license is required for higher-level positions. As with other engineering disciplines, licensing is done at the state level. It requires you to have a degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program, related work experience, and a passing grade on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam.
How To Choose Mechanical Engineering vs. Electrical Engineering
Mechanical engineers deal with studying and creating the moving parts in a machine or system, whereas electrical engineers focus on the creation and application of things that use electricity (a device developed by a mechanical engineer doesn’t necessarily use electricity).
Generally speaking, electrical engineers focus their efforts on power generation and mechanical engineers focus on power application. One figures out how to produce and use power and the other builds the motor that uses this power.
Skills: Mechanical Engineer
To be a successful mechanical engineer, the following skills will come in handy:
- Problem solving
- Mathematical skills
- Computer skills
- Drafting skills
- Spatial intelligence
Mechanical engineers often have jobs you may think of as “traditional” engineering positions. This includes working as a civil engineer, a field service engineer, or doing something such as designing HVAC systems.
Skills: Electrical Engineer
A successful electrical engineer will be skilled at:
- Analytical thinking
- Circuit design
- Developing electrical schematics
- Applying linear systems theory
- Preparing operational plan
- Data collection and analysis
- Building and operating computer systems
- Maintaining electrical equipment
Electrical engineers have jobs in areas such as computer hardware engineering, engineering management, electronics engineering technicians, technical writing, and biomedical technology specialists. You might also work in signal processing, communication systems management, microelectronics, and power electronics.
If you love the idea of putting the physical parts of a machine together to make it work, mechanical engineering could be the field for you. If, on the other hand, you’re excited by the idea of figuring out how to rewire your speakers to create the best sound system possible, you might do best with electrical engineering.
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