Skip to main content
Engineering LibreTexts

4: What is engineering? Who are engineers?

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    General note: the questions or statements with the ¬ symbol means that you can click on them to revel more information or the answer to the question (don't immediately click on them...try answering the question)


    Hi, we have a question for you Anonymous User,

    What is an engineer?

    Discuss what an engineer is in class or with friends. Note there is not just one answer as with anything in the "real world" definitions can be complex with multiple subtleties. That being said there is one specific word that is a must to get at the core of an engineer.

    ¬ A person who applies science and mathematics to produce a product?
    This could describe an engineer, but doesn't it also describe artists and scientists (among others)? A professional artist might mix elements together to produce a specific effect ("chemistry of paint") and use mathematics to produce a pleasing image ("divine proportions").
    ¬ A person who fixes things?
    No this is not an engineer. This is more of a technician or even just a repair person. An engineer may fix things, but that does not define an engineer, just like you fixing the plumbing in your house does not make you a plumber. Engineers need to go beyond just fixing things.
    ¬ A person who creates products?
    This can apply to a number of professions. Carpenters are an example of a profession that produces products but we generally don't define carpenters as engineers.
    ¬ A person who is called an engineer?
    This might seem like a funny answer, but it is important to look at this answer. The term engineer is misused in regular society all the time. A sanitation engineer could refer to a garbage pick-up person (though note there are actual sanitation engineers) or a maintenance engineer could refer to a boiler room maintainer (though note there are actual maintenance engineers). The term engineering is abused in order to promote a job (and can confuse parents who are sincerely helping you find an engineering job). Interestingly, it can go in the reverse as well, ancient Egyptian pyramid engineers are referred to architects by laypeople, but they really are engineers.
    ¬ A person who works in a team using science to develop products?
    This certainly can be apply to engineers. Note however many professions work as a team and a number of professions use science. Baseball players, for example, work as a team and use science to pitch (it is not just throwing the ball - think curveball or sinker) and bat (sweet spot or more technically sweet zone). You can read about the science of baseball in a number of books devoted to the topic or you can just go to science news and look for baseball articles.
    ¬ A person who through experience and education develops ways to use materials and nature to benefit mankind?
    This could describe a number of different jobs including engineering. Note engineers have developed products that one could argue have not been beneficial to mankind (weapons of war?). It is true however that engineers use materials, but so do other professions.
    ¬ A person who designs using experience and science?
    This can apply to engineers, but this also applies to artists (hmmm...). But this answer does get to a key part of engineering: Design is the word that must be included in any definition of engineer, though it is not a complete definition. So this is the best answer so far. 
    ¬ A person who is an artist but with exacting precision?
    Hmmm...An interesting answer which requires a yes and no response. Engineering clearly must be very precise and accurate, but so would an artist (think of a sculptor) in certain works. Art can also include a kind of vagueness to it, but so can Engineering (and Science for that matter). In materials engineering there are instances where you have to put in a dash of one element or another to improve a product. It's almost like cooking in an artistic way. So all this seems like "yes" to an artist. The "no" comes from the fact that a useful product must in the end be designed to completion (of course you might argue that art is useful in an aesthetic way, so...).

    So now it is up to you to come up with a final definition. Why not just go to a book answer? Well because most answers are insufficient to fully describe engineering and some are just unintentionally wrong. To really get a true answer you need to look at all the aspects of engineering and see it in your own mind. Go for it. 

    The rest of this chapter tries to define engineering by describing an engineer. It is not a definition, but it certainly is clearer then the previous discussion and will hopefully lead you to find a definition that is satisfactory.

    What is the relationship between engineering and similar professions?

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): This Euler Diagram shows the relationship between similar fields (engineer, engineer tech, and scientist) that people tend to confuse.(Scott Johnson, this work, CC-BY-SA-NC)


    Academically how might we distinguish an engineer from say an engineering technician or a scientist? Because of varying academic standards at different colleges and university some variation might occur in the following descriptions, but in general it is what is expected from most academic programs.

    ¬ Engineering academic needs
    • Mathematics
      • Calculus
      • Differential Calculus
      • Mathematics distributed through out courses such as linear algebra depending on discipline
    • Science
      • First year calculus-based chemistry ("Chemistry for Engineers")
      • First year calculus-based physics
      • Science (physics, chemistry, biology, geology, etc.) distributed through out courses depending on discipline
    • Degrees
      • Bachelors of Science
      • Masters
      • PhD (rarely)
    ¬ Engineering technologist academic needs
    • Mathematics
      • Algebra II + Trigonometry
      • Calculus I (usually for Electronic Technologists only)
    • Science
      • Only the science for non-scientists level core course required by most universities and colleges (these courses usually consist of teaching students to understand science for newspaper purposes)
    • Degrees
      • Associate of Science
      • Bachelor of Science (not common)
    ¬ Scientists academic needs
    • Mathematics (similar to Engineering)
      • Calculus
      • Differential Calculus (sometimes this is incorporated a specialty course like "Mathematics for Physics")
      • Mathematics distributed through out courses such as linear algebra
    • Science
      • Depends on the discipline
        • Chemists - Chemistry
        • Physicists - Physics (first-year chemistry in a few universities and colleges)
        • Biologist - Biology and Chemistry
        • Geologist - Physics, chemistry, and Geology
        • etc.
    • Degree
      • PhD only ​​​​​​

    Does a person really require a degree to be an engineer or scientist? Technically no, you could become an engineer by experience, though this was more true in the past than the present day. Unless you are independent it is highly unlikely anyone will hire you without the academic requirements. Question - Would you hire someone claiming to be an engineer without any academic education? Try and look at this realistically where you might have a significant number of resumes per position you are offering. How could someone who only has experience get a degree? No answer here, you should just think about it.

    How many credits does someone need to be an engineer? Ok, let's get specific on the number of credits that would be required for the first two years of an engineering degree (in order to fairly compare it to an engineering technologist degree). This particular exercise does have a particular basis towards Prince George's Community College and University of Maryland College Park, though should be generally accurate for anywhere.

    ¬ Engineering credits required
    • Science: 15 credits (all calculus based)
    • Math: 16 credits (all calculus based)
    • Engineering courses: 19 credits (all calculus based)
    • Liberal Arts: 15 credits (College English required, economics highly recommended)
    • Total: 64 credits +
    ¬ Engineering technologists credits required
    • Science: 11 credits (non-calculus based)
    • Math: 11 credits (non-calculus based, though Calculus I might be required at some colleges)
    • Engineering Technologist courses: 29 credits
    • Liberal Arts: 9 credits (College English required)
    • Total: 60 credits +
    ¬ Scientist credits required
    • Note: Because a scientist needs to go to graduate school this is not going to be as useful for comparison (this is just for completeness)
    • Science: 15 credits (all calculus based) usually discipline specific
    • Math: 16 credits (all calculus based)
    • Engineering courses: None (obviously), instead scientists normally take general education courses here (don't be confused though, scientists will get really hard courses...just later)
    • Liberal Arts: 15 credits (College English required, economics highly recommended)
    • Basically an engineer and a scientist pretty much follows similar paths
    ¬ So what does this all mean?
    • Engineering takes a more science approach to education specifically for the purpose of designing products
    • Engineering technology is more hands-on based; learning multiple techniques (a drawback of this approach is that techniques change over a lifetime; science generally changes only over generations)
    • Science and Engineering are very similar for the first couple of years

    In the non-academic world scientists, engineers, and engineering technologists work together very closely so the differences can become hard to distinguish. Normally a scientist does the theoretical work, the engineer does the design, and the engineering technologist does the actual work. However these lines get blurred in the "real" world where each of these three professions might be doing parts of each others jobs. Yes, scientists do solder, but definitely not as well as an engineering technologist.

    Engineers can be found to be a form of translator between scientists and engineering technologists and that is one part of their job that does not get blurred in the "real" world.

    Assignment: Write a small essay on what an engineer is to you with particular focus to what discipline you wish to pursue. The essay is to be written like you would for a paper in English class. That is an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Statements made must be supported in the body of the text.

    One interesting fact, and sometimes frustrating from an academic point of view, is that engineers come in many different types. Generally we refer to these as engineering disciplines very similar to scientific disciplines. You will find in most schools that science is separated into independent majors like biology, chemistry, physics, etc., however engineering is not. This give the impression to the layperson that engineering is one homogenous group. While engineering does have similar core basis like physics and chemistry (which science does as well), it has many many separate disciplines.

    What are some of the engineering disciplines?

    ¬ Types of Engineers
    • The core engineering (most colleges will offer a majority of these)
      • Civil Engineering (CE - Founding Society in US - 1852; in UK - 1771, 1818)
      • Mechanical Engineering (ME - Founding Society in US - 1880)
      • Mining Engineering (Founding Society in US - 1871)
      • Electrical Engineering (EE - Founding Society in US - 1884, 1912,1963)
      • Chemical Engineering (ChemE - Founding Society in US - 1908)
    • Separate branches that come from the core engineering disciplines
      • Materials Science Engineering (materials)
      • Computer Engineering (branches from EE)
      • Aerospace Engineering (branches from EE/ME)
      • Biomolecular Engineering (branches from ChemE)
      • Biological Engineering (branches from EE/ME)
      • Agricultural Engineering (branches from CE)
      • Environmental Engineering (branches from CE)
      • Earthquake Engineering (branches from CE)
      • Transportation Engineering (branches from CE)
      • Geotechnical Engineering (branches from CE/Materials/Mining Engineering)
      • Automotive Engineering (branches from ME)
      • Naval Engineering (branches from ME)
      • Ocean Engineering (branches from ME)
      • Nuclear Engineering (branches from Mining Engineering)
      • Optical Engineering (branches from EE)
      • Petroleum Engineering (now is part of Mining Engineering)
      • Metallurgical Engineering (branches from Mining Engineering)
      • Paper Science Engineering (braches from ChemE)
      • Sports Engineering (branches from ME)
      • Motorsport Engineering (branches from ME)
      • Food Engineering (branches from ChemE)
      • Safety Engineering
      • Music Engineering
      • Geomatics Engineering (branches from CE)
      • Fire Protection Engineering (branches from CE/ME/ChemE)
      • NanoEngineering (branches from Materials)
      • Ceramic Engineering (branches from Materials)
      • Glass Science Engineering (branches from Materials)
      • System Engineering (mix of all the core engineering)
      • Mechtronic Engineering (mix of EE/ME/Systems - recent)
      • more...

    Beyond these disciplines of engineering are technical divisions within the disciplines which can added up to quite a lot of different courses. What is exciting about this is that your interest in engineering can be combined with your interests in something else (like race cars or music).

    What about the money? It is important to remember that job satisfaction is more important than salary. Getting a high paying job that you don't like never turns out well. That being said the average salary of an engineer is about 50% higher than the average salary of an engineering technologist. But you should note that there can be a wide variety of salaries depending on your knowledge base and your experience so it is best to do what you like well then to do what you don't like poorly. As for scientist, nobody becomes a scientist for money it is too underpaid for the work you have to do.

    What about stability in the sense that I can be in the field my entire life if I choose? In this case it is well established that engineering is the most stable job. Engineers learn a more general theory of engineering that is easily adaptable to changing practices where as an engineering technologist learns specific practices and devices that can change over time. This can lead to an engineering technologist becoming obsolete without retraining. Fortunately there are many community colleges that offer this retraining, but it could mean starting a career essentially all over again at a starting salary level. As for scientists, it depends on the mood of the world during Luddite times it is not so good, during techophile times it is good. Interesting the times don't generally affect engineers or engineering technologists.

    So an engineer is everything and must know everything? Mostly correct. An engineer should be well educated in science, mathematics, and practically everything. But obviously nobody can know everything, so again mostly correct. ;)

    That is engineering in a nutshell...

    The next step is to learn about computers and computer programming. We will come back to the integral engineering picture later but many tasks that will be done coming up will require a knowledge of computing.

    Student questions:

    ¬ I want to be an engineer that doesn't have to program?
    Unfortunately that is not really doable in the modern age. You need to have computer skills to be an engineer. The more computer skills you have the more valuable you will be to employers.
    ¬ Would I have had to learn computers in engineering a century ago?
    No. However a lot of techniques used in computers today were developed as far back as ancient Egyptian times and possibly sooner.
    ¬ Would I have had to learn computers in engineering four decades ago?
    Yes, computers are not that new and engineers did take programming courses decades ago, just not centuries ago.
    name = input("What discipline of engineering are you interested in? ","s");
    printf("%s is a great discipline, but are you sure?\n",name);

    4: What is engineering? Who are engineers? is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.