So you want to be an aerospace engineer?
Many times when someone is trying to explain a simple concept to you, they will use the common phrase, “It’s not rocket science!” That saying implies that rocket science does indeed exist, and with aerospace engineering (the study of the research, design, construction, testing and maintenance of both aircraft and spacecraft), you have stumbled upon it.
27 Jan 2016
Aerospace engineering jobs are some of the most challenging you can find in the engineering field, and they require advanced academic qualifications and training. If you are a math and physics whiz and like to tackle advanced concepts, then aircraft engineering may just be the field for you.
Read on for more about what aircraft engineering jobs entail, the qualities and education needed to work in the field and what you can expect in the future.
What an Aircraft Engineer Does
An aerospace engineer does basically what you might expect – they design aircraft, spacecraft, satellites and missiles. They also test early versions (prototypes) to work out bugs and ensure proper function.
Designing an aircraft includes work on components and subassemblies of the machines, including engines, wings, airframes, landing gear, instruments and control systems. These engineers may also specify destructive and nondestructive testing parameters for the strength, functionality, reliability and durability of aircraft and the parts of which they are made.
To do this job requires a deep understanding of physics, math, aerodynamics and materials. In order to predict how their designs will perform and where they are likely to fail, aerospace engineers must also be well-acquainted with the properties of materials such as metal alloys, ceramics, composite and polymers.
Technology plays a large role in the job – aerospace engineers rely on computer-aided design (CAD) systems to quickly draft and modifying designs and 3D visualizations of parts and assemblies. They also use computer simulations for virtual testing of engines, wings, control surfaces and full aircraft and spacecraft under any possible conditions they may experience.
Engineers have not traditionally been well-educated in how to run simulations, but because of the greatly-reduced danger and cost that simulations offer over real-world testing, engineer are developing much more competency in performing simulations.
Where Aerospace Engineers Work
If you take an aerospace engineering job, you can expect to generally work in a professional office setting. You will visit manufacturing and testing facilities if a problem needs your particular attention. Most aerospace engineers work in manufacturing industries and the United States federal government, while a chosen few get to work on the International Space Station. Some aerospace engineers also become involved in projects related to national defense matters and must obtain security clearances to do their jobs.
As of July 2014, according to Salary.com, the salary range for an aerospace engineer who has just graduated with a bachelor’s degree is about $52,000 to $73,000. The midlevel range for an aircraft engineer with a master’s degree and five to ten years of experience is $73,000 to $115,000, and the range for a senior engineer with master’s degree or doctorate and more than 15 years of experience is $93,000 to $148,000. In addition, some experience aerospace engineers with advanced degrees get promoted to management positions where their salaries can increase still more.
Skills and Traits
Before you go too far down the road toward aircraft engineering, make sure you are aware of what the career entails. Talk to knowledgeable people, do research online and in scientific journals and develop a sound knowledge of the field.
While you are in high school (the best time to begin), work on math, physics and drafting skills, including numerical method skills and developing spatial abilities. Example topics you should study include gravitation, hydronomics, thermodynamics, aerodynamics and material science, including the strength of materials.
An analytical mindset is important for this career, as well as the ability to solve complicated problems with analytical techniques. These can include both concrete and intuitive methods. Mental games such as crosswords, chess and other strategy games are helpful to develop these skills.
Certain extracurricular activities and personality traits also play well into an aerospace engineering role. Such activities and interests include astronomy, computer programming, piloting, space exploration, computer games and the operation of engines. General problem-solving skills and the ability to work with people are also important for success in the field.
Business skills are also important – much of the work you will do as an aerospace engineer has to do with meeting federal standards, many of which require knowledge of standard business practices and a knowledge of commercial law.
Education and Licensing
Most aircraft engineering jobs require you to earn at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Many companies that hire these engineers also need candidates who have certification as a professional engineer. This is especially true if you want to offer engineering consulting services.
If you want advancement and promotion in the field, you will likely be required to earn a master’s degree. Engineers also need continuing education and training to stay updated on advances in technology, materials, computer hardware, computer software and government regulations. Many engineers, as a matter of their profession, belong to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
To create the best chance for success in college, apply for a degree in Aerospace Engineering at as many schools as possible. This will give you options when acceptance and/or rejection letters start arriving. Make sure the colleges and universities you apply to are accredited by
ABET because many employers do not recognize degrees from unaccredited schools.
Students majoring in aerospace engineering usually begin their academic program in college with two years of science classes and basic engineering classes. The last two years of college should include more specialized classes that let you more fully focus on your own career path. These classes can include propulsion, structure, thermodynamics, controls and avionics.
If the college or university you want to attend does not offer a degree in aerospace engineering (programs are not common), think about broadening your options by considering other engineering disciplines such as mechanical or civil engineering – these could translate well to aerospace engineering down the line. Other engineering degrees that do not translate as well to aerospace, include electrical engineering.
A license is not required to gain an entry-level position. A Professional Engineering license allows for higher levels of leadership and independence, but you can earn this later in your career. Licensed engineers are called professional engineers – they can oversee other engineers, approve projects and serve the public directly. To obtain a state license requires the following:
• A degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program
• A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
• At least four years relevant work experience
• A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam
Another positive step to take is to find, apply for and complete a summer co-op or internship. Halfway through your sophomore year in college is a great time to begin this process. An internship or an engineering apprenticeship is valuable because it gives you experience and exposure to a professional environment where you can see concrete examples of the theories you have been studying.
Potential employers love to see you taking this interest. These kinds of opportunities also may give you a few good professional references and let you start your professional networking early. In short, you’ll have a competitive edge when it comes to applying for an engineering job – this may make the difference in a company hiring you!
After you finish college, you have a decision to make about attending graduate school for further aerospace engineer training. The education can be helpful for your career, but those in the industry know that if you continue straight from college to grad school without ever entering the workplace, you will be at a disadvantage when you do get to a company even though your starting salary may be higher.
The issue is that schools do not do enough to connect academic masters work with real world applications so you don’t get a true idea of how your knowledge will be helpful when you get to an aerospace company. Some students who go straight to grad school have a misplace sense of their true worth to a company. On the other hand, students who earn their masters degree while they are working (or wait a couple of years while they work) are usually more adept at putting academic concepts into context in the real world.
Just weigh both sides of this – and talk to more experienced aerospace workers – before you make this decision.
The government projects that employment of aerospace engineers will grow seven percent from 2012 to 2022, which is slower than average growth. Keep in mind, though, that for qualified applicants – especially those who are skilled in the latest technology developments and who have good grades – job openings will always be available.
If you have the mindset along with the technical and conceptual ability, aerospace engineering can be an exciting field. You can see tangible results of your work that affect so many lives, and you will have the satisfaction of a job well done. It is very rewarding to see your work reflected in the newest airliner, or know you found a way through engineering to make flights better and safer for passengers around the world.
Start thinking about your career in high school, and you will have the advantage of developing the technical skills (especially math and physics) you need to have success as an aerospace engineer.
If you are looking for a job as an aerospace engineer now, take a look at the listings section of our website to find the latest and greatest jobs!