Complete Guide to an Online Mechanical Engineering Degree
Mechanical engineering is a somewhat broad field that covers a number of different areas within engineering. Mechanical engineers use their knowledge of physics and material science to design, manufacture, and test of all kinds of mechanical products and machinery. Knowledge of mechanics, thermodynamics, and structural analysis are all necessary in this field. Engineers can be found in various scientific jobs like nanotechnology, medical machinery, and robotics. Lucrative careers for mechanical engineers can also be found in the consulting industry and the US military and government.
It is recommended that students choose an online mechanical engineering degree that has been accredited by ABET (also known as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). Many employers, graduate degree programs, and licensing agencies only accept applicants who have graduated from an ABET-accredited program. Read More
Comprehensive List of Online Colleges & Universities for a Engineering Degree
Overview of Available Online Mechanical Engineering Degrees
Associate and bachelor's degrees in mechanical engineering provide students with a foundation in technical skills and engineering knowledge to help prepare them for entry-level engineering careers. The first half of the program will require general education courses and foundational courses in chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Students then complete coursework in mechanical engineering subjects and may pursue a concentration in an area like aerospace, manufacturing, or mechanical design.
Master's degree programs require students to complete advanced coursework in mechanical engineering and mathematics topics. Students may choose a concentration in an area of study such as dynamics and control, fluids engineering, mechanics and materials, or design and manufacturing. Many schools allow students to choose between thesis and non-thesis master's degree programs.
Students in doctorate programs carry out original research in areas of study such as nanotechnology, alternative energy technology, and lean manufacturing. These programs may take several years to complete and involve writing and defending a dissertation.
Certificate programs are designed for students and professionals looking for additional education in a specific concentration. Mechanical engineering certificate programs may include topics such as machinery dynamics, thermo-fluid systems, and electro-mechanical systems. These programs give students the opportunity to learn a wide variety of subjects, like engineering analysis, advanced dynamics, and matrix theory.
A bachelor’s degree will be required for any entry-level position within this field; a ME bachelor's degree may also be applied toward other engineering jobs further down the road. Many engineers who have training in one specific area may end up working in another engineering discipline as technologies change and evolve. In addition to a bachelor’s degree, it is helpful for mechanical engineers to obtain a state license. All 50 states require a license in order to be considered a professional engineer.
Two-year associate programs in mechanical engineering teach students how to design and build mechanical systems such as engines, heaters, and navigational instruments. Students learn the mechanical engineering process through courses in natural science, math, engineering fundamentals, as well as hands-on labs. Mechanical engineering associate programs give students the necessary background and training for proficiency in the design, testing, installation, and repair of many types of machines. To develop these skills, students take liberal arts requirements as well as courses in natural science, mechanical systems, and electronics.
Natural science and math courses in ME programs teach students the basic tools with which to analyze engineering problems. For example, a mechanics course discusses physics principles, such as the laws of motion and the equations used to determine how something will move. Technical mathematics applies college-level calculus, differential questions, integrals, and other math theorems to the design of machines.
Students also take courses in specific mechanical engineering topics to master the skills to properly design, draw, model, and prototype different mechanical systems. One such course, strength of materials, teaches how the physical and chemical properties of different materials can be exploited for use in machines. Classes in mechanical design teach how to make preliminary plans of machines through mechanical drawing and computer-aided design techniques. In these courses, students make 2-D and 3-D machine models, which they may then fabricate in a related laboratory course.
No mechanical engineering course would be complete without an ample number of labs, which act as a sandbox for practicing hands-on machine design. In a production design lab, for example, students get a chance to try out their shop skills and actually produce a machine.
Bachelor's degree programs in mechanical engineering cultivate students' interests in scientific and mathematical theories. Nearly all mechanical engineers possess at least a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering or a closely related engineering field. Students learn the math, science, and engineering skills to make functioning mechanical systems, and they learn how to draw, model, and make physical prototypes of their machine designs.
Although most distance learning programs in this discipline enable students to complete most assignments at their own pace, some courses may require on-site lab participation. Most programs work closely with individuals to accommodate them and create flexible class schedules. ME bachelor's programs take four to five years to complete and require applicants to have a high school diploma and advanced skills in math and science.
The first two years of a bachelor's program involve introductory courses, such as general chemistry, ethics, academic and technical writing, engineering design, physics, computer programming, and calculus. Foundational courses in math and science prepare mechanical engineering students with the basic tools to approach the engineering of physical systems. Math courses like statistics methods in engineering teach engineers how to analyze and interpret data through an understanding of probability, linear regression, and experimental design.
An introductory chemistry course teaches basic chemical principles like molecular structure and gas laws, which can come in handy for mechanical engineers who may later work with chemical systems. As part of their engineering fundamentals, most ME students take an introductory engineering course, as well. This course discusses circuit analysis, electrical signals, and other basic electrical concepts that can come in handy when designing mechanical systems.
The last two years feature advanced classes in fluid mechanics, machine design and dynamics, material science, vector mechanics, material strength, and system dynamics. A basic visual thinking course requires students to visualize their design concepts, draw them, and prototype through 3-D models. A mechanical systems design course may have students build machine parts and motors and hone their shop skills. Many such design courses are project based, with students working all semester long to complete one machine.
The mechanical engineering master’s program may be a professionally oriented degree, or it may require a research-based thesis. Online master’s programs in mechanical engineering are typically professional degrees, designed for current engineers who want to further specialize their knowledge or gain management experience. Applicants need an ABET-accredited undergraduate engineering degree, and some programs also require a year or more of professional engineering experience. Students complete about 10 to 15 courses over a span of one to three years.
Because many of these degrees are aimed at current engineering professionals, they are flexible in their curricula; some are non-thesis degrees, and others have extensive online course options. For example, students could focus their courses in materials science, manufacturing, or biomechanical engineering. A student specializing in manufacturing might take courses in machine design and design for manufacturability. Other common courses apply statistics, math, and research design to engineering topics. Professional programs are typically coursework-only; some may have a focus in management topics, such as supervising engineering teams, safety in engineering, and supply chain management.
The types of required courses will depend on the area you wish to study within mechanical engineering and the type of master’s program you choose. All master’s programs require students to specialize in a particular area, such as biomedicine, combustion, or heat transfer. Some degrees allow students to design their own coursework within the constraints of the program, while others have more stringent requirements.
Master’s students must take a number of electives within their area of concentration in order to get an expert-level familiarity with their field. For example, a mechanical engineering grad student focusing in materials science might take a course in atomistic materials science, which looks at the properties of materials on the atom level.
Upper-level math courses are common requirements in ME programs. Courses in partial differential equations and complex variables give engineers a more developed mathematical arsenal with which to approach engineering problems. Some programs also require students to gain breadth in their studies by taking a few courses outside of their main focus area. To fulfill this requirement, an ME student focusing in biomechanical engineering might take a course in gas dynamics or energy systems to get an advanced introduction to other sorts of specialties.
The PhD, or doctorate, program in mechanical engineering (ME) allows current engineers to study a particular ME area in depth and to craft an extensive research project in that engineering area. Applicants to doctorate programs usually have extensive work experience or educational experience in mechanical engineering. Admission requirements usually include an accredited master’s degree in mechanical engineering, but some PhD programs accept applicants with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering or a related field, along with work experience.
These programs require between 8 and 20 courses, depending on the applicant’s previous degree; students are also expected to spend several years on doctoral dissertation research. The mechanical engineering dissertation requires that students complete an independent research project in their area of specialization. It is likely that online students not currently in a research setting will need to be in residence for this portion of the PhD. These degrees take three to five years to complete.
The particular coursework in any ME PhD program will depend on the student’s chosen dissertation area. Possible degree specializations include acoustics, biomechanics, materials science, thermo fluids, robotics, and aerospace systems. The curriculum in the mechanical engineering degree generally includes advanced courses in math, as well as engineering courses in the student’s specialization area.
The mechanical engineering PhD is great preparation for current engineers considering careers in research and instruction at the college level. Others can use the degree to land research and development roles in the private sector in their specialization area, or go on to found their own engineering company. The PhD can also be used to enter administrative or managerial roles in engineering businesses.
A certificate in mechanical engineering provides general or specialized training in mechanical engineering theory and design. These programs can be earned at the undergraduate or graduate level. Most certificates require 4 to 12 courses and can be completed in one to two years. Applicants to undergraduate certificates need a high school diploma with math and science coursework; graduate certificate applicants need an ABET-accredited engineering bachelor’s degree.
The undergraduate certificate in mechanical engineering can be a stand-alone program or part of a related bachelor’s degree. Students take foundational classes in ME technology, such as production design, statics, materials science, and product design. These programs may also include courses in technical mathematics, chemistry, and physics. Students can use the undergraduate certificate in mechanical engineering to enter engineering technician or technologist roles, assisting in engineering research and development.
The graduate certificate curriculum focuses on a more specialized mechanical engineering area. For example, current engineers can use the program to gain skills in a particular topic, such as manufacturing engineering, nanotechnology, integrated systems, and electromechanical systems. Depending on the program, these online certificates may require on-site labs or design classes. Current mechanical engineers can use the graduate certificate to shift professional areas or to gain the skills to enter supervisory or leadership roles.
Only engineers who offer their services directly to the public must earn a license. This means that engineers who work for an engineering firm or company are not required by law to have a license. However, experienced engineers may still elect to earn the license to highlight their skills and experience, and potential employers may prefer to hire licensed candidates.
In most states, the Professional Engineer license requires applicants to have an ABET-accredited bachelor's degree, four years of work experience, and passing scores on the PE exams. Since the PE license is given out on a state-by-state basis, it makes sense to check out the particular board requirements in your state to find the most accurate information that pertains to you.
Accreditation is a voluntary evaluation process that schools and individual degree programs go through to prove that they meet the minimum standards of academic excellence. The agencies that evaluate and accredit schools and programs are independent from the US government, but they do receive recognition from the US Department of Education for enforcing certain academic standards.
Attending an accredited mechanical engineering program is recommended for a few reasons: It will help ensure that you receive a high-quality education; it will help you meet financial aid eligibility requirements; and it will help qualify you to take the Professional Engineer exam.
Many great mechanical engineering degree programs are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering Technology (ABET). ABET is known for accrediting exemplary degree programs in engineering, computing, science, and technology. Accreditation agencies like the ABET examine programs for proper academic standards to ensure that they prepare students for future careers in science and technology. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation offers a current list of accredited schools and programs, including those that are accredited by ABET.
Students in mechanical engineering programs learn about the physics of machines and materials. Examples of coursework in this area include fluid mechanics, fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, heat transfer, and system dynamics. Students also learn how to design machines and machine parts that will withstand stress. Mechanical engineering programs prepare students to design and carry out their own engineering experiments. It is common for mechanical engineering programs to require students to gain work experience while in school.
The mechanical engineering bachelor's degree has a strong foundation in math and science classes like calculus, differential equations, computer programming, physics, and chemistry. Students are also required to gain intellectual breadth by taking classes in liberal arts and humanities areas like history, social science, political science, and economics. The ME core then introduces students to the engineering principles and processes for designing mechanical systems. Students take classes in design and manufacturing, solid mechanics, dynamics, thermodynamics, controls, fluid dynamics, and heat transfer. In lab courses, students learn how to work with machine tools and how to prototype engineering designs.
Master’s degrees in mechanical engineering require students to take an array of advanced courses in a specialized area of mechanical engineering, such as biomechanics, design methodology, laser metrology, renewable energy, or robotics. The master’s degree can also be a good way to gain knowledge in the latest technical advances in the field, as mechanical engineers who stay abreast of the latest software systems and technology will likely have the best job prospects. Most master's degree programs require students to carry out research in order to write a thesis.
Students enrolling in a PhD in mechanical engineering program should expect to take courses in bioengineering, manufacturing, mechanics, micro science, and energy. Other courses students might take when enrolled in an ME PhD program usually relate to other types of engineering, such as electrical engineering, industrial engineering, and civil engineering. Because all of the engineering fields are somewhat related, it's typical for course material to cross over into these other areas.
- Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Accessed June 27, 2014. http://www.chea.org/search/default.asp.
- Licensure. National Society of Professional Engineers. Accessed June 27, 2014. http://www.nspe.org/resources/licensure/what-pe.
- Mechanical Engineers. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Accessed June 26, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/mechanical-engineers.htm.
- National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying. http://ncees.org.
- US Department of Education. Accessed June 27, 2014. http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation.
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