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An engineering PhD, the highest qualification in the field, challenges students to develop their creative ingenuity alongside technical expertise. In the course of graduate research, students aim to deepen their knowledge of fundamental mathematical and scientific principles and apply them to solving specific design and development problems. The advanced and detailed knowledge potentially gained while earning engineering doctorate can help graduates can approach difficult problems in civil and structural design, electronics, software, energy and other fields.

Since engineering has helped create and maintain much of the modern world, a doctorate in Technology in engineering can be directed toward numerous areas of specialization. These are some of the engineering specializations available at various institutions:

  • Aerospace
  • Agricultural
  • Biomedical and biotechnology
  • Chemical
  • Civil
  • Computer software and hardware
  • Systems
  • Electrical and electronics
  • Environmental
  • Health and safety
  • Industrial
  • Marine engineering and naval architects
  • Materials engineering, including polymers research
  • Mechanical
  • Mining and geological
  • Nuclear
  • Petroleum

Some universities may also allow engineering PhD candidates to focus on a particular aspect within their chosen specialization, such as working specifically on water treatment within chemical or environmental engineering, or focusing on nanostructures within industrial or materials engineering.

Path to a doctorate in engineering

The starting point for virtually any doctoral degree program in engineering is a bachelor's. High standardized test scores are valuable when applying to top schools, and real world experience is highly valued among candidates for advanced engineering education.

The specific prerequisites for engineering degree programs at the PhD level tend to vary from institution to institution, but there are some common requirements maintained at most universities:

  • A bachelor's or master's degree in engineering. If your undergraduate or graduate degree is in another field, you may have to supplement with basic undergraduate coursework before continuing on to an engineering degree program at the doctoral level.
  • Standardized tests such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and the TOEFL (for non-native speakers of English)
  • Institution-specific entrance exams to ensure that prospective students can demonstrate the knowledge and skills that will be expected of them in an engineering doctorate program.
  • Most programs require letters of recommendation, an application fee and a minimum graduate GPA (usually above 3.0, often higher)

For engineers who'd rather work in management than research, there is an option that may be easy to overlook. A DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) in engineering management is a business doctorate that does not focus exclusively on a single kind of engineering.

Engineering topics are typically covered in engineering DBA programs, but the focus is on management rather than direct technical expertise. Some doctoral degrees in engineering management require a master's degree, often in engineering or business, and some only require candidates complete certain specific management courses at master's level or possess a certain number of years of managerial experience before applying.

The DBA in engineering management and the PhD in engineering are academically equivalent. Both involve tough courses of study and heavily emphasize research, and students must pass a rigorous exam and write and defend a doctoral dissertation. Since their hands-on component is typically less vital, some DBA programs can be completed online.

Students working toward an academic or research career should know a can PhD carry more weight with potential employers. For those interested in applied management, however, either degree can suffice.

What can I do with a PhD in Engineering?

According to the BLS the entry-level degree for most engineering careers in a bachelor's degree, but whatever specialization is selected, engineering degrees at the doctorate level typically prepare students for three distinct types of careers after graduation:

  • Academic careers focus on research and teaching, although some research universities maintain close relationships with industry partners and encourage professors to participate in the development of marketable products
  • Private sector careers typically focus on applied R&D and product development for profit-seeking companies in multiple industry segments, where a PhD in Engineering can qualify candidates for lead research or senior management roles
  • Public sector careers take place in government labs, federal agencies, policy think tanks or non-profit organizations and emphasize clean energy, atmospheric science, aerospace, aviation, civil and environmental engineering. Government agencies that employ engineers include:
    • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
    • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
    • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
    • U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
    • Department of Homeland Security
    • Department of Transportation
    • Department of Defense
    • Department of Energy
    • Department of Agriculture
    • Department of the Interior

The exact nature of the work performed by PhD graduates with engineering degrees largely depends on the specializations chosen on the path to earning their doctorate. Engineering students thinking about taking their education all the way to the doctoral level can meet with a counselor and discuss how to steer their career as smoothly as possible in that direction.

Sources:

  • "PhD Degree Requirements," Swanson School of Engineering, University of Pittsburgh, http://www.engineering.pitt.edu/Chemical/Graduate/PhD_Degree_Requirements/
  • "Doctoral Admission Requirements," Engineering and Computing, Florida International University, http://www.cec.fiu.edu/electrical-engineering/phd-electrical-engineering/phd-electrical-engineering-admission-requirements/
  • "PhD Requirements," Brown School of Engineering, Brown University, http://brown.edu/academics/engineering/graduate-study/phd-requirements
  • "Engineering Management Admission Requirements," The George Washington University, http://www.gwu.edu/graduate-programs/engineering-management
  • "Architecture and Engineering Occupations," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, October 23, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/home.htm

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