North Central College mechanical engineering students working on a project.

Is Mechanical Engineering Hard?

Jacob Imm

Dec 03, 2021

Is Mechanical Engineering Hard?

Every college student thinks about this question, from the first time they think about going to college to the moment they declare their major. It’s only natural to wonder, but it’s not worth fretting over. No matter what your major is, college is a challenge with a considerable amount to juggle and make time for.

Mechanical engineering need not be intimidating, though. If you’re thinking about the major, or comparing majors like civil vs. mechanical engineering, the good news is that anyone can succeed as an engineering student with the right amount of preparation and support. Just as important to remember is that the rewards of being an engineer can more than make up for the challenges you’ll encounter as a student. What really matters is what you want to do with your degree, and we have a lot of information to offer, from those who know, to let you constructively answer that question for yourself and help you succeed.

Read on to find out what you should consider when it comes to whether mechanical engineering will be the right fit for you.

Is mechanical engineering a good career?

To begin with, it’s important to think about the numerous possibilities for fulfilling careers in the engineering field. Are there good options for what to do with a mechanical engineering degree? Most experts would tell you the answer is a resounding yes.

Ilana Kowarski of U.S. News and World Report went to experts who are working in the field to examine how beneficial mechanical engineering degrees are in the current market. She wrote, “Eric Johnson, director of innovation with Bright Machines – a company that designs technology for the manufacturing industry – says that mechanical engineering was out-of-fashion for a long time due to an increased emphasis on other areas of engineering like software engineering and electrical engineering. But he suggests that it is now ‘cool again.’”

The importance and relevance of mechanical engineering shows in important recent innovations like solar panels, electric cars, and reusable rockets. These and similar inventions would not have been possible without mechanical engineers, so there is a lot of demand for those most likely to find the next technologies to join these household names.

Kowarski quoted Allen Robinson, head of the mechanical engineering department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, in saying that engineering job options for mechanical engineers are expanding because of how data is incorporated into the hands-on developmental nature of their work. “They can now combine ‘machine learning’ with engineering to address a wide range of formidable technical problems, ‘from water desalination to gene expression,’” Kowarski said.

So, what can you do with a mechanical engineering degree? Kowarski cites careers where a mechanical engineering degree will give you a leg up:

  • “Aerospace engineer
  • Automotive engineer
  • Biomedical engineer
  • Business executive
  • Construction engineer
  • Entrepreneur
  • Intellectual property attorney
  • Manufacturing engineer
  • Management consultant
  • Mechanical engineer
  • Patent lawyer
  • Production engineer
  • Project lead
  • Project manager
  • Petroleum engineer
  • Process engineer
  • Product designer
  • Quality engineer
  • Sales engineer
  • Structural engineer
  • Technology specialist
  • Thermal engineer”


Is it Worth Studying?

You can’t get too much further on this line of thinking without asking about the financial question. Is mechanical engineering likely to provide you a lucrative career with security? Let’s examine that more.

Kowarski said, “According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary among U.S. mechanical engineers in May 2019 was $88,430.”

She also noted you can get many mechanical engineering jobs with only a bachelor's degree, but that “experts note that it is often beneficial for mechanical engineers to seek supplemental education in computer science or business, but also suggest that such additional training is optional.” So when taking up a mechanical engineering major, consider the possibility of also taking a master's degree.

Part of what ensures job security for mechanical engineering is the versatility we mentioned earlier. Jobs are common in major industries like HVAC, the automotive industry, manufacturing, and aerospace. They can range from coming up with new products to streamlining production or improving existing technology. In other words, just about anything that involves machines. 

Frank Harwath, director of the engineering program at North Central College, reminds us that money isn’t the only thing to consider. What makes a career in mechanical engineering valuable is the great potential it has to fulfill many different ambitions:

“What do you want to do? Do you want to travel in space? Many astronauts are engineers because it helps to understand how your spacecraft works. How about improving infrastructure in developing countries? Engineers are helping every day to improve living conditions all over the world. Got a great idea you want to present to the world? Engineering can help you find solutions to help make your dream a reality.”

Find out more about North Central College

Classes and Skills to Consider

To make it to those lucrative careers, you will need to navigate the classes involved in a mechanical engineering course. So let’s answer the questions “What is mechanical engineering?” and what does a typical major need to do?

Pete Andrew, writing for Work Veteran, says, “Most students find studying the physical sciences, such as chemistry and physics, the most challenging classes for mechanical engineering. Furthermore, courses such as aerodynamics and engineering theory can be challenging. Material science can be similarly tricky.”

In terms of staking out the particular area of engineering involved in the subject, Kowarski writes that “the distinction between mechanical engineering and other areas of engineering is that it tends to focus on moving objects like cars and planes as opposed to stationary objects like bridges and buildings.”

You have probably heard being good at math and science is the first most important step in how to become a mechanical engineer. But there is no reason to think that you can’t make it as an engineer without math and science being your strongest areas of expertise.

Harwath said, “Usually, people who don't consider themselves ‘math and science types’ had some experiences in grade school that led them to think of themselves in those terms. It's totally understandable. Here's the good news: we all can do math and science. Really!

“You do it every day, and it comes so naturally that you don't think about it. Can you catch a fly ball? Throw a football to someone that is running? You are doing physics in your head. It's important to remember that the math skills and science training we receive in school are tools to help us in our understanding. The more you use these tools the more familiar they become. What is most important is the reason to bother learning them in the first place. And yes, you should consider engineering even though you struggled in some classes.”

In addition to focusing on laws of science and math, mechanical engineering courses are tied to building mechanical engineering skills, which are critical because mechanical engineering is a profession that requires a wide range of complex skills. The best mechanical engineering programs carry high expectations as well as provide a deep amount of support. They aim to create multi-faceted, capable, and well-tested individuals to be engineers.

Harwath provides a good example from the mission statement of his school’s program. He said, “We endeavor to provide classes that challenge the student to think, learn, communicate, and act. Our focus is on taking the limited time we have to allow the students to try things, fail, and try again. Engineers need to be complete people that can work with others in many different fields, often from different places around the world. Today's engineers must wear many hats and be masters at communicating technical issues in everyday language.”

Let’s get more specific. Mechanical engineering is not a solitary position. It requires running the gamut from hands-on work to conceptual projects, and taking the initiative to collaborating with others.

Alison Doyle on The Balance Careers summarized the larger skill set of mechanical engineering this way:

  • “Problem Solving - A big part of a mechanical engineer’s job involves solving problems using mechanical or thermal devices. Mechanical engineers need to be strong analytical thinkers who are capable of solving problems raised by clients or their employer.
  • Creativity - Mechanical engineering entails developing and designing products, which range from batteries to electric generators to medical devices. Inventing products involves a great deal of creativity, as does figuring out how to bring projects home within challenging timeframes.
  • Communication and Leadership - Often, mechanical engineers develop a product for a client. They may have to explain complex machines or devices to people who are not familiar with mechanical engineering. They have to be able to convey their ideas clearly and effectively, and this takes strong communication skills. They also frequently leverage their communication talents to take the lead on mechanical design and manufacturing projects.
  • Teamwork - Mechanical engineering involves a lot of teamwork. Engineers often work in groups to invent technologies and solve problems. They might work with people who are not mechanical engineers, such as computer scientists or architects. As such, they need to be able to work with a diverse team of people to solve problems. Many engineers will need the leadership skills necessary to manage or lead groups.
  • Math and Computer Skills - Mechanical engineers need to be comfortable using math to solve problems. The math skills required in mechanical engineering include calculus and statistics. They must be adept at applying these skills to analyze problems and design solutions.”

One more skill that is highly valued for mechanical engineering is desire and feel for innovative technology. The best mechanical engineering programs will give you the latest and best tools to work with, because that’s exactly what you’ll need to use to be successful as a professional engineer.

Harwath said, “Many engineering classes have been updated to use the latest technologies for engineering problem-solving. By using the latest tools, we can cover more ground and provide additional instruction in areas not addressed by most other schools.

“(For example), we provide instruction in metrology and industrial statistics that allows students to understand the issues associated with high volume/high-quality manufacturing systems. We also provide opportunities for the students to use computer-controlled manufacturing equipment like high power lasers, CNC machining equipment, and large format 3D printing.”

How to know if Mechanical Engineering is for me

That’s a lot to consider, but C.J. Trent-Gurbuz of U.S. News and World Report sums it up quite well. Read this and see if you think it applies to you: “Mechanical engineering majors must be analytical and logical thinkers as well as resourceful and imaginative. They should enjoy working with data and using creativity and innovation to solve problems. These students should be leaders who can collaborate with others and communicate well. Mechanical engineers also need to be sensitive to the ethical, environmental, global, economic and societal impacts of their work.”

Harwath adds, “Find a school that has the kind of focus you like. There are big schools where you can be anonymous. Famous engineering schools for name recognition. Other schools focus on the student experience. Is quality teaching important? Do you want to learn from a book or do you prefer a ‘hands-on’ approach. Look for a school where you feel comfortable and one that has the right fit for you.”

In other words, look for a school with a mechanical engineering program that can help you get where you want. Look for an engineering program like the one at North Central College. With a focus on practicing skills in automation and robotics over rote memorization and textbook work, as well as access to great facilities and technology both on and off campus, North Central is a great place to begin your career. Find out more about them today.

Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 11 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.