The engineering field is incredibly broad in its reach. From aeronautics to nanotechnology, engineers combine mathematical and scientific principles to improve processes and innovate technologies. Whether it’s commercial jetliners that traverse the world or appliances that make dinner preparation faster, engineers have a hand in many aspects of day-to-day life, with each engineering specialty offering a unique contribution.
Certain engineering disciplines, however, are often grouped together because they work in harmony. A case in point is mechanical vs. electrical engineering. Both professions are highly rewarding and entail investigation, analysis, and design of equipment and devices, but one is slightly broader in scope than the other.
How do you decide which field is right for you? By better understanding how the two compare and contrast. An online Master of Science in Engineering can supply you with the education, training, and skills you need to excel as an engineer, no matter which specialty you decide to pursue.
Mechanical Engineering vs. Electrical Engineering: Which Should I Choose?
To the outside observer, mechanical engineers and electrical engineers may appear to be cut from the same cloth. As detailed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), each position requires a heavy dose of creativity, mathematical and mechanical skills, and a discerning ability to identify and solve problems. They’re also employed by many of the same business entities, including research and development, computer systems, software, telecommunications, and product manufacturing firms.
Perhaps the biggest distinction between mechanical and electrical engineering is how energy is used in each discipline. Whereas electrical engineers focus on power generation (i.e. electricity), mechanical engineers focus on power application — getting physical parts, motors, and components to behave or act in a desired manner. Classic examples of the types of machines mechanical engineers may design or manufacture are internal combustion engines, gas turbines, fans in air-conditioning units, and rechargeable batteries in handheld devices.
Mechanical engineers are involved in the research, design, and development of a wide range of products and devices, including tools, engines, and machines.
While their specific duties may vary based on where they work and in what industry, mechanical engineers are typically responsible for the following:
- Designing material-handling systems (conveyor belts, pulleys, automated transfer stations)
- Investigating technical glitches with sensors or components and offering solutions for how to overcome them
- Overseeing manufacturing processes of state-of-the-art devices, including medical equipment
Electrical engineers, meanwhile, are more “big picture” when it comes to the study of power usage and generation. They may be tasked with developing new or alternative ways of utilizing electricity (e.g., current management) or other energy sources to improve efficiency or cost savings. They may also examine performance issues with electronic, technological, or service-related equipment. Electrical engineers mainly focus on the use of energy, whereas issues with equipment due to defective components or chips would fall under the auspices of electronics engineers.
In either case, problems may come up in the development and design phase or after they’ve reached the consumer marketplace. In these instances, electrical and electronics engineers may work with other agencies or entities to ensure quality assurance, such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission or ASTM International (formerly known as American Society for Testing and Materials), or federal governing bodies, such as the U.S. Department of Energy.
Here are a few other responsibilities often held by electrical and electronics engineers:
- Creating computer chips for new computer software or systems
- Introducing alternative applications or modifications to enhance technical performance
- Evaluating energy systems and offering recommendations for how to modify them so they last longer
Mechanical vs. Electrical Engineering: Choosing the Right Path
A significant amount of overlap exists between mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. As such, many of those who specialize in either discipline may work for the same types of organizations, such as semiconductor manufacturers, navigation systems designers, or utility service providers.
Which specialty you should choose depends on your interests and where you believe your professional strengths lie. The online master’s in engineering program at the University of California, Riverside features a curriculum that can help you narrow down which discipline is best suited to your career goals. The program’s core four-credit courses include Engineering in the Global Environment, Introduction to Systems Engineering, Principles of Engineering Management, and Technology Innovation and Strategy for Engineers.
The program offers several specializations, including mechanical engineering and electrical engineering, among others. Whichever specialization you select, your coursework will include these core courses. Each class is custom designed to supply you with the intellectual and practical skills you need to succeed in the vast field of engineering.
Mechanical vs. Electrical Engineering: How They Work Together
While these two engineering disciplines share many notable distinctions, it’s also important to note how the two vocations work together. Mechanical engineers and electrical engineers often collaborate to tackle a shared problem or develop a new product, technology, or structure. Because they have different skills, mechanical engineers and electrical engineers often participate in different phases of the project or the product development cycle.
For example, electrical engineers might work to develop and test power sources. From there, mechanical engineers might apply that power source to a piece of machinery, ensuring that it performs its intended function.
Consider this case study: An electrical engineer develops technology that enables a self-driving car to process traffic signals. A mechanical engineer then ensures that this processing technology can be appropriately applied to automotive functions, such as braking, turning, and accelerating.
This is just one example of how electrical engineers and mechanical engineers can work in tandem, but a number of responsibilities overlap between the two disciplines. Examples are:
- Conducting research to develop new products or improve existing products
- Troubleshooting technology to address problems or improve safety
- Implementing quality and safety assurance protocols for devices, vehicles, or structures
Which Degree Pays a Higher Salary: Mechanical Engineering or Electrical Engineering?
Another way in which mechanical and electrical engineers are similar is in their potential earnings. Because of the amount of expertise required for each role — as well as the high level of responsibility involved — professionals in either occupation can earn near six-figure salaries.
According to the most recent figures available from the BLS, the median annual wage for a mechanical engineer was $95,300 in 2021. By contrast, the median annual wage for an electrical engineer was $100,420.
Exactly how much you can make in mechanical or electrical engineering is largely a function of your level of academic experience and how long you’ve been in the field. As with most other professions, more seasoned engineers tend to earn more than those still in entry-level positions. However, because advanced degrees are highly sought after by many employers, you stand to potentially earn more money straight out of college with a master’s degree than you would with a bachelor’s.
Which Job Is More Stressful: Mechanical or Electrical Engineering?
Stress is something that just about everyone can attest to experiencing in their job, and engineering is no different. That said, it’s difficult to determine which line of work — mechanical or electrical engineering — is more stressful. Each occupation requires an ability to think critically so that problems can be resolved. Some of these issues can have life-altering implications. For example, electrical engineers who work on medical devices may be tasked with developing new equipment that can better diagnose and detect serious diseases. They must be sure that the methods they introduce or suggest don’t have side effects.
Mechanical engineers, meanwhile, may be involved with creating a motor that makes power equipment more effective in terms of handling more work or weight. However, there’s always a chance that a new component may fail, potentially resulting in injury for those using the equipment. Thus, mechanical engineers must carefully balance improving products so that they work better while not compromising user safety.
The engineering discipline is all about enhancing current processes or introducing new ones. This requires creativity, inventiveness, and the use of time-tested principles to develop solutions when problems occur — or better yet, before they occur. In short, it’s a performance-oriented business. Relying on your hard and soft skills can help you overcome stressors no matter when or how they present themselves.
Choosing the Right Engineering Path
Whether your area of interest is developing machinery and tools or the power and processes that make those machines work, an online Master of Science in Engineering at the University of California, Riverside can energize your future. Apply today to learn more about how a career in engineering can allow you to apply your knowledge and skills to solving important problems or developing new technologies.