The engineering field is incredibly broad in its reach. From aeronautical to nanotechnology, engineers in these specialties and many more combine mathematical and scientific principles to make the current way of doing something with a particular product, item or service even better than it was before. 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, each very different from the next.
Certain engineering disciplines, however, are quite similar. Case in point: mechanical vs electrical engineers. Both professions are highly rewarding and entail investigation, analysis and design of equipment and devices, but one is slightly broader in its scope than the other.
How do you decide whether electrical vs mechanical engineering is right for you? By better understanding how the two compare and contrast. An online Master of Science in Engineering from the University of California Riverside can supply you with the training, experience and skills you need to excel as an engineer, no matter which specialty you decide to pursue.
Electrical engineering vs. mechanical engineering: Which should I choose?
To the outside observer, mechanical engineers and electrical engineers may appear as if they’re cut from the same cloth. As detailed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, each position requires a heavy dose of creativity, mathematical and mechanical skills and a discerning ability to identify and solve problems (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018). They’re also employed by many of the same business entities, including but not limited to research and development, computer systems, software, telecommunications and product manufacturing firms.
Perhaps the biggest distinction between electrical engineering and mechanical engineering is how energy is used in each discipline. Whereas electrical engineers focus on power generation — such as 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 include internal combustion engines, gas turbines, fans in air conditioning units and rechargeable batteries in handheld devices.
The BLS details several other job functions of mechanical engineers:
- Design material-handling systems (conveyor belts, pulleys, automated transfer stations).
- Investigate technical glitches with sensors or components and offer solutions for how to overcome them.
- Oversee manufacturing processes of state-of-the-art devices.
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 be responsible for examining issues that are preventing electronic, technological or service-related equipment from performing correctly. The utilization of energy is mainly something that electrical engineers would focus on, 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 assure 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, like the Department of Energy.
Here are a few other responsibilities often held by electrical and electronics engineers:
- Create computer chips for new computer software or systems.
- Introduce alternative applications or modifications to enhance technical performance.
- Evaluate energy systems and offer recommendations for how to modify them so they last longer.
There’s a significant amount of overlap between electrical engineering and mechanical 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.
As for which specialty you should choose, it all depends on your likes and interests and where you believe your professional strengths lie. The online master’s program at UC Riverside features curriculum that can help you narrow down which discipline is more suited to your career goals. The four-credit courses include Engineering in the Global Environment, Introduction to Systems Engineering, Principles of Engineering Management and Technology Innovation and Strategy for Engineers.
Whichever specialization you select, your coursework will include these programs. Each class is custom designed to supply you with the intellectual and practical skills you need to succeed in the vast field of engineering.
Which degree pays a higher salary: electrical engineering or mechanical engineering?
Another way in which mechanical and electrical engineers are similar is in their potential earnings. According to the most recent figures available from the BLS, an entry-level mechanical engineer in 2018 made approximately $56,270. Electrical engineers earned slightly more at $61,190 (Bureau of Labor Stastistics, 2018).
The median pay for both professions is also relatively similar, per the BLS. Here as well, electrical engineers’ earnings are higher, at $96,640 to mechanical engineers’ $87,370 (Bureau of Labor Stastistics, 2018).
In either case, however, it’s not unusual for mechanical and electrical engineers to eventually earn six-figure salaries. Indeed, the highest 10% of mechanical engineers made a wage of $136,550 in 2018, while electrical engineers earned $162,200 (Bureau of Labor Stastistics, 2018)
Exactly how much you can make in mechanical engineering vs. electric engineering is largely a function of your level of academic experience and how long you’ve been in this line of work. 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 degree.
The portion of the country in which you wind up working may also factor into earnings. This goes for mechanical and electrical engineers as well as other engineering disciplines. For example, as noted by the BLS, the median annual wage for professionals in civil engineering in Massachusetts is approximately $84,000 (Bureau of Labor Stastistics, 2018). In California, the median is just shy of $99,800. Factors affecting wages include cost of living, supply and demand and which types of employers are based in each state.
Which job is more stressful: electrical engineering or mechanical engineering?
Stress is something that just about everyone can attest to experiencing to some degree or another, particularly when it comes to their job. Roughly 80% of Americans say they encounter it frequently, according to polling by Gallup (Gallup, 2017). The biggest stressors include children and work.
That said, it is difficult to qualify which line of work – electrical engineering vs mechanical engineering – is more stressful. Each occupation requires an ability to think critically so problems can be resolved. Some of these issues can have life-altering implications. For example, electronics engineers who work on medical devices may be tasked with coming up with new equipment that can better diagnose and detect serious diseases, like cancer or certain deadly viral strains. 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 new 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 said equipment. Thus, mechanical engineers must walk a delicate balance between improving products so that they work and perform better but without compromising users’ safety.
The engineering discipline is all about making current processes work better or introducing new ones. This requires creativity, inventiveness and the use of time-tested principles to create solutions or solve problems when they happen – 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.
Whether your area of interest is machinery and tools or the power and processes that make those machines work, an online Master of Science in Engineering at UC Riverside can energize your future. Apply today to learn more.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018. Electric and electronics engineers. Retrieved from:
Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018. Mechanical engineers. Retrieved from:
Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016. Employment and wages of engineers. Retrieved from:
Gallup, 2017. Eight in 10 Americans Afflicted by Stress. Retrieved from: