The ever-rising popularity and ubiquity of engineering jobs means many future college students have considered enrolling in those academic programs. However, even if you are interested in engineering and technology, you can still be hesitant to commit to these programs because you might want to do work that directly betters people’s lives. Enter bioengineering and biomedical engineering, two programs that combine engineering principles with environmental, agricultural, and medical expertise to solve problems that are biological in origin.
Those interested in applied biological sciences are likely to be a good fit for both bioengineering and biomedical engineering. Both are areas of study with phenomenal job outlooks and interesting, fulfilling work. Despite the similar names, the two fields are fairly different from each other. When considering these two possibilities, prospective students will want to know not only what they can expect to make with these degrees, but also what kind of work is done and what kind of education is required for each.
Bioengineering vs biomedical engineering
Bioengineering and biomedical engineering might roll off the tongue similarly, but in practice there are notable differences between the two. Bioengineering is the study of applied engineering practices in general biology. It is the more broad topic when compared to biomedical engineering; bioengineering covers topics such as agriculture, pharmaceuticals, natural resources and foodstuffs, among others. In addition, it covers general medical practices, though biomedical engineering focuses more on this field than general bioengineering will. Bioengineering practices are applied to many different industries, including health care, but biological engineering practices are not explicitly for medical purposes.
Biomedical engineering is a more specialized version of bioengineering, utilizing many of the discipline’s principal theories and putting them to practice to improve human health. The field is focused on the production of new tools and processes that can be used in various health care contexts. Of all the fields of engineering, a biomedical engineer is likely to have one of the largest impacts on a person’s life. Biomedical engineers commonly work to solve issues that are present in the life sciences; those that work on prosthetics or the emerging field of cybernetics (more formally known as biomechatronics) may also be referred to as biomechanical engineers. Items like the pacemaker, artificial heart and cochlear implant are all results of biomedical innovation. Medical and surgical tools such as specialized robotic surgery suites also fall under their purview. Biomedical engineers also work to advance the efficacy of natural processes through biotechnology, such as tissue regeneration and cell diffusion. These engineers can be found in almost all fields of medicine. Wherever there’s a problem, they work to find a solution.
Bioengineers often focus on general theory that can be applied to various different areas of natural sciences to solve problems. Biomedical engineering, on the other hand, is more focused and practical, specifically in the context of health care. In this case, your personal philosophy can and should also play a role in the decision between the two. If you are interested in big picture ideas and creating new theoretical frameworks through which to approach biology, bioengineering would be a great fit. On the other hand, if you want to put established doctrine to use improving the health care field by creating or operating advanced biotechnological products, then biomedical engineering might be the preferred choice.
Education and personal needs
Both prospective bioengineers and biomedical engineers need a certain set of similar skills in order to thrive in these fields. Since much of the work involves synthesizing solutions to complex problems, applicants should have strong problem-solving skills and the perseverance necessary to see tough projects through to the end. A desire to confront challenge is a great trait to have for anyone looking to enter engineering disciplines, and this goes double for the biological disciplines. A grasp of the scientific method and the associated discipline it requires is a necessity, and those with analytical minds are best suited to these roles. Indecisiveness can be a major weakness to those who otherwise might fit the biological sciences well: While decisions aren’t usually made under the pressure of time like they would be for practitioners of medicine, the impact of choice is long-lasting in any engineering discipline. If you are confident in your decision-making ability and possess the aforementioned skills, then biomedical and biological engineering would be great fits for you.
At minimum, you will require a bachelor’s degree in your chosen engineering specialization in to find a job as an engineer in said discipline. Bioengineering and biomedical engineering are no exceptions. Pursuing a master’s degree in engineering after the bachelor’s is advisable, as this will open many additional opportunities in the field. Most employers look for master’s degrees; although a bachelor’s degree is certainly respectable, you will be at a major disadvantage during the job search compared to fellow engineers who pursued additional levels of education.
In terms of what level of education is explicitly needed, most engineering disciplines follow similar patterns. With a bachelor’s, students can expect to have access to entry-level engineering roles as well as access to low- or mid-level leadership positions. After this, the ability for a graduate to rise to higher status will differ on a case-by-case basis, with employers having different philosophies and levels of comfort when considering whether to promote bachelor’s degree-holding employees to important roles.
With a master’s degree, the field of engineering is opened much further. Supervisory and advanced research roles become accessible thanks to a master’s degree. On average, this takes about two years to complete, in addition to the four years most engineering bachelor’s programs take. Finally, those looking to reach the apex of their bioengineering or biomedical career can pursue a Ph.D. This will open up the most prestigious research and development roles. In addition, Ph.D holders can be considered for teaching, advisory, and consulting roles at the most prestigious universities and in government organizations. Whatever your choice, it is important to be informed beforehand of what each level of education affords you.
The coursework for each degree is fairly similar. A basic engineering curriculum defines both bioengineering and biomedical engineering at most institutions, as the application of engineering principles is just as important in biological sciences as it is in other fields. Mathematics is another universal foundational skill: Calculus, differential equations, and advanced statistics are necessary skills in both degree programs. Advanced knowledge of biology is another part of these curricula, and physics, chemistry and other sciences get a fair amount of focus as well. At the conclusion of a degree program, many colleges have students conduct capstone projects, where their engineering skills will be applied to create prototype products or processes that solve specific issues in biological scientific fields.
Jobs and job outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics only keeps a record of salary trends for biomedical engineers. The average 2018 median pay for medical engineers was $88,550 per year. The number of jobs in 2018 was reported at 19,800, and the growth rate through 2028 is estimated at 4% – an average percentage. ZipRecruiter paints a slightly different story. Nationwide, biomedical engineers are expected to make an average of $93,701 per year. Bioengineers make somewhat less, at $82,908 per year. Biomedical engineers reached salaries as high as $186,500 on ZipRecruiter, while bioengineers could make up to $149,500.
General bioengineering and biomedical engineering jobs can be found in many different fields. Bioengineers can find work in agriculture, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, food and drink production, and many more industries. Biomedical engineers also have a breadth of job possibilities at their disposal despite their more narrow focus, as practically every field of medicine makes use of biomedical engineers. Medical technology engineering roles are also available, along with specialized positions in areas such as bioinstrumentation, medical imaging and even genetic engineering.
The medical field is growing quite fast, and the need for engineering specialists is only going to go up as this occurs. According to Deloitte, the health care sector is expected to reach a value of $10.059 trillion by 2022. The annual growth rate of the industry has grown from a 2.9% average from 2013-2017 to a 5.4% (projected) average for 2018-2022. While not exactly the force of nature that the consumer technology field is, medical fields are growing at a generous pace, and thus a career in biomedical engineering is an optimal choice for those looking to hitch their wagon to an industry with good long-term job security. Deloitte elaborates:
“It is imperative for stakeholders across the health care ecosystem to collaborate around a whole-life approach to funding and delivering sustainable health care,” Deloitte’s report elaborated. “Collaboration should be key. Investments in technology such as virtual health and telehealth could expand services while also helping hospitals bend the cost curve. AI powered nurses interacting with patients and intelligent virtual assistants providing personalized health care coaching are innovations that are already gaining traction.”
This is not to say that bioengineering is inferior to biomedical engineering. Both careers have strong job security and are parts of growing industries. However, the presence of technology in the medical field is growing every day. Biomedical engineers can contribute in many different ways to this growing need. Engineers can create new types of software to assist medical professionals in diagnosing ailments and managing health care records They can develop new medical devices to make procedures such as spinal taps or blood samples quick and painless for patients. And they can even invent new biological materials that assist in digestion and contribute to healthy gut flora. Despite the specific focus of biomedical engineers when compared to bioengineers, the possibilities are just as exciting.
Bioengineers and biomedical engineers can expect to receive excellent benefits, as most technology and engineering professionals can. Graduates can expect vacation and paternity leave, paid time off, paid sick time, and medical insurance. As you advance in your career, additional opportunities will open to you. Dental, vision and pet insurance can be at your disposal, as can remote work arrangements, depending on your job.
Possible job duties
There are many different jobs that bioengineers and biomedical engineers can possess, and with this breadth of jobs comes a breadth of possible duties and responsibilities. Work will be done from laboratories and hospitals to traditional office environments. Engineers of the biological sciences can be researchers on a team developing new farming equipment or pesticides, or managing the installation, use and maintenance of an advanced technology. Biomedical engineers likewise can be involved in creating new prosthetics and researching biotechnology that can be used to speed up wound sealing. The possibilities are, in a word, endless.
A bioengineer’s duties can vary greatly depending on what industry they are employed in. For instance, a bioengineer employed in farming research will have a different day-to-day routine than one in pharmaceuticals would. Britannica lays out a number of fields that bioengineers might work in, such as:
- Bionics, which is the study of natural systems (such as those in living organisms) and applying that knowledge to the operation of mechanical systems
- Agricultural engineering, where bioengineers utilize biological engineering fundamentals to improve harvest yields or fight crop flight
- Bioenvironmental engineering, which involves the crafting of viable environments for human health, such as life support on spacecraft or deep sea exploration bathyscaphes
Bioengineers can also find work in medical contexts, just as biomedical engineers do. Polymer science is another common field of work for these professionals, in the context of both natural polymers and synthetic polymers produced through biological engineering techniques, such as certain plastics.
In turn, many opportunities are open to biomedical engineers as well. Despite their more narrow medical focus when compared to bioengineers, their advanced level of specialization opens biomed majors to higher-level, advanced roles. The Canadian Medical and Biological Engineering Society reports that there are many fields that would be open to holders of these degrees. These include bioinformatics, biomechanics, clinical engineering, systems physiology, and many more. Possible responsibilities include:
- The design and development of medical devices, such as artificial organs, surgical lasers, and similar technology
- Operation and maintenance of medical engineering or diagnostic equipment
- Adaptation or development of hardware and software for use in medical contexts (such as creating a program that can determine a patient’s ailment)
No matter your decision, bioengineering and biomedical engineering are high-skill, advanced areas of study that are home to many impactful and meaningful jobs. With bioengineering, you can obtain a great grasp of engineering theory and experience in various biological sciences. Biomedical engineers can, in turn, use their medical training to create practical solutions to issues affecting life sciences and human health.
Whatever your philosophy, these engineering disciplines have a lot to offer. Those looking to make the jump into either discipline should check out University of California Riverside’s online bioengineering program.