Compiled below are common questions we have received about aerospace engineering and related careers.
Additional answers to other questions are available in
Part 2, Part 3, Part 4,
Part 5, Part 6, Part 7,
and Part 8.
How did you choose to become an aerospace engineer?
I was always interested in flight as a child--both aircraft and space travel. Some of my favorite
toys and hobbies included model airplanes, model rocketry, paper airplanes, and Legos (the toy of
future engineers!). As I got into junior high and high school, I started sketching out my own
ideas for future air and spacecraft as well as reading books and magazines about military aircraft,
airplane design and construction, space travel, aviation history, and the aerospace industry. From
about the seventh grade, I knew that I wanted to work on projects like those I'd been reading
about, and I never really wanted to do anything else throughout high school and college.
What universities would you recommend to a student who wants to become an aerospace engineer?
I think the best advice I could give in this area is to find the best school for the lowest cost
possible! I was lucky enough to live near a state university ranked in the top 10 in almost all
engineering fields, so I got a great education at in-state tuition prices. Some of the better
aerospace engineering schools at more affordable prices include the Universities of Michigan,
Illinois, Arizona, Maryland, Washington, California (Davis), and Missouri (Rolla) as well as
Purdue. Other schools that I'd highly recommend, although I think they're expensive no matter
what, include MIT, Stanford, and CalTech. Embry-Riddle's campuses in Florida and Arizona are also
pretty good though quite expensive (as my former cubicle mate can attest to). One of the best
places to get a good idea of the best schools in a given field is the
News yearly college rankings.
Outside of formal engineering training, what kinds of courses do you think would be beneficial?
I'd recommend getting a good background in mathematics and physics, but you pretty much get that
through your engineering courses anyway. Beyond that, computer skills are very desirable. I only
had to learn one computer language through my coursework, but I found it useful to take classes in
two others on the side, and the more you know, the more popular you'll be during the job hunt!
Outside of technical coursework, communication classes like speech or writing are nice to have
because they give you experience in expressing your ideas more effectively.
What does it take to become a professional engineer (PE) in the field of aerospace engineering?
The PE requirements are pretty standard across enginering disciplines, as far as I know. Very few
aerospace engineers actually bother to become a PE. The reason is that a PE license is required by
someone who has to officially approve engineering design specifications, usually someone
self-employed or working for a small business. Most aerospace engineers work for big companies or
the government and therefore do not need to become PEs. The requirements are to pass a
Fundamentals of Engineering exam (that takes a grueling four hours), work under a licensed PE for
four years (difficult to do in the aerospace field because there are so few PEs to work under), and
then take a Principles and Practice of Engineering exam (this one requiring eight hours).
How long did it take to find a job?
I began seriously looking for a job during my junior year of college and managed to get an
internship with NASA for the summer before my senior year. The process of interviewing with
college recruiters and applying for internships gave me a lot of good experience in writing a
résumé and knowing how to get the attention of employers. I used that experience to get some good
interviews at companies like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing during my senior year, and I had
a pretty good full-time job offer about two months before I graduated. Counting all that
interviewing for internships and a full-time job, it covered a period of about a year and a half.
However, I decided to go to graduate school instead. I probably spent only six months looking for
a job this time around, and I ended up getting many more quality interviews and job offers than I
had before. At the other extreme, I have several friends who graduated and were out of school for
six months before they found a job. Sometimes it's just a matter of luck that your résumé happens
to fall into the right hands. If you are diligent about putting your résumé on the web and having
it listed on job search sites (such as those listed here) as well as
major search engines like Google and Yahoo, you'll be one step ahead of most of your peers.
What is the salary like?
Looking at all branches of engineering, aerospace engineers on average are in the middle of the pay
scale. Starting salaries for someone just graduating from college around the year 2000 typically
range from $40,000 to $50,000 with a bachelors degree, $45,000 to $55,000 with a masters degree,
and $50,000 to $60,000 with a doctorate. Experienced people usually make anywhere from $75,000 to
$150,000 or more depending on their experience and seniority.
Is there a high demand for engineers in this field?
Aerospace is a very cyclical industry. When the economy is strong and airlines or the military are
buying large numbers of planes, there is a very high demand for new engineers. When those markets
dry up, as they did in the early 90s, the demand for new engineers plummets. You can see this
interdependence reflected in college enrollments--my class entered school in 1994 towards the tail
end of the big aerospace recession that followed the end of the Cold War, and very few people
enrolled in aerospace. My class graduated about 25 people in 1998. In 2001, that same program
graduated nearly 100 because of the growth in the industry. I think we're entering a new stage
where demand will decrease a bit, but by the time you finish school, demand will probably be high
again. Regardless, so long as you are good at what you do and you look hard enough, there will
always be someone willing to give you a job.
What do you enjoy most about aerospace engineering and engineering in general?
What I enjoy most is the variety of work and opportunities to do so many different kinds of things.
I do a lot of work in conceptual design, or being given some set of needs and thinking up ways to
meet them using existing technology or cutting-edge new ideas. If a project really takes off, you
could end up working on it for years, or you may hand it off to another person so you can work on
something else. There's always new projects coming along so you almost never get tired of what
you're working on. I've also had the opportunity to work on flight simulation projects and flight
testing. I know other aerospace engineers who work on race cars, boats and submarines, hovercraft,
satellites, bridges and tall buildings, robotics, lasers, sporting goods products, and so on. I
think you'll find that in engineering in general and aerospace in particular, there's always going
to be something new and exciting to do.