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What Does a Career in Systems Engineering Entail?

Systems engineering professionals design and manage complex systems over their complete life cycles. They must make sure to consider all aspects of a project or engineering systems and integrate it into a greater environment. A systems engineering degree and career can be challenging and adventurous. Systems engineering is a process of discovery. The focus of systems engineering is to create complex systems that function continuously and experience little to no errors. In systems engineering, the process begins with creating a system and then an investigation to find the causes of difficulty or sources of malfunction. Professionals in systems engineering management must solve the problem and reduce the risks of the worst failures of engineering systems. Systems engineering professionals might work on creating autonomous vehicles, information systems for government agencies, and using their technical knowhow for project management in systems engineering and other projects that need an engineering systems perspective. Their expertise might be useful and even in high demand in civil engineering, electrical engineering, operations research, systems architecting, healthcare, information technology systems, manufacturing, transportation, modeling systems, communication systems, and more to keep an eye on the big picture in many industries that use systems science.


Components of A Successful Career in Systems Engineering

  • Technical capabilities are essential for a successful systems engineering career; system engineers must have an acumen for computer hardware, software, and software systems. Many can achieve success with just a bachelor's degree in systems engineering, but an undergraduate program may not be enough for others. They can attend graduate programs in systems engineering or engineering management or earn a graduate certificate in systems engineering design or information systems engineering.
  • Business skills are in the mix of capabilities that system engineers must possess for success. Many solutions must work within frameworks of a private or public enterprise. System engineers must build value into their engineering work.
  • Communications skills play an important role in work with customers, colleagues, and members of other disciplines that must assist in the given project or activity. Systems engineering often must connect other processes and functions into smoothly integrated systems, and they have to be able to discuss this work with other workers outside of system engineers, especially when working in engineering management.
  • Interpersonal relations are important for a successful systems engineering career. Unlike most engineering fields, systems engineering is customer focused. The systems engineer must solve a problem or build a solution for a customer’s needs.
  • Creativity is the sense that connects the other senses and inspires innovative approaches. System engineers must think outside of the box and use insight.

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How to Become a Systems Engineering Professional

  • Get an undergraduate degree in systems, industrial, or software engineering
  • Get work experience as a supervised intern or apprentice
  • Apply for jobs; for growth through experience
  • Get a master’s degree for growth through education or specialization

Typical Systems Engineering Degree Options

systems_engineering_degree An Associate Degree in Systems Engineering is a 60-to-70- hour curriculum undergraduate degree in systems engineering that students can complete in two or three years. This systems engineering degree can open technical or supervised opportunities in systems management technology, systems engineering, and information systems. These are a good way to acquire fundamental knowledge and new skills, but may not give you enough time to go into the details of data science, large scale systems, systems analysis, and systems science.

A Bachelor’s Degree in Systems Engineering is an undergraduate degree that is the entry-level for most positions in the field of systems engineering. The course of study often includes internships and about 125 to 135 semester hours of study in systems engineering. This may include general education, core courses, and specialized classes in engineering systems, systems science, industrial and systems engineering, systems engineering management, manufacturing systems engineering, applied science, and more, as well as the chance to get real world experience with labs and internships.

A Master’s in Systems Engineering Degree are usually a 30 credit-hour course of study as a graduate degree program, which graduate students can complete in one or two years. Many programs require a capstone project or thesis focused on systems engineering, engineering systems, engineering management, manufacturing systems engineering, etc.

Typical Systems Engineering Certifications Needed

INCOSE provides systems engineering professional certifications at three levels. They offer a basic associate certification, a middle range Certified Systems Engineering Professional Certificate, and a top rating called the Expert Systems Engineering Professional Certificate. These certifications measure experience, competence, and the extent to which a professional has the training and ability to act independently as an expert in the field of systems engineering.

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Academic Standards for a Systems Engineering Degree

The required level of academic achievement for an online associate or bachelor’s undergraduate degree is a high school diploma or a GED. In competitive admissions, students with high academic achievement in math and science would have an advantage. Generally, students should take the SAT or ACT exams to demonstrate that they have a suitable background for college-level study.

An online master’s in systems engineering degree requires a bachelor’s in systems engineering degree or a related category of engineering field such as industrial engineering, engineering systems, engineering management, civil engineering, manufacturing engineering, or other engineering programs.

Exam/Experience Needed for a Systems Engineering Degree

systems_engineering_experience_needed Systems engineering curriculum typically includes an internship or other type of supervised practical instruction. Employers value practical experience with engineering systems, and many bachelor's and master’s graduates begin by working in teams or collaborations.

In-person or online graduate degrees in systems engineering or engineering management usually require a thesis or a capstone project to demonstrate the ability to apply the courses and knowledge gained and see the big picture in real-world settings in the industry.

Systems Engineering Fields of Study

  • Mechanical engineering applies physics, engineering systems, and materials science to analyze, develop, or design machine-based systems.
  • Software engineering is for applications or systems development in the information technology or computer science. This field studies design, development, and testing of software and systems.
  • Engineering project management is the study of strategies and systems engineering tools to successfully oversee projects. Knowledge needed includes planning, scheduling, value management, and procurement.

Online Associate's Degree in Systems Engineering

An online associate degree is a two-year systems engineering program that can introduce students to the field of systems engineering. The two-year course is not an entry-level engineering degree; the associate level uses related subfields like industrial/systems engineering, network systems engineer, or network engineer. These courses equip students to work as assistants and technicians. They learn principles of engineering, systems management, and problem-solving in technical environments.

Example Core Courses for Online Associate Degree in Systems Engineering:

  • Economic Decision Analysis
  • Properties of Materials
  • Systems Science
  • Information Systems
  • Computational Thinking and Programming

Online Bachelor’s Degree in Systems Engineering

Systems engineering is the leading growth field in engineering because it touches nearly everything. Systems are part of the infrastructure of business and government and the design, construction, maintenance, and care they require comes from systems engineers. Integrative systems is the broader field, and many schools house their systems engineering program in the broader category of integrative systems and design. Systems engineering science and systems centric programs include system architecting, but also risk management of factors that can affect information systems and other engineering problems, as well as systems engineering management.

Example Online Courses for Bachelor’s Degree in Systems Engineering:

  • Introduction to Systems Architecture
  • Engineering Development and Verification of System Design Requirements
  • Concept Development and Embodiment Design

Online Master’s Degree in Systems Engineering

The online master’s degree in systems engineering equips students to use mathematics, science, and engineering to create, develop, and evaluate complex systems. System engineers understand the life cycle stages of concept, manufacture, operation, and retirement. The end note for the master’s degree in systems engineering is either a master’s thesis or a systems engineering master’s project.

Example Online Courses for Master’s Degree in Systems Engineering:

  • Management of Systems Projects
  • System Design and Integration
  • System Test and Evaluation

Concentrations for a Systems Engineering Degree: Software Systems, Project Management, Modeling and Simulation, Cybersecurity, and Human-centric Systems.

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Degree Level Tuition Cost Range Total Costs Range

Online Associate’s Degree

Degree Level Tuition Total Costs
Private Schools $3,570 $13,500
Public Schools $14,600 $24,600

Online Bachelor’s Degree

Degree Level Tuition Total Costs
private Schools $35,000 $47,000
public school, in-state $10,000 $21,000
public school, out-of-state $26,000 $37,000

Online Master’s Degree

Degree Level Tuition Total Costs
Private Schools average $30,000 $42,000
Public Schools average $9,000 $19,000

Careers & Salaries for Systems Engineering Grads

Work experience is a proven factor in annual salary. Experienced workers have a significant advantage in wages over their less experienced colleagues. Experience has the additional effect of opening up new classifications or positions for experienced employees. The national employment data shows a steady climb in salary for the great majority of occupational classifications based on experience.

A survey by LinkedIn of its membership demonstrated the accuracy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics findings. Linked in showed a direct relationship between median annual salary and education level. Education also has a dramatic impact on lifetime earnings, and degrees also open new occupations and leadership roles.

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Education Level & Average Median Compensation

Education Level Secondary Education Associate’s Degree Bachelor’s Degree Master’s Degree Research Doctorate
Average Median Compensation $51,500 $57,100 $79,800 $87,700 $94,100

Systems Engineering Median Salaries by Occupation

Annual Median Salary by Occupation

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Systems Engineers $72,500 $88,300 $120,300
Software developer $62,500 $82,400 $97,600
Senior Systems Administrator $70,300 $82,300 $92,100
Network Manager $56,300 $75,800 $100,000
Systems Engineering Manager $126,900 $128,300 $144,900
Engineering Project Manager $64,600 $90,500 $115,700
Systems Engineer, IT $62,600 $78,600 $93,200
Aerospace Systems Engineers $73,100 $92,600 $130,600

Occupation Median Salary

Occupation Median Salary
Software Developer $69,700
Network Manager $83,700
Engineering Project Manager $89,200
Aerospace Engineer $80,000
Robotics Engineer $81,000
Software Engineer $83,500

Important Questions to Ask (FAQ)

How long does it take to earn a Systems Engineering bachelor’s degree online?

systems_engineering_degree_online The online Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering is a four-year degree program at most schools and colleges. Some schools offer a combination of the bachelor of science and the master of science degrees. The curriculum may easily extend to five years to accommodate internships and other types of practical and supervised work experience. When attending on a part-time basis, online students may take longer than four years, and this may be the best balance between education, employment, business obligations, or other situations.

Online students may be able to shorten the time required by taking an additional course each semester and adding courses during the summer recess. Some online schools may reduce required and general education courses by competency testing.

How much does an Online Systems Engineering bachelor’s degree cost?

The costs of a four-year degree include tuition, room and board, books, and incidental expenses. The annual total of these expenses can be multiplied by four to estimate the total cost range for a four-year engineering degree. Additionally, the estimate should consider the differences in price and fee structure for private colleges and universities versus their public counterparts. Public schools also charge different rates for in-state students than for out-of-state students.

The cost ranges for a four-year systems engineering bachelor’s degree range from $85- $195,000. When adding room and board, tuition, books, and incidental expenses, the average is the range of $190,000 for private schools, $160,000 at public schools for out-of-state students, and approximately $85,000 for in-state students at public schools.

Does the school have the major(s) you’re considering?

systems_engineering_considering Systems engineering is a multidisciplinary form of engineering. The systems engineering degree program may often co-exist with industrial engineering or engineering management. Because schools often use different labels, students must examine the course content and expected results to determine if the program meets their expectations.

Systems engineers are at the center of successful computer-based management systems. They must analyze the potential complexity and the risks. From concept, design, to architecture, systems engineers must analyze and test systems to determine that they achieve their intended goals. These talented professionals must be able to understand customer needs and provide a product that works well for the end-user.

How many students graduate “on time,” in four years?

The national trend has moved significantly towards longer terms of undergraduate attendance. As students reduce semester loads and attend part-time in higher numbers, the average on-time graduation rate has shifted to 150% of the on-time mark. This means that many students aren’t graduating until their sixth year.

Type of School 4-Year Graduation Rate 6-Year Graduation Rate
Private schools 53% 68%
Public schools 35% 65%

What kind of accreditation does the online program hold? How is it regarded in the field?


Accreditation is essential to the value of a degree and college-level coursework.

Accredited schools and programs provide value not found in non-accredited education. University HQ recommends that students carefully assess the accreditation status of any school they might select. Regional or national accreditation of the entire school is an excellent first step in the search.

Federal student financial aid depends on accreditation. Schools may not participate in federal student loans programs unless accredited by an authorized accreditation agency. Every accreditation is not acceptable to the federal student loan program. Students can determine appropriate national and regional accreditation at the Department of Education College Scorecard website.

The ABET is a leading program accreditation agency for engineering and computer science-based fields of study. An ideal combination for system engineer studies is an ABET program certification and regional accreditation of the entire institution.

The reputation and respect given the program in the business and educational communities is a factor in the value of a degree. Among the factors that support reputation are the graduation rates and the success rates of graduates in getting high paying jobs in their fields. In the field of systems engineering, there are fewer traditional factors in play. The entire field is relatively new and it is growing as innovation drives greater complexity into government and business systems.

Software, Technology & Skills Needed

Computer science fundamentals are the building blocks for systems engineering. Because of the extent that they work with machine-type environments, they must understand materials and heat dynamics. The broad reach of systems assignments suggests that systems engineers need a strong foundation in management, ethics, writing, and communications.

System design, critical thinking, and problem-solving are more important in systems engineering than in related fields because systems work requires communicating across many lines. Engineers must work with clients that may sometimes have little technical knowledge. System work requires working with advanced technical experts in many fields.

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Systems Engineering Scholarships

  • HENAAC Scholars - Corporate - Government Scholarships
    Amount: $500-$10,000
    Deadline: Applications open in January

    The goal of the program is to increase the numbers of STEM scholars, engineers, and scientists in the US. The program also focuses on increasing the numbers of under-represented groups in the STEM fields. The HENAAC offers three categories: The Corporate and Government sponsors, the Recognition awards, and the Memorial awards.

  • Women Techmakers Scholarship
    Amount: Up to $10,000
    Deadline: December 6

    The Women Techmakers Scholarship program awards up to $10,000 per student. The scholarship supports studies in computer science, computer engineering, or a closely related field. The program and its awardees must promote leadership for increasing the role of women in the computer science fields. Eligible students must be enrolled or plan to enroll at an accredited college or university for the upcoming school year. They must be enrolled or accepted for a bachelor, masters, or Ph.D. program in the US or Canada. Application dates for the 2020 school year will be announced.

  • Generation Google Scholarships
    Amount: $5,000-$10,000
    Deadline: TBA

    The application period for the next open school year (2020) will be announced. Eligible students will be enrolled or about to enroll in an accredited college or university. Systems engineering is an eligible subject as the program invites student applicants that pursue degrees in computer science, computer engineering, or a closely related technical field. The Generation Google scholarships help members of historically under-represented groups.

  • INCOSE Foundation Scholarships
    Amount: 1,500-$5,000, $50,000 (2 Awards), $75,000 (1 Award)
    Deadline: June 5

    The Foundation supports and promotes the International Science Fair. Students can win prizes of $5,000, $2,500, and $1,500 for prize finishes in research and science demonstration categories. The grand awards are for $75,000(1 award) and $50,000 (2 awards). The Society for Science and the Public conducts the International Science Fair for pre-college students pursuing STEM careers including systems engineering. The prizes total about $5 million in all.

  • The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation
    Amount: Up to $7,500 (300 Awards)
    Deadline: Last Friday in January

    The Goldwater Scholarship Program is an old and prestigious national scholarship. The program awards funds to US students in the natural sciences, engineering, and mathematics. The scholarship committee seeks to identify and support outstanding college sophomores and juniors that show potential for future leadership. The Goldwater scholar selection criteria focus on the student’s commitment to research or another type of career in the natural sciences, mathematics, or engineering. The committee looks for character traits that reflect intellectual curiosity for sciences, mathematics, engineering, and research.

    The scholarship supports students pursuing two or four-year degrees in the natural sciences and engineering. The program awards 300 scholarships of up to $7,500 for each student and for each year of attendance in undergraduate education for up to four years. Eligibility depends on nomination and endorsement by a qualified representative of the scholarship program.

Professional Organizations

  • IISE
  • SAE
  • IEEE
  • STM


Institute of Industrial & Systems Engineers

This membership organization promotes industrial and systems engineering professionals and the fields of industrial and systems engineering. Featuring communities such as healthcare, manufacturing, and systems management, the IISE answers many demands for higher educational standards, ethics, and improvements in education and training. Students can join this organization and take advantage of information resources, educational programs, and conferences. The IISE focuses on industrial and systems engineering and best practices.



International Council on Systems Engineering

INCOSE is a leading organization in the field of Integrative design and engineering. The organization provides current events in news and magazine of information for members. The overall direction of INCOSE is to address complex societal and technical problems through the support of successful systems engineering techniques. The organization sponsors the honor society for student system engineers and offers useful certifications. INCOSE offers students opportunities for learning from thought leaders, networking with established professionals, and participating in state-of-the-art demonstration projects.



The Society of Automotive Engineers

The Society of Automotive Engineers plays a key role in setting standards for products and procedures. SAE has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with INCOSE to improve the state of systems engineering practices. The organizations cooperate on a Future of Systems Engineering Initiative (FUSE). Students can get involved with SAE and engage in the process of assessing industry standards and authoring changes, modification, and improvements.



The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

The IEEE promotes technology and innovation that can improve societies and benefit humanity. It works with computers, electronics, and electric systems an all related professions and occupations. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is a large membership organization that began in the era of electricity and continued through the electronics and computer generations. The IEEE now includes computer scientists, software developers, physicist, medical experts, and systems professionals. Students can engage thought leaders and take advantage of educational resources.



Sigma Theta Mu

This is the systems engineering honor society. The society represents professionals and students in systems engineering and systems related disciplines. Formed by INCOSE, this society awards model students for outstanding academic performance and contributions to the systems engineering profession. Students inducted into the society must demonstrate superior academic performance. Membership also includes access to study materials for the INCOSE systems engineering certification examinations.

Choosing an Accredited College

University HQ recommends selecting an accredited school and an accredited engineering program. The best advantages come with ABET-accredited engineering programs at a regionally accredited college or university. Credit hours earned at such institutions will have universal acceptance. Employers can rely upon this accreditation as assurance of high-quality education. Financing can depend on accreditation. Many scholarships ask for attendance at accredited schools. Some engineering scholarships specifically request ABET-accredited programs.

Online vs. On-Campus vs. Hybrid

Online education offers flexibility. Online students can participate in classroom work when convenient. With online access, students can take coursework any time of the day and from any location with an Internet connection. Online education is an excellent choice for students that have jobs or businesses that they prefer to keep while attending college.

On-campus education is traditional class and lecture hall learning. Students gather at the same place and time to learn and participate. This type of learning is called synchronous education. Online courses are the opposite, they are asynchronous, and students can earn on their own schedules.

Hybrid programs combine on-campus and online education. Some schools require some on-campus attendance while others have degree programs entirely completed online. Hybrid programs can come from students that wish to take as many courses on-campus as necessary or possible while completing the balance online.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does the College Have Post-Graduate Job Placement Help & Assistance?

University HQ places priority on job placement and career assistance. The school and the entire community of alumni, business partners, supporters, and affiliates can help students find jobs and career opportunities. University HQ suggests students examine the level of resources that the school provides for career counseling, internships, jobs, and interview preparation.

Schools with high rates of graduate success often have extensive programs to reach out to employers and support a vigorous level of recruitment at the school. The systems engineering occupation has excellent prospects for growth and higher employment levels. An extensive job placement and assistance program can help students reach their potential.

Why You Need to Consider the Overall National Rankings of the College and The Effects on Your Career or Salary

Rankings can affect salary is some indirect ways. High rankings can open the range of employers that recruit from a given school. High rankings also reflect factors of concern to employers. For example, many rankings emphasize graduate success, graduation rates, and retention rates. To many employers, signs of high-quality education include grads find high paying jobs, high rates of on-time graduations, and low drop-out rates.

Rankings should not replace the primary reasons to select schools such as accreditation, a well-suited faculty for systems engineering, and a learning environment that suits your preferences. Rankings are not good predictors of the student experience, and student success is more important to the career path than school rankings. When a selection process yields two or more seemingly equal choices, then students can safely give more weight to rankings as a decision factor.

What degree do you need to work as a systems engineer?

While you can earn a systems engineering degree in order to gain access to systems engineering careers, you could also earn some related degrees and end up on the same general career path. These include similar engineering fields, such as computer engineering or mechanical engineering. Or you might find your way to this career with a computer science degree, though you’ll need engineering education or experience to really succeed in the field.

What skills should I be focusing on if I want a career in systems engineering?

Some skills are important for all types of engineers including soft skills such as communication, decision making, leadership, organizational skills, patience, etc. However, those who plan to work in systems engineering will also need to have analytical skills, knowledge of information security and systems engineering software tools, and more.

Will a systems engineering professional do coding?

The short answer is no. While systems engineers create concepts and plan requirements, they usually do not create individual lines of code. Instead, they work as designers and planners for software and systems. Programmers and software developers will put the actual code in place and set it up to meet a system engineer’s requirements.

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