When Generalizing Is Good: Working Toward a General Engineering Degree

The overall history of engineering is one of increasing specialization, but in today’s economic climate, generalists are thriving. With a more general engineering education, new graduates are able to adapt themselves to a wider range of career roles and offer employers additional value. Earning your license in general engineering as well as your chosen specialty can make you a valuable prospect for companies and prepare you for management roles.

If building broad-based knowledge and gaining versatility in your education appeal to you, general engineering theory courses may be for you. Some prospective engineers study general engineering first and specialize later in their graduate and post-graduate education. Others choose a specialization such as petroleum engineering or software engineering first, then supplement that specific knowledge base with a more thorough understanding of interdisciplinary engineering applications. Either way, employers value candidates who come with built-in flexibility.

Few schools offer certification in general engineering as an associate’s or bachelor’s degree program, but many are offering a master’s degree in engineering theory, applications or management. As with any degree program, check the organization’s accreditation. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, or ABET, can give you more information on schools and their status; any degree program should lead to certification to work in the field whether it’s in a specialization or a general engineering management or engineering theory degree.

Regardless of which degree program you choose, your licensure also requires testing and certification as well as a degree. The NCEES, or National Council of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors, offers online study assistance to prepare for the day-long FE exam. As its name suggests, the Fundamentals of Engineering exam includes enough general knowledge that engineers in training who branch out instead of specializing can excel too.

After passing the FE exam, usually in your final year of study, your years of qualifying experience as an engineer intern can either crystallize your decision to specialize or help you build a broader knowledge base. Employers may be a bit uncertain of how to plug a candidate with a general engineering degree into their organization, so even if you plan to keep your career options open, it’s good to choose a concentration.

To sit for the PE exam, you will need at least four years of qualifying experience that meet certain requirements that vary from state to state. Here’s where engineering generalists sometimes face a challenge; some states require specialization during this phase of your post-college career. Others, including the New York State Education Department, only require that a candidate’s education be “broad in scope” and include increasing complexity and responsibility over time.

The PE exam, or Principles and Practice of Engineering exam to give it its full title, is a more specialized test of your knowledge. There is no PE exam in general engineering, but as most generalists have areas of expertise, you can choose the topic that’s most central to your knowledge. For example, if you’ve focused more on technology and computing, the software engineering exam is a better fit for you than the petroleum engineering test.

If you’re getting the idea that general engineering requires at least as much work as specialization, albeit in different directions, you’re right. Instead of drilling a narrow but deep well, general engineering certification requires candidates to develop their entire field of experience to some extent. While being a generalist is challenging, it pays off in the greater latitude you have to explore uncommon areas in engineering. If you plan to be at the frontier of the next technological revolution, being somewhat of a generalist might be your best bet.

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