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The University of St. Thomas (UST) is Houston’s Catholic University, committed to the Catholic intellectual tradition and the dialogue between faith and reason. Our blog is dedicated to helping you explore your future career possibilities and how to make the most of your college experience.

Mechanical vs. Electrical Engineering

Mechanical Engineering vs. Electrical Engineering: Breaking Down the Differences

Take a second to think about how many devices and machines you’ve used so far today. Maybe you hopped in the car to grab some coffee and work remotely from your favorite café. Or perhaps you spent too long scrolling on your phone in bed, so you grabbed a smoothie out of the fridge before biking to work.

Every invention you touched — espresso makers, blenders, bikes, buses, smart phones, laptops and alarm clocks — was made possible by engineering technology.

If you’re one of those people who likes solving equations, tinkering with electronics, working with your hands or taking things apart, an undergraduate engineering degree could be a great fit. To help you decide between mechanical engineering and electrical engineering, we enlisted the help of Dr. Birgit Mellis, tenured associate professor and chair of the physics and engineering department at the University of St. Thomas – Houston (UST).

Mechanical engineering vs. electrical engineering: Curriculum

New engineering students don’t need to stress about choosing their field right away. At UST, the Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering curricula are designed to share many introductory and core courses.

“We geared it in a way so there’s a lot of synergy — many of the mandatory courses can be chosen as an elective in other majors and vice versa,” Dr. Mellis shares. “Even if you switch later, you can still get credit for the classes you’ve passed.”

Core mechanical and electrical engineering courses include:

  • Introduction to Engineering (with lab)
  • University Physics I and II (with lab)
  • Introduction to Engineering Design
  • Mathematical Methods for Physics and Engineering
  • Calculus I, II and III
  • Materials Science
  • Mathematical Methods for Physics and Engineering

What do you learn in a mechanical engineering degree?

Mechanical engineering is one of the oldest and most popular engineering fields. Mechanical engineers work with the moving parts of a machine or system, which requires advanced physics and math skills.

These experts typically work with power-producing machines (i.e., electric generators, internal combustion engines, steam and gas turbines) as well as power-using machines (i.e., refrigeration and air-conditioning systems, elevators, escalators, robotics, and automotives).

Examples of core mechanical engineering courses:

  • Modern Physics I and II (with lab)
  • Electrical Circuits (with lab)
  • Fluid Mechanics
  • General Chemistry I and II (with lab)
  • Thermodynamics (with lab)
  • Strength of Materials
  • Heat Transfer
  • Mechanical Elements

What do you learn in an electrical engineering degree?

Electrical engineers design, test and maintain electrical equipment that uses or produces electricity. This could mean devices like smartphones, computers and medical equipment or enormous systems like a nuclear power station.

These professionals often oversee the manufacturing, installation or testing of electrical equipment to ensure safety and code compliance. They must be detailed oriented and skilled in performing precise calculations.

Examples of core electrical engineering classes:

  • Electronics I and II (with lab)
  • Electromagnetism
  • Electromagnetic Fields and Waves
  • Control Systems and Automation
  • Microprocessors
  • Robotics
  • Signals and Systems
  • Control Systems and Automation

Electrical engineering vs. mechanical engineering: Skills needed

“Both degrees share a foundation in physics, mathematics and basic sciences. These are the tools of our trade,” Dr. Mellis says. She goes on to explain that all engineering fields will involve a lot of lab classes that require working with your hands. “If you prefer theory, you shouldn’t be an engineer,” she advises.

Some additional competencies that engineering students can expect to develop are things like:

  • Problem solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Lab work
  • Research

One of the unique features of UST’s engineering department is their commitment to developing soft skills that many other programs overlook. As an engineer herself with decades of experience as a student, academic researcher and professor, Dr. Mellis admits that “Engineers are not famous for their communication skills, it’s true. But we know it is extremely important in the workplace.”

That’s why UST’s engineering curriculum layers in ample opportunities to participate in clubs, practice writing, join research teams and give presentations throughout the four-year program. This encourages teamwork among classmates but also between all fellow students, from freshman to senior.

Dr. Mellis also points out that ethical leadership is an important and undervalued component of engineering education. “Engineers should serve a common good with their innovative technologies,” she says. “We need to make ethical decisions because people rely on us to develop things that benefit everyone.”

Mechanical engineering vs. electrical engineering: Career options

Electrical and mechanical engineers have their choice of industries. It’s common for them to find employment in different departments of the same company, as their work frequently overlaps.

“Both are great fields and have plenty of job opportunities. We tell each student to go where your heart takes you, not where you see the biggest salary,” Dr. Mellis advises.

She goes on to say that many engineering students want to stay in the area after graduation. Houston in particular and Texas as a whole are some of the best places in the nations for STEM jobs. Engineer salaries in Texas are typically higher compared to other states due to high demand and a competitive market, especially the major petrochemical companies.

Mechanical engineering careers

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for mechanical engineers was $95,300 in May 2021. Common job titles for mechanical engineers include:

  • Test engineer
  • Sales engineer
  • Product quality engineer
  • Automation engineer
  • Mechanical design engineer

Mechanical engineering graduates can expect to pursue careers in the following industries:

  • Oil and gas
  • Petrochemicals
  • Automotive
  • Aerospace
  • NASA
  • Military and defense

Electrical engineering careers

According to the BLS, the median annual wage for electrical engineers was $100,420 in May 2021. Common electrical engineering job titles include:

  • Circuits engineer
  • Design engineer
  • Electrical controls engineer
  • Instrumentation and electrical reliability engineer
  • Power systems engineer

Electrical engineering graduates can expect to pursue careers in the following industries:

  • Power companies
  • Computer companies
  • Chemical companies
  • Medical devices
  • Robotics
  • Medical imaging

Tap into your engineering potential at UST

No matter what kind of engineer you end up becoming, you’re sure to find a plethora of career opportunities. With small class sizes, expert faculty and a long tradition of training ethical leaders, the University of St. Thomas Division of Natural Sciences, Engineering & Mathematics  is the perfect place to pursue your training.

Take the next step by exploring our programs:

Ready to take the next step?

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About UST

The University of St. Thomas (UST) is Houston’s Catholic University, committed to the religious, ethical and intellectual traditions of Catholic higher education. For more than 70 years, we’ve been graduating students like you into successful careers in medicine, education, business, public administration and more – throughout Houston and across the globe.

Learn more about what UST has to offer.