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How is an engineering technology degree different than an engineering degree?

How is an engineering technology degree different than an engineering degree?

Recently I have been approached by individuals asking me what the difference between an engineering degree and an engineering technology degree is. This is a relatively common topic for me because I have both a traditional engineering degree and an engineering technology degree and am in an engineering graduate program. This article does not attempt to speculate on if technologists can work as engineers vis-a-vis but rather on the current environment that a fresh college graduate will be entering.

DISCLAIMER: The world needs technicians just as much as it needs engineers. I'm not trying to promote one above the other but rather give an insight as to what my education and experience have shown me regarding the differences between the two. My goal is to help future college students decide on a major that is right for them without wasting time in the wrong field.

Fundamentally, an engineering technology degree is marketed toward individuals that wish to work in a hands-on role. Engineering technology degrees tend to require only a small amount of math while having a relatively large amount of lab work. For comparison, my nuclear engineering technology degree required two semesters of applied (business) calculus.

In contrast, engineering degrees tend to have almost as much math as a math major while using labs to reinforce the theory in the coursework. My BSEE program requires three semesters of calculus, two semesters of differential equations with linear algebra and advanced transform theory tacked on, a semester of calculus-based probability and statistics, and several suggested mathematics electives for our cross-discipline coursework. We just dropped our discrete math requirement by rolling the coursework into our electronics class. As you can see, there's a lot more time spent on math.

College is only a few years. How does this impact the rest of your life? The only job where having a full engineering degree compared to an engineering technology degree will really matter is an actual engineering position. Most technician and operator-level jobs will allow either degree type. You might find that an engineering degree doesn't really cover a lot of hands-on situations. Instead, you spend most of your time doing calculations in school.

What about grad school? Generally, graduate schools care more about the courses you took rather than the degree awarded, at least after you get accepted. Graduate programs will often require remedial courses prior to starting the program. For example, MBA programs often have pre-MBA coursework that is required. If you're trying to get a basic technical background and then go into something like maintenance management, a technology degree might be the best option for you. It will require much less math and let you focus on taking a heavier course load while getting more industry experience if you already have a job. You also can probably knock out any pre-MBA courses your graduate school requires.

Ok, what if you want to do an engineering master's? Technology degrees usually are not a good idea for doing an engineering master's degree due to the large amount of remedial coursework required. The graduate program I am taking in electrical engineering has undergraduate-level prerequisites for each course. In order to take a course on microwave radiation, I would have to take an undergraduate course on electromagnetics which requires differential equations 2 and circuit analysis 2. Those classes also have prerequisites. As you can tell, there's quite a cascade of requirements in order to do an engineering master's degree without the same-discipline engineering undergraduate degree. Waivers for prerequisites are possible; however, must be weighed against the increased probability of failing a course due to not possessing the necessary background knowledge. Most graduate programs have a minimum GPA to not be kicked out of the program each semester. One C can sometimes be enough to end your higher education aspirations. Graduate coursework assumes instant familiarity with undergraduate topics. For example, an AI programming class might assume you've already taken an undergraduate linear controls class and throws you into the middle of a difficult controls problem in one problem of your homework. Without sufficient engineering background, you're 3 months behind the curve on solving just one of your homework problems and will likely be unable to synthesize a solution.

Finally, let's talk about professional registration since that topic always comes up. PE registration isn't always required to work as an engineer but it is required in some cases.

To get licensed as a Professional Engineer, you have to meet certain requirements. The exact steps to achieve "PE" next to your name is outside of the scope of this post; however, I'll try to give enough background for the remainder of this article to make sense. The basic sequence is to take the FE (Fundamentals of Engineering exam) in the senior year of college then take the PE (Professional Engineer exam) after 4 years of working as an engineer after collecting several letters of recommendation proving your experience was valid from other PEs.

Each state is a little bit different. Some states allow anyone to take the FE/PE exam while some states explicitly require a hard engineering degree with no waivers or exceptions. A slight majority of states (about 30) allow people with only an engineering technology (or physics) degree to become licensed as a PE through a path that, after further review, varies significantly from state to state.
My home state of South Carolina recently barred non-engineering degree holders from obtaining professional licensure so I suspect that's the path the industry is trending towards.

In my personal case, I couldn't find any place that would hire a nuclear technologist to work as an engineer to get the necessary experience discussed above. Most places had a little line in the job description that said: "must be EIT eligible" which means that you have to have already taken and passed the FE. Naturally, this automatically disqualifies technologists and was my main motivating factor for going back to school. I did, however, find places that were interested in me for my skills as a technician. Having a degree wasn't a requirement for those jobs but it did help make me a more attractive candidate.

Another consideration is license reciprocity. Any waivers granted are on a state-by-state basis. If you are a PE in Georgia, you are not automatically a PE in Florida. In fact, a technologist can never be licensed in Florida.
In closing, here's a table put out by the National Society of Professional Engineers for the total years of experience required to take the PE. For the most up-to-date data, contact your local licensing authority.

Status of PE Licensure Requirements for Engineering Technologists by State Jurisdiction Status (No= not allowed, #=years of engineering experience required)
Alaska 5
Alabama NO
Arkansas NO
California 6
Colorado 6
Connecticut 7
Delaware 8
Florida 6
Georgia 6.5
Hawaii 8
Iowa NO
Idaho 4
Illinois NO
Indiana NO
Kansas NO
Kentucky NO
Louisiana NO
Massachusetts 8
Maryland 8
Maine 4
Michigan NO
Minnesota NO
Missouri NO
Mississippi NO
Montana 4
North Carolina 8
North Dakota 12
Nebraska NO
New Hampshire 8
New Mexico 6
Nevada 6
New York 6
Ohio 8
Oklahoma 6
Oregon 6
Pennsylvania 4
Rhode Island NO
South Carolina NO
South Dakota 5
Tennesee NO
Texas 8
Virginia 6
Vermont 8
Washington 5
Wisconsin 4 to 12
West Virginia 6
Wyoming NO
4-12 Years 30
NO 17
Note: Arizona, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, and Utah did not respond to the survey. This table is not definitive. The information is taken from a survey summary, and the specific requirements vary in clarity and requirement from state to state. Refer to state laws and rules for specific information.

Photo credit: Danny Myers, U.S. Air Force photo / Foter / Public domain
Table source.