What is a Systems Engineering Degree?

The US power grid. The international economy. Modern energy, transportation, and telecommunications infrastructures. Flight control. The human brain. Infectious diseases. Climate. Cities. The International Space Station. Each of these is an example of a very complex system, a combination of components that work together to perform a function. The components, or parts, can include people, hardware, software, facilities, policies, and anything else needed to produce system-level results.

Systems engineers design, integrate, and manage complex systems over their life cycles. Their work is interdisciplinary, overlapping technical and human-centered disciplines such as industrial engineering, mechanical engineering, manufacturing engineering, computer engineering, electrical engineering, aerospace engineering, civil engineering, organizational studies, and project management.

Students of systems engineering learn how to use engineering principles to assess a given industry, company, or process, and create models that improve functionality. They engage in research to develop innovative methods of tackling problems and improving operations. At its core, systems engineering is a logical way of thinking. And degree programs in the field teach students how to think logically and apply that skill in the world of work.

Program Options

It is important to select a program that is accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

Bachelor’s Degree in Systems Engineering – Four Year Duration
The bachelor’s program in systems engineering is interdisciplinary, drawing from engineering, computer science, operations research, the natural and social sciences, and mathematics and statistics. Students learn how these disciplines fit into the development of complex, large-scale systems. Extensive design, research and development, and testing projects provide hands-on experience in applying various systems engineering methods and tools.

Here is a snapshot of the bachelor’s level core curriculum:

  • Understanding Systems Engineering – introduction to key systems engineering concepts, including the process of translating system-level requirements to component-level requirements; examples of different kinds of systems are presented with emphasis on objectives, major components, how systems work, and major design issues
  • Systems Design – functional modeling for design; formulating and analyzing physical design alternatives; introduction to methods and software tools for systems engineering design
  • Dynamic Systems – the modeling of dynamic systems, which by their nature are constantly moving or must change states to be useful; examples of these types of systems include vehicles, process industries, drilling, entertainment equipment (radios, televisions, etc.), and computers and printers
  • Systems Modeling Laboratory – formulation of mathematical models from system descriptions, including biological, financial, and mechanical systems
  • Systems Methods – introduction to various quantitative techniques that are used to model and evaluate design options; topics include analysis methods of system engineering design and management, decision analysis, models for engineering economics and evaluations, probability and statistical methods for data analysis, management control techniques, safety, reliability, and maintainability analysis, risk and uncertainty management, and life-cycle cost analysis
  • Systems Engineering Management – introduction to the fundament concepts in systems engineering management; engineering economics, planning, staffing, monitoring, and control processes related to the design, development, and production of a system to meet a specific need
  • Applied Systems Engineering – designing and building projects involving real world complex systems; building physical models that follow the steps of the life cycle process: statement of need, design, requirements, architecture implementation, testing, verification, and validation; students will learn about real world systems such as internet communications, navigation, robotics, creating a GUI (a graphical user interface, a system of interactive visual components that allows users to interact with electronic devices through graphical icons), and transmitting and receiving data from sensors
  • Human Factors Engineering – the ‘human’ component of the system, focusing on human performance characteristics and limitations; improving system usability and safety by taking a user centered design approach; topics include perception, cognition, memory, and decision making
  • Decision and Risk Analysis – analytic techniques for rational decision making that address uncertainty, conflicting objectives, and risk attitudes; modeling uncertainty

In addition to completing core courses like those described above, students select a particular industry in which to focus their systems engineering research and project work. Here are some possible technical emphasis areas:

  • Air Transportation System Engineering – system engineering in a national air transportation system; analyzing and designing complex network transportation systems, airports, airspace, airline schedules, and traffic flow
  • Bioengineering and Healthcare – bioinstrumentation, biomaterials, biomechanics, and systems biology; design of artificial organs and prosthetics, development of biomaterials for drug delivery, use of mathematical models to optimize healthcare systems, machine learning to improve microscopy and medical imaging
  • Computer Network Systems – planning, designing, and implementing computer networks
  • Control Systems – ‘systems of systems;’ analyzing, designing, and optimizing complex systems which consist of integrated coordination of mechanical, electrical, chemical, and other systems
  • Cyber Security Engineering – critical infrastructure protection, power systems and smart grid security, transportation systems design, human factors and cyber security engineering, intrusion detection
  • Environmental Engineering – application of systems analysis tools to improve the understanding and resolution of environmental engineering problems related to air, soil, water quality, and pollution
  • Financial Engineering – using mathematical finance, numerical methods, and computer simulations to make trading, hedging, and investment decisions
  • Mechanical Engineering – mechanics of materials, design of mechanical elements (fasteners, bearings, gearing, and shafts), design of thermal systems
  • Software-Intensive Systems – the software component of the systems engineering life cycle; the integration of hardware, software, and firmware, and the management of these complex computer systems over their life cycle

Master’s Degree in Systems Engineering – Two Year Duration
Generally, to be admitted to a systems engineering master’s program, students must have a working background in engineering mathematics and computer systems. Below are examples of courses which may be compulsory at this level. A final project or thesis is required.

  • Systems Engineering Principles
  • Systems Definition and Cost Modeling
  • System Engineering Design
  • Systems Engineering Management
  • System Methodology and Modeling
  • Evidence-Based Systems Engineering

Master’s candidates are often permitted to create their own emphasis area or select a concentration offered by their school. Possible concentrations may include those listed above, in the last paragraph of the bachelor’s degree section. Here are a few more:

  • Command, Control, Communications, Computing, and Intelligence – systems supporting military operations and missions, such as sensors, communications systems, and information processing and decision support systems
  • Energy Systems – innovative solutions to meet the world’s expanding energy needs; incorporating physical principles of thermal fluid energy transfer into system models; applying systems expertise to work with traditional power generation facilities, renewable energy integration, smart grids, mechanical and electrical energy storage systems, and utilization of energy in building and transportation systems
  • Systems Management – tracking and controlling system development through the major phases of the system life cycle, identifying and resolving problems to minimize their effect on cost, schedule, or performance

Doctoral Degree in Systems Engineering – Three to Four Year Duration
Doctoral programs in systems engineering are designed in one of two ways. The first emphasizes the comprehensive systems approach for designing and managing large-scale engineering systems throughout the life cycle. Coursework for this focus involves elements of systems engineering, methods and standards, architecting, computer tools that support systems engineering, trends and directions, and the integrative nature of systems engineering.

The second program model focuses on producing original research in the systems engineering field, from applied business systems engineering, analysis, and development to critical infrastructure systems and risk assessment and management.

Regardless of the course of study they choose, doctoral candidates must complete and defend a dissertation.

Degrees Similar to Systems Engineering

Aerospace Engineering
Aerospace engineering degree programs teach the analytical, computational, and engineering and design skills needed to work in the aerospace industry. Students learn how to apply this knowledge to the manufacturing, testing, and monitoring of civil or commercial aircraft, military aircraft, missiles, rockets, spacecraft, lunar vehicles, and space stations.

Civil Engineering
This degree field is focused on the processes of design and planning of civil infrastructure like roads, tunnels, bridges, dams, railroads, and airports. In their work, civil engineers are concerned with such things as how much weight a structure can support and the environmental issues presented by construction. The emphasis of civil engineering degree programs is math, statistics, engineering systems and mechanics, building codes, and statistical analysis.

Computer Hardware Engineering
Computer hardware engineering students study mathematics, physics and computer science. They apply knowledge in these areas to design and develop computer hardware.

Computer Science
The field of computer science is focused on computer systems and how humans interact with them. Courses cover mathematics for computer science, artificial intelligence, data structures and algorithms, and introduction to program design.

Computer Software Engineering
Degree programs in computer software engineering teach students how to apply engineering principles to software development. Students learn how to design, build, test, implement, and maintain computer operating systems, as well as applications that allow end users to accomplish tasks on their computers, smartphones, and other electronic devices. Most programs begin with core engineering classes like mathematics, chemistry, and physics.

Construction Engineering
Construction engineering is closely aligned with civil engineering. But it is different. Civil engineers typically focus on a construction project’s design, analysis, and planning. Construction engineers often participate in this process, but their focus is onsite management, the execution of the project. They coordinate, organize, and manage the day-to-day construction process, ensuring compliance with designs and plans.

Students of construction engineering, therefore, learn how to create construction budgets, assemble necessary equipment and materials, build and supervise a team of construction and engineering professionals, oversee progress and safety of the building process, keep up-to-date logs, and communicate with contractors, clients, and construction company leadership.

Electrical Engineering
Students of electrical engineering learn how to use physics, electronics, and electromagnetism to design devices that are powered by or produce electricity. Most degree programs in the field start with foundational classes in calculus, physics, and chemistry.

Industrial Engineering
Industrial engineering majors learn how to improve the way that industries and organizations, such as hospitals and factories, operate. They draw on their knowledge in math, science, business, and psychology to consider factors like materials, equipment, and people.

Manufacturing Engineering
Degree programs in manufacturing engineering teach the skills required to design, implement, monitor, and improve manufacturing processes to increase productivity.

Mechanical Engineering
Students of mechanical engineering learn how to research, design, develop, and test mechanical and thermal devices, including tools, sensors, engines, and machines. These devices serve many industries, including the aerospace, medical, energy, and manufacturing sectors. In addition to coursework in engineering and design, degree programs in the field include classes in mathematics, life sciences, and physical sciences.

Operations Research
While operations management is concerned with efficiently creating and delivering products and services, operations research is focused on analyzing systems to improve them and solve problems.

Robotics Engineering
Robotics Engineering is focused on designing robots and robotic systems than can perform duties that humans are either unable or prefer not to perform.

Skills You’ll Learn

Systems engineering students learn how to combine technical knowledge with business acumen. Upon completing their studies, therefore, they have developed several transferable skills:

  • Cost control
  • Data analysis
  • Detailed thinking / creative problem-solving
  • Facility design
  • Math and quantitative skills
  • Organizational management
  • Passion for improving methods and systems
  • Patience
  • Quality control
  • Research
  • Understanding of human factors
  • Understanding of processes
  • Willingness to learn

What Can You Do with a Systems Engineering Degree?

Products and systems in every industry are becoming increasingly complex as a part of larger systems of systems. This trend of smarter, connected systems translates into a growing systems engineering job market. The list of employment sectors below, though not exhaustive, illustrates the wide and widening employment options for systems engineers.

  • Aerospace / airlines
  • Architectural and engineering services
  • Automotive
  • Banks and credit unions
  • Biotech and pharmaceuticals
  • Colleges and universities
  • Computer hardware and software
  • Construction
  • Cyber security
  • Electrical and electronic manufacturing
  • Energy /oil and gas exploration and production
  • Environment
  • Financial analytics and research
  • Financial transaction processing (credit card companies)
  • Food and beverage manufacturing
  • Government / federal agencies / military / defense and intelligence
  • Healthcare products manufacturing
  • Healthcare services and hospitals
  • Hospitality companies / hotel chains / cruise lines
  • Insurance carriers
  • Interactive entertainment / gaming companies
  • Internet / e-commerce and social media giants
  • Investment banking and asset management
  • IT services / enterprise software and network solutions
  • Large retailers / superstores
  • Logistics and supply chain
  • Motion picture production and distribution
  • Publishing
  • Research and development
  • Staffing and outsourcing
  • Stock exchanges
  • Telecommunications manufacturing
  • Telecommunications services / cable, internet, and telephone providers
  • Urban planning


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