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Job Description of a Research Engineer

Becoming a research engineer requires significant formal education. Learn about the education, job duties and licensure requirements to see if this is the right career for you.

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Research engineers are employed in a multitude of industries, such as petroleum, aerospace and mechanics. A bachelor's degree program for a research engineer may take 4-5 years to complete, while a graduate degree program may take 1-2 years. A research engineer's salary is heavily dependent on the industry in which they find employment.

Essential Information

Research engineers gather information, data and samples in order to test them and find the best method, material or product to use for an application. Engineers performing research may be required to hold a master's degree in the respective field of study. However, engineers are generally required to hold at least a bachelor's degree, and many employers require certification or significant on-the-job experience.

Career Aerospace Research Engineer Mechanical Research Engineer Petroleum Research Engineer
Education Requirements Master's degree Master's degree Master's degree
Other Requirements Licensed Professional Engineer status recommended* Licensed Professional Engineer status recommended* Licensed Professional Engineer status, knowledge of reservoir analysis and drilling processes, recommended*
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* -2% 5% 10%
Average Salary (2015)* $110,570 $88,190 $149,590

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Job Description of a Research Engineer

Research engineers generally work in an office or laboratory analyzing processes and conducting experiments. For example, while product research engineers may evaluate materials in order to determine the most durable resource for a given application, biomedical engineers may monitor chemical reactions resulting from combining compounds. Engineers may use tools ranging from computer-aided design software used to simulate design performance to sophisticated microscopes used to observe chemical interactions.

Research engineers may also be assigned to a specific task, such as ascertaining the structural requirements for an airplane wing, or be responsible for managing an entire project like designing a more aerodynamic airplane structure. Additionally, these professionals may take on consulting roles and suggest improvements or provide recommendations during the research and development (R&D) process. Other duties may include writing summaries of structural tests, presenting product performances to project managers and preparing process manuals and guidelines.

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Education Requirements for a Research Engineer

Research engineers must hold at least a bachelor's degree in an engineering field. Bachelor's degree programs may take 4-5 years to complete. During the first two years of study, students typically take courses in advanced mathematics, physics and chemistry. After satisfying core or prerequisite classes, students may choose a specialization or concentration and begin taking more field-specific courses, such as fluid mechanics for civil engineers or molecular systems for biological engineers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov) and job postings in November 2016 on Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com, some employers may prefer candidates who have completed a master's or doctorate degree program in their respective fields. While master's degree programs may take 1-2 years to complete, Ph.D. programs may last 2-4 years. Students in these programs cover topics such as celestial mechanics, Kinematics or bioprocess design depending on their field of study. Additionally, students gain advanced research, laboratory or design experience and may be required to submit a thesis, research project or model design on a process improvement, prototype or simulated event.

Professional Requirements for a Research Engineer

Employers may prefer candidates who have five or more years of experience within a given field. For example, a petroleum company may favor candidates who have significant experience with reservoir analysis and drilling processes. Additionally, some employers may only accept applicants who are licensed professional engineers (PEs). Although licensure requirements may vary by state, PEs typically have graduated from an accredited engineering program, worked for at least four years in an engineering capacity and have completed the appropriate state licensing examinations.

Salary Information

Salaries for engineers who work in research and development vary by the type of engineering. For example, the BLS reported in May 2015 that the average salary for mechanical engineers who worked in the scientific R&D services industry was $98,260, while the average salary for aerospace engineers who worked in this industry was $113,570. Petroleum engineers who worked in scientific R&D services had an average salary of $164,210, which was the highest average salary among engineers in the R&D industry in 2015. Between 2014-2024, the BLS expects a 2% decrease in job growth for aerospace engineers, a 10% increase in job growth for petroleum engineers, and a 5% increase in job growth for mechanical engineers.

Research engineers usually work in an office or laboratory setting, finding solutions to improve their employers' products and processes. They may work in teams, make presentations, or suggest improvements as consultants. A bachelor's degree is enough for a research engineer to get started, but a graduate degree and professional licensing improve employment opportunities.

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