Difference Between Senior & Principal Engineer

Senior and principal engineers share many duties in their roles leading engineering projects. The distinctions between their positions are explored here, as well as their typical duties, work environments and the skills needed to assume these roles.

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Comparing Senior Engineers to Principal Engineers

Senior engineers and principal engineers are the highest-ranking engineers. They both need to have the same training and significant work experience, such as 15 years. They are both found in every engineering discipline, from aerospace to petroleum and beyond. The main distinction is that principal engineers are somewhat higher-level than senior engineers, and principal engineers have the ability to work on the cutting edge of engineering developments and are seen as leaders in their field.

Job Title Educational Requirements Mean Salary (2018)* Job Outlook (2016-2026)**
Senior Engineers Bachelor's degree $92,962 6% (engineers, all other)
Principal Engineers Bachelor's degree $108,825 6% (engineers, all other)

Sources: *; **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Responsibilities of Senior Engineers vs. Principal Engineers

Senior and principal engineers perform many common duties. They perform leadership tasks such as training staff, establishing budgets and assigning tasks. They also set deadlines for projects and work on multiple projects at the same time. One of the distinctions is that principal engineers report to senior management, while senior engineers report to the leadership of their division. Principal engineers are experts, and their success has a direct bearing on the image of their lab, so they can impact their company's profile and reputation. While senior engineers are known for their technical expertise and the application of engineering theories, principal engineers are associated with pioneering development within their field and may prove theories or develop new theories.

Senior Engineers

Senior engineers have more experience and authority than staff engineers have. They typically work on many different engineering projects at the same time, so they need to be able to multitask. It's common for engineers to work in offices, although some may work in labs or visit sites as part of their work. With additional demonstrated creative problem-solving ability, senior engineers can qualify for positions as principal engineers.

Job responsibilities of a senior engineer include:

  • Writing reports and proposals
  • Planning for long-range projects
  • Giving presentations to customers
  • Mentoring staff
  • Negotiating with vendors and providers of services

Principal Engineers

Principal engineers are recognized as engineering authorities. They have extensive practical experience gained from working as an engineer and typically answer directly to the senior management of their company. Leadership skills and communication skills are crucial in their work. They also need to be creative to come up with innovative approaches to their projects and any issues that arise. They may work in offices or labs, and some of their duties may require them to travel to work sites, depending on their engineering specialty. It's normal for principal engineers to work overtime.

Job responsibilities of a principal engineer include:

  • Conducting strategic planning for their company
  • Leading whole departments
  • Setting goals and implementing them
  • Sharing expertise and insight with other engineers
  • Motivating staff and fostering collaboration

Related Careers

Senior engineers and principal engineers work in every engineering discipline, so if you know that you're aiming for one of these positions, you might want to explore the engineering fields available to you. Below are a few links explaining the roles of different types of engineers.

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