Systems Engineer

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Systems Engineer

Education and Training: Bachelor's or master's degree

Salary: Mean—$74,140 per year

Employment Outlook: Good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Systems engineers design and coordinate large and complex projects known as systems. There are many kinds of systems, and although all are large, they vary in their complexity. A system has many parts that all interact extensively with one another. Often small systems can be part of larger systems. For example, a jet airliner can be a system. So, too, can all of the airplanes owned by one airline. All of the airplanes in a country make up a more extensive system. An even larger and more complex system includes all of a nation's transportation facilities. Systems engineers can work at various levels in the design and coordination of these systems.

Some other examples of systems are water and food distribution networks, experimental manned space flights, and military defense programs. Systems engineers also work on telephone systems, electric power systems, and sewage systems.

Systems engineers are responsible for coordinating the work of many engineers, each of whom is an expert in one part of a system. For instance, in the building of a jet airliner, electronics specialists are responsible for the guidance and control systems. Structural engineers design the body of the plane. Other experts decide on a power source for the jet. Still others design landing and takeoff methods. Each specialist concentrates on one area. The systems engineer coordinates all of these specialized efforts in order to produce the jet airliner.

Both government and private industry employ systems engineers to solve complex scientific and engineering problems, such as the development of new transportation systems, the design of rockets, or the improvement of communications systems. Systems engineers first gather all the necessary information about what is needed in a system. They select several possible ways of designing the system. Then they use a problem-solving method called systems analysis to break down the possible solutions into smaller parts.

Systems engineers use systems analysis to make a diagram of all the parts of a system. They use computers and such mathematical methods as algebra, probability theory, and statistics to convert their diagrams into mathematical equations. They develop theoretical models that will help them choose the best way to design a system. They can use a computer to test these models. For example, systems engineers may want to know whether a mass-transit system will meet future needs. They can feed information on population growth and other data into a computer. The computer will process the data and provide the engineers with information about the usefulness of the system.

Systems engineers can also test a possible system by using small-scale models or actual-size models of parts of a system. Once a system has been designed, further testing is done. Systems engineers generally stay with a system and coordinate all parts of it until it is working smoothly. They coordinate the work of many specialists during the development of a system. Sometimes systems engineers are called on to make improvements in existing systems.

Systems engineers work for government agencies, computer companies, and many industries that need to solve large and complex engineering problems. Large research projects sponsored by government, industry, or universities also employ teams of scientists and engineers, including systems engineers. Sometimes these researchers develop new theories that can be used as the basis for systems and analysis. Workers who use systems analysis to solve business problems rather than engineering problems are usually called systems analysts. These workers are often experts in business rather than in engineering.

Education and Training Requirements

Most systems engineers are former mechanical, electrical, or aerospace engineers who advance into systems engineering. You generally need a bachelor's or a master's degree to become a systems engineer. You can expect to spend from four to six years getting this formal training. Some colleges and universities offer courses in systems engineering, but it is a relatively new field. Educational requirements still vary widely from job to job. A broad background is important in this field, since systems engineers must take into account many factors, such as the possible legal, social, and psychological effects of a system. Systems engineers must also have a good understanding of computer programming and engineering fields other than their own. They also need to understand modern management techniques. Many engineers receive additional formal training in a second field. Others are able to broaden their knowledge through years of job experience. Some employers will help engineers who are interested in systems engineering to get the kind of broad experience that this field requires.

Engineers who offer their services to the public or whose work affects life, health, or property need to be licensed by the state in which they work. They generally need a degree from an approved engineering college, about four years of work experience as an engineer, and a passing grade on a state examination before being licensed as professional engineers.

Getting the Job

To become a systems engineer, you should plan your engineering career so that you have the opportunity to learn about many fields of engineering. Your college placement office can help you find a job. You can read trade or professional journals to learn about openings for systems engineers. Newspaper classifieds and job banks on the Internet are also good sources of job information. You should have work experience in one or more fields of engineering when you apply for a job as a systems engineer.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Systems engineers have already advanced from a specific job in another field of engineering into a systems engineering career. However, as they gain more experience in putting systems together and working with people, they can advance to more difficult and challenging problems.

The job outlook for systems engineers is very good. Systems engineers are likely to be needed for many projects—from designing more practical sewage systems to coordinating space flights.

Working Conditions

Systems engineers work in many settings—from a computer company's urban offices to a testing center for jet airplanes. The basic workweek is usually forty hours long. Systems engineers generally spend additional hours, however, working to meet deadlines or studying new methods and equipment.

Systems engineers often work in small teams. Although they do much of their work independently, they must talk to a wide variety of other specialists when planning a system. They should be able to get along with these people and to communicate their ideas clearly. They sometimes have to present their plans in the form of oral or written reports. Like all engineers, they should be good at science and mathematics and at problem solving.

Where to Go for More Information

American Society for Engineering Education
1818 N St. NW, Ste. 600
Washington, DC 20036-2479
(202) 331-3500

International Council on Systems Engineering
(800) 366-1164

Earnings and Benefits

Salaries vary widely depending on the education and experience of the systems engineer and the location and nature of the job. In 2000 new graduates with master's degrees in systems engineering earned an average starting salary of $56,750. A survey by the Washington Post showed that in 1999, the average salary for systems engineers was $69,070. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) salary survey revealed that in 2004 the average annual earnings of a systems engineer was $74,140. Systems engineers usually receive benefits that include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and pension plans.