Safety Engineering Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Course Info

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What kind of job can you get with a master's or PhD in safety engineering? Find out degree requirements, online options and info on courses and safety engineering programs.
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Studying Safety Engineering: Degrees at a Glance

A safety engineer designs or modifies buildings, equipment, products or procedures to prevent accidents and make sure any accidents that have happened do not reoccur. Safety engineers work in a broad spectrum of industries, including aeronautics, computer technology and manufacturing. At the PhD level, safety engineering is usually found as a specialization within an industrial engineering program.

Many entry- and mid-level positions require a bachelor's degree and a few years of related job experience, but managerial, department leader and director positions are often reserved for candidates with graduate degrees. Safety engineers may be required to obtain licensure in some states. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of safety engineers was projected to grow by 13% from 2010-2020.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Safety engineers who wish to advance in their careers People who want to work in academia as professors or researchers
Common Career Paths (with approximate median salary) - Mid-level environmental, health and safety engineer ($83,000)*
- Environmental, health and safety engineering supervisor ($78,000)*
- Environmental, health and safety engineering manager ($101,000)*
- Environmental, health and safety director ($112,000)*
PhD holders are generally qualified for the same positions as master's degree holders
- Professor of industrial engineering ($112,000)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years plus completion of a bachelor's program 3-5 years after obtaining a bachelor's and a master's degree
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 8-12 graduate level courses
- Thesis or research paper
- Master's exams
- Roughly 12-15 graduate level courses
- PhD qualifier exams
- Dissertation
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree in engineering or a related field
- GRE score
Bachelor's degree plus a master's degree in engineering or a related field
Online Availability Yes A few programs may offer online coursework

Source: *Salary.com (2012 figures).

Master's Degree in Safety Engineering

A master's program usually requires applicants to have a bachelor's degree and takes two years of full-time work to complete. Some master's programs may also require students to have a certain number of years of related work experience in order to enroll. A master's degree in safety engineering typically focuses on scientific concepts, such as mathematics, statistics, engineering and physics, but it may also touch on business organization and communication.

Since safety engineering is a broad topic and its applications so varied, students often choose a specialization option, such as fire safety or industrial safety. Most schools allow you to pick if you'll pursue a thesis option or a non-thesis option. Before you can get into the program, you'll probably need to take the GRE, regardless if you've completed an ABET-approved bachelor's program.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Allows you to learn specialized engineering skills not found at the bachelor's degree level
  • Higher paying leadership positions are sometimes reserved for those with a master's in safety engineering
  • Some employers may be willing to cover the cost of the program if you can demonstrate safety and cost-saving benefits for the company

Cons

  • In total, you might spend up to seven years in school (five years for a bachelor's plus two years for a master's)
  • You may have to complete prerequisite courses that don't count towards your master's degree if you don't have the necessary knowledge coming into the program
  • Many of the jobs you're qualified for may require exposure to hazardous conditions, such as high-voltage dangers or toxic spill areas

Courses and Requirements

Safety engineering students take courses that train them how to prevent accidents and look for issues that may lead to an accident. You'll also learn to evaluate a safety program and determine if any changes are needed. Some programs may require you to take math and science courses to complement your specialization electives and core courses. Engineering safety courses you may be able to take include:

  • Safety program evaluation
  • Design strategies
  • Ergonomics
  • Managing emergencies
  • Root cause investigation
  • Chemical plant safety
  • Human factors

The coursework section of the program is usually followed by a research project or an original master's thesis, depending on what you choose. Master's students typically conduct thesis research independently, though a faculty mentor will oversee the work.

Online Degree Options

There are a few accredited master's degrees offered totally or partially online. Most online master's programs are designed to fit the needs of a working safety engineer, and some even require a certain number of years of related job experience in order to enroll. Most programs are comparable to on-campus ones, but you'll be receiving lectures, submitting coursework and taking tests via the Internet. You may not have to worry about taking the GRE for an online program, but it's best to check with each school to find out the requirements of the program you're interested in.

Stand Out With This Degree

According to the BLS, a few states require licensure for health and safety engineers. Students who are pursuing licensure generally take the state licensing exam after obtaining an engineering bachelor's degree from an accredited school. After four years of working under a licensed professional engineer, you can take a second round of exams, which if passed, qualifies you as a professional engineer.

Most safety engineers are certified by either the Board of Certified Safety Professionals or the American Board of Industrial Hygiene. However, students who wish to stand out with this degree might set themselves apart by obtaining non-required certifications when possible. The BLS projected that subsets of this field, such as software safety engineering, should grow as more and more mechanical devices are controlled by software. Joining a professional industry group like the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) is also a way to show potential employers that you have current knowledge of the field. ASSE offers a variety of learning opportunities to keep you up-to-date with the industry, including ongoing seminars, workshops and certification courses.

PhD in Safety Engineering

Doctoral programs in safety engineering are a bit more difficult to find than master's programs in this field, but there are some accredited schools that offer solid options. Safety engineering at the doctoral level tends to get folded into other disciplines, and may be offered as a concentration within industrial engineering or safety science programs.

A safety engineering PhD isn't often required for corporate leadership positions or for starting a consulting business, which means it is usually most useful for students who wish to pursue a career in research or academia. A doctoral program may take five years or longer to complete, and you'll need to have a master's degree before you can enroll in a PhD program at most schools.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Can qualify holders for prestigious government research or university teaching positions
  • Advanced level of study that allows you to rigorously research your particular interests in safety engineering through the dissertation
  • Stipends and tuition waivers are often available to offset the costs of the program

Cons

  • It may not qualify you for many more jobs than a master's degree would
  • A PhD is costly and may take five years of full-time study to earn, in addition to the time it takes you to complete a bachelor's and master's degree
  • Safety engineering PhDs are not abundant, so you may have difficulty getting admitted to a program

Courses and Requirements

PhD programs in industrial engineering allow you to specialize in safety engineering and offer a combination of core courses and electives that make up your first two years of coursework. Courses in a PhD program usually focus more on developing students' research and teaching competencies. A PhD program requires you to pass about 12 courses, generally consisting of three or four core subjects and a few electives. Possible course subjects might include:

  • Risk assessment
  • System safety engineering
  • Safety management
  • Safety and human factors
  • Legal aspects of engineering
  • Quality control
  • Ergonomics

After completing your coursework, you'll usually take one or two exams before you're able to work on your dissertation. Students choose a subject and conduct research for an original dissertation, which they write and must defend before a panel of advisers and colleagues.

Online Degree Options

There are not any strictly online PhD programs in safety engineering at this point in time, but some schools may allow you to take up to 50% of your courses away from campus. You'll still need to head to the campus for your dissertation and some of your core courses, so you should be prepared to relocate if you pursue a PhD in this field. If you do happen to find a school claiming to offer a completely online PhD in Industrial Engineering with a specialization in safety engineering, make sure the school is accredited by an agency approved by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Stand Out With This Degree

Students who wish to stand out with a safety-related PhD should earn and maintain relevant certifications to establish their expertise. You'll also want take advantage of every opportunity to get work published in scholarly journals, since this can boost your credibility when trying to find a researching or teaching position. Joining a professional organization (such as the ASSE) can keep you abreast of the latest issues and developments in safety engineering. Knowledge of computer technology and information systems, especially teaching technologies likely to be used in a classroom, can also be useful upon graduation. If you're planning on pursuing a teaching career, finding a way to get teaching experience while you're in school can give you an edge when you're searching for a job.

Degree Alternatives

Since safety engineering programs at the doctoral level are somewhat uncommon, you may want to look at some related degrees that may be easier to find. You might be interested in a PhD in Mechanical Engineering with a safety engineering focus or a PhD in Safety Sciences. Although a safety sciences program may not cover some of the engineering concepts you might be interested in, many similar courses are offered, including safety management, risk control, legal aspects of safety science and safety education. You can expect a safety sciences program to take about the same amount of time as a safety engineering program, and you'll likely be qualified for similar positions as safety engineering degree holders.

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