Renewable Energy Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a renewable energy degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of master's and doctoral degrees and potential careers.
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Studying Renewable Energy: Degrees at a Glance

Graduate degree programs in renewable energy are commonly offered through engineering departments, like civil and mechanical engineering. A master's degree can prepare you for a career in researching and developing renewable energy technology, like wind turbines and photovoltaic cells. You might also teach at a technical college. Keep in mind that a PhD is typically necessary for college teaching and research positions. A doctoral degree can also set you up for advancement to leadership positions in academia and industry.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that from 2010-2020, employment of mechanical engineers would increase 9%, a slower-than-average rate, and that of civil engineers would increase 19%, an average rate. Despite the modest outlooks, employment in renewable energy may be better. Employment of all postsecondary professors is expected to increase 17%, about average, from 2010-2020.

Master's Doctorate
Who Is This Degree For? Individuals who want to work as renewable energy engineers - Individuals who want to teach and research at the university level
- Those who want to be leaders in the renewable energy industry
Common Career Paths (with 10th-90th percentile salary range) - Wind turbine mechanical engineer ($47,000-$86,000)*
- Solar energy engineer ($42,000-$121,000)*
- Energy engineer ($49,000-$96,000)*
Same as master's degree options, plus:
- Renewable energy director ($83,000-$254,000)*
- Renewable energy professor (salary unavailable)
Time to Completion 2 years, full-time 3-5 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements Master's project or thesis - Student teaching
- Comprehensive exam
- Doctoral dissertation
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in engineering or science field Bachelor's degree in engineering or science field
Online Availability Rare No

Sources: *Payscale.com (September 2012 figures).

Renewable Energy Master's Degree

Renewable energy master's degree programs typically cover various renewable energy systems, including geothermal, biomass and photovoltaic systems, as well as sustainable manufacturing procedures and energy efficient building design. You also usually study the business and social aspects of the transformation to renewable energy. Programs often focus on carrying out research and creating models to further knowledge in this up-and-coming field. You may be able to choose a concentration area. Admissions may or may not request GRE scores but typically require recommendation letters and a degree in engineering, chemistry or physics from an accredited school. While these programs include a core curriculum, you can usually design the remainder of your curriculum with an advisor to best meet your career goals.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • You can specialize in an area of renewable energy, such as hydrothermal, fuel cells or wind
  • Flexible programs may be available for working professionals
  • Research or teaching assistantships may be available
  • Thesis or non-thesis options are available

Cons

  • Relatively few programs available nationwide
  • May need a bachelor's degree in an engineering or science field to apply
  • Difference in potential salary may not vary much from bachelor's degree holders*

Source: *Payscale.com

Common Course Requirements

The course requirements of a master's program can usually be completed over 4 semesters, full-time. You usually choose a concentration track that fits your professional interests. These tracks may be for a specific engineering discipline, like mechanical or civil engineering, or for a particular form of renewable energy, such as solar energy or geothermal energy. Some of your courses may cover:

  • Renewable energy systems
  • Energy engineering
  • Smart grids
  • Sustainability and society
  • Engineering economics and business
  • Engineering research methods

Research projects are typically very important in renewable energy education programs. You could work on developing low-speed wind turbines, low-cost solar energy systems or energy-storing batteries.

Online Degree Options

Online renewable energy master's programs are rare. Available programs typically have the same core coursework and research projects as on-campus programs, taught by the same professors. Most of the program can be completed online, but intensive weeklong sessions on-campus may be necessary a few times per year.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

You may consider earning your professional engineer (PE) license. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) states that only licensed professional engineers may offer engineering services to the public or become principals of firms. Becoming licensed requires completing an accredited bachelor's degree program, gaining about four years of work experience and passing two NCEES-sponsored exams.

Being knowledgeable in popular software programs, like Word and Excel, will likely be beneficial. Additionally, consider learning common engineering and energy-related software programs, such as AutoCAD, Energy Pro or eQuest.

Renewable Energy Doctoral Degree

Doctoral programs in renewable energy may grant Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Engineering (DEng) degrees. These programs give you liberty to focus on your specific interests within renewable energy through coursework and research projects. Advanced research is an essential part of your training; in fact, research may comprise half of the program requirements. With a doctoral degree, you can be a leader in research, industry or academia.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • May choose a specific concentration area, like solar energy
  • Programs may provide tuition breaks and stipends through fellowships
  • Student teaching requirements provide important job experience and help qualify you for a university-level academic position

Cons

  • Few programs available nationwide
  • May take up to 8-9 years to earn, including undergraduate education
  • May require you to hold a master's degree prior to applying
  • Exams in specific engineering and energy topics may be required

Common Course Requirements

Doctoral programs include requirements outside of traditional lecture and lab-based learning. You need to pass qualifying exams, which may cover topics like transport phenomena and reaction engineering, as well as fulfill research and teaching duties. The capstone requirement is typically writing and defending your doctoral dissertation. Curriculum planning tends to be flexible, but some of the courses you may take include:

  • System dynamics
  • Fluid mechanics
  • Physical and geometrical optics
  • Metabolic engineering
  • Environmental nanochemistry

Online Degree Options

Because of their research-intensive nature, along with residency and student teaching requirements, doctoral programs in renewable energy aren't likely to be offered online. As of September 2012, no distance-learning programs were located.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

Consider performing your research in a major area of renewable energy, such as wind or solar. You may also familiarize yourself with software specific to your area of expertise. For example, if you're focusing on solar energy engineering, you may want to learn Shadow Analyzer; this program can help you plan solar energy projects by calculating how much energy will be produced based on design layout and regional conditions. Earning your PE license can open up additional job opportunities.

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