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

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What will you learn in a systems engineering degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's and PhD and potential careers.
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Studying Systems Engineering: Degrees at a Glance

Systems engineering is a multi-disciplinary field that follows a project or product through its entire life cycle, from the delivery of a customer's wants through the completion and disposal of the product or system. If you decide to go into systems engineering, you will learn how to look at the big picture, allowing you to design and manage the overall flow of a project. Systems engineers work in many different engineering fields, such as aerospace, computer systems, environmental or biomedical.

Because systems engineers may work in a variety of fields, you may pursue a career in a number of different industries. Some, like aerospace engineering, may be difficult to get into (the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimates aerospace engineer positions will increase 5% between 2010 and 2020), whereas others, such as biomedical engineering (estimated to increase 62% from 2010 to 2020) will be more accessible.

While most engineers work in an office for the majority of their careers, some career paths - like environmental engineering - may require you to work at construction sites in addition to working in an office environment. Jobs in certain engineering specialties - like aerospace engineering - are found only in certain states, with jobs not really available in other states.

Master's PhD
Who is this degree for? Students wanting to better understand the engineering life cycle as a whole Students wishing to conduct advanced research on systems and related subjects
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Computer systems administrator ($74,000)*
- Mechanical engineer ($84,000)*
- Aerospace engineer ($104,000)*
- Biomedical engineer ($88,000)*
- Environmental engineer ($83,000)*
Same as a master's degree, plus:
- Engineering professor ($97,000)*
Time to Completion 1-5 years Minimum 2 years (with master's degree)
Common Graduation Requirements Approximately 30 credit hours of coursework Coursework (credit hours vary), plus:
-Thesis or dissertation
Prerequisites - Undergraduate degree in engineering, physics, or related field
- Work experience (varies by program)
Those for master's degree, plus:
- Master's degree (varies by program)
- GRE and minimum undergraduate GPA
Online Availability Yes Yes

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), May 2011.

Master's Degrees in Systems Engineering

Master's degrees in systems engineering often consist of approximately 30 hours of coursework. Some programs also may require a project or thesis. Some programs offer areas of specialization as well, such as environmental systems, control systems, network systems, sustainability, software or biosystems.

Many schools also offer two different master's degrees: a Master of Engineering (MEng), and a Master of Science (MS). MEng programs are often designed for people who are currently in or who plan to work in industry, applying their knowledge to the tasks necessary to complete a project or product. They tend to be more practical and hands-on. MS degrees are designed more for people who are more interested in research, either in industry or in the academic world.

Pros and Cons


  • Many potential careers pay above-average wages*
  • Careers tend to have regular hours*
  • Wide variety of potential fields
  • Specialization options are available


  • Need previous engineering experience
  • Some potential fields growing slower than average (mechanical engineers estimated to grow 9% between 2010 and 2020)*
  • May not have additional job opportunities past what's available for bachelor's degrees*

Source: *BLS.

Courses and Requirements

Most master's degrees break the necessary coursework down into a mixture of core systems engineering courses, courses within a specialization and technical electives. The number of courses required by a specific program varies and may depend on whether or not a thesis or a project is required for graduation.

Courses you may take include:

  • Project management
  • Risk analysis
  • Engineering optimization
  • Simulation/modeling
  • System architecture

Specialization courses and technical electives are often based on the student's interests. For example, a systems engineering student interested in computer systems might also take information technology, networking and signal processing.

Online Degree Options

Many schools offer online or distance-learning options for both MEng and MS degrees. These programs are often designed for working professionals and are mostly part-time. While the programs are often offered by universities that also host on-campus programs, some options may be more limited in the online programs, such as what specialty courses are available.

Stand Out with This Degree

You may find it easier to get a job with this degree by specializing in the field of your choosing. While systems engineering as a whole works in many industries, if you wish to work in aerospace, understanding basic aerospace terminology and infrastructure will help you compete. Additionally, some certifications are available for systems engineers. The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) offers three levels of certification: Associate Systems Engineering Professional (ASEP), Certified Systems Engineering Professional (CSEP) and Expert Systems Engineering Professional (ESEP).

PhD in Systems Engineering

Systems engineering PhD programs are designed for students wishing to pursue advanced research, either in the academic world or within industry. Some programs require you to already have a master's degree for admittance, while some will accept you with only a bachelor's degree. Typically, systems engineering PhD students will be assigned a faculty member for advising purposes, and they may have more control over which courses they take towards their degree than a master's student.

Pros and Cons


  • Often extremely specialized, with more individualized curriculum than in a master's program
  • Able to work on cutting-edge research
  • May have the opportunity to publish research*


  • PhD requires many years of school
  • May be competing for positions (both industry and research) against master's students
  • Opportunities to fail, such as qualifying exams and dissertation defense

Source: *Colorado State University PhD of Systems Engineering.

Courses and Requirements

The number of hours of coursework required for a PhD depends on whether you are entering the program with a bachelor's or a master's degree. While there may be some core, specialization or technical elective courses necessary, usually several hours will be dedicated to a dissertation. Many universities also require students to complete a doctoral qualifying exam to see if they are ready to enter the candidacy status of a doctoral program. Doctoral programs often also include specialization in various areas or fields.

Specialization offerings may include:

  • Computational biology
  • Information systems
  • Supply chain management
  • Robotics

Online Degree Options

While not as common as master's degree programs, some universities do offer distance or online PhD programs. These programs are generally offered by schools that also offer the program on campus, and often are similar in nature, still requiring a certain number of courses and a dissertation. Necessary credits typically depend on the type of degree you have when entering the program.

Stand Out with This Degree

Like the master's degrees, certifications are available. The three levels offered by INCOSE require different work experience, education and may require an exam or a panel review to verify systems engineering knowledge. INCOSE's higher levels of certification also require references.

By specializing in the areas you wish to research or work in, you will have a better time finding a job in those areas after graduation. Specialization in high growth areas like energy or biomedical systems may also improve your chances.

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