Senior engineers are people who oversee large engineering projects and, when applicable, the teams tasked with completing those projects. Senior engineers are not a regulated job title, so becoming one can vary greatly depending on your specialty and the needs of an organization.
All engineers require a bachelor’s degree in an engineering field. When applying for competitive senior engineering positions, however, a master’s degree may be required. Since senior engineers perform a somewhat managerial role, an engineering degree might be best supplemented by a master’s in business administration. If you hope to get into a research field, however, you should focus your graduate education on engineering. All told, education entails as much as four to six years.
Though technically unnecessary, engineers who offer their services directly to the public are required to be licensed in all 50 U.S. states. Licensure begins immediately after graduation with the passage of the Fundamentals of Engineer (FE) exam. Following the FE exam, one has to have approximately four years of documented engineering experience to qualify for the Professional Engineering (PE) exam. Becoming a professional engineer, though perhaps not required for employment as a senior engineer, serves as a vital mark of distinction in your engineering career.
The term “engineer” applies itself to a variety of complicated specialties, including chemical, nuclear or mechanical engineering. Your chances of becoming a senior engineer generally requires you have experience in the field for which you will be “senior.” The time it takes to become a senior engineer may be shortened or lengthened based on the demand for engineers in that field. The field of biomedical engineering is expected to grow 72 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A biomedical engineer will then likely find opportunity to become a senior engineer faster than a chemical engineer, whose industry is expected to shrink by 2 percent over the same 10-year span.
Though overall expertise and qualifications will play the largest role, reaching a position as a senior engineer may be predicated on the relationship one has with the organization. Senior engineers are given greater responsibility over both projects and, oftentimes, people. This requires a lot of trust and it can be difficult for a person hiring a senior engineer to trust someone to interact with people when they never met them. Often, a position as a regular engineer will need to be held for at least a “grooming” amount of time, perhaps one to two years, before a senior status is achieved.
From the time a person decides to major in engineering to the first day as senior engineer holds a lot of variables. If a master’s degree is not needed and the senior position is offered in the same place and same specialty as what you held when you graduated, you can become senior in as little as eight years. This is, however, highly unlikely. Other mitigated factors could cause the time to jump as you earn a master’s degree (two more years, minimum) or gain more experience in a different specialty. All told, becoming a senior engineer is less of a race to the finish line than it is a careful binding of your talents and interests with an organization’s needs and goals.