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Aerospace Engineer Career Guide

What is an aerospace engineer?

An aerospace engineer specializes in the design, development, testing, and production of aircraft and spacecraft. This profession plays a critical role in the growth of industrial and communication technologies by advancing machineries that help us traverse air and space more effectively. These professionals use their vast knowledge of aerodynamics, propulsion systems, and materials science to create technologies that navigate our skies and beyond.

This role is instrumental in shaping various sectors, including defense, transportation, and telecommunication. Their work often leads to the creation of faster, safer, and more efficient methods of air travel, as well as the expansion of our capabilities in space exploration.

Duties and responsibilities

As part of their daily responsibilities, aerospace engineers are responsible for the design of aircraft, spacecraft, satellites, and missiles. They develop the specifications for these vehicles, from their overall design down to individual components. They also supervise the assembly of airframes and the installation of engines and other major mechanical components.

These engineers further tackle the task of creating and testing prototypes to ensure safety and functionality. They are often required to design and implement rigorous test procedures, conduct simulation tests using advanced computer software, and analyze data from such tests to guide improvements. Problem-solving is a substantial part of their job as they troubleshoot issues that arise from design and testing phases and propose innovative solutions.

Work environment

Aerospace engineers usually work in industries where they can contribute to national defense, research and development, and manufacturing. They can be seen in office settings, laboratories, or manufacturing plants, depending on the specific nature of their work. They usually work with a team of professionals taking on challenging tasks that require close collaboration, sharing of expertise, and meticulous attention to detail – from designing a new aircraft to ensuring the safety of a spacecraft launch.

Some may be required to visit production sites or airfields occasionally to observe manufacturing processes, conduct tests, or troubleshoot equipment challenges. International travel may also be part of their role when collaborating with global teams or attending international aerospace events.

Typical work hours

Aerospace engineers typically work full-time schedules. While the regular 40-hour work week is typical, they may sometimes have different hours depending on project needs or urgent issues that need addressing. It’s common for them to put in longer hours as deadlines approach, especially when new designs are being developed or tested.

Larger projects, especially space exploration-related ones, may also involve participating in shifts to ensure continuous monitoring and addressing time-sensitive issues. Thus, flexibility in working hours is an aspect of the job. Traveling for work or to other facilities can also affect work schedules.

How to become an aerospace engineer

This career guide section outlines how to become an aerospace engineer. Preparing for this role involves obtaining relevant education, professional experience, and necessary certifications.

Step 1: Earn a high school diploma

Aspiring engineers should begin by earning their high school diploma. Core subjects should include mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Knowledge in these areas provides the foundation for advanced study in aerospace engineering.

Step 2: Receive a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering

A bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering is a mandatory requirement for any individual wishing to pursue a career in this field. The curriculum includes aerodynamics, aircraft structures, flight mechanics, and propulsion. This degree offers theoretical and practical understanding to handle design and development challenges in the industry.

Step 3: Complete an internship or cooperative engineering programs

Practical experience is integral to building your competence in aerospace engineering. Most universities offer internship programs or cooperative engineering programs where students get to work with aerospace companies. This hands-on experience offers a better understanding of the industry and provides essential networking opportunities.

Step 4: Earn a master’s degree or Ph.D. (optional)

A bachelor’s degree can get you an entry-level position, but a master’s degree or Ph.D. can open doors for jobs in research and academia. The advanced coursework will specialize your knowledge in aerospace control systems, spacecraft design, fluid mechanics, or aerodynamics, making you more competitive in the job market. A master’s degree typically takes two years, while a Ph.D. may take up to six years.

Step 5: Obtain licensure

Becoming a licensed professional engineer (PE) would increase your credibility. To obtain licensure, you must pass two exams administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying – the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam and the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam. Licensure also requires relevant work experience, typically four years in an entry-level position.

Step 6: Gain professional experience

After education and licensure, gaining workplace experience is important to advancing your career. Early-career professionals often work under the supervision of experienced engineers. As you gain experience, you may begin taking on more complex projects and making decisions independently.

Step 7: Continue professional development

Keeping up-to-date with advancements in technology and changes in the aerospace industry is vital. This can be accomplished by attending seminars, courses, or workshops, as well as reading industry journals. Some engineers also choose to become members of professional organizations, such as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), which offers networking opportunities and resources for professional development.

How much do aerospace engineers make?

Aerospace engineer salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. In this line of work, factors such as the complexity of the projects, the kinds of aircraft or spacecraft systems being designed or tested, and the need for security clearance in certain sectors can impact compensation.

Highest paying industries

  • Management of Companies and Enterprises – $129,380
  • Scientific Research and Development Services – $124,430
  • Architectural and Engineering – $116,480
  • Federal Executive Branch – $115,540
  • Navigational, Measuring, Electromedical, and Control Instruments Manufacturing – $113,000

Highest paying states

  • Virginia – $125,980
  • California – $124,470
  • Texas – $116,480
  • Colorado – $115,300
  • Washington – $113,200

Browse aerospace engineer salary data by market

Types of aerospace engineers

Aircraft design engineer

These professionals play a significant role in creating aircraft. They design the schematics and oversee the production of everything from helicopters to drones, stressing safety and compliance with federal regulations.

Thermal design engineer

These experts focus on the thermal aspects of aerospace operations. They ensure that systems can survive and function optimally during space missions’ extreme temperature conditions.

Propulsion engineer

Focusing on how to propel spacecraft, these engineers come up with innovative solutions to the complex problem of spacecraft propulsion. Their work includes designing engines that can work effectively in the vacuum of space.

Aerodynamics engineer

They examine how air flows over the surface of aircraft and spacecraft. Through rigorous testing and analysis, they can provide crucial data on the performance and safety of the flight.

Aerospace systems engineer

Involved in designing, implementing, and testing novel aerospace systems. Their work incorporates elements from multiple disciplines, including electrical, mechanical, and software engineering.

Quality assurance engineer

These engineers work to identify and correct potential problems before an aircraft is built. They also frequently monitor the manufacturing process to ensure high-quality output.

Structural analysis engineer

Working in this role calls for evaluating the physical properties of spacecraft and aircraft components. They make sure structures can withstand the stresses of flight and extreme conditions in space.

Top skills for aerospace engineers

This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as an aerospace engineer. A broad skill set required, including strong mathematical aptitude, mastery of engineering principles, excellent analytical skills, proficiency in programming, and a deep understanding of materials science.

Strong mathematical proficiency

A high level of proficiency in mathematics is essential in the aerospace industry. It forms the backbone of design, testing, and troubleshooting in aerospace engineering. This includes advanced calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, and statistics.

Mastering engineering principles

Professionals in this role must master various engineering principles. These include mechanical, electrical, and industrial engineering as they apply to the design and construction of aircraft and spacecraft. Understanding thermodynamics, structural analysis, fluid dynamics, and materials science is also necessary.

Excellent analytical skills

The ability to analyze complex systems and solve problems effectively is a key trait. They need analytical thinking and practical problem-solving skills to deal with the challenges that arise in the engineering process, from initial design to final testing.

Proficiency in programming

Today’s aerospace engineering often relies on computer-aided design (CAD) software for modeling and simulation. Mastery of these tools, as well as a strong understanding of programming languages like C++, Python, and MATLAB, is critical. Being familiar with these languages will improve computational fluid dynamics and finite element analysis abilities.

Deep understanding of materials science

To construct safe and efficient aircraft or spacecraft, they need to deeply understand materials science. Knowledge of the properties of different conventional and composite materials and how they react under different conditions is pivotal.

Aerospace engineer career path options

Beginnning as an aerospace engineer opens a pathway for considerable career advancement. The journey typically begins with various entry-level positions where they gain experience under the guidance of senior engineers. With a few years of experience, they can aim for roles as lead or principal engineers, managing larger projects and often supervising teams.

Continued professional development, gained through experience and additional training, can lead to managerial roles. They can become an engineering manager or even a director of engineering, where they spearhead technical direction and strategic planning within an organization.

It’s also common for these professionals to move into related fields. The multidisciplinary nature of their education and training can lead to opportunities in mechanical engineering, product development, project engineering, or positions within the defense industry.

Another interesting avenue for career advancement is research. Having collected a wealth of operational insights, some decide to focus on advancing the profession itself. These individuals may pursue advanced degrees and work in research facilities or universities, contributing to the future of aviation and aerospace technology.

In a highly digital age, there’s a growing emphasis on the development of autonomous systems and unmanned aerial vehicles. This points to a rising trend of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms reshaping the dynamics of aerospace engineering. Additionally, the growing emphasis on sustainability and eco-friendliness is transforming how we look at aircraft design and technology.

As space exploration ramps up, with concerted efforts from governmental organizations and private entities alike, aerospace engineers are encountering fresh situations and challenges. The trend toward commercial space travel and exploration is rapidly developing, leading to a significant focus on creating cost-effective, efficient, and reliable systems for both cargo and human space travel. Additionally, the demand for satellite technologies, with their crucial role in communication, weather forecasting, and scientific research, is another avenue undergoing exponential growth.

Employment projections

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, aerospace engineering employment is projected to grow 8% through 2032. The exploration of new frontiers in space and emphasis on the need for innovative, sustainable technologies will continue opening up new opportunities within the industry.

Aerospace engineer career tips

Understand the industry

Keep current with the developments in the aerospace industry by staying updated with the latest research findings, advancements, and technological trends. Also, understanding governmental regulations and international laws related to space exploration, aviation safety, and aircraft manufacturing can be beneficial. Reading trade journals, attending seminars and webinars, and participating in industry forums can help you stay up-to-date.

Focus on interdisciplinary learning

Aerospace engineering is a multidisciplinary field. Knowing about material science, thermodynamics, control systems, and hydrodynamics will make you better equipped to solve complex problems. Being comfortable with software tools used for design and simulation is equally important. It is recommended to:

  • Attend industrial training programs with a focus on these areas
  • Enroll in online courses
  • Participate in workshops or boot camps

Consider obtaining certifications

Earning relevant certifications can increase your visibility to potential employers. Certifications such as Certified Systems Engineering Professional (CSEP) and Project Management Professional (PMP) can provide a competitive edge in the job market.

Build a professional network

Networking can open doors to new opportunities and help you learn from seasoned professionals. Consider joining:

  • The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)
  • International Astronautical Federation (IAF)
  • Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI)
  • Society of Flight Test Engineers (SFTE)

Adopt sustainable practices

Contribute to the global initiative to mitigate climate change by designing energy-efficient and sustainable aerospace systems. This includes focusing on fuel efficiency, reducing noise pollution, and minimizing waste production in aircraft manufacturing. In the space segment, consider opting for green propulsion technologies and sustainable satellite decommissioning processes.

Where the aerospace engineer jobs are

Top employers

  • NASA
  • Lockheed Martin
  • Boeing
  • Raytheon Technologies
  • Northrop Grumman

Top states

  • California
  • Florida
  • Texas
  • Alabama
  • Colorado

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • EngineerJobs.com
  • Monster


What does a typical day look like for an aerospace engineer?

In general, the routine of an aerospace engineer includes designing aircraft, spacecraft, satellites, and missiles. Also, they often create and test prototypes to ensure they function according to design. The job involves many indoor tasks, including lots of computer time and calculations, but may also include field tests and meetings with clients or other engineers.

What are some common challenges aerospace engineers often face?

Some common challenges in this profession include managing complex design and implementation projects, accommodating environmental and physical constraints, ensuring compliance with industry standards and government regulations, and keeping up with advancements in technology. This job may also involve unpredicted challenges, such as hardware failures during testing or budget constraints, adding to the complexity of project execution.

What skills are important for an aerospace engineer to possess?

Important skills include strong technical abilities to understand and apply complex mathematical and physical concepts. Attention to detail, critical thinking, and problem-solving abilities are also crucial. Other transferable skills might include project management capabilities, communication skills for working within a team and with clients, and a level of creativity for innovative designing and troubleshooting.

What kind of software tools do aerospace engineers use?

Aerospace engineers often use computer-aided design (CAD) software for creating and modifying their designs. They also employ simulation software to model and test various aspects of their designs under different conditions. They often use MATLAB or a similar platform for calculations and mathematical modeling. Another frequently used tool is finite element analysis software for structural analysis.

What type of education is required to be an aerospace engineer?

A career in aerospace engineering typically requires a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering or a relevant field. Having a strong grounding in physics, mathematics, and computer science is fundamental. Sometimes, a postgraduate degree might be necessary, particularly for research roles. Other professionals might opt for further education to specialize in a particular area, such as propulsion systems or navigational technology.

What’s the difference between an aerospace engineer and a mechanical engineer?

Aerospace engineers specifically work on aircraft and spacecraft, while mechanical engineers can work on a variety of mechanical systems not necessarily related to aviation or space. While both fields require similar skills and can often deal with similar technologies, the applications and design constraints can be very different, especially considering the unique environmental and physical factors that aerospace engineers often have to consider in their designs.

Can an aerospace engineer work for car manufacturing companies?

Yes, indeed. Aerospace engineers can adapt their skills to many diverse fields, including automotive. In a car manufacturing company, they can lend their expertise in aerodynamics, lightweight materials, and efficient engines. They can be key in designing more fuel-efficient, safe, and streamlined vehicles.

Is creativity important in the job of an aerospace engineer?

While aerospace engineering is a highly technical field, creativity is a valuable asset. The industry often demands innovative solutions to complex challenges. From conceptualizing new types of aircraft to developing efficient propulsion systems, creativity enables engineers to come up with inventive designs that might give their employer or client an advantage in a competitive market.

What’s the role of an aerospace engineer in space exploration?

Aerospace engineers play a pivotal role in space exploration. They design and develop spacecraft and propulsion systems, test equipment for functionality and safety, and work on satellite technology. They also come up with solutions to allow human life in space by designing systems that can maintain an environment conducive to human life. From launch to space operations, they are fundamental to every step of space exploration.