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How to become a systems engineer professional: qualifications & education

May 20, 2022
How to become a systems engineer professional: qualifications & education

What happens when design evolution falls short and available tools are not enough to meet growing demands? Well, that is where systems engineering comes into play. Systems engineering is needed to make all the components of a large system work together seamlessly. The complexity of any system increases as it grows in size. So, it is the task of a systems engineer to make sure that the product works smoothly even when there is  an increase in variables and data involved in the design.

The term “systems engineering” was first coined around the 40s. By the 90s, the National Council on Systems Engineering, a professional society for systems engineering, was established by people from various corporations in the U.S. As time passed, the name of the council was changed to the International Council on Systems Engineering to incorporate engineers located outside of the U.S. as well. Now, universities that offer engineering courses are all over the world. Since this job is relatively new to the market, we created this article to provide readers with detailed information on how to become a systems engineer.

What Is a Systems Engineer?

A systems engineer is crucial in the vast computer universe. They oversee the process of putting together computer systems from design to engineering, marketing, and management. Their priority is to make sure all the components of the system, software, or computer work seamlessly together. Systems engineers should know a bit about everything and piece the core elements together. It is not about knowing everything in detail. It is about understanding who to ask, when to ask, and making sure that the parts function smoothly as a whole.

The best way to describe this is by using a practical example. Let’s say you want to build a car that has mechanical, electrical, computer, and software components. A SysEng is in charge of managing the engineers who are experts in the different components required to build the car.

What Does a Systems Engineer Do?

Systems engineers are capable of performing a wide variety of tasks throughout the lifecycle of a product. Note that these tasks may vary based on the scope and complexity of the project and company. At least one or two SysEngs are needed for large and complex projects. However, the job of a system engineer can be covered by a project manager in smaller projects. So, let’s explore  some of the common tasks of systems engineers.

Building large computer systems using an interdisciplinary approach is often complex because experts can not always predict how the parts will interact with each other. That is the first place where the system engineer comes in. They are responsible for identifying, characterizing, and defining solutions and following up with all related technical tasks. Their actions bridge the gap between users’ needs, marketing, and the technical requirements of the product.

Systems engineers are also responsible for understanding customer and system needs from the start of the product’s lifecycle. They should be able to pinpoint the main features that the system requires to function and document them. Once that is done, the design and requirements are then validated. This is done keeping in mind the core concerns that need to be handled for the product to function.

Building a computer system requires the technical capabilities of various teams in a company. System engineersmake sure all the technical experts working on the product understand and contribute to the development effort. So, they need to develop a well-structured product lifecycle from concept generation to development, maintenance, and use. They also have to understand the cost, plan, and risks of the entire process.

Systems engineers are involved with creating designs, building algorithms, and analyzing the production environment. They also need to use a specific array of tools and approaches that help them do a better job.

Steps to Becoming a Systems Engineer

Aspirants need to have a good mastery of both business and engineering. That is because their tasks take them across every stage of product development. The systems engineering interdisciplinary concept does not only apply on the field, either. It can also be seen in the education system since professors also teach courses across other engineering disciplines. Here are the stages of how to become a systems engineer:

Step 1: Get a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering.

Anyone aspiring to become a system engineer needs to obtain a bachelor’s degree in systems or other engineering fields from an accredited university, usually a four-year program. Most of the BSc system engineering programs are accredited by the Engineering Accredited Commission of ABET. Sometimes, a BSc degree alone can get you a job, but it is often advisable to get a master’s education in addition. That is why some schools have combined the BSc/MS programs into five years.

System Engineering BS admission requirements

Every college has different requirements for the BSc program in S.E., depending on the level of competition. However, here are common S.E. admission criteria across many popular universities:

  • Graduate from high school, BAC, or equivalent
  • Obtain a high school GPA above 3.5 (may vary depending on the competition)
  • Get an SAT score of more than 1250 or an ACT score of 28
  • Write an essay about your goals

BSc degree course examples for S.E.

The curriculum of most systems engineering programs is based on a specific field of specialization. People wanting to become systems engineers should take a wide variety of courses since the program is interdisciplinary. Here are some examples:

  • Linear algebra
  • Statics and mechanics
  • Physics
  • Fundamentals of engineering
  • Computer science
  • Engineering economics
  • Project management
  • Engineering quality and reliability

Those who want to improve their chances of getting hired with better salaries need to get a master’s degree. However, it is not impossible to get into the field with only a BSc.

Step 2: Get a systems engineering master’s degree.

Master’s degree holders in systems engineering have a better chance of getting hired. The program is usually for two years, and it is designed to help people gain in-depth knowledge of their field and become more specialized. Doctoral programs are necessary only if you want to join academia.

Requirements for admission into a systems engineering master’s program include:

  • An accredited BSc degree in systems engineering or other related fields
  • A good GRE score
  • An undergraduate GPA above  3.0 (will vary depending on the university)
  • A written statement of purpose
  • Statistics and calculus undergraduate coursework
  • Recommendation letters
  • Resume with education and relevant work experience

Curriculum examples in systems engineering

As students move from BSc to M.S, the system engineering course becomes more specialized. Together with the core courses, they will also need to take electives, which will help them acquire solid foundations of basic S.E. knowledge. They will also learn to use their systems understanding to build technologies and make them appealing to customers. Courses might include:

  • Systems requirements analysis and modeling
  • Fundamentals of systems engineering
  • Computer programming for engineers
  • Systems quality assurance
  • Systems engineering project
  • Organizational systems management
  • Systems architecture design and modeling

Source: Zappia

Step 3: Get real-world experience

As it is often said, “experience is the best teacher.” And that is true for all aspects  of life. Once you are done with classroom studies, you will need to gain field experience. An increase in experience may help get you managerial positions and increase earnings. Plus, before taking  the professional licensing exam, a SysEng needs to have at least four years of field experience.

Step 4: Become a professional engineer

Once you get into the field, some exams need to be taken to solidify your expertise. Some of these exams may be voluntary, but others are compulsory and require years of field experience:

  • National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) (Voluntary)
  • Fundamentals of Engineering Exam
  • Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam

Systems Engineer Career Paths

Systems engineers should already have hands-on experience working with other engineersso they know a bit about real electrical, mechanical, and computer systems,etc. That is why it is a challenge to jump right out of school into a systems engineering role.

They may often need to begin their career in other entry-level positions like systems administrator, network administrator, software engineer, systems analyst, etc. The skills and experience acquired working in these roles can propel you to your dream job. Now, let’s look at the career path of one of NASA’s Systems engineers, Heather-Ann Bottom:

  • System Certification Engineer - Space Exploration Technologies
  • Graduate Student - Caltech
  • Senior Analyst - NewSpace Global
  • Spring Graduate Intern 2012 - SpaceWorks Enterprises, Inc. (SEI)
  • Lab Manager and Educator - American Museum of Natural History, Hayden Planetarium
  • Operations Manager and Research Associate - NASA Academy
  • Systems Engineer - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Average Salary for a Systems Engineer

Lots of factors influence the salary of a systems engineer, such as experience, education, and location. Here are some basic statistics about  their earnings:

The mean salary of a systems engineer in the United States is $81,283 yearly.

Source: Payscale

Source: Payscale

Top Skills For a Systems Engineer

Systems engineers need to have a wide range of skills to build, manage, troubleshoot, and market products. These skills will greatly vary based on the industry and company.

One of the most important skills needed as an SysEng is communication. This is because you have to communicate with and manage other engineers. Also, you will need to convey technical ideas to stakeholders who may not have any engineering knowledge or background.

A SysEng also needs problem-solving skills and the ability to predict outcomes. They need to be good at seeing the big picture. Here are some other  general skills of systems engineers:

  • Communication skills
  • Organization
  • Analytics
  • Time-management
  • Troubleshooting
  • Critical thinking

Added to the general skills are the job-specific ones that systems engineers need to pick up as they specialize. For example, in the I.T. industry, system engineers also need to have the following skills:

  • Software development
  • Cloud computing
  • Information security
  • Risk management
  • Data architecture and programming
  • Networking
  • Scripting languages
  • Software and hardware
  • Systems engineering software

Systems engineering is a great combination of business and engineering skills, and the experts can function in both fields efficiently. Becoming a systems engineer is not an easy task, but it is a very rewarding career and full of excitement, and there are tons of job opportunities for your expertise.

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