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What Is An Engineer?

What Is An Engineer?

The Traditional Definition

The Oxford Dictionary primarily defines an engineer as "a person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or public works."  But what does that even mean?  This definition narrows down what you can imagine an engineer is while simultaneously being ambiguous (you are led to think: wrenches, construction hats, and some blueprints).  Let's try another.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics states: "engineers design materials, structures, and systems while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety, and cost."  That's a lot better, but still not quite the end-all-be-all definition for engineer.

I much prefer the later, alternate definition the Oxford Dictionary supplies: "a skillful contriver or originator of something."  Yes, it's more ambiguous.  Yes, that doesn't make picturing an average engineer any simpler.  What it also does do is open the possibilities up for what an engineer can be/do/look like.  Now let's try this again...


The Better Definition

a skillful contriver or originator of something
— The Oxford Dictionary

Engineers make things.  It sounds simple enough, but what that includes is everything from the genes inside of DNA to superstructures that can be seen from space and everything in between.  This might make it a bit confusing, but that is why engineers are typically placed into broad categories.  These categories may vary from source-to-source but they typically are: chemical, civil, electrical, mechanical, software, and systems.  Let's try to explain each of them in a single sentence:

  • Chemical Engineer - uses biology, chemistry, and physics to create/combine/modify new or existing particles/atoms/molecules into a more desirable structure
  • Civil Engineer - creates, designs, fixes, and maintains man-made or natural structures, systems, or environments
  • Electrical Engineer - creates, designs, and refines parts, boards or machines that utilize electricity and/or magnetism towards a desired outcome
  • Mechanical Engineer - creates, designs, fixes, and refines physical (rigid or fluid) structures/systems towards desired stationary, dynamic, heat generating, or heat dissipating outcomes
  • Software Engineer - develops, refines, or maintains software through the use of machine language (programming) to be used in a control processing unit
  • Systems Engineer - analyzes, designs, manages engineer projects of varying complexity across multidisciplinary fields utilizing technical and managerial skills

Each of these can be broken down into deeper specializations and/or they can be combined to make an interdisciplinary engineer.  That, however, will be done a later date.  Stay tuned for each individual breakdown, complete with career prospects, salary data, typical/best geographic locations, and present-day examples.



  1. The Oxford Dictionary (American English Version) <>
  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor (2006). Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition
The Mechanical Engineer: An Introduction

The Mechanical Engineer: An Introduction