Nuclear Engineer Overview
If you’re in the market for an interesting career in the science field, learning how to become a nuclear engineer is a good idea if you want job stability. This is because not only do nuclear engineers enjoy some of the highest starting salaries of all college graduates, but the job outlook for nuclear engineer degree holders is positive, as well. So, what does a nuclear engineer do and how can you become one? Here’s what you need to know about how to become a nuclear engineer, from the degree requirements to the job duties to expect from this career.
What Does a Nuclear Engineer Do?
Nuclear engineers use mathematics and science to develop economical solutions to technical problems. Their work brings commercial applications and scientific discoveries together to meet consumer and social needs. Here’s a closer look at what nuclear engineers do and what an average workday may look like for them.
Product Design and Development
Some nuclear engineers develop new products after considering several factors along the way. They may do the following when designing and developing products:
- Specify functional requirements
- Design and test components
- Integrate components to produce a final design
- Evaluate effectiveness, safety, reliability and cost
Maintenance and Testing
Beyond design and development, many nuclear engineers work in maintenance, production or testing. They may supervise production in factories to determine why a component fails or test products to make sure they live up to quality standards. At the supervisory level, nuclear engineers may be in charge of entire projects or major components.
In general, nuclear engineers use computers to do the following:
- Produce and analyze designs
- Simulate and test operations
- Generate specifications
- Monitor quality
- Control efficiency
You should note that nanotechnology is bringing additional principles to the design process for nuclear engineers. As a result, the job duties are always evolving in this field.
Many nuclear engineers spend a lot of their day researching and developing instruments and systems to derive benefits from nuclear energy and radiation. They also develop, design, operate and monitor nuclear plants to generate power.
Often, they work on the development of fusion energy or the nuclear fuel cycle. This is the production, handling and use of nuclear fuel, including the safe disposal of waste that’s produced when nuclear energy is generated.
Some nuclear engineers specialize in the development of nuclear power for spacecraft or naval vessels. Others work on discovering uses for radioactive materials in industrial or medical sectors, such as for equipment that can diagnose and treat medical problems. Regardless, all of these discoveries require hours of research, so be prepared to spend time on this job duty if you decide to become a nuclear engineer.
What Is the Work Environment Like for Nuclear Engineers?
Typically, nuclear engineers work in labs, industrial plants or office buildings. However, some may spend time outside at construction or production sites. Some nuclear engineers must travel extensively to worksites across the country or abroad.
A standard 40-hour workweek is typical, but at times, deadlines may bring extra pressure and in turn, longer hours for nuclear engineers.
How Much Does a Nuclear Engineer Make?
It’s helpful to have an idea of the salary to expect before you enter this field. You should look at the salary information for both entry-level and experienced engineers to plan for the future.
Average Salary of a Nuclear Engineer
According to the BLS, the median annual wage for this position was $116,140 as of May 2020. That’s well above the average salary for most employees in the US. As you gain experience in this career, you’ll likely earn more, as the highest 10 percent earns more than $185,550 on average when it comes to their nuclear engineer salary.
Nuclear Engineer Starting Salary
For nuclear engineers just starting out, the average salary is around $74,800, according to the BLS. This is among the highest starting salaries among college graduates with bachelor’s degrees.
How To Become a Nuclear Engineer
To have a chance of becoming a nuclear engineer, you need a college degree first. But in what subject and what kind of degree is required? Take a look at the basic nuclear engineering requirements when it comes to your education.
1. Get a College Degree
In most entry-level jobs, nuclear engineers need a bachelor’s degree in either engineering or nuclear engineering. So if you already know you want to become a nuclear engineer before you enter college, try to enter a program specifically for this subject.
But you can still become a nuclear engineer with a related degree. For instance, you can start this career if you have a degree in mechanical engineering, civil engineering or electrical and electronics engineering. With an engineering degree, you can work in a variety of specialties and have the flexibility to go where the best job opportunities are.
Additionally, some jobs go to college graduates of natural science or mathematics programs. So as long as your degree is in a math or science-related field, you have a chance of becoming a nuclear engineer.
Keep in mind that while many nuclear engineers earn a four-year bachelor’s degree, two and four-year engineering technology degrees are also available. These programs provide more hands-on instruction on the most current engineering applications to prepare graduates for practical design and production work.
2. Know What Courses To Take
No matter what degree you end up with, you’ll need to have completed certain courses to impress employers in nuclear engineering. The following are the most commonly required courses:
- General engineering
- Advanced math
- Social sciences
3. Consider an Advanced Degree
For some research and development positions and all faculty programs, nuclear engineers must seek a graduate degree. Many nuclear engineers choose to earn an engineering or business administration master’s degree to broaden their education or learn new technology as well.
While an advanced degree isn’t required for many entry-level positions in this field, getting one could make you a stronger candidate in the nuclear engineering job market. If the market in your area is competitive, you might consider this option.
4. Meet Nuclear Engineer Requirements for Licensing
Once you graduate with a degree, your next step should be to know what kind of licenses you’ll need to work in this field. To start, all 50 states require nuclear engineers who offer services directly to the public to be licensed as a professional engineer (PE).
To qualify for the license, you must have a degree from a program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), four years of relevant work experience and proof that you passed the exam. If you’re a recent grad, you can start right away by taking one part of the exam to become an engineering intern. Once you have suitable work experience, you can take the second part.
5. Get the Right Training To Learn How To Become a Nuclear Engineer
At the entry-level, most nuclear engineers work under more experienced engineers and may receive on-the-job education and seminar training. While you gain experience and knowledge, you will gain responsibility in the form of more challenging projects and working independently.
Eventually, you can become a technical specialist or supervisor. If you’re interested in such positions, you can even become a manager or take on other managerial or sales jobs.
Keep in mind that ongoing training is helpful even once you get a job in this field. It’s necessary if you want any professional certifications that are available to nuclear engineers—which may be advantageous if you’re looking to advance to senior technical or managerial positions.
Nuclear Engineering Job Market
Just as with any other field, the nuclear engineering job market adjusts often. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that employment in this field will decrease by eight percent from 2020 to 2030.
The same source states that the largest employer of nuclear engineers is the federal government, which employs 18 percent of professionals in this field. Other top employers include scientific research and development services, manufacturing and engineering services.
Any growth predicted in this industry is expected to be in engineering services and research and development. An increased interest in nuclear power as an energy source is projected to spur demand for nuclear engineers to research and develop new reactor designs. That said, there hasn’t been a new commercial nuclear power plant built in the US for many years.
Nuclear engineers will also be called upon for defense-related work, to improve and enforce safety and waste management standards and to develop nuclear medical technology. If you’re interested in this niche field despite a lack of growth lately, you’ll likely be able to find a job due to the small number of graduates with the proper skills in this industry.
What Can You Do With a Nuclear Engineering Degree?
While nuclear engineering is certainly the most common industry to enter with this degree, it is possible to get a variety of jobs with it. This is good to know in case you can’t find a job in nuclear engineering or simply find you’d rather do something else with your degree.
There are some of the other jobs you can get when you major in nuclear engineering:
- Systems engineer
- Engineering technician
- Nuclear medicine technologist
- Test engineer
- Nuclear methods software engineer
You might have to get some job-specific training to switch to these careers. But as long as you have the right degree, it shouldn’t take long for you to pivot if that’s your career goal. Of course, you can always stick with nuclear engineering and just plan for additional training or an advanced degree to have the best shot of getting the job you want in this industry.