How to Become a Systems Engineer

Kamran Iqbal is a systems engineering professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He earned his undergraduate degree in avionics engineering at NED University in Pakistan, and a Master of Business Administration at The Ohio State University. He then went on to pursue a PhD and Master of Science in electrical engineering at The Ohio State University. Kamran’s research interests include computational intelligence, dynamic system modeling and simulation, and linear systems, to name a few.

What is systems engineering?

Systems engineering takes an interdisciplinary approach to designing and building complex systems. Additionally, there is an emphasis on fulfillment of customers’ needs during a system’s entire life cycle. Systems engineering’s goal is to ensure success of complex projects with multiple stake holders, such as building of a space shuttle. Its techniques include requirement analysis, modeling and simulation, decision and risk analysis, and design optimization.

What do you find most interesting about systems engineering?

By taking an interdisciplinary approach, systems engineering encourages nontraditional and out-of-the-box thinking. Also, customer focus is what distinguishes it from more traditional engineering disciplines.

What is your least favorite aspect of systems engineering?

Systems engineering often means different things to different people. A universally accepted definition of systems engineering is yet to evolve.

Are there subfields of systems engineering that students might not be aware of?

Systems engineering does not have subfields. It does have diverse application areas, which include software systems, defense and aerospace systems, power systems, robotic systems, etc.

What careers do students commonly pursue with a degree in systems engineering?

Systems engineers pursue careers in software development, network and project management, defense and aerospace, robotics, homeland security, and smart grid development. They also work as product designers and consultants.

Is a graduate degree preferable for a career in systems engineering, or can someone enter the field with a bachelor’s degree?

Traditionally, a graduate degree in systems engineering is required for gaining expertise in the field. A bachelor’s degree also prepares students to undertake systems engineering roles. With systems engineers increasingly in demand, a bachelor’s degree may be adequate for entry-level positions.

What personality traits do you think a student should have in order to be successful in a systems engineering program?

Systems engineering students need to have an analytical mind and an ability to comprehend the big picture in order to be successful.

What electives would you recommend that a student in a systems engineering program take?

As part of a systems engineering program, students should take electives that provide some depth in one of the traditional engineering disciplines. Alternatively, they can choose elective to gain understanding of an application area, such as computer networks, robotics, aerospace, technology management, etc.

What study tips would you give to a student to help him or her succeed in a systems engineering program?

I would advise him/her to read case studies where systems engineering principles were used to ensure success of the program. These case studies can be found on the Internet.

Do you think systems engineering is a subject that can be studied online, or is a traditional class environment ideal?

Besides classroom study, online systems engineering programs are currently available to students. Advanced systems engineering courses require use of computer software for simulations, document preparation, etc., that can be done online.

What subjects should a prospective student of systems engineering study before entering a formal college program?

A high school student should take AP courses in calculus and probability in preparation for college. S/he should also learn programming and gain exposure to scientific software such as Maple.

What pieces of advice, or caution, would you offer to a prospective student of systems engineering?

Systems engineering, like other engineering disciplines, requires critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Systems engineering student should strive to develop these skills. S/he should also be methodical, analytical, attend to details, and avoid being complacent.