What Is a Systems Engineer (and How Do I Become One)?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Systems engineers develop, design, and implement engineered systems. Find out more about what this means and how to become a systems engineer with this guide. We include the educational requirements and skills to qualify for a systems engineer job.

[Featured image] Two systems engineers collaborate in front of a laptop computer.

Systems engineers develop and oversee all aspects of a complex system to solve a problem, from the initial creation of the system to production and management through the end product or solution.

Systems may include products, people, services, information, natural elements, or processes—or a mix of several depending on the job. As a systems engineer, you are in charge of troubleshooting and communicating with all parties involved in implementing and using the system. 

You’ll find systems engineers working in almost every major industry, from health care to transportation and manufacturing to software. It’s a career that allows you to problem solve, explore solutions, and build systems that address a problem or achieve a goal.

According to Glassdoor, systems engineers in the United States make an average of $92,380 per year, as of March 2022 [1]. 

What does a systems engineer do?

The day-to-day tasks of a systems engineer will vary somewhat by industry and company, but you can expect some common responsibilities to include:

  • Designing and implementing systems and tools

  • Troubleshooting issues with a company's systems and networks

  • Automating tasks for production environments

  • Installing new hardware and software

  • Performing system upgrades

  • Managing backup and recovery

  • Monitoring and capacity planning for servers

  • Conducting version management

  • Developing system security standards

  • Assessing resources to meet organizational needs

  • Overseeing help desk staff

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The function of systems engineering is to guide the engineering that is the multiple pieces of a complex system to bring it to fruition.

How to become a systems engineer

So how do you become a systems engineer? Let's take a more detailed look at the education, skills, and experience you'll need to become a systems engineer.

Systems engineering degrees

When pursuing a systems engineering degree, you’ll likely first obtain a bachelor's degree in systems engineering and then focus specifically on your desired industry when pursuing a master’s degree. There are many different types of systems engineers, so once you choose your industry or get hired into a certain field, you can narrow your education pathway to further pursue a career in systems engineering within that industry. Examples of systems engineering specializations include:

  • Transportation systems engineering

  • Software systems engineering

  • Logistics engineering

  • Product development systems engineering

  • Biosystems engineering

Gaining on-the-job training is another critical piece to becoming a successful systems engineer. Real-world experience allows you to explore systems engineering first hand and may help you decide what kind of systems engineer you’d like to become. 

Some systems engineers may choose to further their education by becoming a professional engineer (PE) or earning a PhD in systems engineering. There are also several certifications for systems engineers who might want to gain new skills specific to an area of interest.

Bachelor's degree

The first step in becoming a systems engineer is to earn a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering or other related fields, like computer engineering or mechanical engineering. Some systems engineers may hold a bachelor’s degree in technical disciplines such as computer science. 

Some coursework you’re likely to see as part of a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering includes physics, calculus, project management, statistics, and computer systems programming. 

Master’s degree

After you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree, pursuing a master's degree could give you greater potential for growth. It’s a good idea to build some field experience before pursuing your master’s degree or even while you’re working on earning your graduate degree.

Most systems engineers seeking master’s degree programs are looking to expand their careers within the engineering field. Many applicants to graduate programs also know the industry they want to work in, so these programs are more tailored and industry-specific.

To be an eligible applicant, you’ll need to hold a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering, engineering, statistics, or a related field. Other admission requirements will vary by school.

Systems engineer certifications

Earning a certification in systems engineering is another way to demonstrate to a potential employer that you have the skills and knowledge needed to do the job. These are a few common options in the industry:

  • Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE)

  • Certified Systems Engineering Professional (CSEP)

  • Master Certified Electronics Technician (CETma)

  • Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA)

  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)

  • CompTIA Network+

Systems engineer skills

Working as a systems engineer requires a wide array of skills to understand what needs to happen within a process, create a system to make that process possible, implement the system, and see it through while monitoring and problem-solving along the way. 

Depending upon the industry, these are some of the top technical and workplace skills required of a successful systems engineer. 

Systems engineer workplace skills

Since systems engineers have to collaborate with fellow engineers and programmers, along with end users and various stakeholders, effective communication is critical. For example, systems engineers need to have the ability to communicate technical concepts to those without a technical background. 

This career also pulls on your ability to predict outcomes and problem solve. Systems are composed of many smaller moving parts that work together to achieve one result. Systems engineers need impeccable attention to detail and “big picture” skills to see a system from design to development. 

The list of workplace skills you'll need to be an effective systems engineer include:

  • Communication  

  • Analytical skills 

  • Organizational skills 

  • Detail-oriented thinking

  • Ability to see the “big picture” 

  • Troubleshooting 

  • Time management  

Systems engineer technical skills

The job-specific skills necessary to become a successful systems engineer will look a little different based on the industry you're interested in. Still, as a general rule, it’s a good idea to have strong knowledge of computer engineering and general software development as most systems engineers work with computer systems. 

Almost all systems engineers will benefit from project management skills since systems engineers act as the primary interface between management, customers, suppliers, and specialty engineers in the systems development process.

These skills could serve you well as a systems engineer:

  

  • Software development

  • Data architecture and programming 

  • Cloud computing

  • Networking

  • Scripting

  • Information security 

  • Software and hardware 

  • Risk management 

  • Systems engineering software

Systems engineer career path

Many systems engineers start out in other entry-level roles, such as systems administrator, network administrator, or software engineer. The skills and experience gained in these jobs can prepare you for the big-picture work of a systems engineer.

Get started 

Learn more about what systems engineering is all about with Introduction to Systems Engineering or Foundations of Healthcare Systems Engineering on Coursera. Learn at your own pace from leading universities from anywhere with an internet connection.

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Article sources

1. Glassdoor. "Systems Engineer Salary, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/systems-engineer-salary-SRCH_KO0,16.htm." Accessed March 10, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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