Engineering Management vs. Systems Engineering: What’s the Difference?
Engineering management and systems engineering are two career paths that professionals and students in both engineering and business commonly consider in tandem when they are preparing to further their education and advance their careers. The disciplines overlap in some areas, but they are markedly different in emphasis and responsibilities.
Engineering management professionals combine their technical expertise with business knowledge and management skills to provide technical management and organizational leadership for engineering projects and technical organizations. The American Society for Engineering Management (ASEM) defines the discipline as the “art and science of planning, organizing, allocating resources, and directing and controlling activities which have a technological or systems component.”
Systems engineering professionals engage in systems thinking, a form of investigation that examines the interrelationships among all components of a system. The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) describes the field as an “interdisciplinary approach and means to enable the realization of successful systems. It focuses on defining customer needs and required functionality early in the development cycle, documenting requirements, then proceeding with design synthesis and system validation while considering the complete problem.” Engineers use this perspective to supervise the system development process — from concept to production to operation.
Skills and Responsibilities for Engineering Professionals
Positions in both engineering management and systems engineering require a combination of technical and business expertise, including strong project management, financial management, managerial and problem-solving/analytical skills. Solid interpersonal and communications skills also are critically important for success in these fields.
However, there are significant distinctions in how these professionals focus their efforts and take on challenges. Understanding the difference between engineering management and systems engineering roles will help you to make the right choices in your education and professional development.
The Duties of Engineering Managers
The responsibilities of engineering managers may vary depending on the size and type of organization where they are employed. They work in industries including manufacturing, scientific research and development services, engineering services and government.
In general, their responsibilities include:
- Developing concepts and determining technical goals for projects, programs or systems
- Developing and implementing policies and procedures
- Developing and implementing procedures for monitoring and for documentation
- Reviewing, analyzing and submitting proposals in alignment with business objectives
- Proposing budgets to management, allocating resources, and hiring and training staff
- Negotiating contracts with consultants and vendors
The Role of a System Engineer
Systems engineers work in three areas, defined by the Systems Engineering Body of Knowledge (SeBoK) as Product Systems Engineering (PSE), Enterprise Systems Engineering (ESE) and Service Systems Engineering (SSE). To realize and maintain a successful system, according to INCOSE, engineers lead a non-sequential, dynamic process composed of seven elements known by the acronym SIMILAR:
- State the problem
- Investigate alternatives
- Model the system
- Launch the system
- Assess performance
Among the industries that employ systems engineers are aerospace, military defense, civil engineering, manufacturing, software development and electronics.
The responsibilities of systems engineers include:
- Planning projects, including establishing a budget, timeline and resource requirements
- Serving as the interface for all parties involved in a project
- Overseeing the design and development of a system, including the creation and use of models and simulations and the final evaluation process
- Supervising engineering and other professional staff
- Coordinating efforts to launch, market and support the project
- Maintaining and troubleshooting the project through its life cycle
Engineering Management vs. Systems Engineering: Education, Certification, Experience and Salaries
Education, Certification, Experience and Salaries for Engineering Management
Engineering managers typically hold a bachelor’s degree in a technical discipline and many hold a Master of Science in Engineering Management (MSEM) degree. MSEM degree programs can prepare graduates for the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Professional (PMP)® exam.
Before advancing into a management position, engineers usually have at least five years of related experience or training, including some experience working on complex projects and supervising engineering teams. As of 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the median annual wage for an engineering manager was $137,720, with the highest 10 percent earning more than $208,000.
Building a Career in Systems Engineering
Systems engineers typically hold a bachelor’s degree in a technical discipline and many hold a Master of Science in Systems Engineering (MSSE) degree. MSSE degree programs can prepare students for INCOSE’s Certified Systems Engineering Professional (CSEP) exam.
Before advancing into a systems engineering position, engineers commonly have at least five years of experience working in the field. The national average salary for a senior systems engineer was $100,622 as of 2018, according to PayScale. The BLS does not report specifically on the systems engineering field.
This article was updated on August 15, 2018.
About GW’s Online Master’s Degrees in Engineering
George Washington University offers a comprehensive selection of online Master’s degrees in Engineering. The programs are designed with the same curriculum as the on campus degree programs, with a focus on positioning graduates for career advancement. GW offers the following Master’s degrees 100% online:
- Master of Science in Electrical Engineering
- Master of Science in Engineering Management
- Master of Science in Systems Engineering
To learn more about GW's online Master’s in Engineering Management and download a free brochure, fill out the fields below. If you have any additional questions, please call (877) 221-9868 to speak to an enrollment counselor.