Aerodynamics is the study of how air moves around and affects objects in motion, of how airplanes stay up and race cars stay on the ground. Universities don't typically offer specific degree paths for people interested in aerodynamics, so aerodynamicists usually get degrees -- at both the undergraduate and the graduate level -- in aerospace engineering.
More Than Flight
Aerospace engineering degrees, often referred to as aeronautical or astronautical engineering degrees, are intended mainly for people interested in entering the aeronautics or aerospace industries, designing air and space vehicles. However, these degrees can also be valuable to people interested in automotive aerodynamics. When General Motors wants to hire a vehicle aerodynamicist, for example, they look for someone with an aerospace engineering degree. The same is true in motorsports, where aerodynamics can win or lose races
Aerospace engineering degrees are fundamentally engineering degrees, of which aerodynamics is only one, often minor, component. These degrees require extensive science and math coursework, including classes in chemistry, physics, analytic geometry, differential equations and calculus. Major coursework for aerospace engineering degrees includes classes in general engineering topics such as electrical engineering, materials, thermodynamics and fluid dynamics and specific topics such as astrodynamics, aerospace structures, aircraft stability and space technology. Aerodynamic coursework varies among universities, with some offering only one basic aerodynamics class and others offering classes like theoretical aerodynamics and high-speed aerodynamics.
Because of the limited aerodynamic coursework in undergraduate aerospace engineering programs, many companies looking to hire aerodynamic specialists expect a master's degree or a doctorate. Master's degrees typically don't require more than three years of additional study, while doctorates can take more than five years to complete. These graduate degrees offer specialization, with many universities offering a graduate aerospace engineering degree with an aerodynamic focus. The coursework is almost entirely aerodynamic and students in most of these programs conduct independent research and write a master's thesis or doctoral dissertation on a specific aerodynamic topic, such as low speed turbulence, the stabilizing effects of winglets on tiltrotor aircraft or for automobiles, ground-effect aerodynamics.
Aerodynamics is a narrow specialty within an assortment of already small industries. Aerodynamicists can expect median yearly incomes of more than $97,000 in aerospace, which is by far the field that employs the most aerodynamicists, because of national defense and civilian travel-related projects. These jobs might be difficult to find, though, because the aerospace industry does not produce new jobs often. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the aerospace industry will grow only 5 percent in the next decade, compared to a projected 14 percent for all careers.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Aerospace Engineers
- University of Maryland: Aerospace Engineering Four Year Academic Plan
- University of Florida: Undergraduate Catalog 2013-14: Aerospace Engineering
- University of Maryland: Department of Aerospace Engineering: Graduate
- California State University at Long Beach: Aerodynamics & Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), M.S. Aerospace Engineering
- Elliot Group Careers Center: Engineer IV -- Aerodynamics
- General Motors: Vehicle Aerodynamics and Aero-Acoustics CFD Engineer Job
- United Technologies: Senior Research Engineer, Aerodynamics
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