Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What is Systems Engineering?

Systems engineering is a major that is often hard to describe.  There are many definitions of systems engineering—just ask a few systems majors and you will no doubt hear a different iteration—all of which include words like “optimization,” “efficiency,” “integration,” or some combination thereof.  Sure, these words can describe systems, but they are probably meaningless out of context.

And so it is best to give an example: let’s say we are building a plane.  The mechanical engineer is involved with the construction and design of the plane.  The electrical engineer is concerned with the wiring of the electronics in the plane.  The computer engineer codes the flight software that the pilots will use to fly the plane.  A chemical engineer researches the best fuel for the plane to allow it to fly long distances and not pollute the air.  The bioengineer researches the impact of a plane crash on the bodies of passengers and the appropriate safety equipment to prevent serious injuries.  And the systems engineer is the person who makes sure that all of these engineers coordinate with each other, that the right parts are ordered and arrive at the right time in the construction process, that the construction process is cost and time efficient, and that the best final product is made.  Essentially, the systems engineer considers all aspects of a project in order to integrate them into the whole, the plane in this case.

While the example of building a plane may be very specific, systems majors can enter a variety of different fields.  Generally, a systems engineer will have a focus within systems since it is a broad major.  At Penn, some examples of focuses are economic and financial systems, transportation systems and logistics, information systems, robotics and control systems, and computational social systems. 

But you might still be wondering what a systems engineer would actually do in the workforce.  Many systems engineers pursue consulting—consultants can work in a multitude of industries ranging from technology to finance to retail.  The job of a consultant is to provide professional advice to companies after analyzing data specific to their needs.  For example, if a restaurant is wondering whether they should expand their company to multiple locations, a consulting company might help them do research on what areas to expand to, what menu options they should offer based on regional tastes, and the optimal price point for customers in a given area.  Furthermore, systems engineers can work in designing the transportation for urban areas.  Let’s say Philadelphia is planning to expand its subway line.  A systems engineer could help SEPTA figure out the optimal locations for subway stops given traffic density, the price point of a subway ride, and how to make subway travel the most efficient for its travelers. 

I chose systems because I am all about organization—I am constantly planning my life and how I can optimize my time.  The beauty of systems engineering is that you can design your major to be whatever you want it to be.  For me, I am not necessarily interested in pursuing financial systems, but logistics fascinates me.  I too was confused what I was going to do with my degree, but then I thought about it and realized that the possibilities are endless with my major.  I decided to follow what truly interests me: online shopping.  I did some research and asked a systems alum (and AWE alum!) named Hilary about her experience at URBN, the parent company to Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Free People, Terrain, and BHLDN.  I applied for an internship at URBN this past winter, and now I will be working in the Global Transportation Department at URBN this summer.  My internship is the perfect combination of logistics and my love of clothing.  And this is just another example of how versatile and customizable a systems degree is.

Many entering students are unaware of systems engineering as a major.  They shoot for the popular majors like bioengineering or computer science instead.  I got lost in the array of different majors as a freshman, until one of my friends a year older than me encouraged me to look into systems.  It is a major that is often overlooked, but is incredibly versatile and customizable by the student.  If you are confused about your major or not sure you fit into one of the common engineering degrees, I encourage you to look into systems, too.

Chloe is a sophomore in Systems Engineering.  Questions for Chloe?  email her at

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! I'm a prospective student, and I found this very helpful :). I love math and making things work, but none of the specific, more popular engineering fields totally interest me. I'm really thinking about systems.