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How to Become a Nuclear Engineer: Steps from High School

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What’s Covered:


Nuclear engineering is a specialized field of engineering where people research and develop the processes, instruments, and systems used to derive benefits from nuclear energy and radiation. While the job market for nuclear engineers is decreasing because of the increase in alternative energies and cheaper natural gas options, it’s still an exciting and well-paid career. You can take these steps from high school to get there. 


What Does a Nuclear Engineer Do?


Nuclear engineers help develop systems that are used to create nuclear energy to generate power. Nuclear energy can be used for industrial and medical uses through radioactive materials. In industrial uses, nuclear energy can be used to create power and in medical uses, nuclear energy may be used in positron emission tomography (PET) scanners or used to treat cancerous tumors. In addition to developing ways to create energy, nuclear engineers can monitor nuclear facility operations, and examine nuclear accidents to develop preventative measures. As you can see, nuclear engineers can pursue a variety of different fields. 


Nuclear engineering requires engineers to be investigative and inquisitive. You need to be able to analyze problems at hand in order to determine what the best solution is, both when designing a system or handling a malfunction in the system.


How Much Do Nuclear Engineers Make?


Nuclear Engineering is ranked as one of the twelve highest paid engineering jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nuclear Engineers make an average of $116,140 per year. 


Most nuclear engineers can enter into industry with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. The average starting pay for a nuclear engineer is roughly $73,380 while a more qualified nuclear engineer with years of experience may earn close to $137,675. 


How to Become a Nuclear Engineer: Steps to Take from High School


In this section, we will focus on different activities you can participate in from high school up until after you graduate college to set you on the right path to become a nuclear engineer.


High School


Take STEM Classes


Since nuclear engineers are required to have good science-related analytical skills, it is a good idea to take high school classes that are STEM focused. Furthermore, it is a good idea to enroll and do well in AP classes to show that you are able to not only understand the material, but that you are able to analyze the content with a deeper understanding. Some honors/AP courses that could set you up for success include:


  • Algebra
  • AB/BC Calculus
  • Multivariable Calculus
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics


In addition to these STEM classes, it is also a good idea to take additional AP courses in humanities or even join a music class such as band or orchestra to show you are a well-rounded student.


Participate in a STEM internship


Colleges and universities are also interested in the industry experience students get while they are in high school. You don’t necessarily have to wait until college to get an internship! You can start as early as high school — check out this list of 15 STEM internships that you can apply to while you are still in high school. 

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Earn a Bachelor’s Degree


While the field of nuclear engineering is shrinking, it is still a major that is offered at several schools. A nuclear engineer, however, does not need to pursue nuclear engineering as a major and may earn a degree in mathematics, physics, or any other engineering related field (such as mechanical engineering, chemical engineering or electrical engineering). This is because these majors also develop soft and hard skills that are relevant to the industry, such as design and problem solving.


Below is a complete list of schools that offer nuclear engineering as a major:


Georgia Institute of Technology | Georgia Tech

Missouri University of Science & Technology | Missouri S&T

New Jersey Institute of Technology | NJIT

Norfolk State University | NSU

Pace University

Pennsylvania State University | PSU

Purdue University

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute | RPI

Texas A&M University

United States Military Academy | Army

University of California, Berkeley | UC Berkeley

University of Michigan

University of New Mexico | UNM

University of Tennessee

University of Texas of the Permian Basin | UT Permian Basin

University of Utah

University of Wisconsin-Madison | Wisconsin


If you want to major in another engineering field, you can check out this list of the best engineering colleges. If you are interested in also calculating your chances of getting into a specific college, you can check out CollegeVine’s chancing engine. We use your test scores, GPA, extracurricular activities and other factors to help you determine your chances of getting into your dream school.



Participate in STEM Extracurricular Activities


While you are in college, a lot of the courses you take are theory based. This means that you learn a conceptual understanding of how things work rather than getting hands-on experience in the engineering related major. The best way to get first hand experience in the industry without an internship is to join various STEM clubs. 


For example, the University of California-Berkeley offers a nuclear engineering project-based club known as the Nuclear Engineering Design Collaborative (NEDC). This club allows students to improve their technical abilities by designing, experimenting, and gaining hands-on experience on a nuclear related project.  


Projects and clubs like these are a perfect gateway into industry since you gain valuable soft skills such as teamwork, collaboration, and problem solving that are key for working with others in the field. In addition, you learn to apply theoretical concepts you have learned in class to real life.


Connect Yourself with the Nuclear Engineering Community


While you’re in a four year university, you will have greater access to companies specific to your major. Your college may host engineering related career fairs and career counselors will ensure that companies related to every major offered at the school are present. Visit every career fair that the school puts on, so that you can network with nuclear engineering companies you may want to work for. 


If your school does not have connections with nuclear engineering companies, the nuclear engineering club at your school might. Major related clubs are known to host info sessions and major-related career fairs to help their members secure an internship.


Internships are a great way to secure a full time job after you graduate. If you do a good job during your summer internship, your manager may give you a return offer as a full time employee, which eliminates the stress of job hunting during your senior year of college.


After College


Work in Industry


One option post graduation is to begin working. Most recent graduates will work in an entry-level position where you will begin to gain more experience and independence as you solve problems in nuclear engineering. 


Pursue Higher Education


If you want to become more specialized in nuclear engineering, you may choose to attend grad school immediately after college. You may also choose to return to school after a few years in industry once you have figured out your particular interest. Earning a graduate degree will likely increase your salary and may help to attract future employers. 


If you choose to attend graduate school immediately after school, some universities may offer a fast-track or 4+1 program in which you can earn your master’s degree while earning your bachelor’s degree. Look out for these when you are applying for colleges. 


You can also pursue a Ph.D. program where you will work in a laboratory and research efforts in areas of advanced mathematics and engineering principles. You will usually work with a professor on a government or private research grant. This is a great opportunity if you want to dig into a specific aspect of nuclear engineering. 


Final Thoughts


The field of nuclear engineering is extremely rewarding as you apply skills to solve challenging problems. However, the industry is on the decline with the renewable energy industry growing. If you chose to pursue nuclear engineering, keep this in mind: the field is evolving, so it’s important to become familiar with other engineering specializations to keep your future options open!

Short Bio
My name is Thamira Skandakumar and I am from Vancouver, Washington. I am a current fourth year at UCLA studying Bioengineering with a minor in Electrical Engineering. In the summer, I will be moving out to San Diego to work at Medtronic in their Ventilator division.