A system is a collection of different elements that together produce results not obtainable by the elements alone. The elements, or parts, can include people, hardware, software, facilities, policies, and documents (INCOSE). From this definition, we understand that, a "system" can be anything that consists of smaller parts that work together to form that system. And a system can be very small or very large. Some examples of systems:
As you can see from the definition and examples above, systems include different parts that do not belong to only one engineering discipline or only one business definition. Now we know what a system can be. What is engineering? Engineering, in general, is the application of science and math to solve problems. Based on the definitions of a system and engineering, we can say that systems engineering is the application of science, math, and management knowledge to solve problems related to any system (however large or small).
Systems engineering is like putting together a puzzle, matching varied pieces together to make one cohesive whole (www.graduatingengineer.com/resources/articles/20011016/Systems-Engineering). Therefore, it is a multi-disciplinary field that incorporates engineering, management, systems thinking (the ability to see the big picture) and business topics. Its main goal is to understand how a system works, and design, improve and manage that system. That means you will be exposed to systems, management, business and engineering concepts, and will have the necessary understanding and skills to work on interdisciplinary projects.
Due to the wide definition of a system and all the different aspects involved in it, a systems engineer can do numerous things and work in various industries. Here is a simple definition: A systems engineer oversees the engineering, business and management aspects of a project or a system, and makes sure that all the parts properly work together. Systems engineers are concerned with the "big picture" of a project in addition to engineering aspects and must consider details like cost, schedules and social issues that may be associated with a project (www.graduatingengineer.com/resources/articles/20011016/Systems-Engineering).
For example, let's talk about a cell phone design project. A cell phone includes both mechanical and electrical parts, so both mechanical and electrical engineers work on it. A systems engineer, let's call her Jane, can work as the project manager who organizes the resources and the schedule needed for that project. Or, she can work as a quality engineer to ensure the quality of the parts and the end product (the cell phone). Or, she can be the marketing person who understands what the customer wants and ensures that the cell phone will meet customer needs and so on.
A systems engineer knows how to support her/his decisions by using appropriate methods at every level of an organization. Those decisions often involve an understanding of risks and uncertainties related to the future of a project. So, a systems engineer should know how to identify and analyze those risks and uncertainties, and make decisions (or support his/her boss in making certain decisions) based on that understanding.
Here are some more things our friend Jane can do: She can predict when customer expectations could shift in the future and what new technologies would emerge (see the business and engineering connection?). Based on that knowledge, she can propose technical updates for that cell phone, when to provide those updates, how to design the new version of that cell phone and when to release it to the market. What she does here is that she sees the "big picture" and works on how to make it better for the company she works for.
Overall, our graduates will have the knowledge to do the things listed below:
Because systems engineers have various engineering and business skills, they can have more choices than usual. Systems engineers are employed in a wide variety of industries including:
During the last decade more and more companies have started to look for individuals who are educated in interdisciplinary fields such as systems engineering (For example, a lot of energy companies are looking for interdisciplinary engineers right now. Studies show that this search is likely to expand noticeably in the near future). It is a fact that traditional engineers are given an ever-increasing amount of management responsibilities after a few years working as a pure engineer. If you are not trained in certain business and management areas, the transition from traditional engineering to management can become difficult. Systems engineering also provides a unique engineering perspective that only business and management training may not. In this sense, systems engineering education prepares you to take management responsibilities and higher level positions effectively.
In 2008, www.engineer.info reported a total of 519,597 jobs available in systems engineering (one of the highest). Starting salaries range from $54,000 to $95,000 per year.
There are many. But here are some of them: