Over the past decade, robots have been used to solve many of society’s most pressing problems. In the past few months alone, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, industries ranging from healthcare to manufacturing turned to this technology to keep their processes moving and their customers satisfied.
“When societal problems are hard to solve, we start imagining solutions that involve machines,” says Taskin Padir, a professor in the Master of Science in Robotics program within Northeastern’s College of Engineering. “We envision a future where robots are seamlessly integrated into our day-to-day activities, though in many ways they already are. They’re just going to continue to come in newer forms, shapes, and capabilities.”
As the field of robotics continues to grow, so does the need for trained professionals with the knowledge and skills necessary to meet this increasing demand. Below, we explore what the field of robotics entails, uncover the top positions currently defining the industry, and examine the steps aspiring roboticists can take to build a successful career in this field today.
What is robotics?
Robotics is an interdisciplinary field that sits at the crux of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science. Robotics professionals not only apply their knowledge and skills from all three disciplines to develop robots but also “study human factors to enable the adoption of robot technologies in a wide variety of applications, ranging from healthcare to manufacturing to exploration,” Padir says.
He continues by defining a robot as any machine that can “sense environments, compute its actions, and act in the physical world.” They may come in the form of a drone delivering a package, a mechanical arm sorting products on a supply chain, or even a self-driving car. What they all have in common, however, is that they are autonomous machines that rely on artificial intelligence (AI) and complex software to complete tasks.
Robotics Career Outlook
Though this field has been evolving for quite some time, Padir recognizes that the past decade has seen the most substantial growth, both in the technological capabilities of robotics and related career opportunities.
Great leaps in technology like AI, actuator and sensor development, and software engineering specifically have led to a slew of new applications of robotics across industries. As such, Padir explains that organizations have begun hiring roboticists at previously unprecedented rates.
“We have a lot of partners [in the MS in Robotics program]—from Amazon to Google to Apple—and they come to us and say, ‘How can you accelerate your graduation volumes? How can you graduate your students faster and faster with the skills they will need in these jobs?’ because they want to hire them,” he says.
Job growth rates predicted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics echo this trend. As of 2018, the organization predicted a four percent job growth for the field over the next ten years alone—a figure that is expected to increase as more facets of society become reliant on this advancing technology.
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7 Top Careers in Robotics
Padir explains that “robotics is a very interdisciplinary field, and robots are tightly integrated systems.” For this reason, there is an array of niche careers that fall under the general umbrella of robotics, each of which contributes to the development of these autonomous machines.
Below, we explore seven of the top careers defining the robotics industry today.
1. Design Engineer
Average Salary: $68,296 per year
Design engineers create the visual look of a robot. They often start by sketching blueprints, schematics, or figures of a robot’s intended design, then work with a mechanical engineering team to ensure those plans are followed correctly during development.
Though their work is concerned with the physical appearance, proportions, and functions of a robot, it is also important that design engineers have advanced computer science knowledge and that they understand how the various components of their design work together to bring a machine to life.
2. Software Engineer
Average Salary: $86,016 per year
Software engineers in robotics are in charge of developing the software that allows each machine to function. They work closely with software designers and programmers to integrate new software with existing systems and typically remain involved throughout the robot’s construction to ensure full functionality is achieved.
In robotics, software engineers are also tasked with staying up-to-date with changing technologies and trends, and must apply updates or reconfigure existing robotics software as needed.
3. Hardware Engineer
Average Salary: $87,556 per year
A hardware engineer is responsible for the computer hardware that robots utilize to function. They can have a hand in everything from prototyping to development, and are often tasked with overseeing the execution of a hardware build.
Once a robot has been constructed, a hardware engineer may also partake in testing and analysis of the designed systems, and lead a team in making any necessary changes for improvement.
4. User Experience (UX) Designer
Average Salary: $105,096 per year
The work of a UX designer is one aspect of robotics Padir considers integral but often underrepresented in the larger robotics field. When building a robot, “sometimes engineers can overlook what the user needs,” he explains, identifying that it is up to the UX designer to represent this perspective in the development process.
These professionals are typically tasked with evaluating how consumers will interact with a robot, and making decisions about how to build a system that’s best equipped to meet those needs.
5. Data Scientist
Average Salary: $105,750 to $180,250 per year
As most robots run on data, the work of a data scientist is critical within the robotics field. These professionals are responsible for designing data modeling processes and creating the algorithms and predictive models on which the data is gathered and interpreted. They also analyze data sets on which existing robots function, make adjustments to collection processes or storage systems, and measure effectiveness in order to improve functionality.
6. Machine Learning Engineer
Average Salary: $111,627 per year
Machine learning engineers are responsible for the automation aspect of robotics. These professionals rely heavily on data and predictive analytics in their work. In many cases, they use advanced software to automate predictive models as a way of advancing the machine’s function and helping it “learn” from its experiences.
Machine learning engineers are often highly skilled in data science, deep learning, natural language processing, programming, and more.
7. Algorithm Engineers
Average Salary: $121,500 per year
In the scope of robotics, an algorithm engineer’s main role is to research, develop, and then test the algorithms on which a robot runs. These professionals work closely with the rest of the development team to understand the desired functionality of the robot, then identify and integrate the data needed to reach that goal.
This role straddles the line between data science, software, and computer science, requiring professionals to be well versed in all three disciplines.
Setting Yourself Up For a Successful Career in Robotics
Professionals looking to work in the robotics field must obtain the unique skill sets, experiences, and advanced training required of these niche roles. Below we explore the three main steps aspiring roboticists can take to set themselves up for success.
1. Develop the necessary skill sets.
Despite the tailored skill sets of each individual career path, there is a common toolkit of practical and “soft” skills all advanced robotics professionals share.
The practical skills typically span the wide scope of the mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science fields. As such, Padir recommends aspiring roboticists enroll in an official training program—such as a graduate degree—in order to obtain this expansive knowledge.
He identifies that most roboticists should also be comfortable programming and coding complex systems, as well as building and working with software and hardware, ranging from design sensors to actuators. What’s more, they should be prepared to identify and hone the specific, skill sets required of their unique role or industry.
Though some believe that “soft” skills are secondary to these practical abilities in robotics, Padir confirms that interpersonal skills are an equally important part of the equation. This is because “robotics professionals play a key role in bringing interdisciplinary teams together,” he says. “That will only be possible if they have excellent communication, teamwork, and other soft skills.”
This need to not only communicate well, but to do so across disciplines, is why Northeastern’s master’s in robotics program focuses on helping students embrace written, spoken, and presentational communication. “That’s a big part of being a professional in the community,” he says.
Other “soft” skills roboticists should aim to hone include leadership and entrepreneurship. “Our students don’t have to go and start their own robotics companies or anything, but they should be able to innovate and make great contributions to top companies,” he says. “Robotics is an emerging field, so there’s so much open space to make an impact.”
2. Obtain hands-on experience.
Another important way aspiring roboticists can prepare for a role in the field is by gaining relevant, practical experience. Though this can be hard to obtain without actually landing a role within the field itself, programs like Northeastern’s master’s in robotics build out opportunities for students to acquire this kind of experience while still in school.
“Our program has dedicated opportunities for students to pursue co-ops at the graduate level,” Padir explains, referencing a type of experiential learning which allows students to work in industry for both credit and pay over a period of up to six months. “This unique focus on project-based learning in the classroom and experiential learning outside of it is a big differentiator of our program.”
Alongside the chance to apply their skills hands-on prior to applying for roles, Northeastern’s co-ops are designed to help students get a foot in the door with some of the top companies in the robotics field.
“Massachusetts is the epicenter of robotics,” Paidr says. “Our students gain an intimate connection to the robotics ecosystem while living and learning within the greater Boston area, and that connection can set them apart when it comes time to apply to jobs.”
The co-op program at Northeastern has led to graduates of the master’s in robotics program landing an array of outstanding positions across disciplines at top companies in America and beyond.
3. Earn a master’s in robotics.
A master’s in robotics at a top university like Northeastern will offer built-in opportunities for experiential learning and the development of industry-aligned skill sets. Beyond this, however, there are an array of benefits to earning an advanced degree in this highly competitive field.
First, a master’s degree provides the chance for truly in-depth training in all the core competencies of robotics. “Robotics is interdisciplinary,” Padir says. “We don’t have the space to fit all that you need to know to excel in this field into a four-year undergraduate program. That’s why, if you want to be a hardcore robotics professional, you better get a master’s degree.”
Alongside this comprehensive training, Northeastern’s program offers opportunities for students to declare a concentration and hone in on the specific area of robotics in which they wish to work. This allows aspiring professionals to obtain the niche knowledge and skill sets they need to succeed.
Concentrations are just one way in which Northeastern has designed its program for maximum flexibility.
“Our personalized approach to learning…will allow you to get your robotics master’s and become a professional in the area—no matter what [educational] background you come from,” Padir says.
This means that, whether students come from a job or undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, or an entirely unrelated field, Northeastern’s industry-leading faculty can adjust the program’s curriculum as needed to help them reach their goals.
“You may not come with what you think is an appropriate background, but you can navigate through the program in an intelligent way so that you can still get your degree in the allotted time,” Padir says.
Take the Next Step
Choosing to embark on a master’s in robotics degree is a strategic move for anyone hoping to land one of these lucrative roles in the robotics field. Doing so can provide not only the personalized training but the skill-development and hands-on learning opportunities professionals need to stand out in this exciting industry.
“The future is now,” Padir says. “We need a lot of roboticists in the foreseeable future, so don’t take your time on this. Enroll in a master’s program as soon as you can, and make the most out of it so you can start contributing to this field today.”
Learn more about Northeastern’s Master of Science in Robotics program—including the curriculum, concentration options, industry partners, and more—on Northeastern’s program page.