Sibylle Walter

Sibylle Walter

PhD Candidate
University of Colorado, Boulder
Sibylle Walter
Ask a Question:
Required field
Please note
The engineers who take the time to respond to student questions on this forum are often very busy and may not respond to some questions, particularly those that have been answered elsewhere. Please be sure to review previous questions and answers to see if your question may have already been addressed.
Enter the code shown: (only upper case)


I didn't set out to be an engineer, but I kind of fell into it. I graduated from high school in 2003 from a technology magnet program where I built an electric car. I had initially enrolled in a hospitality branch of the program where I would learn to cook, bake, and how to manage a hotel. I switched to engineering because it sounded like fun as well. There, I learned to weld, how to lay up fiberglass, and various other technical skills. After my first year I was hooked and I ended up attending the University of Maryland, College Park for my undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering. While at UMCP, I struggled a lot with the course work because it didn't make sense to me. It wasn't until I worked in a research lab and had to apply my knowledge that it started to make sense to me. From UMCP I went to General Electric Aviation where I worked on jet engine parts. I got to see a whole different world of engineering, including what to do when things are breaking in the field, how to mass produce a part, and what to think about when designing new parts. I spent three years working at GE before I decided to go back to school for my master's degree and PhD. I finished my master's degree at the University of Colorado, Boulder and am now working on my PhD. I have a NASA Aeronautics Fellowship which enables me to spend two summers at a NASA center to do research and work on my thesis. I chose to go to NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland OH where I started work on data analysis for various hypersonic vehicle (that means airplanes that go 5 times the speed of sound or more) inlets (that's the ducting that brings the air from outside to the engine).

BS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park (2003) MSc in Aerospace Engineering Sciences from the University of Colorado, Boulder (2012) PhD in Aerospace Engineering Sciences from the University of Colorado, Boulder (exp 2015)
  • I am willing to be contacted by educators for possible speaking engagements in schools or in after school programs or summer camps.
  • I am willing to serve as science fair judge or other temporary volunteer at a local school.
  • I am willing to be interviewed by interested students via email.
Answers by Ms. Sibylle Walter

Dear Hiba,

First of: you should major in whatever you have the greater passion for. If you are passionate about aircraft or spacecraft, go for it. Things will fall into place. But if you're unsure, you might want to do mechanical engineering.

Mechanical engineering is the general engineering of dynamics, kinetics, fluids, etc while aerospace engineering is specialization of mechanical engineering. That means as a mechanical engineer you will learn fluid flows in pipes and ducts and in aerospace engineering you might focus on aerodynamics (fluid flows over wings). It is the same theory, but aerospace engineering applies it to aerospace specific problems.

Some schools actually have aerospace engineering as a focus in mechanical engineering rather than its own major. 

Now, as for landing a job: usually the aerospace companies will accept either an aerospace engineer or a mechanical engineer (with a focus in the particular area of interest) for the same job. Engineering jobs are all competitive, no matter what field you go in. Making sure you will get a good job has less to do with your particular major and is more about working hard, doing internships or working in research labs, and applying your knowledge.

I work on inlet and jet engine design for highly integrated vehicles (that means an aircraft like the X43) so my colleagues are electrical/computer engineers, mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, materials engineers, aerospace engineers, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, chemists, and even some civil engineers. Electrical & computer engineers work on the control system of the vehicle, which is basically the brains behind the airplane. Mechanical and civil engineers work on various things, including the structural integrity of the airplane. Chemical & material engineers and chemists work on the fuel system and choosing the right materials for the airplane. Physicists work out the theory of the fluid flow which the mathematicians and computer scientists help develop into computer programs that help in the design of the vehicle. And aerospace engineers are kind of dispersed in all areas.

If I were you, I'd check out the school you are interested in and see both departments. Get a feel for which one you are more comfortable in, which ones have the more interesting research, and pick that one. 

And of course, if you end up getting a master's degree, you will specialize even further.

Hi there.

Great question! In general, astrophysicists would work more on the questions like "how does the universe work?" and "how did we get here?" and "are we alone out here?". They are scientists who look at data gathered by satellites, mathematical models, and work in observatories. They may veer into more applied areas, like creating sensors that will help measure a parameter, or they may stay in very theoretical realms, looking at models.

Aerospace engineers are usually much more on the applied side of how to actually get that satellite into space. They work to make bigger, more efficient rockets or smaller, tailored rockets. An aerospace engineer might be responsible for coming up with the trajectory (or the path) the satellite will take and make sure there is enough fuel on board to carry out the mission. They help design and build thermal systems and materials that can handle the extreme heat and cold. Basically, anything relating to the design, build, launch, and operation of a satellite would be mostly aerospace engineers.

I also feel I should point out that aerospace engineers can also work on things not related to space. We work on aircrafts, jet engines, helicopters, submarines, atmospheric research... we do a broad range of things that are not even related to space; something to keep in mind.

Aerospace engineering is usually its own degree; some schools combine aerospace and mechanical engineering in one department or offer a mechanical engineering degree with an aerospace focus. Astrophysics might be its own degree or be a area of specialization within physics departments, but it will depend on the school. Most big state schools that offer aerospace engineering would also offer a degree in astrophysics and/or physics. Smaller, liberal arts schools will often offer a physics degree but might not have an aerospace engineering degree.  So it really is up to where you want to go.

The University of Colorado in Boulder offers both an astrophysics and an aerospace engineering degree, and both are highly ranked. The University of Maryland, College Park also offers both degrees and I can attest their aerospace engineering program is great (my alma mater). MIT, Cal Tech, Stanford etc all have great programs for both. I would recommend a larger school so you have the option of switching majors if you so choose.

Best of luck to you!