Degree programs for engineers looking to work in global development

A scene at a dam construction site in Sri Lanka. Photo by: Lakshman Nadaraja / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Engineers are in demand across the development sector. Their technical expertise is critical in designing and managing projects in areas such as water and sanitation, agricultural and rural development, urban development, and environment and natural resources.

Many employers look for people with previous experience or a demonstrated interest in development. The demand for engineers with a development profile has seen a number of courses emerge that aim to help these professionals understand how to work in development or humanitarian contexts.

5 fast tips for your career as a global engineer

As an engineer working in global development, you’ll need more than traditional engineering skills. Devex speaks to experts about how to succeed.

Currently, most of these courses are based in the United Kingdom and the United States. While many focus on engineering for sustainable development broadly, some schools also offer specialized master’s programs that focus on engineering for water, sanitation, and health projects specifically.

Devex highlights some of the key programs in this field. The schools listed here require applicants to demonstrate English language proficiency through the IELTS or TOEFL tests.

United Kingdom

MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development, University of Cambridge

Designed for students from an engineering background or associated discipline, graduates of this program have gone on to work with organizations including the World Bank, McKinsey, Winnock International, and Save the Children.

Delivered: On-campus.
Duration: One year, full-time.
Entry requirements: Applicants are required to have a first or upper second-class honors degree from a U.K. institution in an engineering or science discipline, or an equivalent standard from an overseas university.
Areas of study:
 Students must complete two core modules: sustainability methods and metrics, and driving change toward sustainability. They must also complete a dissertation and then choose two courses from the following: resilience and hazard migration in future cities; policy, legislation and government; innovations in sustainable design and manufacturing; and international development. When it comes to elective modules, students can choose from a list of more than 20 topics offered by different schools throughout the university.

MSc in Engineering for International Development, University College London

This program aims to create engineers who can work in a global context and with the skills and understanding to address the challenges of poverty worldwide.

Delivered: On-campus.
Duration: One year full-time; two years part-time; flexible up to five years.
Entry requirements: A minimum of an upper second-class bachelor’s degree in a relevant discipline, such as engineering, architecture, geography, urban planning or mathematics from a U.K. university or an overseas qualification of an equivalent standard. Applicants with a lower second-class degree may be considered if they have extensive relevant work experience.
Areas of study: Compulsory modules: appropriate technologies in practice; collaborative international development practice; collaborative international development project; engineering and international development; and conflict, humanitarianism and disaster risk reduction. Optional modules include: clean energy and development; geospatial programming; urban flooding and drainage; and life cycle assessment. Students also undertake a research project which culminates in a dissertation.

MSc in Sustainable Engineering Management for International Development, Swansea University
Swansea, Wales

The course aims to equip students to be part of a new generation of practitioners who can address challenges through practical engineering solutions and building resilience for local communities in the face of rapid urbanization.

Delivered: On-campus.
Duration: One year, full-time.
Entry requirements: A minimum of an upper second-class bachelor’s (or equivalent) in a relevant discipline.
Areas of study: Modules include: engineering in development practice; circular economy and sustainable engineering; tools for international development; monitoring and impact evaluation for international development; leadership and complexity management; and community engagement.

MSc in Humanitarian Engineering, University of Warwick

The program allows students to explore a broad range of professional and disciplinary facets of humanitarian challenges. The university also offers a master’s in humanitarian engineering with management, and a master’s in humanitarian engineering with sustainability.

Delivered: On-campus.
Duration: One year, full-time; two years, part-time.
Entry requirements: Upper second-class honors degree or equivalent in science, social sciences, natural science, law, health, management, business and economics, as well as engineering. In some cases, applicants with lower degree results will be considered if they have relevant professional experience.
Areas of study: Core modules of study are: humanitarian engineering: ethics, theory and practices; an introduction to global health; water and environmental management; renewable energy. Optional modules include: humanitarian law; communication and leadership; design for sustainability; sustainable cities and infrastructure for emergencies.

United States

Master's in Humanitarian Engineering, Colorado School of Mines 

This program promotes sustainable community development and educates technical professionals to draw on a mixture of expertise in engineering, applied sciences, and social sciences. The program can be thesis based or non-thesis based for students who prefer to undertake an internship as part of their studies.

Delivered: On-campus with some courses offered online.
Duration: 2-3 years if thesis based; 1-2 years if non-thesis based. Full- and part-time study options available. 
Entry requirements:
All applicants must submit transcripts from their undergraduate degree in addition to a statement of goals and an up-to-date resume. Students applying for the thesis option must also submit their Graduate Record Examination along with three letters of recommendation. Students do not need to have a background in engineering to apply.
Areas of study: Core courses are: advanced engineering and sustainable community development; engineers engaging communities; risks in humanitarian engineering and science; and humanitarian engineering and science capstone project. Students who do not have a background in engineering may have to complete at least one engineering course each semester.

Master’s in Environmental Engineering with a concentration in Engineering for International Development, University of South Florida

Engineering for International Development, or EFD, is one of the specialist tracks available for students of the environmental engineering course. The EFD programs consider issues of sustainability, environment, health, gender, and society.

Delivered: On-campus with some courses offered online.
Duration: Approximately 2+ years if thesis based; 1.5 years if non-thesis based. Full- and part-time options available.
Entry requirements: Preferred minimum GPA of 3.0 and the following minimum GRE scores: verbal, 150; quantitative, 155; analytical writing, 3.0.
Areas of study: Students must complete a course in sustainable development engineering which draws on several areas of engineering, such as water supply, solid waste management, construction, and watersheds. They must also choose from a selection of courses in anthropology and global health which cover topics such as sociocultural aspects of HIV/AIDS, health and culture, and global health principles and contemporary issues. Students must also engage in an extended international engineering field experience, which in most cases will form the basis of the master's thesis.

Know of other development-focused engineering programs? Please share in the comments below.

Devex, with financial support from our partner 2U, is exploring the skills and education development sector professionals will need for the future. Visit the Focus on: DevPros 2030 page for more.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.