The internet offers a lot of varied advice about how to become a network engineer. Old-school engineers who transitioned into senior positions when companies realized they couldn't operate with just one 'IT guy, for instance, will tell you degrees in this field aren't worth much.
Most job listings tell a different story, though. While it's still technically possible to step into some network engineer jobs with no degree and minimal experience, employers typically look to fill open positions with candidates who have both degrees and certifications.
Companies' increasing reliance on computer technology is driving changing requirements in the field. Because one day of downtime can mean tens of thousands—or even hundreds of thousands—in lost profits, employers are willing to pay network engineers big money to ensure their networks stay online and operate efficiently. In return, though, they want to see proof of up-to-date cross-functional skills.
If you're not an expert yet, you can still work in network engineering. There are more roles in this field than most people realize, it's relatively easy to advance, and salaries rise quickly. There are also a lot of jobs because organizations from the smallest startups to the biggest global conglomerates have networking needs.
In this article about network engineering jobs, we dig into what those needs look like.
What are network engineering jobs?
A network engineer is an IT specialist responsible for building and configuring new network infrastructure based on user requirements and, in some cases, maintaining and updating those networks. Because naming conventions vary from company to company, network engineering jobs can involve network administration, system design, network performance monitoring, and hardware management.
Network engineering job types
There aren't many different network engineering job types—yet. Right now, job descriptions in network engineering reflect different levels of seniority and (sometimes) varying day-to-day responsibilities. You might be a computer network engineer or a system administrator or a Local Area Network (LAN) engineer/Wide Area Network (WAN) engineer doing essentially the same work, depending on how your employer decides to refer to your position. As networking continues to evolve as a field, however, specialty areas are emerging. It likely won't be long before job titles reflect that.
Network engineering jobs growth
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for network engineers will grow at about the same rate as the average across disciplines. Demand for network engineers is already high, however.
The future outlook for network engineers is strong, but the picture is complex. As technology changes, network engineers must update their skills or risk becoming obsolete in an evolving marketplace. Skills related to automation, virtualization, cyber security, and data-driven networking will probably become increasingly important.
Entry-level titles in network engineering include:
- Junior network engineer ($54,000)
- IT engineer ($69,000)
- Managed services engineer ($57,000)
- Network administrator ($60,000)
- Network engineer I ($54,000)
- Network implementation technician ($48,000)
You can get experience and flesh out your resume while you're in school through internships, but that's not the only way. Your college probably has an IT support department; there may be work-study jobs available. If there aren't, offer yourself up to the department as a troubleshooting volunteer so you can learn all you can about what it takes to build and configure networks.
"I started out doing help desk and then moved to systems/network/telecom administration positions," Mary Fasang of The Networking Green Girl told Rowell Dionicio in an interview. "There were countless times when I felt like I should just give up and stick to being a 'jack of all trades.' What I didn't realize was how all that broad experience and knowledge would help me tremendously once I became a network engineer." While you're building new skills, study for whatever entry-level IT and networking certifications you qualify for.
Whether you land at the help desk after graduating from a bachelor's program will depend on whether you have experience. Recent grads can step into roles beyond the entry-level jobs listed above, but usually only if they have something on their resumes demonstrating they know what they're doing.
You can do any of the network engineering jobs listed in this article without a degree. Whether someone will hire you is a different story. Job listings in this field frequently request that candidates have a:
- Bachelor's degree in computer engineering, computer science, information systems, or related technical field
- Bachelor's degree or significant experience combined with advanced industry certifications
- BS in an engineering discipline OR four years work experience OR an associate's degree plus three years work experience
This suggests employers are open to hiring network engineers without degrees, provided they have experience and certifications. It also indicates you'll be competing for available positions against network engineers with degrees. Whether your background is worth more than their diplomas will depend on what individual hiring managers value more.
If you have no networking or IT experience, you'll need to get some before employers trust you with their networks. Take an internship, volunteer, and shadow one or more network engineers. Those experiences won't qualify you to step into a network engineering job, but they will teach you what you have left to learn.
What can you do with a network engineering degree?
A network engineering degree can help you become a network engineer or advance into a network design position—which most people see as the logical next step in a networking career.
Career trajectories in this field aren't always linear, however. You can also advance into other roles like lead network controller or automation specialist. Some network engineers pursue additional education because they want to specialize in emerging areas of networking, like cloud engineering, software-defined networking, or intent-based networking.
Most employers won't expect you to have a master's degree in network engineering, but network engineers with master's degrees typically earn $99,000 per year, a substantial salary boost.
Master's holders probably earn more for three reasons:
- They learn new skills and may specialize in a higher-paying area of networking
- The best programs build real-world learning experiences into the curriculum
- Master's degree holders may have titles associated with higher salaries
"It's not so much 'you have a degree, so I'm giving you more money,'" writes one Redditor in a thread about the value of master's degrees in network engineering, "but that my degree definitely allowed me to stand out and advance pretty quickly for someone of my experience level."
Many people working in this field still regard it more as a trade than an academic discipline, so it's unusual for network engineers to have doctorates. That said, if you want to join the ranks of professionals creating protocols and discovering ways to make networks and connectivity better, you'll need a doctorate. You may also need a PhD to make it past the resume filter at firms like Amazon, Google, Cisco, and Juniper.
Be aware, however, that there are no doctoral-level programs in the United States dedicated solely to network engineering. If you want to conduct original research into network engineering in pursuit of a doctorate, you'll probably need to enroll in a computer engineering or computer science PhD program that offers networking as a specialization. You also have to keep in mind there aren't many network engineering jobs for doctorate holders outside academia. The list of employers looking for PhDs is short. Large cloud providers, networking equipment vendors, major telecom companies, and high-profile tech firms look for candidates with doctoral degrees, but the competition for open positions is intense. There's also no wage premium associated with this degree, so chances are you won't earn any more with a PhD than you would with a master's.
What are the highest-paying network engineering jobs?
Some of the most lucrative titles in network engineering are:
- Cloud network engineer ($106,000)
- Network architect ($122,000)
- Network engineer CCIE ($127,000)
- Network engineer CCNP ($97,000)
- Principal network engineer ($122,000)
- Senior network engineer ($101,000)
- Senior network manager ($122,000)
Some people gravitate toward network engineering jobs because they can be done remotely. That doesn't mean you'll be able to work from home just because you're a network engineer. Very few network engineering jobs are advertised as remote. It's more common for network professionals to start in-office and then negotiate for hybrid or full-time MFH arrangements. Many network engineers work remotely 70 percent of the time and spend the rest of their working time in the office, in meetings, traveling, and doing rack and stack.
There aren't many part-time network engineering jobs because network engineers are expected to be available at a moment's notice if outages happen. It's more common to be salaried and on-call than to bill by the hour.
Network consultants are the exception. They work as contractors, building networks for different businesses and organizations, and generally earn about $71,000 a year. Consultants are free to set their own hours and work as much or as little as they want, which many consider a plus.
What are the best network engineering companies to work for?
According to Glassdoor, the top companies hiring network engineers include:
- Cisco Systems
These aren't necessarily the employers offering the highest-paying network engineer jobs, however. Indeed reports that the following companies pay experienced network engineers over $150,000:
- General Dynamics Information Technology
- Northrop Grumman
What are the best cities for network engineering jobs?
The cities with the most data centers, telecommunications companies, big tech firms, and research parks tend to have the most jobs for network engineers. If finding a job fast is crucial, focus your job search on the following cities, where there are lots of open network engineering jobs:
- Baltimore, MD
- Dallas, TX
- Denver, CO
- San Antonio, TX
- San Francisco, CA
- Seattle, WA
- Washington, DC
The cities where network engineers earn the most, on the other hand, are:
- Atlanta, GA
- Austin, TX
- Chicago, IL
- Los Angeles, CA
- Nashville, TN
- New York, NY
- Phoenix, AZ
- Washington, DC
Is network engineering for you? Only you can decide. There's talk right now about how virtualization, simplification, and automation will make network engineers, admins, and architects obsolete, but you can't automate the design and installation of network infrastructure. Become a network engineer now and the nature of your job may change in five or ten years. You'll still be paid well and enjoy a level of job security most people can only dream of—provided you keep your skills and knowledge up-to-date.