Prosthetics design is a field that draws a lot of students into engineering. The thought of being able to directly help someone through engineering seems both challenging and fulfilling, the ultimate combination for an engineer.
Seeing as it’s a very specialized field, it’s hard to know where to start. If you want to be a prosthetics engineer, keep reading to learn the steps needed to become one.
- Know the different types of prosthetics that engineers design
- Choose the right major
- Enhance your undergrad with certain classes and extracurriculars
- Consider interning for one of these companies
- Consider being a prosthetist
1. Know the different types of prosthetics that engineers design
When you think of prosthetics, you probably think of prosthetic limbs for amputees. In reality, there are many types of prosthetics designed by engineers. Here are a few:
- Prosthetic limbs
This is the most known type of prosthetic. Prosthetic engineers design artificial arms and legs for amputees. They can be both robotic and non-robotic. Hands and feet are also commonly designed prosthetics. They can range from being solely cosmetic to fully functional depending on the desired use.
Joints are a huge industry in the world of prosthetics. This can include knees, hips, and shoulders. With over one million people getting total hip or knee replacements every year, it’s a rapidly growing field.
- Prosthetic heart valves
Prosthetic heart valves aren’t often thought of when people think of prosthetics. They are mechanical devices designed to replace failing valves in the human heart. A currently growing field is transcatheter heart valves. These valves can be crimped down into a catheter, inserted through a vein, and deployed in your heart, eliminating the need for open-heart surgery.
- Specialty prosthetics
Outside of traditional limb prosthetics, there is a large market for specialty prosthetics. There are prosthetics specifically designed for running, swimming, biking, climbing, rowing, skiing, baseball, basketball, and any other sport you can think of. Outside of sports, they make prosthetics that are adapted to specific hobbies, such as a drum stick adaptor and even a tripod adaptor for photographers. Basically, any activity you can think of that would be challenging to do without a certain extremity, there’s a specialty prosthetic or adaptor for it.
2. Choose the right major
A common mistake students make is thinking that biomedical engineering is the best major for prosthetics engineering. While it is a good choice, a better choice might be mechanical or electrical engineering.
Biomedical engineering gives you knowledge on the medical side, but at the expense of the engineering side. At most schools, biomedical engineers have a lot of variety in their classes but lack depth of knowledge in any one topic.
Mechanical engineering is the bread and butter of engineering. Mechanical engineers are found in every industry, including the medical device industry. Compared to biomedical engineers, they typically learn more advanced dynamics, kinematics, and finite element analysis, which are all important for prosthetics engineering.
Electrical engineers have the most exposure to robotics and circuits which is useful for designing robotic prosthetics. Ultimately, robotic prosthetics are still electrical devices, and the companies that design them need both electrical and mechanical engineers.
Every school differs in how they design their majors, but most likely, biomedical engineering is not the best choice to be a prosthetics engineer. It would be more beneficial to choose mechanical or electrical engineering and focus your major in the biomedical space, which we’ll talk about in the next section.
Read Should you Major in Biomedical Engineering? to read more about biomedical engineering and how to decide if it’s the right major for you or not based on your goals.
3. Enhance your undergrad with certain classes and extracurriculars
You can tailor any engineering major to the biomedical field. A great way to do this is through minors, electives, clubs, and research.
Many universities offer minors in biomechanics. This is a great option if it’s available to you and you feel like you can handle adding on a minor. However, it is not necessary so don’t feel like you need it to become a successful prosthetics engineer.
Almost all engineering majors have electives or tech electives built into the curriculum. Filling these electives with biomedical or biomechanical classes is a great way to learn how to apply your engineering knowledge to biomedical applications.
There are lots of research opportunities in biomechanics and robotics that would be applicable to prosthetics engineering. This is a great option for engineers in any major.
4. Consider interning for one of these companies
Getting an internship during college is one of the best ways to set yourself up for success when it comes time to look for a job. All internships provide valuable experience, but if you’re looking for a medical device internship, here are some companies to check out:
- Boston Scientific
- Edwards Lifesciences
- Johnson and Johnson
These are all large biomedical device companies that have big internship programs. Even if you don’t work specifically on prosthetics during your internship, being exposed to the medical device world is still very valuable to employers.
Things like learning to work with the FDA and working in cleanrooms are common skills that you can learn at any biomedical company.
Many of these companies design and manufacture tons of medical devices, so it might be hard to find an internship that deals specifically with prosthetics. It’s worth looking into smaller companies that are more specifically align with your goals. But the smaller the company, the fewer internships they tend to offer.
Remember, you don’t need to intern for a biomedical company to get a job in the biomedical space. Skills you learn as an intern are transferable to every industry.
5. Consider being a prosthetist
Another career option is being a prosthetist. A prosthetist is someone who makes and fits prosthetics for amputees.
While it’s not an engineering job, it still allows you to be very hands-on since many prosthetists participate in the manufacturing of the prosthesis. Unlike engineers, prosthetists work directly with patients. If you’re someone who would like patient interaction, this might be a better career choice for you.
To become a certified orthotist and prosthetist, you need a master’s degree in orthotics and prosthetics. There are a variety of undergraduate majors you could choose from so long as you complete the required prerequisites. Common prerequisites include physics, biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, psychology, and statistics.
Based on this, an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering would probably give you all of the necessary prerequisites to be a prosthetist. It will also give you the option to go into the design side of it if you choose that route.
If youre interested in being a prosthetist, try reaching out to a local prosthetics clinic to see if they will let you shadow for a day or two. This can be a great way to see if you could see yourself in this career.