How to Become an Electrical Engineer

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Become Team
November 9, 2020

Becoming an electrical engineer requires training, commitment, and the willingness to wonder about questions such as how a flat screen television manages to be energy efficient or how a Las Vegas casino manages to use so much electricity without blowing a fuse.

Electrical engineers answer the tough electrical questions and may work on anything from handheld gadgets to massive electrical grids. In getting there, electrical engineers must consider questions such as: What level of degree should I get to maximize my income? What concentration should I learn to obtain my dream career? Do I have to join an engineering firm or can I work on my own?

This comprehensive guide is designed as a resource for individuals interested in the electrical engineering career path. Included are the steps to become a qualified electrical engineer, degree paths, potential salaries and projected career growth for specific subfields.

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What Does an Electrical Engineer Do?

Electrical Engineering Career Basics

Electrical engineers use physics, electronics and electromagnetism to design devices that are powered by or produce electricity. Electrical engineers work on anything from small pocket devices to large aircraft electrical systems. Engineers test prototypes and evaluate and improve systems. Nearly every industry has a place for an electrical engineer, including government, transportation, communications, technology and utilities.

Most electrical engineers work in an office or lab setting, but on-site projects and short-term assignments are common.

Electrical Engineer Salaries and Job Outlook

Salary Facts and Figures

Electrical engineers are well-paid for their work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median annual wage for electrical engineers was $91,410 in 2014. Engineers working in oil and gas extraction or wireless telecommunications earn particularly high salaries. The top 10 percent of all electrical engineers can earn more than $143,000 a year and engineers in the bottom 10 percent can expect to earn an average of $60,000 annually.

The highest earners are located in California, Alaska, Massachusetts, the District of Columbia and Washington state. The map below shows details of the 10th, 50th, and 90th percentile earners for each state.

State

Career Growth and Prospects

Electrical engineering jobs are expected to grow at a slower-than-average pace from 2012 to 2022, so picking the right electrical engineering degree is crucial. Engineers who keep up-to-date with industry trends will have an advantage over the competition. Electrical engineering is shifting toward computer systems design and away from traditional manufacturing. Electrical engineers work to build powerful electronics that use computer, cellular and GPS technologies.

Constant technological innovation will keep electrical engineers in demand, particularly in the following 10 states, which are projected to have the most job growth from 2012 to 2022:

1. Colorado: 26%

2. North Dakota: 24%

3. Montana: 21%

4. Texas: 21%

5. Georgia: 20%

6. Utah: 19%

7. Kentucky: 18%

8. Oregon: 17%

9. Rhode Island: 16%

10. Louisiana: 16%

Steps to Becoming an Electrical Engineer

Step 1
Earn a bachelor’s degree or higher
Most employers require that entry-level electrical engineers hold a bachelor-level electrical engineering degree from a program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Bachelor's degree coursework typically includes digital systems design, electrical circuit theory and differential equations.
In addition to classroom work, electrical engineering majors can participate in laboratory work and field studies. Cooperative engineering degree programs provide the opportunity to integrate classroom skills in real-world environments through internships. Electrical engineering students may be able to combine a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree with a five-year study program. Electrical engineers who hold a master’s degree can take jobs as an instructor at colleges and universities or research and development positions at a private firm.
Step 2
Take the Fundamentals of Engineering exam
All electrical engineers who work in the utility field must be licensed through the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. To qualify for licensure, an applicant must have completed a degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program and earn a passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. Students can take the FE exam upon graduating with an electrical engineering or related degree. Individuals with a passing grade on the FE are called engineers-in-training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs) until they pass their Professional Engineer (PE) exam.
Step 3
Land an entry-level job and gain experience
Advancement in electrical engineering is often based on experience and accomplishments. A graduate degree is not required, but many employers prefer their engineers to keep up with emerging technology. A graduate degree in electrical engineering provides an advantage in the field and leads to faster career advancement.
Step 4
Take Professional Engineer exam
To qualify for the Professional Engineer (PE) exam, EITs must have four years of relevant work experience. Several states require continuing education for professional engineers to keep their engineering licenses, which means engineers must keep abreast of changes in the field even after earning their PE license.

Did You Know?

According to a Princeton Review survey, over one-third of electrical engineers own equity in their firm, have started their own company or have filed for a patent.

Choosing the Right Academic Path

Most electrical engineering careers require at least a bachelor’s degree, but electrical engineering degrees at the associate level are also available. All engineering degrees focus heavily on math and science. Classes become more advanced as students progress through their chosen degree plan. Students can choose from multiple electrical engineering degree specializations, such as small-scale electronics or large-scale electrical grids. Several colleges offer online electrical engineering degrees at the associate through graduate levels. Use the following chart to explore more of what each electrical engineering degree can offer graduates:

Career Goal and/or educational needs Associate Bachelor’s Master's Doctorate Online
I want to be able to work full-time while earning my degree.
I want to see if I enjoy science and math before pursuing a lengthy degree plan.
I want to earn my degree on my own schedule.
I want to explore cutting-edge research and programs.
I’m interested in teaching others about electrical engineering.
I’d like to work for a broadcaster or power station.
I’d like to manage large projects involving other engineers.
I want to improve consumer electrical products.

Three of the 10 most popular universities for a bachelor’s degree in engineering are in California:

UC Berkeley
Cal Poly
UCLA

In-Depth Review of Degree Options

Although pre-engineering programs are available at the associate degree level, electrical engineers must earn at least a bachelor’s degree, in which they will learn not only electrical theory, but also how to practically use engineering equipment and analyze electrical schematics they will encounter in the field. Additionally, they will study the different applications for electrical engineering degrees, including how to store energy, make computers run, and establish and maintain functioning communication networks. Some engineers choose to get a master’s degree or doctorate, especially if they want to supervise projects or teach university courses. Graduate degrees are also an option for students who want to burnish their credentials in an engineering specialization.

Associate Degrees

Most employers require electrical engineers to hold a bachelor’s degree from a school accredited by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET), but some colleges still offer associate programs in electrical engineering to serve as a stepping-stone to a four-year degree. Students interested in electrical engineering can get a related degree at the associate level through an engineering technology or pre-engineering program. An associate degree will not provide the same job opportunities, but it can help students determine if they want to continue in the field of electrical engineering.

Students in an electrical engineering technology program might take some of the following classes:

College Mathematics

This general education course covers algebraic concepts, including quadratic, polynomial, linear and radical equations.

Skills & Knowledge Gained

Use mathematical concepts to solve problems Use technological tools for math

Computer Structure and Logic

This course looks at the inner workings of a computer and how operating systems are organized.

Skills & Knowledge Gained

Understand the internal structure of computers Assemble basic parts of computer

AC-DC Electronics

This course examines how electronics systems and circuits work. Students learn about circuit types, electromagnetism, frequency and voltage.

Skills & Knowledge Gained

Apply electronics principles toward circuit problems Create basic circuits commonly used in electronic devices

Introduction to Networking

This course covers data communications between computers, installed software and hardware devices. Content includes coding and decoding, circuit switching and packet switching. Students also learn network protocols and device functions.

Skills & Knowledge Gained

Design basic network protocols Set up hardware such as printers and scanners so they can communicate with networked computers

Bachelor’s Degrees

A four-year electrical engineering degree prepares students to design and analyze electrical systems. During the course of the degree, students will gain extensive understanding of electrical theory and hands-on experience with circuitry, mechanics, computer programming and thermodynamics. Students can choose to specialize in a related field, such as biomedical engineering or telecommunications engineering. Entry-level math and physics courses are typically prerequisites before students can take specific engineering. In upper-level engineering courses, some programs require students to choose a specialization. As students progress through an electrical engineering bachelor’s degree, courses continue to increase in difficulty.

A bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from an ABET-accredited program qualifies graduates to take the Fundamentals of Engineering and Principles and Practice of Engineering exams. Students must pass these exams to become licensed professional engineers.

Common engineering courses offered at the bachelor’s level include:

Probability Theory

This course introduces students to calculate possible effects of engineering decisions, such as maximizing sound data into minimal bandwidth or managing network traffic. Topics include variables, distribution and density functions, conditional probability and weak and strong laws of large numbers.

Skills & Knowledge Gained

Calculate probabilities when making engineering decisions Analyze potential variables that may affect systems outcomes

Physics

This course looks at the transfer of energy and matter, including heat, light, electricity and magnetism.

Skills & Knowledge Gained

Recognize universal physical laws Apply mathematical and computational techniques to engineering experiments and problems

Electromagnetic Fields

Students in this class learn about forces, fields and waves and how electromagnetic devices work. Course covers electric charges, magnetic poles and field mapping.

Skills & Knowledge Gained

Understand how transmission lines carry alternate current Use calculus to describe electromagnetic currents Understand how electromagnetic fields are affected by dielectric and magnetic materials

Microprocessor Systems

This course introduces students to the structure of microprocessors, how they work, how they are used and how they are programmed.

Skills & Knowledge Gained

Configure microprocessor components such as timers, controllers and analog interfaces Set up microprocessors to interact with external devices

Master’s Degrees

Graduate students often study similar topics as students in a bachelor’s program, such as power systems, control systems, and telecommunication systems, but graduate courses go far beyond the materials studied at the bachelor’s level and are much more challenging. Additionally, graduate students typically focus on one specific area of electrical engineering, and must demonstrate their knowledge on that topic by completing a project or writing a comprehensive thesis. Graduate students can move into higher-level jobs involving management of projects or engineering teams.

Common electrical engineering graduate courses include:

Power Systems

This course explains how electrical energy is converted to mechanical energy, underlining the importance of electric power to transmit energy so it can be used in industry and transportation. Students also look at alternative energy systems, including how wind, solar and hydroelectric power are generated.

Skills & Knowledge Gained

Calculate power flow throughout an electrical system Install and maintain power control equipment, motors and other electrical devices used in manufacturing plants and power plants

Semiconductors

This class uses physics and chemistry concepts to show how semiconducting materials are used in circuitry and effects on their electrical properties.

Skills & Knowledge Gained

Describe how electrons are transported and how this affects operation of semiconductor devices Describe how photo detectors, lasers and quantum dots operate

Electro-optics

This course introduces students to lasers, LEDs and other devices that use light to interact with other materials, providing them with in-depth knowledge of how they work.

Skills & Knowledge Gained

Solve optical circuit problems Design optical amplifiers, oscillators, detectors and control circuits

Linear Control Systems

This course explores mathematical modeling of linear systems in terms of time and frequency of electrical transfer to ensure system stability.

Skills & Knowledge Gained

Assess stability and performance of linear systems Design lead and lag controllers for linear systems using proper techniques

Doctoral Degrees

Individuals with a master’s degree in electrical engineering or a related field may choose to pursue a doctorate degree in engineering, which opens up opportunities at the top levels of industry and employment in research or teaching. PhD students spend much of their time completing a research dissertation, but are also responsible for taking coursework in a designated specialization. Many doctoral students teach courses to undergraduate students while earning their degree.

ABET provides a list of expected student outcomes for electrical engineering programs, which apply to PhD-level programs as well as bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Doctorate courses in electrical engineering are more complex and difficult than courses at the bachelor’s and master’s level and provide mastery in electronics, mathematics, electrical software, technology and theoretical electricity.

Upon graduation, doctoral students will have gained expert-level experience with the following skills:

Applying mathematics knowledge

Students will have taken hundreds of hours of math courses by the time they receive a doctorate in electrical engineering. ABET asks that doctorate graduates be able to apply their mathematical knowledge to model systems and processes before construction.

Analyzing and designing complex electrical devices, software, and systems

Doctoral students should, understand how most electrical devices work and be able make improvements based on what end users need. This requires not just an understanding of software or hardware, but also an appreciation of how both components interact.

Conducting experiments

In order to analyze what works and what doesn’t, doctoral students must research processes and electronics. Students conduct experiments on theoretical designs for new electronic systems.

Communication

Engineering is a complicated field, and many people do not understand electrical engineering systems. As electrical systems continue to grow and expand, engineers must be able to communicate with other industries and business professionals as they work together to improve electrical systems.

Electrical Engineering Concentrations

Electrical engineers commonly specialize in communications, power systems, control systems, or computer hardware. Most universities allow students to specialize in multiple concentrations depending on course offerings and student desire.

Communications

Communication moves information from one place to another, via Internet, mobile phones, satellite radio or face-to-face meetings. A specialization in communications covers information theory, wireless networking, noise suppression, compression and security. Graduates in this field often must pass state licensure exams to work in telecommunications and some states require an additional four years of experience before obtaining the title of professional engineer.

Designs wireless networks and works with electronic devices that send or receive radio waves.

Creates systems and products that enable mass communication from the wireless devices to broadcasting equipment to satellite equipment.

Maintains equipment necessary for radio and television broadcast.

Power Systems

Power system engineers design large-scale power systems for commercial, industrial or residential use. Power system engineers ensure the electrical system is not overloaded and that power is allocated properly between different power grids.

Designs and improves industrial facilities’ electrical equipment and systems, including transformers and power distribution and coordinates inspection of electrical sites to ensure systems are up to code.

Uses engineering software and substation construction to design electrical grids, provide lightning protection and design area lighting.

Designs, relocates and upgrades transmission lines with fiber optic additions; works with both wood and steel structure designs

Electronic Engineering

Electrical engineers study the electromagnetic circuits that make machines run. Engineers design and test electronic components so that that software and hardware work together seamlessly.

Uses circuits, microcontrollers and digital signal processors to design and develop “controllers” that allow machines to work safely and as intended, regulates machines and engines and repairs and modifies systems for optimal function.

Uses advanced understanding of electronic engineering to sell scientific products to businesses; explains product modifications to engineers based on customer needs; trains clients on how to use equipment

Computer Engineering

A computer engineering concentration bridges the gap between computer science and electrical systems and focuses on software-hardware integration. Computer engineers often write the software that makes a computer’s components run.

Designs computer components, creates blueprints for new computers and updates hardware to work with new software.

Designs communication networks to send and receive data via local area network or intranet system linking, secures network data, sources hardware to set up and support the network and installs cables and other network hardware.

Earning an Electrical Engineering Degree Online

Online degrees provide flexibility for students who cannot or choose not to attend a traditional university. However, not all electrical engineering degrees offer the same program benefits and accreditation. Prospective students should look for the following in any online program:

Accreditation

Accreditation guarantees the program and school has met required academic standards and allows schools to offer federal financial aid to students. Additionally, graduation from an ABET-accredited program is a prerequisite for professional engineering licensure.

Technology

Electrical engineers must be familiar with the latest technology. Online engineering programs should offer technology support, such as smartphone applications or streaming video for online studies.

Learning Support

Electrical engineering involves extensive math and science, and even the best students can find themselves in need of study groups and tutors. Top online programs provide live video tutoring as well as access to math and writing centers.

Online Library and Resources

Engineering is a rapidly changing and expanding field. Industry trends can change quicker than curricula and an extensive library can help students keep up to date. Students should look for online programs that provide access to the latest scientific articles and industry journals and magazines.

Components of a Successful Career as an Electrical Engineer

Electrical Engineer Skills

Electrical engineers must have a knack for math and science, the ability to analyze systems to understand how they work, the ability to determine how changes affect how system function and knowledge of electrical systems and circuitry.

Because electrical engineers often work with team members without an engineering background, engineers must be able to present complex ideas and relay instructions to others. It is imperative that electrical engineers have effective project management, multitasking and time management skills. Electrical engineers must be able to apply academic knowledge to new tasks and to keep up with rapid changes in technology.

Electrical Engineer Credentials

Individuals in an electrical engineering field can become certified in specific fields of engineering, including:

Energy Efficiency Management Certificate: Certification for utility workers to start or improve an energy efficiency program. Electrostatic Discharge Control Technician: Offered by the International Association for Radio, Telecommunications and Electromagnetics for engineers to minimize electrostatic discharge. Associate Systems Engineering Professional: A certification offered to recent college graduates with a systems engineering field concentration. Fiber Optics for Traffic System Technician: Offered to city, county and state transportation workers who install and maintain transportation systems.

Tools and Technology for Electrical Engineers

Electrical engineers should expect to become familiar with laboratory evaporators, semiconductor systems, signal generators, spectrometers and tube furnaces. Electrical engineers also work with many common engineering software programs, including:

Analytical or scientific software Such as Hewlett-Packard HP Semiconductor Parameter Analyzer, Synopsys PrimeTime and Tektronix EZ-TEST
Computer-aided design (CAD) software and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software Such as Autodesk AutoCAD software, Cadence Encounter Test and MAGIC layout editor
Development environment software such as Eclipse IDE software and programmed logic controller (PLC) code-generation software.
Object- or component-oriented development software such as C++, Python and Sun Microsystems Java

Related Engineering Occupations

Engineering professions exist across many skills levels and industries. Here are some quick facts about occupations related to electrical engineering.

3% 7%

Salary

$105,380

Education and Training:

Bachelor’s degree in engineering field related to aerospace systems

22% or higher

Salary

$86,950

Education and Training:

Bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering

3% 7%

Salary

$108,430

Education and Training:

Bachelor’s degree in computer science or engineering discipline; (optional) postgraduate certifications in various hardware or software systems

8%

Salary

$77,550

Education and Training:

Bachelor’s degree in computer science or related field

-2% 2%

Salary

$59,820

Education and Training:

Associate degree in electrical engineering technology; (optional) Electrical Power Testing certification

-2% 2%

Salary

$61,580

Education and Training:

Bachelor’s degree in engineering; (recommended) Professional Engineer licensure

3% 7%

Salary

$95,790

Education and Training:

Bachelor’s degree in engineering; (recommended) Professional Engineer licensure

5%

Salary

$83,060

Education and Training:

Bachelor’s or master’s degree in mechanical engineering; engineering license

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, OnetOnline

What do other engineers earn?

Engineers in related fields are also well-compensated for their education and training:

Electrical Engineer and Related Job Salaries

Related Careers at a Glance

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