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.
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 engineers are more than just system designers and developers. Engineers are involved in projects from conceptualization to maintenance. Engineers handle practicalities by conducting feasibility studies and cost analyses. Because of their multifaceted duties, electrical engineers sometimes specialize in project management, research and development or consultancy. Because of the wide range of industries using electrical engineers, many engineers specialize in sub-discipline of electrical engineering. Common sub-disciplines include:
Depending on background and expertise, engineering projects can include projects such as developing telecommunication systems, lighting and wiring buildings or designing household appliances. To progress in this rapidly changing field, engineers must remain abreast of current trends.
Most electrical engineers must have a bachelor’s degree or even a master’s degree in electrical engineering from a university accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Additional certification or specialization can help electrical engineers progress further in specialized career fields.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
This general education course covers algebraic concepts, including quadratic, polynomial, linear and radical equations.
This course looks at the inner workings of a computer and how operating systems are organized.
This course examines how electronics systems and circuits work. Students learn about circuit types, electromagnetism, frequency and voltage.
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.
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:
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.
This course looks at the transfer of energy and matter, including heat, light, electricity and magnetism.
Students in this class learn about forces, fields and waves and how electromagnetic devices work. Course covers electric charges, magnetic poles and field mapping.
This course introduces students to the structure of microprocessors, how they work, how they are used and how they are programmed.
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:
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.
This class uses physics and chemistry concepts to show how semiconducting materials are used in circuitry and effects on their electrical properties.
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.
This course explores mathematical modeling of linear systems in terms of time and frequency of electrical transfer to ensure system stability.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Individuals in an electrical engineering field can become certified in specific fields of engineering, 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|
Engineering professions exist across many skills levels and industries. Here are some quick facts about occupations related to electrical engineering.
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, OnetOnline
Engineers in related fields are also well-compensated for their education and training:
Electrical engineers are needed everywhere, which means many universities across the country offer engineering degrees. Use the search tool below to find an electrical engineering degree near you.
Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.