What Does a Career in Computer Engineering Entail?
Computer engineers typically work in research labs. They research, develop, design, test, and modify computer components such as memory devices, circuit boards, routers, processors, and networks as well as computer systems. Because computer engineers are the architects of the computer world, they may work closely with software developers to assure system compatibility before a program is released.
Although the field considers a Bachelor's degree as an entry level education, experience is another requirement, so you could conceivably enter the field in a lower position and gain experience as you earn your degree. Larger corporations may require a Master's degree as a condition of employment, and because computer technology is constantly evolving a computer software or hardware engineer should plan to continue their education throughout their career.
Engineering Degrees & Career Paths
Components of A Successful Career in Computer Engineering
To have a successful career in computer engineering you'll need more than the ability to design hardware or software. You'll need analytical skills to determine the needs of each specific project and the best way to design it, and you'll need-critical thinking skills to identify the weaknesses and strengths of each solution you consider. You'll also need to have communication and problem-solving skills if you plan on entering this field.
Although some employers will accept a computer science or an electrical engineering degree, if you take one of these programs, you'll still need to take courses specific to computer hardware or software engineering. Because hardware engineers and software engineers often work with software developers you should also have a solid knowledge of programming.
Because experience is vital to this position you can use an internship to gain valuable on-the-job knowledge; if your Bachelor degree program doesn't include an internship you should consider a summer job or part time position to gain hands-on experience while attending school.
How to Earn a Computer Engineering Degree
Typical Computer Engineering Degree Requirements
Although you might need a Bachelor's degree to be hired directly as a computer engineer, you can enter the general field in a lower position with an associate's degree and gain valuable experience. Your associate's degree could be in Computer Science and will require 60 credit hours which will include your core classes. You'll learn the basics of computer systems as well as circuitry and basic system development.
Your Bachelor's degree will be another 60 hours for a total of 120 credit hours. You'll learn how to develop, research, create, and test computer hardware/software, and you'll take intensive software courses with a concentration on mathematics.
Most computer engineers continue their education after beginning work in the field, and to earn your Master's degree you'll need another 36 to 54 credit hours of coursework. It will focus on the creation of hardware and software as well as advanced methods of circuitry, programming, and design.
Typical Computer Engineering Certifications & Requirements
Although there are no state or federal certification requirements for computer engineers you may wish to earn certification in your area of expertise. Certification shows you are an expert in your field and are an excellent way to showcase your knowledge while you are earning your graduate degree. Here are some examples of specialty certifications you might earn:
- ARM Accredited Engineer (AAE)
- Certified Computer Security Incident Handler (CSIH)
- Cisco Certified Network Professional Wireless (CCNP Wireless)
- Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE)
- Professional Software Engineering Master Certification
Academic Standards for a Hardware & Software Engineering Degrees
Most graduate school programs require a minimum 3.0 grade point average (GPA) for admittance, and some of the more competitive schools require a GPA of 3.4 or higher. Many scholarships and grants have the same minimum GPA requirements, so maintaining a high grade can pay for your education. In addition, most employers require school transcripts as part of the employment process, so maintaining high academic standards in the classroom can play a part in you getting the job you really want. If you're having trouble in one or more classes, you should consider tutoring in order to keep your GPA up to par.
Exams and Experience Required
Although there is no state exam requirement to work in the computer engineering field you will need experience. According to Payscale, roughly one quarter of employers require six months to a year experience and another quarter require one to two years experience.
If your Bachelor's degree program requires an internship, this will count towards your experience, as will working in a lower position within the computer hardware field. Many employers offer education premiums to their employees, so you might hire in at a lower position and have your education paid for while you work.
Important Questions to Ask
How long does it take to earn a bachelor’s degree?
A Bachelor's degree is usually earned through a four-year program, so if you take a full load of classes it will take you four years to complete. If you already have your associate's degree, it will take two more years of full-time school. Of course, if you take less than a full class load it will take longer and if you take summer courses or extra classes it may take less time. Taking your classes online can allow you to finish your degree more quickly if you stick to a constant schedule. However, most people who are taking courses online, do so for the flexibility. So, if you have other commitments, you will probably take longer to complete your degree than four years.
How much does a Computer Engineering bachelor’s degree cost?
The total cost of your degree will depend on where you live, what school you choose, and whether you qualify for any financial aid. According to the U.S. Department of Education the total cost for a computer hardware engineering degree is between $22,000 and $50,000; some or all of the cost may be offset by grants, scholarships, or employer educational funds.
Does the school have the major(s) you’re considering?
While this may seem like a moot point, the major you wish to take may be camouflaged within a degree that has a different name. For example, a Bachelor's degree in computer science, electrical engineering, or computer engineering may offer different concentrations that include the major you wish to pursue. Look for the specific curriculum in each program to determine whether it offers the major you want. If you have trouble determining this, make sure to call the department in the school you are considering and ask.
How many students graduate “on time,” in four years?
Some schools focus more on enrollment than graduation, so look for the statistics on four-year students. This metric is called “Graduation Rate” and can be found on the College Scorecard website created by the US Department of Education. This will give you an idea of how much support you can expect from the school if you have problems with one or more classes. A good school will have an excellent graduation rate because they offer tutoring, counseling, and similar services designed to help every student succeed.
What kind of accreditation does the program hold? How is it regarded in the field?
Accreditation is important because it shows the school has met the standard expectations. Your future employers will look for accreditation to determine the quality of your degree, and student aid is usually tied to accreditation. Regional accrediting is the norm for most schools; for computer hardware engineering you should choose a school that is also accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), as that is the most commonly accepted accrediting agency in the country.
Software, Technology & Skills Needed
As a field on the cutting edge of technology, your computer engineering degree will rely heavily on your background and continued learning in the field. You'll take extensive courses in programming as well as operating systems and networks. You'll learn to use programs specific to statistics, design, and circuitry as well as the software designed for data structures and system designs. As time goes on, and the field continues to expand, you’ll learn new standards and techniques on the job.
Computer Engineering Degree Choices & CoursesAs mentioned above your Associate's degree or the first two years of your Bachelor's degree will prepare you to enter the field of computer engineering in a minor role, which will allow you to accrue the experience required for a position as a computer engineer. Although your associate's degree won't give you specialization within the field, if you already know your preferred concentration you can take courses that will help you in your specialty. For example, if you plan to work with software developers you can take extra programming courses as your electives and get a head start on your bachelor degree requirements for that field.
Your bachelor's degree will reflect your area of specialization. For example, if you plan to design microprocessors your coursework will reflect that field. Network architecture, computer architecture, interface systems, microcontrollers, and circuitry design are all areas of specialty you can pursue in your bachelor's degree program. In mathematics you'll study advanced statistics and analysis courses as well as algebra, calculus, and differential equations, and in the sciences you'll learn physics. Your English coursework will concentrate on communication and report writing as well as public speaking.
When you're ready to earn your Master's degree you'll choose a concentration that reflects your chosen occupation. While each school will offer different concentrations, here are some examples of what you might specialize in:
- Hardware Integration
- Electrical Design
- Product Development
- Artificial Intelligence
- Computer System Architecture
- Machine Learning
- Product Development
- Artificial Intelligence
- Logic and Design
- Intro to Programming
- Digital Systems
- Engineering Probability & Statistics, I
- Thermodynamics, I
- Operating Systems
- Microprocessor Based System Design
- Engineering Economy
- Ethics and Computers
Cost Range for Each Degree
The total cost of your degree will depend on many factors. Some states have lower education costs; public schools are more affordable than private. The following chart shows the national range of cost for each degree:
|Degree||Associate’s Degree Range Cost||Bachelor’s Degree Range Cost||Master’s Degree Range Cost|
|Cost||$7140- $29,174||$14,280 - $58,348||$30,000 - $120,000|
Potential Careers & Salaries for Engineering Grads
- Computer Systems Engineer
These engineers are responsible for maintaining and updating the network for a company. Sometimes, with start-ups specifically, they even develop the network from the ground up, choosing hardware and software to create the system the company needs.
- Hardware Engineer
Some hardware engineers focus on choosing the correct hardware to work with a company’s current network architecture. Others are more proactive; planning, creating, implementing, and testing hardware solutions for specific problems or even for widespread distribution.
- Computer Software Engineer, Systems Software
Systems software refers to any program that includes complex software infrastructure that supports high-level processing tasks. These are what software engineers create, debug, and maintain for companies.
- Network Architect
These computer engineers are responsible for networks on which company data is shared across departments and whole offices. IT workers maintain security for the network, keeping proprietary and personal information secure and restricting permissions within the network to those who require access. The architects of networks are those who build the network from the ground up, but they may stay on and assist with maintenance as well.
- Electronics Engineer
These engineers design and test all kinds of electronic devices; from a toaster to the devices that run the mars landers. They work from blueprints to create a device meant for a specific purpose. They may also create the blueprints if they are working alone rather than with a team.
Computer Engineering Median Salaries by Occupation
Annual Median Salary by Occupation
|Occupation||Entry Level Salary Range||Mid-Career Salary Range||Late Career Salary Range|
|Computer Systems Engineer||$64,700||$73,000||$92,400|
|Computer Software Engineer||$71,400||$87,400||$114,500|
Earning your degree may sound like an expensive endeavor but there are several ways you can lower the costs. Your first step should be to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), even if you don't think you qualify for federal aid. Many schools, scholarships, and grants use the FAFSA to verify your personal financial information, so you will be able to share the form directly when you apply for scholarships and grants.
Most schools offer scholarships that are specific to the institution; states and local corporations do the same. Make sure you do a personal search for awards in your region for the best chance of getting help.
Note that many scholarships require essays or other criteria that may take time to complete, so set aside some time each week just for finding and applying to scholarships and grants. Here are a few to give you an idea of what you might qualify for:
The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation
Deadline: Last Friday in January (Nomination Deadline)
This scholarship awards $7,500 for both your junior and senior years to cover tuition, books, fees, and room and board. If you're already a junior, you can apply for your senior year only.
Richard E. Merwin Scholarship
Amount: $1,000 and up
Deadline: April 30, September 30
the IEEE Computer Society offers this scholarship in the amount of $1,000 or more to student volunteer leaders in each national region. Students must be a member of the organization and serve as student ambassador during the year they receive the scholarship; over a dozen scholarships are awarded.
NSF Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Program (S-STEM)
Amount: $10,000 annually
Deadline: Last Thursday in March
The National Science Foundation awards scholarships in the amount of $10,000 per year, renewable for up to four years. Students must show financial need and be academically talented in order to qualify for this award. This scholarship is awarded directly to the school and disbursed by them to the student.
Women Techmakers Scholars Program
Deadline: December 6
Formerly the Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship, the Women Techmakers Scholarship Program awards $10,000 to women undergrads enrolled in a computer science program. Applicants must show strong leadership and academic qualities and be enrolled in an accredited college or university.
Computing Research Association
the CRA is comprised of over 200 organizations dedicated to computing research. By uniting academic, government, and industry leaders CRA advances the computing fields.
Association for Computing Machinery
the ACM is a network of over 100,000 professionals and students in the computing fields. Networking, a career and job center, learning center, and continuing education are only a few of the many membership benefits.
Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence
if AI is your dream field this is a must-join organization. The AAAI is devoted to advancing intelligent behavior in technology and your membership will give you access to conferences, workshops, books, magazines, and technical reports, and an online resource library as well as several grants and scholarships.
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Society
the IEEE-CS is the world's leading organization for technology and computer science. You can enjoy conferences, webinars, a curated digest, career opportunities, and professional advancement for all areas of computer professions.
Association for Women in Computing
the AWC addresses computer career aspects that are unique to women as they enter the field of computer science. Career building, networking, education, and mentoring are just a few of the perks of membership in the AWC.
Choosing an Accredited College
As you narrow your school choices your first step should be to verify that each school on your short list is accredited. Regional accreditation shows the school has met financial and academic standards on a regular basis and is typically a requirement for federal aid, scholarships, grants, and employer college programs.
In addition to regional accreditation, your school of choice should be accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), as this organization sets the standards for the industry. ABET is recognized worldwide as the organization that oversees individual programs rather than colleges, so you know an ABET-approved program will be respected by your future employers as well as your peers.
ABET programs graduate over 85,000 students each year from almost 800 different colleges in over 30 countries. If your school of choice doesn't offer ABET-approved programs you should cross the college off your list of options.
Online vs On-Campus vs Hybrid
Your next step should be to decide whether you want to attend school online, at a traditional campus, or by a hybrid mix of the two. Each type of education has its pros and cons, so you'll have to decide what works best with your own personal situation.
Online school is convenient because you're not committed to a tight schedule. You don't have travel time to contend with, and you can complete your work anywhere there is an internet connection. On the other hand, you'll need to have self-discipline to complete your work in a timely manner. You won't have one-on-one learning with your instructors or interaction with other students and you won't have access to school perks such as the library and labs.
On-campus attendance is the opposite: you'll have a face-to-face traditional experience and can meet your classmates for study groups, and you'll also have access to the library, labs, and on-campus workshops and seminars. On the con side you'll be committed to a tight schedule and will have to add commute times to your day, as well as the expense of travelling to your classes. If you're working a full-time job it may be hard to carry a class load and attend your classes regularly.
A hybrid solution works best for many people as you can enjoy the best of both types of education. You can take some classes online if they interfere with your daily schedule, and if you find a subject more challenging you can attend on-campus and take advantage of the extra interaction it provides. On the other hand, you're restricted to schools within driving distance of your home, so this option may not be viable in your personal situation.
You best bet is to take an honest evaluation of your personal, home, and work situation and decide the best type of education for your own lifestyle before you commit to a specific type of schooling.
Does the College Have Post-Graduate Job Placement Help & Assistance?
Your degree won't be worth much if you can't find employment after you graduate. Look closely at each school's website and find out what post-graduate job placement assistance they offer. Look for statistics on graduate employment to verify a high percentage of graduates are successful after they finish school. If you can't easily find the information it may be a red flag that the school is more interested in enrolling new students than seeing them succeed, so don't hesitate to contact the admissions office and ask for the information. If it's not readily available, you might want to cross that school off your list of options.
A school that is vested in their students' success will use that information as a selling point, so look for partnerships with area corporations and testimonials from former students. You can also look for alumni groups and online student forums and social media pages to get a feel for the employment rates after graduation.
Why You Need to Consider the Overall National Rankings of the College and the Effects on Your Career or Salary
The overall national rankings of each college is another area that has pros and cons. While a school with a highly regarded computer science program will be an asset to your resume, it may not have a long-term effect on your career and salary. A smaller college that offers a program with ABET accreditation may give you the same career results as a school with a high national ranking if you combine your education with excellent experience. Your best bet it to compare individual ABET-approved programs, see what internship opportunities are offered at each school, and check with peers or mentors within your field of choice to verify the school you're considering has a program that is respected in the field of computer hardware engineers or computer software engineers.
Remember, by taking some extra time to go over details before you enroll, you can save time in the long run. By narrowing your career field, vetting your school of choice, and determining the best program for your interests and aptitudes, you can plan your career with confidence and pave your path for future success.