What Does a Career in Electrical Engineering Entail?
If you enjoy tinkering with electrical equipment and systems and have an aptitude for math, you might consider a path that would allow you to become an electrical engineer. Electrical engineering encompasses the design, creation, and testing of anything that uses electricity and signal processing and might specialize in engineering technology such as motors, communication systems, navigation systems, electric power generation, and lighting in virtually every industry from manufacturing to construction.
Although you'll need a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering to become an electrical engineer with a full license, you might enter the field as an electrical technician with an associate degree. Once you have experience, you should plan to earn your Professional Engineer (PE) license in order to show your expertise and qualify for the best positions.
Because electrical engineering and electronics engineering covers such a vast range of areas, you should plan on choosing a specialized area as soon as you are familiar with the careers available. Electrical engineers in all fields can expect to enjoy an excellent salary, but there may be wide ranges in pay across specific occupations.
Components of a Successful Career in Electrical Engineering
Your first step in an electrical engineering career should be to decide what type of work you'd enjoy so that you can choose which degree programs you are most interested in. Your school of choice may offer general engineering degrees, but you might also find electrical engineering degrees, electronics engineering programs, or something similar.
Because experience is vital to success as an electrical engineer, you should look for engineering degrees that include an internship or similar work experience before graduation. Although you will qualify for entry-level positions with a Bachelor of Science degree, you should have a long-term plan of earning first your license and then your master's degree in order to become top in your field. This will allow you to choose the best positions and earn the highest salaries.
Steps to Earn Your Electrical Engineering Degree
As mentioned above you can enter the field as an electrical technician with an associate's degree, which may be your best choice if you need employment as soon as possible. An associate's requires you to complete 60 credit hours, which includes your basic core classes such as English and math as well as introductory courses that will give you a solid foundation of electrical engineering knowledge.
A bachelor's degree will require at least an additional 60 hours. Your coursework will include advanced electrical classes as well as advanced math courses and your final two semesters will typically be more focused on your chosen area of specialization.
If you decide to continue your education to earn a master's degree you can expect another 36 to 54 required semester hours. A master's degree in electrical engineering will be highly specialized according to your chosen profession. Many enter the field of electrical engineering with a bachelor's degree and earn their master's part-time by taking evening or online electrical engineering classes.
Typical Electrical Engineering Certifications Needed
Although there is no certification or licensure required to enter the field of electrical engineering, you should plan on acquiring a Professional Engineering license (PE) as soon as possible. A PE shows you have the degree, knowledge, and experience that employers seek in engineers.
Because a PE license requires experience, you may take an initial exam once you earn your Bachelor's degree and become an Engineer in Training (EIT) or Engineering Intern (EI), which shows you have the knowledge required for a PE license. As soon as you have experience on the job, usually four years, you can take the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam and become a PE.
Licensure varies slightly from state to state but most states accept licensing from other states. A license allows you to oversee other engineers, provide services directly to the public, and sign off on electrical projects.
Academic Standards for an Electrical Engineering Degree
Most electrical engineering programs require enrolling students to have a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 3.0 in order to qualify, so if your high school record is less than stellar you might consider enrolling in an associate degree in order to be able to show an adequate GPA for entry into the bachelor's.
During your education you should strive to keep your GPA as high as possible so you will qualify for entry into a master's degree at a future time. You should also keep in mind that most employers require a transcript of grades as part of the hiring process and a lower GPA might make a difference in acquiring the job you really want.
Exam/Experience Needed for an Electrical Engineering Degree
The Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam is comprised of 80 questions you must answer within an eight-hour period. This exam is given twice a year and measures your competency in electrical engineering specific to your field. The registration and fee requirements vary from state to state so you should check with your state licensing agency during your final year of school.
Most states require you to have four years of experience before you can sit for the exam, so check with the licensing board to determine if you need more experience before you can take the PE exam.
Important Questions to Ask
How long does it take to earn an Electrical Engineering bachelor’s degree online?
The time it takes to earn your Bachelor of Science in Engineering online will depend on how many college credits you already have and how many classes you take each semester. A Bachelor of Science in Engineering is a four-year degree, so if you a full class load you can expect to graduate in that time. If you take half as many classes it will take you approximately eight years, and if you already have an associate's degree you might graduate after two years of full-time attendance.
How much does an Electrical Engineering bachelor’s degree cost?
The cost of a Bachelor's degree can vary widely from school to school. According to the U.S. Department of Education the cost range is between $22,000 and $50,000; much or all of this can be covered by grants, scholarships, and student loans.
An important thing to remember is the above cost does not include the "hidden" costs such as books, lab fees, student fees, and transportation. Make sure you take these into consideration when factoring your education into your budget, so you're not caught short of funds in the middle of your degree.
Because scholarships and grants can cover your schooling costs, you should plan on setting aside at least an hour or two a week for finding and applying for those you qualify for.
Does the school have the major(s) you’re considering?
While this may seem like a moot point, it is a valid question. Degree titles can vary from school to school, so check the curriculum of the programs in each school you are considering, making sure the major has the coursework you desire. For example, if you plan to specialize in electrical engineering technology, a degree titled Electrical Engineer might be as good as a specialized degree title if the same courses on technology are available.
How many students graduate “on time,” in four years?
Some schools focus on enrolling students but don't offer enough support for them to graduate in a timely manner. Check the school website for graduation rates; if you can't find them don't hesitate to contact the school and inquire or check online. A lower four-year graduation rate may be a sign of inadequate professors, an unrealistic curriculum, or a similar issue that may hinder your education.
What kind of accreditation does the program hold? How is it regarded in the field?
Accreditation is the best way to make sure a school is legitimate. Check that your school of choice advertises regional or national accreditation and then check the listed accreditation website to be sure the school is listed. An accredited school has met the minimal educational standards and is a typical requirement for federal grants, loans, and scholarships.
In addition to regional accreditation you should look for an electrical engineering program that is vetted by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). ABET accredited programs are an industry standard and required by many employers and most state licensure boards as well as an entry requirement for master's electrical engineering degrees.
Software, Technology & Skills Needed
If you think of electrical engineering as a field that doesn't use computer science and technology just as much as they use math, you’ll learn that the opposite is true. You'll need to learn electrical design programs such as computer aided design (CAD) as well as simulation software, digital prototyping programs, and engineering conversion and calculation tools. Depending on your chosen field of work, there will likely be several other programs you'll need to learn as part of your electrical engineering degree as well.
Electrical Engineering Associate's Degree
Some students choose to begin their career in electrical engineering with an associate's degree due to a poor high school record, time constraints, convenience, or work scheduling conflicts. While you can't become an engineer with an associate's degree, you can enter the work field as a technician and gain valuable experience which will make your bachelor's degree coursework easier to complete. Look for a program that is approved by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), as most bachelor programs hold this as a requirement to accept credit transfers.
It's a good plan to check with your preferred bachelor's schools for other transfer requirements before you enroll in an associate degree. Look for prerequisites for their third-year curriculum to verify your associate degree is a good fit for your future goals.
Your associate degree will include your core classes.
- Computer Applications
- Analog Electronics
- Electrical Machines
- DC and AC Circuits
Electrical Engineering Bachelor's Degree
A four-year degree will prepare you for entry level jobs as an electrical engineer. You'll learn the practices and principles of engineering as well as the processes of designing and developing electrical systems and equipment such as those used in aircraft, automotive design, and manufacturing. You may also choose to specialize in a specific area such as communication systems, navigation systems, motors, and radar systems.
Because experience is a requirement of licensing, it's a good idea to choose a program that offers an internship or work experience as part of the curriculum. If you do, make sure the hours are accepted by your state licensing board before you decide.
Your bachelor's degree in electrical engineering will have more difficult classes as well as options to choose courses in a more specialized area such as power generation and energy systems, electrical equipment and systems, circuitry, research and development, or electromagnets.
- AC/DC Electronics
- Communication Systems
- Communication Networks
- Energy Conversion
- Software-Defined Radio
Electrical Engineering Master's Degree
By the time you're ready to earn your master's degree, you will have experience in the field and a clear idea of what graduate study you plan to pursue. This is a fact because, unlike other programs, you often cannot enter an engineering master’s program without requisite experience. If your employment doesn't cover an area you think you'd prefer, it's a good idea to take one or more courses in different areas of electrical engineering technology to determine your preferred area of study.
There are many areas of specialization to choose from for a master's degree and, because the coursework is intense, you should familiarize yourself with as many areas as possible before you enroll.
- Magnetic Resonance Engineering
- Remote Sensing and Space Science
- Digital Signal Processing
- Principles of Electromagnetic Fields
- Solid State Devices
Here are some examples of electrical engineering fields of study at the Bachelor's degree level:
Communications and Signal Processing
there are two main aspects to this specialty. Communications and networking cover how to effectively and efficiently deliver information from one place to another via various methods such as wireless networks, satellite communications, and high-speed networks. The other aspect is signal and image processing, which is the design and testing of systems and algorithms used to describe signals, reconstruct content, and extract information. Typical technical subjects are radar, sonar, image and speech processing, and information forensics.
- Multimedia Signal Processing
- Communication Systems
- Digital Signal Processing
- Communication Networks
- Communication Design Lab
electrical engineering in control systems focuses on the technical aspects and principles of stabilizing a physical quantity such as speed, temperature, or altitude over a period of time. Vehicle cruise controls, home thermostats, and airplane autopilots are all examples of control systems designed and maintained by electrical engineers. Newer areas in this field are autonomous vehicles and robots, and the field is expected to grow in conjunction with technology.
- Building Autonomous Robots
- Control Systems
- Control Systems Lab
- Digital Control Systems
the area of power systems covers the control, generation, and distribution of electrical power. Motors, transformers, and generators are all examples of power systems currently in use; future expansion areas in this field are solar energy, renewable energy, the advancement of fusion energy, and high temperature superconductors.
- Electric Machines Lab
- Power Systems
- Power Electronics
- Renewable Energy
- Solar Energy Conversion
Chart of average degree costs in public and private schools:
|Degree Level||Associate’s Degree Range Cost||Bachelor’s Degree Range Cost||Master’s Degree Range Cost|
Average Electrical Engineer Salary
As with most professional fields your annual salary will depend on your level of education, your experience, where you live, and your occupation within the field. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in 2015 that the median annual wage for all electrical engineers was $93,010 with the lowest 10% earning $59,240 and the highest 10% earning $146,820. Considering the lowest earners are typically those with the least education and experience and the highest earners have the most, here's a look at Payscale's specific electrical engineering occupation wages:
Annual Median Salary by Occupation
|Occupation||Entry-Level Salary Range||Mid-Career Salary Range||Late-Career Salary Range|
|Electrical Design Engineer||$66,400||$78,600||$98,400|
|Electrical & Instrument Engineer||$82,800||$86,400||$120,600|
|Electrical Test Engineer||$65,900||$77,900||$81,100|
|Electrical Engineering Technologist||$52,200||$63,000||$81,600|
Electrical Engineering Scholarships
Electrical engineering degrees fall under the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) category and qualify for many types of educational scholarships and grants. Before you enroll in college, you should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)to apply for financial aid and set up a folder and bookmark system on your computer for scholarships and grants you might qualify for. Use your system to search for, apply to, and track the progress of any and all programs you apply to. While each scholarship will have different requirements, most will ask for you FAFSA information as part of the process. There are many websites dedicated to finding college funds; your FAFSA will be your means of entering your confidential information through a secure portal. You should also check state, county, and local sources for other opportunities to find funds to pay for your education. Here are some national scholarships you might qualify for:
The National SMART Grant
Deadline: FAFSA deadline
The National SMART Grant is available to both undergrads and graduate students enrolled in an approved program; applicants must hold a minimum 3.0 GPA and be available to work in summer internship programs at Department of Defense labs. Besides full tuition and fees the grant offers a cash award, health insurance reimbursement, and job placement after graduation; a work obligation is required after graduation.
The National Science Foundation
Deadline: FAFSA and school deadlines
The National Science Foundation (NSF) offers a wide range of scholarships to STEM students; funds are applied for and distributed through your school financial aid office. Scholarships are awarded to students who demonstrate financial hardship as well as high academic talent; job placement is often offered after graduation.
The Power and Energy Society
Deadline: June 30
The Power and Energy Society (PES) offers a PES Scholarship Plus Initiative for engineer students pursuing a career in the power and energy fields. Funds are distributed through the school financial aid office; recipients receive $2,000 for each of their first two years of school and $3,000 the third year.
SimpliSafe is a tech startup committed to the advancement of the STEM fields and offers a $1,000 scholarship to two STEM students each year; the main requirements are a high GPA and a 500-word essay on about the greatest achievement of your life in relation to STEM or the moment you realized you wanted to pursue a career in a STEM field.
Throughout your education and career membership in professional organizations will be a valuable resource to your success in the field. You should plan on joining at least one as soon as you enroll in your university; many find it optimum to add membership to up to one additional organization per year as they progress through their degree. Here are a few of the most popular organizations for electrical engineers:
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
The IEEE is the largest professional engineer group in the world and is dedicated to advancing technology in the field. Membership in IEEE offers technical information, the latest information on changes and advancements in the field, professional development tools, access to professional conferences and seminars, publications, and networking opportunities.
The Institution of Engineering and Technology
the IET covers many fields of engineering and encourages students to join at an introductory rate. Your membership will include access to a digital library, mentorship, professional development tools, and a wide range of other benefits to advance your education and career.
Electric Power Research Institute
The EPRI advances energy and environmental projects throughout the U.S. and explores ways to make power more affordable, reliable, safer, and sustainable. Membership grants access to all EPRI events and publications as well as the latest news and developments in the field; a career center is also available for members.
Association for Computing Machinery
if communication is your forte you might enjoy ACM membership. Access to a vast resource center, event discounts, a digital library, and field journal, as well as an expansive career and job center are just a few perks of membership. Student rates are available as well as a transitional rate for the time between graduation and full employment.
American Society for Engineering Education
The ASEE offers a student membership discount as well as discounted conference fees, subscriptions, and access to local professional groups, workshops, and seminars.
Choosing an Accredited College
Your most important step before enrollment is to verify the schools on your short list are fully accredited. Look for regional accreditation information on the school website and verify the school's credential with the accrediting organization. Accreditation is vital to both financial aid and future employment, and in addition to regional or national accreditation, the program you choose should be accredited by ABET. ABET accreditation of your degree program is a requirement for licensure in most states and shows your program of choice will be respected in the field.
Online vs. On-Campus vs. Hybrid
The type of school you attend should depend on your personal circumstances. Some people have no problems learning independently in an online platform and others need the structure of face-to-face instruction. If you're working full-time, online enrollment offers flexibility because you can do the class work anytime and anywhere you have an internet connection, but you must have the self-discipline to complete the work on schedule. Campus classes offer full accesses to labs and libraries, but you have a strict attendance schedule and must factor in travel time and cost. Some students do best in a hybrid program because they can take easier courses online and attend more difficult classes in person. Take an honest assessment of your personal traits and situation before you commit to a specific type of learning program.
Does the College Have Post-Graduate Job Placement Help & Assistance?
Look on the college or state university website for graduation rates and employment statistics; this page should include the college job placement assistance information. A university more focused on enrollment than on success might be lacking this information; a college dedicated to their students will have partnerships with businesses and organizations within the field that offer placement upon graduation.
Some schools have partnerships with major businesses that may include an offer of employment after a successful internship, so a bit of detective work may mean you won't even have to apply for a job after you graduate.
Why You Need to Consider the Overall National Rankings of the College and the Effects on Your Career or Salary
National rankings may come into play if you're entering a competitive occupation within the field of electrical engineering. If you're not sure about the ranking and reputation of your school of choice, ask some engineers in the field you plan to enter; most will be happy to give their opinion on the school program. You can also look for a social media or alumni page for the school program to gauge how well received the program is within the field.
While all schools with ABET accreditation are accepted for state licensure, a degree from a less respected school may mean your initial salary offer is lower than that offered to a graduate of a highly rated school and program. A lower initial salary means you may have slower advancement in your career. Choosing a higher rated school that has higher tuition may pay for itself within the first year or two after graduation, so do your research before you enroll.
- EEE Power & Energy Society Scholarship Plus Initiative
- Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
- The Institution of Engineering and Technology
- Electric Power Research Institute
- Association for Computing Machinery
- American Society for Engineering Education
Engineering Degrees & Career Paths