Electrical Engineering Degree: Requirements & Career Prospects

  in Research   Posted on November 5, 2020

The discovery of electricity as a form of energy is, without a doubt, one of the greatest achievements of mankind (Pavlov, 2011). Since the second industrial revolution (Niiler, 2019), electrical engineers have been at the forefront of fascinating technological advances. From Edison’s first incandescent light to electrical transformers and electric cars, the world has seen numerous enthralling electrical engineering marvels.

The fourth industrial revolution and the increased use of digital technologies have broadened the roles of electrical engineers. While the employment rate is predicted to be slower than the average for all occupations between 2018 to 2028 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019), there is no doubt that the world will be in need of more electrical and electronics engineers.

If you are still unsure if becoming an electrical engineer is the right career path, this article will shed some light on the matter. This will dissect electrical engineering and lay bare all the details you need to know about this occupation, from its educational requirements and potential jobs to the average salary of electrical engineers. With this information, students and parents can make astute decisions as regards electrical engineering.

electrical engineering

Electrical Engineering Table of Contents

  1. What is Electrical Engineering?
  2. Key Electrical Engineering Statistics
  3. What are the Requirements to Study Electrical Engineering?
  4. How Much Does it Cost to Study Electrical Engineering?
  5. How Long Does it Take to Become an Accredited Electrical Engineer?
  6. The Best Universities to Study Electrical Engineering
  7. Possible Careers for Electrical Engineering Majors
  8. How Much Do Electrical Engineers Earn?
  9. Famous People Who Studied Electrical Engineering

What is Electrical Engineering?

According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Encyclopedia, electrical engineering is a branch of engineering that deals with the practical application of electricity in all its forms, including those of electronics (Stevens, 2000). Put differently, electrical engineering is a field concerned with the study and application of electricity, electronics, and electromagnetism (Kosky, Balmer, Keat, & Wise, 2009).

As an occupation, electrical engineering deals with the design, building, improvement, and maintenance of electrical machinery, control systems, and equipment. Electrical engineering, once a sub-branch of physics, became a distinct discipline in 1900 (Edmondson, 2012). Today, the field is split into two distinct sub-fields, namely, electrical engineering and electronics engineering.

Electrical engineering, as a subfield, deals with power systems, electric lights, and electric apparatus. Electronics engineering, on the other hand, is concerned with automatic control systems, radio communication, smaller electronic circuits, radar, store program electronics, computers, and other modern technologies (Stevens, 2000).

electrical engineers in the US

Types of Electrical Engineering

From the looks of it, electrical engineering is a multifaceted discipline applicable to a wide range of industries. To make its practicalities a reality, electrical engineers often concentrate on one or a number of the following subdisciplines:

  • Power system engineering. This is regarded as the gist of electrical engineering. It is the central area of activity for electrical power planning, operation, and rehabilitation of power systems for electrical power supply (Schlabbach & Rofalski, 2008). It deals with the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity, and the devices connected to such systems including transformers, motors, and generators.
  • Control systems engineering. Also known as control engineering, this is a discipline that deals with the application of control theory to design, develop, and implement dynamic systems with a predefined set of behaviors in control. For example, control systems play a hugely significant role in space flight.
  • Instrumentation engineering. This is a branch of engineering that concentrates on the principle and operation of measuring instruments used in various fields of design and configuration of automated electrical systems, as well as those in pneumatic domains. It makes use of devices such as microcontrollers, microprocessors, and Programmable Logic Controllers to regulate parameters in an automated process.
  • Telecommunication engineering. As the name suggests, this is a branch of electrical engineering that deals with the design, development, implementation, and maintenance of telecommunication equipment and facilities. At its core, it is responsible for the installation of complex copper telephone facilities, switching systems, and fiber optics.
  • Signal processing. This subfield of electrical engineering concentrates on the analysis, extraction, synthesis, and modification of information embedded in various signals such as images, sounds, and scientific measurements.
  • Microelectronics engineering. This is a branch of electrical engineering that deals with the construction of prototypes of electronic chips, semiconductors, and circuit boards used in aerospace, electronics, biomedical, and IT devices and systems.

Key Electrical Engineering Statistics

If you are interested in pursuing a career in electrical engineering you definitely want to glean as much information as possible about this broad field. To make things easier for you, the following statistics reveal important details about the job outlook, work environment, and average annual wage of electrical engineers. In addition, you will find information about the cost of studying engineering and the number of electrical engineering graduates in recent years.

  • As of May 2017, there were 183,370 electrical engineers in the United States.
  • In 2018, electrical engineers, including computer engineers, held approximately 191,900 jobs in the U.S.
  • The largest employers of electrical engineers, including computer engineers, were as follows: engineering services (19%), electric power generation (9%), consumer instrument manufacturing (7%), research and development (6%), and electronic component manufacturing (5%).
  • On the other hand, the largest employer of electrical engineers, except computer companies, were telecommunications firms (17%), electronic component manufacturers (16%), the federal government (13%), engineering service companies (7%), and control instruments manufacturers (6%).
  • Electrical engineers are distributed as follows based on the stage of their professional career: entry-level (13.3%), early career (44.6%), mid-career (21%), experienced (12.5%), and late-career (8.6%).
  • In addition, in the 2017–2018 academic year, a total of 13,767 bachelor’s degrees, 7,048 master’s degrees, and 1,132 doctoral degrees in electrical engineering were awarded in the United States.
  • Of the total women awarded with bachelor’s degrees in engineering in 2017–2018 in the U.S., 14.2% were electrical engineering graduates.
  • On the other hand, in 2019, there were 55,000 electrical engineers in the United Kingdom.
  • According to data from Payscale.com, the average wage of an electrical engineer in the U.S. is $75,752.
  • Moreover, the average age of employees in the electrical engineering niche is 43.1 years.
  • The annual median in-state public tuition fee is $7,501, whereas the annual median out-of-state private tuition fee is $40,224.

Source: Payscale

What are the Requirements to Study Electrical Engineering?

People that are fascinated by electricity and its incredible impact on society are perfect candidates for a degree in electrical engineering. Besides, if, as a kid, you once took devices apart to understand how they work, and then used the new insights to create DIY projects, you probably need no extra dose of motivation to pursue a course in electrical engineering.

Passion alone, however, is not enough to earn you a spot in an engineering class. You must also meet a set of other basic requirements, for bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs. The requirements vary slightly, depending on your school of choice, but many of the prerequisites for admission are similar.

Bachelor’s Electrical Engineering Program Requirements

To study a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at a leading university, prospective students should meet the following requirements:

  • A cumulative Grade Point Average (GPA) of at least 3.0 in high school studies.
  • A strong background in science (primarily physics) and mathematics.
  • In addition, applicants coming straight from high school to pass either ACT or SAT scores. However, institutions do not typically stipulate a minimum ACT or SAT test score. Instead, they consider the score in combination with other admission parameters.

Applicants that fail to meet these requirements should not be deterred; some schools accept undeclared/pre-engineering students. Undeclared students are subjected to some foundational modules in physics, computer science, maths, and engineering. Once they pass the courses, they are integrated into the bachelor’s degree program.

Master’s Electrical Engineering Program Requirements

The entry requirements for a Master’s degree in electrical engineering vary between universities. But generally, aspiring master’s students should meet the following requirements:

  • Post exemplary performance in their undergraduate degree in a related subject (engineering-related discipline, mathematics, or physical science). Interestingly, a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering is not strictly required.
  • International students whose first language is not English are required to meet the minimum Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL ) scores.

In some top schools, such as Stanford University, students applying for MS programs in electrical engineering are not required to meet any minimum GPA (Stanford University, 2020).

Doctoral Electrical Engineering Program Requirements

The following are the core requirements that students in the U.S. should meet to get admittance to a doctoral degree program for electrical engineering:

  • A GPA score of at least 3.00 in undergraduate course work and at least a 3.50 GPA in master’s course work from a US institution accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. (ABET).
  • A minimum of graduate credit hours beyond the bachelor’s degree. Each institution stipulates a specific number of hours. Plus, to meet Ph.D. residency requirements, applicants are required to complete a certain number of hours at the admitting institution.
  • Students enrolled in doctoral degrees are required to pass a Doctoral Qualifying Exam —a comprehensive examination consisting of an oral and written part.
  • Besides, students should declare their research adviser and pass the thesis proposal examination.
  • International students may be required to post a good score on the TOEFL test, as well as the quantitative portion of Graduate Record Examinations (GRE).

As aforementioned, the prerequisites for the doctoral degree vary between universities. Some schools such as Arizona State University offer direct Ph.D. admission for master’s students graduating from an ABET-accredited electrical engineering program with a GPA of 3.6 or higher (ASU, 2020).

Engineering doctorate requirements

How Much Does it Cost to Study Electrical Engineering?

The cost of obtaining a degree in electrical engineering is, without a doubt, a primary concern in which school you go to. Failure to get your numbers right here can impede your progress, and in a worst-case scenario, end your academic adventure before graduation. To make an accurate decision, you have to factor in the cost of tuition, supplies, and books for four to five years of study. Besides, the cost of accommodation, transportation, food, and other personal expenses must be taken into account.

There is no doubt, the overall cost of studying electrical engineering is high. What you ought to know, however, is that the total cost varies widely based on various factors. Some of the key variables include:

  • Program length
  • School type (two-year or four-year institution)
  • Degree level (bachelor’s, masters, or doctoral)
  • Student state of residence (applies to students in the US)

There is little published data about the average cost of completing a degree in electrical engineering. We can look at the overall cost of higher education in the U.S., one of the most popular academic destinations, to make an estimate of how much the cost is.

In the academic year 2019 – 2020, the average annual out-of-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions in the US was $26,820. The average total charges including tuition, room, and board charges are $38,330. Besides, the average in-state tuition and fee at public four-year institutions was $10,440, and the total charges (including room and board) was $21,950 (College Board, 2019).

On the other hand, the average annual published tuition and fees at two-year in-district institutions was $3,730, and the total charges were $12,720. Moreover, the tuition and fee at private non-profit four-year institutions was $36,880, whereas, the average total charges were $49,870 (College Board, 2019).

Source: College Board

How Long Does it Take to Become an Accredited Electrical Engineer?

The journey to the crest of the electrical engineering career ladder is truly fascinating and demanding. It is also undoubtedly long because students have to take a full load of classes and earn vital work experience to make it to the top. Having a better understanding of the bitter roots—the lengthy academic and accreditation trek can help prepare both psychologically and financially.

Regardless of your reason for pursuing an electrical engineering course, there are milestones that you have to complete before getting accredited. These steps to becoming an electrical engineer include:

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree or higher in electrical engineering is the career opener. In fact, many of today’s employers require that entry-level electrical engineers hold at least a degree from a program accredited by the ABET.

An electrical engineering degree is typically designed to take four years to complete. But to complete the degree within this time frame, students that have met the basic requirements (as mentioned above) have to take full-time studies.

Students that opt to take part-time classes or extended research may take over two years to finish the degree. Also, some institutions allow students to take up to five years to finish their undergraduate students, provided they demonstrate unwavering progress throughout the program

Generally, the coursework includes electrical circuit theory, digital systems design, and differential equations. Additionally, electrical engineering majors take part in laboratory work and field studies. Electrical engineering classes are highly technical and challenging and thus, calls for full commitment to post good results.

Pass Fundamentals of Engineering Examination

The next step in becoming a licensed engineer is to take the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exams. To be eligible for the exams, applicants must hold a bachelor’s degree from an EAC/ABET-accredited program and earn a passing mark for the FE exam, as stipulated by the examination body.

The FE exam is a six-hour-long appointment that entails two-minutes of a non-disclosure agreement, eight-minutes tutorial, exam (5 hours and 20 minutes), and a 25-minute scheduled break (NCEES, 2020). Students who pass the FE exams earn the title engineers-in-training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs), and they are fully equipped to take an entry-level job.

Land an Entry-Level Job

From this point onwards, advancement in the electrical engineering career is heavily based on accomplishments and work experience. For this reason, EITs have to begin their search for an entry-level job to earn the four years of post-college work experience required to unlock the next career milestone. Besides discharging their duties, EITs should remain abreast of the emerging technologies in their field of practice.

Take Professional Engineering Examination

Lastly, after amassing up to four years of relevant work experience in their chosen engineering discipline, EITs qualify for the Professional Engineer (PE) exam. The exam test for a minimum level of competency in the respective engineering discipline.

But even after earning the PE accreditation, electrical engineers are required to continue their education to maintain the validity of the license. As such, PE licensed engineers ought to keep up with the changes in their field of practice after earning the accreditation. Taking a master’s or a doctoral degree is the next possible course of action.

steps to becoming a licensed engineer

The Best Universities to Study Electrical Engineering

The choice of electrical engineering college matters as it impacts your employability and post-graduation earnings. Studying at a quality school ensures you get the quality education that sets you for success in your career. 

Fortunately, there are tons of great schools across the globe, but unfortunately, one has to slog through hundreds of programs to pinpoint a suitable institution. To make it easy for aspiring electrical engineers to find suitable institutions, this section compiles details about the top schools in this discipline.  

Note: The universities mentioned in this section are the top five highest-ranking institutions in electrical engineering as per the 2020 QS World University Ranking data (Top Universities, 2020).

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Students pursuing a degree in electrical engineering have to look at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). MIT is a private not-for-profit learning institution with a fairly large student population located in the medium-sized city of Cambridge.  

Electrical engineering degrees available:

  • Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering
  • Master’s degree in electrical engineering
  • Doctorate degree in electrical engineering

Stanford University

Stanford University has staked its claim for a spot on our list. Like MIT, this is a large private not-for-profit institution of higher learning located in the suburbs of Stanford city. The institution is in the heart of the dynamic Silicon Valley, home to some of the renowned tech giants such as Google, Yahoo, and Hewlett-Packard, to name a few. 

Electrical engineering degrees available:

  • Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering
  • Master’s degree in electrical engineering
  • Doctorate degree in electrical engineering

University of California Berkeley (UCB)

A reputable public university for aspiring electrical engineering to consider. The University of California- Berkeley is a large institution of higher learning located in the city of Berkeley. 

Electrical engineering degrees available:

  • Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering
  • Master’s degree in electrical engineering
  • Doctorate degree in electrical engineering 

University of Cambridge

A reputable collegiate research university located in Cambridge, UK, University of Cambridge is the world’s fourth-oldest surviving university (“University of Cambridge,” 2001). The institution ranks high in electrical engineering and is a solid option for students looking to excel at this engineering discipline. 

Electrical engineering degrees available:

  • Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering
  • Master’s degree in electrical engineering
  • Doctorate degree in electrical engineering 

ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology)

ETH Zurich is a renowned public research institution, best known for its cutting-edge research and innovation. The institution of higher learning is located in the larger city of Zurich, Switzerland, and is an ideal destination for aspiring electrical engineers. 

Electrical engineering degrees available:

  • Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and information technology
  • Master’s degree in electrical engineering and information technology

Source: Top Universities

Possible Careers for Electrical Engineering Majors

As mentioned previously, electrical engineering is a multifaceted discipline. The broadness of this field gives aspiring electronic engineers an incredible catalog of careers they can pursue. It also turns out that there is an endless list of employers looking to tap into the best talent in this discipline. Some of the potential employers include consultancies, manufacturing firms, government agencies, engineering firms, telecommunication companies, computing agencies, energy companies, utility companies, and transport companies, to name a few. 

Electrical engineers can be employed by the above-mentioned departments in various capacities. The job duties may entail, but are not limited to:

  • Designing, monitoring, and maintaining electrical products, systems, applications, and components. 
  • Studying customer preferences and requirements to develop new electrical products.
  • Designing and modifying equipment to support new manufacturing processes.
  • Designing electrical testing methods and properties to ascertain components’ and systems’ capabilities.
  • Collecting, curating, analyzing, and visualizing information and trends on electrical products.
  • Complying with state and federal regulations and codes as regards electrical systems installation, maintenance, and construction.

Thanks to the plethora of career options, some electrical engineers can choose to specialize exclusively in one subdiscipline. Besides, others combine multiple subdisciplines to boost their employability and their potential pay. The following job titles emerge from a respective sub-discipline or type of electrical engineering:

Note: The salary information is culled from the latest U.S. data according to Payscale.com.  

Electronic Engineer

Average annual entry-level salary: $66,545

Used interchangeably in the U.S. with an electrical engineer, the term electronic engineer refers to a person tasked with designing, creating, and testing of electronic systems and components. The roles of an electronic and electrical engineer overlap significantly. What sets an electronic engineer from an electrical engineer is that the former hones in on smaller electronic parts, such as resistors, electronic circuits, inductors, diodes, and transistors. 

Electronic engineers are highly employable and can find jobs in a long list of areas, including but not limited to aerospace, automotive, defense, electronics, fast-moving consumer goods, marine, materials and metals, power generation, and rail industries. 

Power Engineer

Average annual entry-level salary:  $68,512

Also known as a power systems engineer, a power engineer deals with the generation, distribution, transmission, and utilization of electric power. They also install, maintain, and repair electrical equipment such as generators, transformers, motors, and power electronics.

Power engineers draw a significant part of their theoretical foundation from electrical engineering. Primarily, they are heavily focused on responding to issues related to three-phase alternating current (AC) power and the conversion between AC and direct current (DC) power. Power engineering graduates will most likely end up at a power plant owned by a power company, a wind farm, or an academic institution’s lab. 

Telecommunication Engineer

Average annual entry-level salary: $59,105

The work of a telecommunication engineer involves designing basic circuits, installing telecommunication equipment (such as optical fiber cabling, microwave transmission systems, IP networks, and electronic switching systems), and providing high-speed data transmission services. 

Using a wide range of transport media and equipment, telecommunication engineers design network infrastructures. In addition, they offer vital solutions for wireless communication and information transfer, such as radio and satellite communications, wireless telephone services, and broadband technologies. 

Beyond the telecommunication industry, telecommunication engineers can find jobs in virtually any industry. Typically, fresh graduates are employed in companies as junior IT specialists to help handle security/firewall systems, ethernet, operating systems, and PC networks. Moreover, telecommunication engineers can find opportunities in research and development, sales and marketing, and teaching. 

Digital Signal Processing Engineer

Average annual entry-level salary: $76,271

A digital signal processing engineer is tasked with establishing, managing, and updating signals, as well as developing algorithms to process these signals more effectively. In a nutshell, they analyze and alter digital signals to improve accuracy and reliability. 

A digital signal processing engineer can work in areas such as speech processing, image processing, chip designing, pattern recognition, biomedical signal processing, and radio frequency designs.

Control Engineer

Average annual entry-level salary: $68,854

Also known as a control systems engineer, control engineers are responsible for designing and analyzing control systems. They can fix system malfunctions that fall within their area of specialization or relay the problem to other engineers for a quick remedy. Moreover, control engineers are expected to explain technical information about control systems to non-technical coworkers. In a manufacturing environment, control system engineers ensure that human and technological components are working harmoniously to ensure work efficiency. 

Instrumentation Engineer

Average annual entry-level salary:  $69,572 

As the name suggests, instrumentation engineers are responsible for creating, testing, and maintaining instrumentations in a factory or plant environment. They develop and implement instrumentations that control different processes and manufacturing parameters such as pressure, flow, and temperature.

Instrumentation engineers measure, control, and automate processes. Their skillset makes them valuable assets for process and manufacturing industries such as oil, steel, petrochemical, defense, and power. 

Source: Payscale

How Much Do Electrical Engineers Earn?

Electrical engineers play a significant role in society, developing, designing, testing, and supervising the manufacture of electrical equipment. They generally work indoors in offices, but in the case of generation, transmission, and utilization of electricity, they may have to visit outdoor sites. Their skill sets make them employable in a host of industries, including state and federal governments, telecommunications, manufacturing, research and development, and engineering services.  

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 alone, there were 330,300 electrical and electronics engineering career openings in the U.S. The outlook for a job in this field is not overly impressive since only a mere 8,000 electrical engineer jobs will be added between 2018 and 2028 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019).

The career outlook aside, the major draw for a career in the electrical engineering space is the lucrative annual salary. On average, as of May 2019, electrical engineers take home $98,530 per year, whereas electronic engineers earn a median annual wage of $105, 570 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019). 

The salary, however, may vary based on the level of experience of the electrical engineer. For example, entry-level electrical engineers with less than a year of experience earn an average total compensation (including bonus, tips, and overtime) of $66,149 per year. Early career (1-4 years of experience) electrical engineers earn $71,120 and Mid-career (5-9 years of experience) earn $83,849. Lastly, experienced electrical engineers (10-19 years of experience) and late-career (20 years and higher) engineers earn $97,526 and $109,296 per year, respectively (Payscale, 2020). 

Source: Payscale

Famous People Who Studied Electrical Engineering

Aspiring electrical engineers looking for inspiration from the pioneers in this industry will be in awe of the people on this list. The following list compiles some of the great talents and most creative electrical engineers to ever live. 

These engineers have either been at the forefront of developing new technologies or have leveraged their knowledge to establish enterprises that touch on aspects of leisure, business, and communication. 

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla was a Serbian-American electrical engineer famed for his contribution to the invention of modern Alternating Current (AC) electricity supply. Born in Croatia in 1856, Tesla honed his skills in telephony and electrical engineering before immigrating to the U.S. in 1884 to work with another engineering great—Thomas Edison. 

Soon, the two innovators parted ways and this gave Tesla an opportunity to create his own ventures. With financial backers by his side, he established companies and laboratories in the U.S. where he developed a range of electrical devices. He patented the AC induction motor and transformer, which were later licensed and commercialized by another ally—George Westinghouse. 

George Westinghouse

George Westinghouse

George Westinghouse is an American entrepreneur and engineer born in New York in 1846. Famed as a chief business partner of Tesla, Westinghouse saw the potential in AC as a highly effective distribution system. 

He bought the idea from its original owner (Tesla) and went all out, putting all his resources into developing and commercializing it. The move put Westinghouse business on a collision course with Thomas Edison’s Direct Current (DC) system. Westinghouse founded 60 companies and secured 360 patents and just 10 years after actualizing his envisioned power plant, he employed over 50,000 people. 

Ellen Ochoa

Ellen Ochoa

Born in 1958 in Los Angeles, USA, Ellen Ochoa has lived an enviable life beautified by her exemplary achievements and contributions in the engineering sector. The former Stanford University graduate (Master’s and Ph.D.) in electrical engineering is renowned as the first Hispanic director and the second female director of the Johnson Space Center. She served numerous technical assignments in the Astronaut office, the pinnacle of which was serving on a nine-day mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993. 

The Future of Electrical Engineering

That is, more or less, the basic information that you need to know about electrical engineering. We have explored this discipline from all perspectives, and hopefully, the information revealed in this post will give you a headstart in your decision-making. 

As you may have noticed, electrical engineering is quite diverse and the niche offers numerous employment opportunities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, the career outlook in the sector is not one to savor. To suffice, in the next ten years, employment in the electrical and electronics engineering is projected to grow by a meager 2%. In other words, from 2018 to 2028, there will only be 8,000 new employment opportunities in this industry (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019).  

Should the bleak employment future be a putoff? No, it should not for two main reasons. One, the average employment for electrical engineering is half as fast as the average for all occupations. This means, comparatively, the growth rate is not bad. Second, at $98,530 per year, the annual average salary of electrical engineers is indeed lucrative (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019).

Going by the aforementioned reasons, people with the passion to change society by inventing new products to make the world a better place should not be deterred by the potential career impediments. Parents and educators should put more effort into encouraging young people to pursue courses in electrical engineering. With technological advancement, more innovative electrical products will be required to supplement the resultant demand. In this regard, more electrical and electronic engineers will be required to keep the fire of innovation, ignited by Tesla, Edison, and other pioneers, burning.

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