Many of the most common, useful devices that make modern life possible – such as automobiles, batteries, computers, light bulbs, mobile phones and satellites – utilize electricity, a form of energy.
Electricity may provide the power necessary for a machine to run, or it can carry data.
“The information that resides within an electric signal enables technologies such as the internet, television, computers, cell phone cameras, bio-medical sensors, self-driving cars, autopilots for airplanes, and robotic science experiments on Mars,” Scott R. Norr, an instructor at the University of Minnesota—Duluth’s Swenson College of Science and Engineering who has a master’s degree in electrical engineering, wrote in an email.
Electrical engineers are inventors, designers and builders who understand how to manipulate currents and voltages in creative ways that advance technology. Like all areas of engineering, this academic discipline is a hands-on field that involves making and improving practical objects.
The median salary among U.S. electrical and electronics engineers as of May 2020 was $103,390, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which predicts that employment in the occupation will be 7% higher in 2030 than it was in 2020.
What Electrical Engineers Do and Why It Matters
Because electricity is ordinarily invisible to the naked eye, someone who intends to work as an electrical engineer should be curious about mysterious forces that significantly affect the universe but aren’t obvious to a layperson. A future electrical engineer should have a powerful imagination and strong abstract thinking abilities.
“You can’t see electrons flowing through a wire in a circuit or electromagnetic waves generated by an antenna,” Andrea Mitofsky, a professor of electrical engineering at Trine University in Indiana, explained in an email.
“Electrical engineers rely on mathematics to model these types of physical phenomena, so electrical engineers need strong mathematics skills,” adds Mitofsky, who has a Ph.D. degree in the field. “Electrical engineers also need strong computer skills. They rely on computer design software, they gather data from (sensors) and use computers to analyze that data, and they write specialized software to meet their needs.”
Electrical engineers work in a wide array of industries and are responsible for a dizzying amount of innovation.
Leonard Kleinrock, a distinguished professor of computer science at the University of California—Los Angeles who is famous for introducing the idea of packet-switching – a data transmission method that is essential for internet communication – says that a career in electrical engineering is exciting and rewarding.
“From the billions of transistor chips inside our computers to the large spacecraft electronic systems, electrical engineers create, deploy and maintain these remarkable and complex systems,” Kleinrock, who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, wrote in an email. “With these skills, you are granted access to many other engineering disciplines since they all embrace a common passion for science, technology and mathematics.”
Key Steps for Pursuing an Electrical Engineering Career
Like all engineering disciplines, electrical engineering is closely connected to physics, an area of science that investigates the nature of matter and energy. Like physics, electrical engineering requires the interpretation and application of complex theories, and it also demands technical abilities.
“A common trajectory to becoming an electrical engineer is that of a youngster with an analytic mindset who chases their curiosity, who meets challenges, who gets hands-on exposure to electronics projects, who takes one’s math and science courses seriously, and then obtains an Electrical Engineering degree in college,” Kleinrock says.
A bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering is the standard entry-level credential within this field, though a master’s or Ph.D. degree in this area can improve a job candidate’s marketability and allow that person to obtain higher-paying, more interesting positions.
Electrical engineers frequently specialize in a particular type of technology and develop expertise in that area, experts say.
“Depending on a specific individual’s field of practice, one could find themselves designing the latest computer chip, designing electronics systems that must travel across the solar system, designing a new electric vehicle or writing software to control an autonomous robot,” Donovan Wallace, vice president of electronics at Design 1st product design company, wrote in an email.
Sam Brown, an electrical engineer with over 20 years of experience developing wireless systems, says it’s important for prospective students to select engineering schools that align with what they care about most.
“Every school that offers a program in electrical engineering has a certain specialization within the broader area,” Brown, who blogs about wireless and radio engineering on his website OneSDR.com, wrote in an email. “For instance some universities might specialize in integrated circuit development. Others might specialize in communication systems.”