How Do I Become an Electrical Engineer?

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Have you ever switched on a light, used a smartphone, had your blood pressure taken, or driven somewhere using GPS navigation? If yes, you can thank an electrical engineer for creating and designing these modern-day conveniences. Electrical engineers are skilled professionals who work in fields related to electricity, electromagnetism, and electronics. They develop technologies upon which people depend every day.

On a larger scale, electrical engineers work with teams that create microprocessors to place in computers, design new satellites to expand worldwide telecommunications; or develop new flight-control systems to help pilots more effectively navigate aircraft. There is no single industry in which all electrical engineers are employed.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that the largest employers of electronics engineers are spread out over several sectors, with telecommunications (17 percent), semiconductor manufacturing (14 percent), and the federal government (13 percent) being the top three largest employers (BLS 2021). In these fields, electrical engineers devise solutions to enhance industries such as renewable energy or solve specific problems in microelectronics, such as making online banking easier and more efficient.

Many electrical engineers work in research positions to push the limits of what’s possible in motor, radar, power generation, and communication systems technologies.

Throughout history, electrical engineers have played an essential role in developing devices and technologies upon which humans rely every day. Well-known electrical engineers include Thomas Edison, who shaped history by creating the first practical lightbulb, among other accomplishments. David Packard co-founded Hewlett-Packard, a company that provides hardware and software-related services worldwide. And Nikola Tesla, a Serbian-American engineer, helped develop the modern-day AC electricity supply system.

Before embarking on an electrical engineering career, individuals should be fully prepared for what to expect along the way. Here’s a reference guide to learn how to become an electrical engineer and ultimately participate in the expansion of every-day technologies that provide convenience and save lives.

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Skills & Characteristics of a Successful Electrical Engineer

No two successful electrical engineers are exactly alike. It is impossible to definitively describe what character attributes an individual must possess to achieve success in this field. That being said, specific skills and abilities will likely prove beneficial to anyone working as an electrical engineer in the future. O*NET OnLine and the BLS list these skills among those most characteristic of electrical engineers:

  • Understanding of electronics: Perhaps a defining characteristic of budding electronic engineers is interest in and familiarity with circuit boards, processors, chips, and electronic equipment, as well as transmission, broadcasting, switching, and control.
  • Knowledge of science, technology, and engineering-related subjects: Of course, to succeed, an engineer must be well-versed in subjects related to electrical engineering, as well as science, technology, and various fields of math.
  • Knowledge of computers and design: Because electrical engineers will often find themselves utilizing computer design programs in the modern era, they should be comfortable with this technology and its application to their work.
  • Ability to solve complex problems: Engineers often excel at identifying problems, developing and evaluating options, and implementing solutions.
  • Foresight concerning science: A skilled electrical engineer must be able to predict physical principles and laws and their applications and effects on their work processes.

In addition to developing specific skills, aspiring electrical engineers should also take high school courses that prepare them for further education in this field. Specifically, students should excel in physics and other sciences, math at all levels, and computing and computer programming. It may also prove extremely helpful to take courses on electricity and electrical components if available or seek out this coursework at a community college.

Becoming an Electrical Engineer – Role Requirements and Responsibilities

To pursue a career as an electrical engineer, an individual must first meet several criteria. Perhaps most importantly, an aspiring electrical engineer must complete a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or university, specifically in the field of electrical engineering (with some exceptions noted below).

And while it is not entirely necessary to obtain a four-year bachelor’s degree from a program that the Accreditation Board has accredited for Engineering and Technology (ABET)—a subgroup of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE)—doing so will help an engineer’s future employment prospects. Indeed, a four-year degree from an ABET-accredited institution is one of the prerequisites of obtaining a Professional Engineer (PE) license, which allows the holder to perform a more comprehensive array of work that generally involves a greater scope of responsibilities.

It is important to note that an individual may find work as an electrical engineer in some circumstances even if he or she didn’t obtain a bachelor’s degree in that specific field. For example, an individual with a degree in civil or mechanical engineering who took courses on electrical engineering and shows exceptional skill in this area may be able to find work as an electrical engineer. Furthermore, some students may obtain a bachelor’s degree in an entirely different field and then a master’s degree in electrical engineering; these individuals would all be eligible to find work in the field.

Licensing Requirements for Electrical Engineers

After earning a degree in electrical engineering, graduates can begin working immediately. After four years, engineers become eligible to pursue a Professional Engineer license through the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). Becoming a Professional Engineer, or PE, allows the holder to work on a broader array of vocations that demand a greater deal of responsibility.

There is a specific criterion an individual must meet before he or she can earn this licensure. According to the NSPE, the steps to earn a PE licensed are as follows:

  • An engineer must complete a four-year degree in engineering from an ABET-accredited engineering program
  • An engineer must then pass the Fundamentals of Engineering exam;
  • An engineer must complete four years of progressive engineering experience under a Professional Engineer; and
  • Finally, an engineer must pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam

Once an individual meets all of these four criteria, they will be eligible for a Professional Engineer license through NSPE.

Salaries for Electrical Engineers

While most engineering positions require a bachelor’s degree, the reasons for obtaining a master’s degree in electrical engineering are compelling. Electrical engineers with higher levels of education generally earn higher salaries. Data from PayScale, a self-reported aggregate of salary data, confirms this, showing distinct differences in average annual salary for electrical engineers with bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in 2021:

  • Bachelors: $92,687 per year
  • Masters: $98,651 per year
  • Doctoral: $130,543 per year

Salary data from the BLS correlates with the numbers above, showing the average annual salary for electrical engineers is $105,990 (BLS May 2020). Annual salary percentiles for electrical engineers in the same year are as follows:

  • 10th percentile: $64,870
  • 25th percentile: $79,010
  • 50th percentile: $100,830 (median)
  • 75th percentile: $128,680
  • 90th percentile: $159,520

Along with the financial component, students with a graduate degree in electrical engineering have a broader knowledge of the subject material, which allows them to access more innovative positions throughout their careers. Some engineering programs have a fifth-year option, enabling electrical engineers to earn a two-year master’s degree with just one additional year of education, which are detailed below.

Steps to Becoming an Electrical Engineer

The steps necessary to becoming an electrical engineer are relatively similar across the board. Those interested in pursuing work in electrical engineering should consider following the steps to pursuing this career.

Step One: Graduate from High School (Four Years)

The first step in becoming an electrical engineer is obtaining a high school diploma; or a GED in the absence of a high school diploma. Because a high school diploma or a GED is a prerequisite for admission to virtually any college or university, this is a fundamental step in the process. High school students should take as many math and science courses as possible and drafting or other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) classes.

Dual enrollment programs may be available through local community colleges, which allow high school students to enroll and earn college credit before graduating from high school.

Step Two: Earn a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering (Four to Five Years)

After graduating from high school or earning a GED, students should apply to and enroll in an electrical engineering program at a two-year college or a four-year university or college. Some two-year colleges have PREP (pre-engineering programs) designed to prepare students for four-year degree programs by emphasizing foundational STEM courses at more affordable tuition rates. Upon completing a PREP program at a community college, students consider enrolling in a four-year college or university engineering program accredited by ABET to be eligible for PE licensure.

An example of a four-year degree program in electrical engineering is the online bachelor of science in engineering in electrical engineering at Arizona State University. This four-year program is accredited by ABET and offers students the option to earn a concentration in electrical power and energy systems. Students in this program take courses in C++ programming, digital design fundamentals, and laboratory design.

Some colleges and universities offer a five-year undergraduate/graduate dual degree program, offering students the chance to earn a bachelor of science and a master of engineering in five years. This option allows students to earn two degrees in a shorter amount of time, leading to expanded future opportunities and saving time and money. Read on for details about dual degree programs in step four below.

Step Three: Get Professional Experience (Timeline Varies)

Students pursuing a degree in electrical engineering may wish to find volunteer or work experience in the field during college or university. While this is certainly not a requirement, it can help students understand what to expect in the future and ensure they are prepared for the demands of the occupation.

Many ABET-accredited undergraduate engineering program students include internship opportunities to give students hands-on experience before graduation or in the fourth year in the case of five-year dual degree programs.

Step Four: Enroll in a Master’s Degree Program in Engineering (One to Three Years)

Some common pathways to a master’s degree program in engineering are earning professional experience after a four-year undergraduate degree, enrolling in a five-year BS/MS dual-degree engineering program, or enrolling in a dual MBA/MSE program.

An example of a five-year dual degree program is the bachelor of science and master of science in engineering program at Bucknell University. This program is unique in that it offers a full-tuition scholarship for students in their fifth year. Students can choose electrical engineering among other disciplines in their master’s level coursework. Students in this program earn an MS degree in one year upon completing their bachelor of science degree.

As for dual master’s degree programs, Arizona State University (ASU) offers a dual MBA (master’s of business administration)/MSE in electrical engineering. The U.S. News & World Report (2021) ranks ASU’s MBA program top 10 in the nation and provides engineering students with business acumen to lead research and development teams in various industries. ASU offers five unique tracks for electrical engineers in the MBA/MSE program:

  • Electric power and energy systems
  • Electromagnetics, antennas, and microwave circuits
  • Solid-state electronics
  • Electronic and mixed-signal circuit design
  • Signal processing and communications

Admissions for dual master’s degree programs are competitive. To be eligible for this program, applicants complete one application for both programs, answer three essay questions, and provide an up-to-date resume. Additional application materials include two letters of reference, official transcripts showing a minimum GPA of 3.0 in the last two years of study or 3.5 for graduates from engineering programs not accredited by ABET, and submit GMAT or GRE scores above the 90th percentile for the MBA program.

Preferred applicants have an ABET-accredited undergraduate degree and at least one or two years of professional work experience. Dual degree programs at the graduate level typically take three years to complete.

Step Five: Earn Professional Engineer Licensure (Four or More Years)

After earning a degree from a four- or five-year program, an individual can begin working as an electrical engineer. After four years of working under a licensed PE and meeting other criteria, an individual can apply for a Professional Engineer license, which, as discussed above, can lead to expanded career opportunities.

For more information about online engineering programs, please see our guide to online electrical engineering degree programs.

How Long Does it Take to Become an Electrical Engineer?

The following list is meant to provide a brief overview of the time it takes to become an electrical engineer. While the timeline may vary, this list should prepare future students for what they may expect on the way to working in this field:

  • High school diploma (four years): Although this may vary based on the student, students should expect to spend four years obtaining a high school diploma (those pursuing a GED may take more or less time, depending on the individual);
  • Undergraduate degree (four years): An undergraduate degree takes most students four years, although, again, this can take more or less depending on several different variables;
  • Graduate degree (one to seven years): If a student chooses to pursue a graduate degree in engineering, he or she can expect to spend between one and seven years on the path to complete this, most typically two for a master’s degree or four for a doctoral degree; and
  • Professional licensure (four years or more): Finally, an individual must work in the field for four years before becoming eligible to obtain a Professional Engineer license; however, preparation for the exams may take even longer.

Total time required: Not including the years necessary to obtain a high school diploma or a GED, an individual interested in working in this field may do so within three to five years (the time it takes to finish a bachelor’s degree or dual degree program in engineering).

However, pursuing additional education and licensure as a Professional Engineer (PE) can take significantly more time, depending on the individual’s specific circumstances.

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