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How Do I Become an Electrical Engineer?

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Electrical engineers are skilled professionals who work in fields related to electricity, electromagnetism, and electronics, which often leads to the creation of technology upon which we depend each and every day. Indeed, electrical engineers may work with a team that assists in the creation of microprocessors to place in computers; designs a new satellite to allow for worldwide communication; or develops a new flight control system to help pilots more effectively navigate at the helm of an aircraft. And there is certainly no single industry in which all electrical engineers are employed; instead, jobs open to these professionals may lie within any number of fields that require the abilities of someone who can apply electrical engineering concepts to devise solutions to specific problems. Of course, many electrical engineers may also work in research positions, helping to expand the outer limits of the field itself.

And electrical engineers have played a truly important role throughout history in the development of devices and technologies upon which we rely each and every day. Well-known electrical engineers who have helped shape history include Thomas Edison, who developed the first practical lightbulb, among other accomplishments; David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, a company that provided hardware and software-related services worldwide; and Nikola Tesla, a Serbian-American engineer who helped contribute to 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. In light of this, if you are hoping to one day work as an electrical engineer, considering using this short guide as a reference to understand how to ultimately achieve this goal.

Skills & Characteristics of a Successful Electrical Engineer

No two successful electrical engineers are exactly alike; and, as such, it is impossible to say definitively what character attributes an individual must possess in order to achieve success in this field. That being said, there are certain skills and abilities that will likely prove beneficial to anyone working as an electrical engineer in the future. O*NET OnLine and a resource sheet from the Virginia state government 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, in order 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 type of technology and its application on their work.
  • Ability to solve complex problems: Engineers often excel at identifying problems, developing and evaluating options, and implementing solutions.
  • Foresight in relation to science: A skilled electrical engineer must be able to predict physical principles and laws and their applications and effects on the processes related to his or her work.
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      In addition to developing certain skills, an aspiring electrical engineer should also take high school courses that prepare him or her for further education in this field. Specifically, he or she should complete courses 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.

Becoming an Electrical Engineer – Role Requirements and Responsibilities

In order to pursue a career as an electrical engineer, an individual must first meet a number of 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 has been accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. (ABET) – a subgroup of which is the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) – doing so will truly help the 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 license, which allows the holder to perform a wider array of work that generally involves a greater number of scope of responsibilities.

It is important to note that in some circumstances an individual may find work as an electrical engineer 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 work as an electrical engineer. Furthermore, some students may obtain a bachelor’s degree in an entirely separate field, and then a master’s degree in electrical engineering; these individuals would all be eligible to find work in the field.

In fact, the reasons for obtaining a master’s degree in electrical engineering are compelling, even for those who already possess their bachelor’s. Perhaps most importantly for some, there exists a monetary incentive; a 2014 report in the Washington Post asserts that there is a significant disparity in average annual pay between those with undergraduate, master’s and doctorate degrees. Indeed, citing data provided by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the report claims that annual earnings hover around $80,000 for those with a bachelor’s; $107,600 for those with a master’s degree; and $132,900 for those with a PhD.

Along with the financial component, students with a graduate degree in electrical engineering have a broader knowledge of the subject material, allowing them to apply this throughout their career. The National Science Foundation also mentions another compelling statistic: unemployment rates for doctorate degree holders in science and engineering fields are much lower than for those with other degrees.

After an individual has obtained a degree in electrical engineering, he or she can begin working in this field immediately. And, after a period of time, he or she will then become eligible to pursue a Professional Engineer license through the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). Indeed, as mentioned above, obtaining licensure as a Professional Engineer allows the holder to work in a wider array of vocations that demand a greater deal of responsibility.

Of course, there are a number of criteria the individual must meet before he or she can be awarded this licensure. The criteria, as described by the NSPE, are listed below:

  • The engineer must then pass the Fundamentals of Engineering exam;
  • The engineer must complete four years of progressive engineering experience under a Professional Exam; and
  • Finally, the engineer must pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam.

Once an individual meets all of these four criteria, he or she will be eligible to be awarded a Professional Engineer license through NSPE.

Steps to Becoming an Electrical Engineer

In general, the steps necessary to becoming an electrical engineer are relatively similar across the board. As such, those interested in pursuing work in this field should consider following the steps that are outlined below:

  • Step One: The first step in becoming an electrical engineer is obtaining a high school diploma; or, in the absence of a high school diploma, a GED. Because a high school diploma or a GED is a prerequisite for admission to virtually any college or university, this is one of the most important steps in the process.
  • Step Two: After obtaining a high school diploma or GED, the individual should then apply to and enroll in an electrical engineering program at a four-year university or college. And, as previously mentioned, anyone who wishes to expand their employment opportunities in the future should consider a program that is accredited by ABET.
  • Step Three: During college or university, students pursuing a degree in electrical engineering may wish to find volunteer or work experience in the field. 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.
  • Step Four: Upon obtaining a degree from a four-year program, an individual can begin working as an electrical engineer at once. Or, if he or she wishes to pursue additional education, he or she may wish to enroll in a master’s or doctorate program thereafter.
  • Step Five: Finally, while not entirely necessary, after working in the field for four years and meeting other criteria the individual can pursue a Professional Engineer license, which may expand their career in the future.

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 – 4 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 – 4 years: An undergraduate degree takes most students four years, although, again, this can take more or less depending on a number of different variables;
  • Graduate Degree – 1-7 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 – 4+ years: 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 or four years (the time it takes to finish a bachelor’s degree in engineering). However, pursuing additional education and licensure as a Professional Engineer can take significantly more time, depending on the individual’s specific circumstances.

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