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. In several 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 on which humans rely daily. 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, which 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. Here’s a reference guide to learning how to become an electrical engineer and ultimately participate in expanding everyday technologies that provide convenience and save lives.
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No two successful electrical engineers are precisely alike. Defining an individual’s character attributes to succeed in this field is impossible. 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:
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.
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 electrical engineering (with some exceptions noted below).
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 Electronics 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 for 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 in 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 there.
After earning a degree in electrical engineering, graduates can begin working immediately. After four years, engineers can 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 greater responsibility.
There is a specific criterion an individual must meet before he or she can earn this license. According to the NSPE, the steps to earn a PE license are as follows:
Once an individual meets all four criteria, they will be eligible for a Professional Engineer license through NSPE.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that the largest employers of electrical engineers are spread out over several sectors, with engineering services (19 percent), electric power generation, transmission, and distribution (9 percent), and navigational, measuring, electromedical, and control instruments manufacturing (7 percent) being the top three largest employers (BLS 2023).
The future looks decent for electrical engineers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2024) predicted that openings in this profession will grow 4 percent between 2022 and 2032, faster than the average projected for all occupations (3 percent).
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 2024:
Salary data from the BLS correlates with the numbers above, showing the average annual salary (mean wage) for electrical engineers is $114,050 (BLS May 2022). Annual salary percentiles for electrical engineers in the same year are as follows:
|Number of Professionals Employed
|Annual Mean Wage
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 is detailed below.
The steps necessary to become an electrical engineer are similar across the board. Those interested in working in electrical engineering should follow the steps to pursuing this career.
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.
After graduating from high school or earning a GED, students should apply to and enroll in an electrical engineering program at a two-year or 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. ABET accredits this four-year program and offers students the option to earn a concentration in electric power and energy systems.
The program is made up of 120 credits. Students in this program take courses in introduction to engineering; digital design fundamentals; signals and systems; computer organization and assembly language programming; circuits; random signal analysis; and laboratory design.
Students in this online degree will develop engineering knowledge and skills focusing on the design of electric power systems, signal processing algorithms, electronics, semiconductor devices, and antennas. They’ll be prepared for careers that pioneer new technologies in the energy sector, computing, robotics, and beyond.
This online electrical engineering program concludes with a design lab, during which students will work with their peers to create an original project. Graduates of the program will be prepared for positions such as aerospace engineers, computer hardware engineers, electrical engineers, electronics engineers, energy engineers, n ers, solar energy systems engineers, and wind energy engineers.
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 less time, leading to expanded future opportunities and saving time and money. Read on for details about dual degree programs in step four below.
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.
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 an engineering program at Bucknell University. This program is unique because 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 (2024) ranks ASU’s online MBA program among the top 10 in the nation and provides engineering students with the business acumen to lead research and development teams in various industries. ASU offers five unique tracks for electrical engineers in the MBA/MSE program:
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 GMAT or GRE scores. The GRE requirement may be waived if students have earned an undergraduate degree from an ABET-accredited institution.
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.
Comprising 56 credits, the program includes courses such as advanced silicon processing; artificial neural computation systems; digital systems and circuits; ethical issues for managers; fast computing electromagnetics; financial performance reporting; nuclear reactor theory and design; and operations and supply management, among others.
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.
The following list briefly overviews the time 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:
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 longer depending on the individual’s circumstances.
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