How Do I Become a Computer Engineer?

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Attention to detail is integral to many careers, but it is especially important in the computer engineering field. These professionals investigate the minutiae, test tiny parts such as processors, and find bugs or glitches in computer software programs. Computer engineers must not only have an eye for detail when examining physical structures or lines of code, but they also should be patient and persistent when solving problems. Even though computer engineers may be focused on small computer parts or programming languages, technology is a scalable field meaning their efforts can be far-reaching and impactful across all industries.

A degree in computer engineering can lead to work that is very different from one organization to another. Computer engineering is hardly one-size-fits-all and career opportunities abound in the development of hardware or in writing software, such as applications. Personal interest and ambition also play a part, guiding people into more specific aspects of the field. Whatever path a computer engineer chooses to follow, they should expect plenty of research, design, and testing in their profession.

This guide offers a step-by-step plan for entering the field of computer engineering based on details provided by professional associations and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS Dec. 2015), which gives information about expected education, skills, and certification. Read on to learn more about computer engineering careers, including details on credentialing, salaries, and job growth.

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Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Engineering, Computer Science or Software Engineering (4 years)

Computer engineers typically need a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, computer science, or software engineering to be able to work in the field, according to the BLS (BLS, Dec. 2015). While some young programmers may bypass this step through extensive programming or building experience, it’s more common to get a degree.

Students considering the field may want to look for programs accredited through the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). This accreditation assures students that the programs offer a quality education, and meet other requirements for graduate-level admissions, credentialing, or to be hired by some employers. ABET-accredited programs include both online and on-campus offerings at the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels.

Computer engineering programs offer an education that is helpful to finding a job and seeking one of the multivariate certifications available. Countless bachelor’s degree programs in computer engineering are available in the U.S. and accredited through ABET, but also are available in other related fields such as computer engineering technology or electrical and computer engineering. Students also may be able to find schools that offer a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree through five-year programs. Internship experiences may also be part of a computer engineering program to provide practical, hands-on experiences.

Admissions Requirements – Computer Engineering Bachelor’s Programs

Admissions requirements for computer engineering programs vary from school to school, but there are some commonalities. Admissions officials examine a candidate’s high school grade point average (GPA), scores on achievement tests (e.g., SAT), and even a student’s involvement in extracurricular activities such as programming or computer-related clubs. An on-campus or phone interview could also be a requirement. Examples of common admissions materials to computer engineering schools include:

  • Completed application with fee
  • ACT or SAT scores (particularly in math sections or relevant SAT Subject Tests)
  • An essay detailing a student’s goals (i.e., the personal statement, 500-600 words)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Proof of prerequisite courses (e.g., algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, physics, chemistry, and computer science, if available)
  • Competitive GPA, particularly in science and math

Typical Courses – Computer Engineering Bachelor’s Programs

Bachelor’s degree programs in computer engineering include courses specific to the field and classes in the sciences, such as physics. General education and core engineering classes make up the bulk of many computer engineering degrees, while engineering electives and/or empirical projects could be available a student’s senior year. Sample courses from bachelor’s degrees in computer engineering include:

  • Introduction to Software Engineering
  • Computer Organization
  • Applied Algorithms for Engineering
  • Microprocessors
  • Probability Theory in Computer and Electrical Engineering
  • Systems Programming
  • Control Systems
  • Microcomputer Architecture
  • Differential Equations
  • Operating Systems
  • Computer Science

Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree in Computer Engineering, Computer Science or Software Engineering (2 years, optional)

Although a master’s degree in computer engineering is not required to enter the field, it can be helpful to anyone who wants to advance in the field or even pursue more niche work. According to CareerOneStop (2017), 26 percent of people in computer hardware engineering careers had a master’s degree. Like bachelor’s degrees, some master’s degree programs are available entirely online, particularly in computer-related specializations.

Admissions Requirements – Computer Engineering Master’s Programs

Not surprisingly, admissions requirements vary by institution. Some typical admission requirements to master’s degree programs in computer engineering include:

  • Completed application and fee (NOTE: Some schools require separate applications to the graduate school and the Department of Engineering)
  • A bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, often in engineering or math
  • A statement of purpose (500-600 words)
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • A minimum GPA of 3.0
  • Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores
  • Transcripts with proof of course prerequisites

Typical Courses – Computer Engineering Master’s Programs

Students pursuing a master’s degree in computer engineering often spend the first year completing course requirements in engineering and the second pursuing specific areas of interest or even electives, often in computer science or electrical engineering. Concentrations may be available in a few, but not all, degree programs. Sample concentrations include:

  • Cybersecurity
  • Software
  • Computer connections and networks
  • Hardware and computer architecture

Similar to the bachelor’s level, a master’s degree program may incorporate a capstone project in the final year. In some cases, a thesis could be an option as well. Classes found in master’s degree programs in computer engineering include:

  • Modern Computer Architecture
  • Systems Engineering
  • Solid State Devices
  • Computer System Security Foundations
  • Electronic Design
  • Operating Systems
  • Probability for Computer and Electrical Engineers
  • Broadband Network Architectures
  • Digital Communication
  • Cybersecurity
  • Advanced Data Structures
  • Modern Active Circuit Design

Step 3: Gain Experience in Computer Engineering (1-4 years)

Experience in computer engineering is important for numerous reasons. It can point professionals in a new direction of study in the field, leading to a discovery or advancement. It also can be important to anyone thinking about becoming licensed as a Professional Engineer (PE), although licensing requirements vary from state to state. Becoming a PE in computer engineering is typically not required for employment according to Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE)-USA (2015) unless the computer engineer:

  • Works as a consultant
  • Stamps or signs engineering documents for public firms or agencies that make services available to the public

If becoming a PE is important, experience is a necessity. In fact, at least four years of experience working under the guidance of other qualified engineers are required to be able to seek the PE designation.

Step 4: Become a Professional Engineer (PE) in Computer Engineering (4 years or more)

A PE license is not necessary to work in the field, but may be valuable when it comes to finding better employment opportunities or working as a consultant. Additionally, anyone interesting in starting his or her own firm may want to become a PE, according to the IEEE (2015). If a person plans to work for a business or corporation throughout their lives, however, the PE license may not be as important. According to IEEE-USA, the benefits to PE licensing include the ability to show that:

  • Minimal standards in engineering education have been met
  • An ethical commitment has been made to the standards of public health and safety

This commitment to public safety becomes even more important with computer systems that utilize real-time components, reported the IEEE-USA.

PE Licensing Requirements

Computer engineers need to meet the following criteria to be able to become a licensed PE, according to IEEE-USA:

  • A degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program
  • A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
  • Four years of work experience
  • A passing score on the eight-hour Professional Engineering (PE) exam, which is taken after the four years of work experience is finished

The PE exam is available for both computer engineering and software engineering professionals. It’s best to take the exam that aligns most with the applicant’s completed degree program. More details on these and other PE exams can be found on the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Survey (NCEES).

Step 5: Consider Vendor Certifications (timeline varies)

Vendor or professional certifications can be important to a computer-engineering career as well. These certifications can demonstrate a commitment to excellence in the field, specific capabilities, and an ongoing interest in learning. Below is a list of certifications for those involved in computer hardware engineer or software development careers.

Career & Salary Projections for Computer Engineers

Prospective computer engineers may want to know about the average annual salaries earned by professionals and job growth for the field. Salaries for both computer hardware engineers and software developers are relatively generous, with mean pay reaching close to or above $100,000 in both occupations.

Salary – Computer Hardware Engineers

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, May 2016) reported that computer hardware engineers earned a mean annual salary of $118,700. The highest wages in the field were earned by people working in computer systems design and related services, followed by those in computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing.

United States (72,590 computer hardware engineers employed): $118,700 average annual salary

  • 10th percentile: $66,870
  • 25th percentile: $88,290
  • 50th percentile (median): $115,080
  • 75th percentile: $146,110
  • 90th percentile: $172,010

Also, data from PayScale (2017)—a site for self-reported salaries—suggests that computer hardware engineers with experience in verilog, debugging, engineering design, and C++ may be able to earn more as a result of these skills.

Job Outlook – Computer Hardware Engineers

Because more technological progress is now occurring with software than with hardware, positions for computer hardware engineers are expected to grow just 3 percent from 2014 to 2024, according to the BLS (Dec. 2015). This is compared to an expected 6.5 percent average growth across all occupations in the U.S. That said, job prospects could be best for those with a graduate-level degree and some knowledge of computer software.

Salary – Software Developers

The BLS (May 2016) reported that software developers specializing in applications earned a mean annual salary of $99,350. People working in computer systems design and related services followed by software publishers earned the highest wages in the field.

United States (686,470 software developers [applications] employed): $99,530 average annual salary

  • 10th percentile: $56,310
  • 25th percentile: $73,730
  • 50th percentile (median): $95,510
  • 75th percentile: $120,950
  • 90th percentile: $149,480

For software developers working in systems software, the wages were slightly higher overall, according to the BLS (May 2016):

United States (409,820 software developers [systems software] employed): $110,590 average annual salary

  • 10th percentile: $64,650
  • 25th percentile: $83,270
  • 50th percentile (median): $106,860
  • 75th percentile: $133,970
  • 90th percentile: $163,220

Also, data from PayScale (2017) suggests that software engineers with experience using Python or Linux tend to earn slightly more than other software developers.

Job Outlook – Software Developers

Positions for software developers are expected to grow 17 percent (BLS Dec. 2015)—19 percent in applications and 13 percent in systems software—from 2014 to 2024, which is much faster than average growth of all occupations during that time (6.5 percent). The BLS reports that job prospects could be best for software developers who know at least one or more computer programming languages.

Helpful Resources & Professional Organizations in Computer Engineering

Finally, students who pursue computer engineering degrees may be interested in joining a professional association or organization, which can provide job leads, conferences, training, networking, research in the field, and other resources. There may be a fee to join an organization, but often this is less expensive when done as a student. The following organizations could be beneficial to prospective computer engineers:

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