How to Become an Electrical Engineer

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An automotive engineer is standing by an LCD monitor displaying plans for a new electric vehicle while making a presentation to a team of engineers.

Whether it’s something as simple as a light bulb or a sophisticated piece of equipment like a smartphone, products that run on electricity are part of our everyday lives. The outsize role that electronic devices play in today’s society firmly positions electrical engineers as some of the most influential professionals of the digital age. Without them, we’d have no telecommunications, GPS navigation systems, or power generation equipment.

Electrical engineering is the backbone of a wide array of products and services that span diverse industries, and that’s a big reason why electrical engineering is a growing and continually evolving field. For those wondering how to become an electrical engineer, the first step is to pursue a degree relevant to the role. A Master of Science in Electrical Engineering (MSEE) program provides the educational foundation required to become an electrical engineer ready to innovate in this exciting field.

However, not all electrical engineering jobs are created equal, nor are all educational paths to the profession the same. To provide a comprehensive understanding of electrical engineering and what to expect when entering the field, it’s best to begin with a broad overview of what the job entails along with its core responsibilities.

Electrical Engineering Job Description

Part of what makes the field of electrical engineering so interesting and ripe with opportunity is that many of the duties and skills of electrical engineers overlap, regardless of specific job type.

The electrical engineering job description typically includes most of the following core duties:

  • Writing technical reports and project documentation; compiling and analyzing engineering data
  • Estimating the cost of an engineering project for budgeting purposes
  • Meeting with engineers and customers to discuss projects and develop timelines; group collaboration with engineers and technicians
  • Keeping up to date with compliance regulations and ensuring that all engineering projects are in compliance
  • Performing engineering tasks using computer-aided design (CAD) software and engineering equipment
  • Overseeing the manufacturing of electrical equipment from the design and development phase to production
  • Designing, developing, installing, testing, and maintaining products and systems that run on electricity; examples range from devices as small as a cellphone to as large as a power generator
  • Designing satellite navigation and telecommunications systems and equipment
  • Assisting in the manufacturing, energy supply, and distribution processes of equipment and systems that run on electricity
  • Designing the propulsion systems for electrical transportation systems, such as automobiles and rail vehicles
  • Looking for ways to optimize and improve the energy efficiency of existing products and systems

It’s worth noting that not all electrical engineers work full-time for one employer. Depending on their experience and the scope of the project, electrical engineers may be hired as consultants, contractors, or project managers.

Education and Certification Requirements in Electrical Engineering

The path to becoming an electrical engineer begins with education. Although a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering (BSEE) provides a baseline knowledge of the engineering field and will qualify graduates for entry-level job opportunities, many students choose to take the extra step and pursue an advanced degree.

An MSEE program can provide students with more in-depth knowledge of subjects such as mathematics and physics, as well as technical, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills — all of which are essential in any electrical engineering role. When considering how to become an electrical engineer, education and on-the-job experience are two areas that are critical to the role.

Additionally, master’s in electrical engineering programs allow students to select a concentration. This is especially beneficial for those who already have an idea of the career they want to pursue after graduation. Concentrations in the MSEE program may include the following:

  • Autonomous unmanned vehicles
  • Communications and digital signal processing
  • Computer engineering
  • General electrical engineering
  • Electronic navigation systems
  • Micro nano devices and systems

Generally, entry-level positions have no certification requirements for electrical engineering. Those looking for more advanced roles or leadership positions, however, should pursue a Professional Engineer (PE) license.

Licensed PEs oversee the work of other engineers, are authorized to sign off on projects, and can provide services directly to the public. Essentially, a PE license gives the electrical engineer more autonomy and authority. The requirements to qualify for this credential include the following:

  • Earning a four-year degree in engineering from an accredited program
  • Passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
  • Completing four years of progressive engineering experience under a licensed PE
  • Passing the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam

Passing the PE exam shows that the engineer is competent to oversee projects and manage other engineers.

What Are the Different Areas of Electrical Engineering?

The field of engineering is large and encompasses several different areas of electrical engineering that span different industry applications. Most electrical engineering roles can be obtained in one of the following five areas:

1. Computer Engineering

Computer engineers design and create software and hardware applications. An electrical engineer working in the field of computer engineering will create and test equipment such as circuit boards, routers, and computer programs. Other duties and responsibilities may include the following:

  • Working with a team of designers, developers, project managers, and engineers to meet a company’s goals for new software or hardware application or product; writing or creating a program that meets a specific company need or plan
  • Creating and integrating updates, patches, and new features for existing software and hardware applications; handling technical support and bug fixes
  • Researching current software and hardware applications, and then developing improved versions that are faster, are more efficient, or contain additional features
  • Designing and implementing security software to protect the company network

2. Autonomous Unmanned Vehicles

Autonomous unmanned vehicles (AUVs) are an emerging area of engineering in which electrical engineers design and build air, land, and sea vehicles that don’t require a human to pilot them. The obvious benefit of autonomy is that the craft functions while keeping humans out of potentially dangerous situations. Many AUVs currently being developed are for military applications, such as airborne drones, small tanks, and submarines.

The role of the electrical engineer comes into play in the design and functionality of the AUV. The AUV may be designed either to be controlled remotely by a human or to operate autonomously using artificial intelligence (AI). Autonomous vehicles can be designed to self-regulate using a series of sensors and cameras that direct the movements.

Perhaps one of the most popular examples of an AUV that’s currently being developed is the self-driving car from Tesla. However, the concept is still years away from being a flawless feature that requires no human intervention.

3. Embedded Systems

Embedded systems are commonly used in consumer electronics, medical science, aviation, manufacturing science, and automotive technology. Embedded software engineering is the process of developing a means of control over devices or machines (excluding computers) using software engineering. Typically, an embedded system requires different programming tools, microprocessors, and an operating system that a team of electrical engineers has designed.

While a personal computer isn’t an embedded system, a cellphone, tablet device, camera, external hard drive, and any other device that connects to the computer is. Some embedded systems use basic embedded system software, such as Ada or C++, while others run on a specialized operating system, such as Windows or Linux.

4. Digital Signal Processing

Digital signal processing (DSP) is involved in virtually every form of audio, video, and voice communication that uses electricity. Some common examples are voice calls over the phone, video conference calls (Zoom, Google Hangouts), streaming music, and YouTube videos. DSP signals are also used to display things such as temperature, global positioning, or tire pressure.

DSP works like this: An analog-to-digital converter takes a real-world signal, such as a voice or song, and converts it into a digital format of ones and zeroes. These ones and zeroes are then processed and reproduced on the other end of the feed, recreating the sound of the original source. The brilliance of this area of electrical engineering is how quickly DSP occurs — virtually instantaneously. That’s the result of decades of optimizing and improvement by electrical engineers.

5. Electronic Navigation Systems

Electronic navigation is navigation that an electronic device or instrument guides. Some popular examples of electronic navigation are GPS, radar, and satellite positioning systems. Thanks to recent advancements in technology and electrical engineering, electronic navigation systems are a widely used feature in cars, smartphones, ships, airplanes, and several other private and commercial devices.

What Can I Do with a Degree in Electrical Engineering?

Education is key when considering how to become an electrical engineer. However, after earning a degree, the question remains: “What can I do with a degree in electrical engineering?” Since electrical engineers are in demand, a lot can be done with this type of degree. Here are five careers that are popular choices among electrical engineering graduates:

1. Aerospace Engineer

Aerospace engineers design and develop aircraft for military and commercial applications, along with various types of aerospace equipment. They serve as the resident experts on aviation projects and help develop policies and coordinate procurement programs for aircraft systems and subsystems. Other typical duties of an aerospace engineer include the following:

  • Directing and coordinating the design, manufacturing process, and testing of aerospace products and aircraft
  • Reviewing proposals for aerospace projects to determine if the project is both technically and financially feasible
  • Determining if aerospace projects meet predefined goals while also being safe to operate
  • Evaluating designs to ensure that they meet environmental regulations and customer specifications
  • Performing inspections of aerospace equipment that’s malfunctioning or otherwise defective and devising solutions

Note that there are two types of aerospace engineers: An aeronautical engineer works with aircraft, while an astronautical engineer works with spacecraft.

To be successful, aerospace engineers need to have analytical, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Additionally, they should possess well-developed business acumen and be proficient in mathematics and writing to clearly communicate their designs.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), aerospace engineers made a median annual salary of $118,610 in 2020. The role is expected to grow by 8% between 2020 and 2030, on pace with the projected average job growth rate for all professions.

2. Automotive Engineer

Automotive engineers enable car manufacturers to continuously put out new vehicle models year after year. They apply their background in electronic engineering and automotive expertise to create vehicles that yield more torque and horsepower, have better fuel economy, and produce fewer emissions. They’re also the masterminds behind a vehicle’s safety and convenience features, such as lane assist, remote start, and rain-sensing windshield wipers.

Of course, there’s perhaps a no better breakthrough in the field of automobiles than the electric car, which is steadily gaining in popularity worldwide. Electronic engineers are hard at work optimizing designs of electric cars to give them longer battery life and faster charging times.

Other typical duties of an automotive engineer include the following:

  • Creating automobile plans, drawings, and design specifications
  • Researching and developing vehicles that improve upon previous models
  • Developing computerized models to test vehicle efficiency
  • Analyzing product designs to identify potential weaknesses or areas of concern
  • Preparing a detailed cost estimate for the manufacturer

To be successful, an automotive engineer should have extensive knowledge of automobiles and the auto industry. Commercial awareness and staying up to date on industry trends are critical to the role. Additionally, automobile engineers should possess strong data analysis, problem-solving, and technical skills.

According to PayScale, automotive engineers earned a median annual salary of around $79,100 as of October 2021.

3. Embedded Systems Engineer

As mentioned above, embedded software engineering is the process of developing a means of control over devices or machines (excluding computers) using software engineering. An embedded systems engineer’s role is to design, develop, and maintain the embedded systems in products that run on electricity.

Depending on the project, the embedded systems engineer may work on the software aspect specifically or on the entire system. Other typical duties of an embedded systems engineer include the following:

  • Developing software; building and improving software and embedded systems
  • Analyzing technical or software-related issues and devising solutions
  • Developing firmware for devices such as tablets and smartphones

A successful embedded systems engineer should possess a vast number of technical skills and product knowledge. C and/or C++ programming experience, along with experience developing and troubleshooting embedded systems, are critical to the role. Embedded systems engineers typically are highly analytical, great at problem-solving, and have well-developed communication skills.

According to PayScale, embedded systems engineers earned a median annual salary of about $79,700 as of October 2021.

4. Semiconductor Engineer

A semiconductor is a crystal material used in electronic circuits that conducts a partial current (hence its name). Semiconductor engineers work exclusively with semiconductors, which are used to conduct heat between an insulator and a conductor. Some common products that contain semiconductors are smartphones, televisions, medical equipment, and automobiles.

Typical duties of a semiconductor engineer include the following:

  • Researching, designing, developing, testing, and integrating systems, software, interfaces, modules, and software that use semiconductors
  • Providing software support for engineering; identifying and remedying software issues
  • Reviewing specification documents for accuracy

To be successful, semiconductor engineers should have an extensive background in manufacturing process engineering and engineering design as they relate to semiconductors. They should also be highly analytical, with the ability to troubleshoot any potential problems.

According to PayScale, semiconductor engineers earned a median annual salary of around $83,000 as of July 2021.

5. Naval Engineer

Naval engineers oversee the construction and maintenance of seagoing vessels, such as cargo carriers, ships, and submersibles. Using the design specifications that the naval architect provides, naval engineers are tasked with realizing the plans and will often confer with the naval architect throughout the process.

Since building a ship or other seagoing vessel is a massive undertaking, naval engineers need to be highly skilled in managing projects and delegating tasks to technicians. Other duties of a naval engineer include the following:

  • Preparing system layouts, drawings, and schematics
  • Designing, inspecting, and testing marine machinery and equipment
  • Staying up to date on compliance standards and making sure that naval projects are in compliance
  • Providing detailed cost estimates for parts, labor, manufacturing, and more
  • Providing detailed timelines of the different phases of construction
  • Keeping in close contact with contractors and technicians to ensure that all tasks are completed correctly and on schedule

To be successful, naval engineers should possess a deep background in the construction and manufacturing process of naval ships and other seagoing vessels. They should be excellent communicators who know how to oversee large projects and efficiently delegate tasks.

According to the BLS, marine engineers and naval architects made a median annual salary of $95,440 in 2020. The role is expected to grow by 4% between 2020 and 2030.

Build an Exciting Future

The field of electrical engineering is ripe with opportunity and allows individuals the chance to work on important projects across different industries. Products, vehicles, and hardware that runs on electricity will continue to evolve and become more efficient through the hard work of electrical engineers. Becoming an electrical engineer is a matter of identifying which brand of electronic engineering appeals to you and pursuing an education.

Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Electrical Engineering program provides aspiring electrical engineers with the knowledge and skills to make an immediate impact in the field. Foundational courses such as those on engineering writing and computational tools for engineers help lay the groundwork for a successful career.

Choose OHIO as the place to start pursuing your professional engineering goals today. 

Recommended Readings

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Aerospace & Defense Technology, “The Role of Autonomous Unmanned Ground Vehicle Technologies in Defense Applications”

Analog Devices, A Beginner’s Guide to Digital Signal Processing (DSP)

Betterteam, Electrical Engineer Job Description

Britannica, “Electrical and Electronics Engineering”

CNN, “Tesla Owners Say They Are Wowed — and Alarmed — by ‘Full Self-Driving’”

Embedded Development Talk, “Embedded Engineers: Roles, Responsibilities and Job Descriptions”

HCL, Embedded Software Engineering

Indeed, Computer Engineer Job Description: Top Duties and Qualifications

Indeed, Electrical Engineer Job Description: Top Duties and Qualifications

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PayScale, Average Embedded Systems Engineer Salary

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