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Careers in Electrical Engineering Part 1: What do they do and how to become one.

written by: •edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 7/9/2008

What do electrical engineers do? What would an electrical engineering career involve? Electrical engineering provides an avenue into a multitude of career experiences. In part one, learn what electrical engineers do and how to become one.

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    What Does an Electrical Engineer Do?

            Ever thought about being an electrical engineer?  Ever wonder just what you would be doing as an electrical engineer?  An electrical engineer today has an enormous selection of career paths to choose from.  Here are but a few examples:

           Large scale projects

    o     Power generation, transmission and distribution – Design equipment like generators, transformers, high power switches and protection devices that connect to the power grid.  This includes the green energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal and tidal.

    o     Facility/Building power system design – Work with architects and contractors to design the power, lighting and communication distribution systems and networks in buildings.  You may even have the opportunity to incorporate green energy generation systems in the design.

            Medium scale projects

    o     Commercial products and appliances – Electronics are found in everything from your blender to your toothbrush, from cell phones to video games.  Working in this field will challenge you to be very efficient in your designs from a power, cost and size standpoint.  And don’t forget the batteries!

    o     Scientific instrumentation – Work in this area can take you around the world and beyond.  In many cases you will be pushing the envelope of the technology to provide that next bit of information needed to study a particular problem or phenomenon.  Your designs will need to be very precise and accurate as well as meet size, power and most likely cost constraints.

    o     Aviation and Aerospace – From large-scale power and communication systems to very small, precise circuits for control and monitoring the growing complexity of the aviation/aerospace industry.

    o     Military – Large-scale to micro-scale applications with very rigorous environmental and durability constraints. 

            Small scale projects

    o     Semiconductor design – You will be designing the components that other electrical engineers will use to design all of the above.  You will be pushing the technology to the limits to create faster processors, larger memories, lower power devices and higher levels of integration to make everything we use smaller, lighter and with more features.

    o     Nanotechnology – Take it a level smaller and design new components that will work in all areas of industry.  From self assembling circuits to nano-machines that will help cure diseases to paper thin solar cells and clothing that won’t get dirty.  The opportunities are endless!

              This just scratches the surface of opportunities awaiting an electrical engineer. 



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    How to Become an Electrical Engineer

    But, how do you get there?  First, you must have a curiosity of how and why things work.  That curiosity will drive you through the many courses you will need to take to achieve your goal; each one giving you more clues and insights as to how the world works around us.  And then…

             You will need math in all of its flavors: algebra, trigonometry, geometry, differential equations and calculus—but don’t let that scare you.  Math is a subject anyone can master; it just depends on how much effort you want to put into learning it.  The more you practice it, the better you will be at it, just like riding a bike or playing the guitar.  That great background in math is going to help you with…

             The chemistry and physics you will take.  These two courses will give you insights into how the universe works and will open up your opportunities for a variety of careers.  Do not underestimate how important these will be, especially if you have any interest in working as an engineer in the scientific community.  To design a circuit to do a specific task is fine but to understand why and how this task is to be done will allow you to collaborate with the scientists and to design a circuit that meets or exceeds their needs. 

             One other key requirement is software.  Everything today has a microcontroller inside (remember that toothbrush?) and it needs software to run properly.  As an electrical engineer you will be designing hardware (integrated circuits, resistors, op-amps, capacitors, etc.) and if you can write the software, create the programs to make that hardware function, you are twice as valuable!

             When you are in college don’t limit yourself to the hardcore courses.  Allow yourself to explore other areas of interest.  Do you like geology?  Take a course.  How about biology?  Take Bio101 and expand your scientific background; you never know when that bit of knowledge will lead you to a wonderful new career path.  That’s what’s great about electrical engineering; everything uses electronics, so you may be able to combine your love for electronics with a passion for some other science or technology.  Also, don’t shun literature and the arts.  You will need to write and present reports and papers.  Hone your writing skills while in college.  It is very disturbing to read a report by a qualified engineer that is fraught with grammatical and spelling mistakes—it takes away from the engineer’s professionalism and brings into question his/her ability to represent your company.  The more well rounded you are the easier it will be for you to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.  Also, you will be meeting lots of different people all around the world, so the more variety you have in your background the easier it will be to interact professionally as well as socially with your new associates.

             So, in a nutshell:  If you’re in high school, take as much science and math as you can.  Seize any opportunity to work along with a professional, even if it’s to visit his/her place of work for a day.  Once you’re off to college keep up with the math and science and broaden your background as much as you can—it will pay for itself time and again once you’re in the real world.  Last but not least—have fun!  The adventure of getting to become an engineer is only a fraction of the fun you’re going to have once you’re doing it as a profession.

             I hope I’ve given you an idea of what electrical engineering can be about and how to get on the right path.  In part two I will try to give you a quick look into what one would do on a typical design project.