Electrical Engineering Degrees
Electrical power and systems are at the heart of modern society – and so too are electrical and electronics engineers. Engineers specializing in these fields have transformed the 21st century with technologies such as universal electric power systems, television, radio and medical imaging to name just a few examples.
Among the most famous electronics and electrical engineers that you may have heard of are Nikola Tesla (pioneer of commercial electricity and electromagnetism), Thomas Edison (developer of the light bulb and inventor of the record player), Jack Kilby (inventor of the pocket calculator and the integrated circuit), Marcian Hoff (inventor of the microprocessor) and Martin Cooper (inventor of the mobile phone).
Electrical engineering degrees will equip students with knowledge of how the industry works, as well as giving them the engineering skills and technological knowledge needed to design, assess and improve electrical and electronic systems.
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What's the difference between electrical and electronics engineering?
The difference between electrical and electronics engineering is often blurred, but it is generally true to say that electrical engineers are concerned mainly with the large-scale production and distribution of electrical power, while electronics engineers focus on much smaller electronic circuits.
In an electronics engineering degree, you are likely to develop an expert understanding of the circuits used in computers and other modern technologies, and for this reason electronics engineering is often taught alongside computer science. An electrical or electronics engineering degree will also overlap with mechanical and civil engineering.
What to expect from an electrical/ electronics engineering degree?
If you’re interested in how electrical devises work, are inquisitive, and have a strong interest in mathematics and science, then you probably already have some essential engineering skills and an electrical or electronics engineering degree may well be for you. Although technical knowledge is essential, electrical engineers are also involved in designing and building a range of devices, often within teams.
At bachelor level, an electrical engineering degree will aim to give students grounding in the underlying principles of electronic and electrical engineering, before allowing specialization in an area of interest later on in the course. Students will also be involved in projects working within groups.
Like most engineering subjects, it is best to imagine that you will be committed to your course every day of the working week. Although you almost certainly won’t be sitting in lectures for eight hours a day, your study timetable will be busy and will feature a range of learning methods, including laboratory work, tutorials, lectures, project work, group work and individual research.
Outside of scheduled lessons, you will also be required to develop your knowledge by working your way through your course’s reading list. You may also be set engineering problems to solve, as well as coursework assignments and laboratory reports to hand in. More hands-on sessions may also include physically dismantling electronic devices to see how they work, and then putting them back together again. This helps students learn how to develop and apply their engineering skills, rather than simply memorizing it from a textbook.
To study an electrical engineering degree, you will need a strong background in mathematics and science subjects (especially physics). However, don’t be deterred; many courses will start with some foundation modules designed to ensure this background knowledge is up to the required standard.
For leading universities it is common to be asked for top grades. For example, University College London (UCL) asks UK students to obtain the A-level grades AAA / A*AB, and international students will be expected to obtain the equivalent.
Electrical engineering specializations
During most electrical engineering degrees, students will be given the chance to specialize in a number of related fields. Common electrical engineering degree specializations include energy generation and transmission, magnetostatics and electrostatics (types of electric charge), and electrical installations (such as heating and lighting systems). Meanwhile electronics engineering degree specializations may cover topics such as analogue and digital circuit design, digital communication, wireless technologies, and computer programming.
Further into the course, you may have the opportunity to specialize in the application of electrical or electronics engineering in a particular industry. Examples include:
Power generation and supply
One of the major specializations for electrical engineers – and among the most important issues for modern society – is power generation and distribution. Specializations in this field should prepare students for work across a range of stages in the power system, from designing energy generation and conversion facilities, through to managing the supply of energy to individual users and devices. Students may choose to further specialize in a particular type of energy source, such as wind or solar power.
Communications and media
Here, there may be opportunities to study the applications of electrical engineering in a broad range of technologies and media, including digital and satellite broadcasting, fiber-optic communications, and wired and wireless networks. Students interested in this specialization may go on to work in TV and radio broadcasting, mobile or terrestrial telephone communication, internet services – or, of course, the next new development in what is a constantly developing field.
Here, topics may include artificial intelligence, computer architecture, security and cryptography, network communications, circuit design and digital signal processing. This could lead to electrical engineering careers in software, chip or system design, but also a much broader range of roles – from CCTV surveillance to automated systems for heavy industry.
Electrical engineering careers
Electrical engineering careers offer strong prospects in many parts of the world. In Australia, for example, the government reports unemployment rates for electrical engineers below average, comparatively high earnings, and predicts continued strong jobs growth up to 2016-17. In the US and the UK similar findings have been made due to the industry-wide need for engineering graduates.
If you complete your electrical engineering degree at bachelor level (BEng) and want to go on and become a chartered engineer (CEng), you will need to undertake further study once you’ve gained experience in the field as a graduate. Although further study is not necessary for a decent industry career, it will likely help to accelerate career progression.
As an electrical engineer, BEng or CEng, you can expect to work among a team on multidisciplinary projects, working alongside other specialists such as architects, technicians and other engineers (civil, design, etc.). Depending on your particular role and the scale of the project, as an electrical engineer you may be involved in one or all stages of design and development. This can involve making models and prototypes, reading and/or writing design specifications, researching, budgeting and costing, liaising with clients and contractors, conducting tests, interpreting data and even servicing equipment.
Some major employment sectors for those pursuing electrical engineering careers include:
- Power generation and supply
- Transport infrastructure maintenance and development
- Communications and media
- Computer hardware and software design
- Science and technology research
Within each of these industries, positions are available in research and development, design, testing and maintenance. Career progression could mean taking on supervisory and management roles.
In terms of salary expectations, those in the electronics sector tend to earn more. Payscale reports that the average annual salary for electronics engineers in the US was $71,693 in 2014, compared to $68,367 for electrical engineers.
Other careers with an electrical engineering degree
If you decide not to pursue traditional electrical engineering careers, there are plenty of alternative options. Students with electrical engineering degrees are also well sought after outside of the engineering sector. Skills in IT, mathematics and problem solving are needed by many employers in areas such as IT, finance and management.