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.
Common skills gained with an electrical engineering degree include:
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.
If you’re interested in how electrical devices 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.
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. If you’re interested in a management-based career, you may like to study electrical engineering alongside management topics. Dedicated engineering management programs offer the chance to study the techniques of industrial management within the context of electrical engineering, including operations and supply chain management.
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:
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.
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.
This specialization will give you an overview of the design, control, construction and use of robots in varied environments and tasks, as well as giving you practical experience in robot programming, dealing with any design or control issues that may arise with robotic systems.
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 trends have been reported, 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. Completing a work experience placement during your degree is also a good idea, as a way to gain hands-on, practical understanding of particular systems and industries.
Electrical engineers design, develop and maintain electrical control systems and/or components through a mixture of technical knowledge and commercial awareness, and can expect to earn between US$61,000-85,000. As well as having technical knowledge, electrical engineers need to have commercial awareness and be able to project manage and multitask.
As an electrical engineer, you can expect to work as part of a team on multidisciplinary projects, alongside 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 servicing equipment.
Some major employment sectors for those pursuing electrical engineering careers include:
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 slightly more. Payscale reports that the average annual salary for electronics engineers in the US was $72,139 in 2015, compared to $70,675 for electrical engineers.
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. For example, a career as an IT consultant might suit you.
As a graduate of electrical engineering, your expertise in IT would be welcomed in a various organizations. IT consultants work in partnership with clients, guiding them on how to use information technology in order to meet their business objectives or overcome problems. Having a good degree, prior work experience and a sincere interest in IT and consulting will increase your chances of finding work in this role.
This is another career which could suit electrical engineering graduates. As an aeronautical engineer you’ll apply scientific, technological and mathematical principles to research, design, develop, maintain and test the performance of civil and military aircraft, including weapons, satellites and even space vehicles. You’ll need to be able to resolve any issues that arise during the design, development and testing process, including investigating any aircraft accidents and project management.