Whether it's helping improve telecommunications systems or making sure that GPS receivers are acquiring those all-important signals from communications satellites, electrical engineers are essential to the modern-day world. Electrical engineers work with electrical power distribution systems. This isn't just limited to power received in the home or in office buildings, but includes widespread systems, such as communications satellites and power grids, as well as industrial machinery and more.
The field is not to be confused with electronics engineers, who help create electronic devices such as the iPhone and Xbox gaming system. Electrical engineers typically focus on the generation, use and movement of electrical power while electronic engineers might deal with specific types of devices.
The most popular electrical engineering degrees
The constantly shifting requirements of the industry place a high premium on post-secondary and continuing education, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the industry's largest professional organization. To pursue a career, online engineering degree students will likely want to complete a bachelor or master of science in electrical engineering. Typically, a bachelor's degree is required to gain entry-level work. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's O*NET OnLine:
- 13 percent of polled electrical engineers had associate degrees
- 73 percent had bachelor's degrees
- 10 percent had master's degrees
However, a wide range of programs exist, starting with the two-year degree. This program can be valuable to gain basic instruction and to potentially gain work as an assistant in the field. It can also be used as a stepping stone to a four-year degree, which is usually necessary for obtaining an electrical engineering position. Coursework that could be covered in undergraduate training could include algorithms, circuits and electronics, electromagnetics, signals and systems, and more.
Graduate-level study often is required to teach or to participate in research programs, according to the BLS. Some of these programs, which can last from five to six years, blend work with classroom instruction so students gain valuable real-world experience in the field. Graduate programs include advanced study in similar topics to the undergraduate field, but focus on more complex subject matter such as power electronics, digital integrated circuitry, quantum science and electromechanics.
Benefits of online degrees in electrical engineering
Students might be able to find both bachelor's degree and master's degree programs online. These programs are often comprehensive in scope but can provide more flexibility to a student who is already working or who wants to increase their credentials. Some online programs are organized into segments that are different than the quarters or semesters found at traditional schools so that the students taking one class at a time have a sense of moving forward.
What to expect from a career in electrical engineering
Starting salaries for engineers--of all types--are among some of the highest for college graduates, according to the BLS. Electrical engineers earned median annual wages of $84,540 in 2010, the BLS reported. While some engineering fields are expected to experience significant growth during the 2008 to 2018 decade, the electrical engineering field is predicted to grow by just two percent. However, even this small growth could be favorable as it could mean the creation of nearly 3,000 new jobs during the decade. Also, a career as an electrical engineer can provide lifelong employment due to the ever-changing needs of society and continued advancements in the field of electrical engineering, according to the IEEE.
Electrical engineering at a glance
- Did you know? This occupation is rated "green" by O*NET Online, meaning that workers in the field could see changes in the occupation due to the rising demand for energy-efficient and alternative energy services and products.
- Gender breakdown: Of the 84,636 bachelor's degrees awarded in all engineering fields in the 2008-2009 school year, 83 percent went to males, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
- Median hourly wages: $39.96
- Number of people employed in the field (as of 2008): 158,000