What Is Electrical Engineering?

Required coursework, job prospects, and average salaries for graduates

electrical engineer connecting an electric circuit
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Electrical engineering is an engineering field focused on electricity and electronics, from microscopic computer components to large power networks. Students who graduate with an electrical engineering majors will have job opportunities in wide-ranging fields, from telecommunications to the computer industry to the automotive industry.

Key Takeaways: Electrical Engineering

  • Electrical engineering is an engineering discipline focused on electricity, from microscopic computer components to large power networks.
  • In college, electrical engineering majors will take a range of classes in mathematics and physics.
  • Electrical engineers work in fields including the computer industry, automotive industry, and telecommunications.

Specializations in Electrical Engineering

Any product that uses or produces electricity was most likely designed by an electrical engineer. From large-scale power grids to microscopic computer components, electrical engineers work on a wide range of projects. Below are some of the most popular areas of specialization for electrical engineers.

  • Communication: If you've ever used a telephone, watched television, or Skyped a friend, you've used a product that was designed by a communication engineer. Any task that involves the electronic transfer of information from one place to another falls into this electrical engineering specialty.
  • Computers: The hardware side of computing—the power supplies, electronic components, sensors, drives, and storage devices—is all within the purview of electrical engineering. Electrical engineers create the devices that are then programmed by computer scientists and software engineers.
  • Control: From the cruise control on your car to the electronics that stabilize a spacecraft, control systems play an important role in the 21st century. Control engineers design systems that constantly monitor a product's performance and, through feedback systems, make necessary adjustments to ensure proper functioning.
  • Electronics: An electronics engineer is an expert in all kinds of circuits, such as resistors, diodes, capacitors, and transistors. Electronics are central components in everything from wind turbines to vacuum cleaners. Home electronics such as televisions and audio systems are also a major part of this area of specialization.
  • Instrumentation: From the fuel gauge on a car to sensors on a satellite, instrumentation is a central component of most electronic devices. Given the development drones and self-driving vehicles, the field of instrumentation has plenty of growth potential in the coming decades.
  • Microelectronics: Technological progress depends upon developing ever-smaller devices with increased speed and functionality. Experts in microelectronics are at the forefront of this progress as they work to create electronic components at microscopic scales. Materials science and chemistry are important areas of expertise for this specialty.
  • Power Systems: Power engineers work on the large systems for generating, storing, and transmitting the electricity that runs our world. From generators in a dam to fields of solar panels to the transmission lines that cross the country, experts in power tend to work on large-scale projects.

College Coursework for Electrical Engineers

As with most STEM fields, electrical engineers must take foundation courses in math and the natural sciences, especially physics classes such as mechanics and electromagnetism. Some specializations, such as microelectronics, will also require significant coursework in chemistry and materials, whereas a field such as bioelectronics would require a strong grounding in the biological sciences.

All electrical engineering majors, however, are likely to take the following courses:

  • Calculus I, II, III and Differential Equations
  • Digital Logic Design
  • Electromagnetic Fields and Waves
  • Signals and Systems
  • Electric Circuits
  • Embedded Systems
  • Microelectronics
  • Probabilistic Methods
  • Communication Systems
  • Computer Organization

Students who want to excel in an electrical engineering profession may choose to take additional courses related to communication and leadership skills. In addition, many electrical engineering programs have internship or co-op requirements, giving students hands-on experience solving real-world challenges. These research expectations are one reason why engineering fields often have a lower four-year graduation rate than many other majors. Five years is not an unusual time frame for earning a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering.

Best Schools for Electrical Engineering Majors

Electrical engineering, like mechanical engineering, is an extremely popular branch of engineering, and most schools with engineering programs will offer an electrical engineering major. Many of the schools listed below are also considered some of the nation's best engineering schools in general.

  • California Institute of Technology (Caltech): Located in Pasadena, California, Caltech typically vies with MIT for the title of #1 engineering school in the U.S. Caltech's electrical engineering program is popular at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, but it's not easy to get into: the overall undergraduate acceptance rate is 8%.
  • Carnegie Mellon University: Electrical engineering is the most popular major at Carnegie Mellon, which is located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The university graduates over 150 electrical engineers a year. If you enjoy the arts as much as you enjoy STEM subjects, you might love CMU, as it's well-known for its strong arts programs.
  • Cornell University: Located in Ithaca, New York, this member of the Ivy League has a highly-regarded school of engineering. Electrical engineering is one of the school's most popular graduate programs. At the undergraduate level, about 80 students graduate with electrical engineering degrees each year.
  • Georgia Tech: This public university in Atlanta, Georgia, offers excellent value for in-state applicants. The robust electrical engineering program graduates about 250 students a year, and campus life is lively thanks to the school's urban location and Division I athletic programs.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): MIT often ranks #1 among all schools for electrical engineering, and the school's facilities and faculty are hard to beat. Like Caltech, however, getting that acceptance letter is a challenge. MIT has a 7% acceptance rate, and perfect scores on the math section of the SAT are common among admitted students.
  • Stanford University: Located in California's Bay Area, Stanford's 5% acceptance rate vies with Harvard for the most selective in the country. The school's engineering programs are also some of the best in the nation, but the university also has strengths that span the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences.
  • University of California at Berkeley: UC Berkeley graduates nearly 1,000 engineers each year, and electrical engineering accounts for over one third of those students. The UC system is more expensive than most public universities in the U.S., but Berkeley consistently ranks among the best engineering schools in the country.
  • University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: With over 48,000 students, UIUC is one of the largest schools on this list. Its engineering school is one of the best in the country. In-state tuition is a bargain, and students can also enjoy cheering on the school's NCAA Division I athletic teams.
  • University of Michigan: Like UIUC, Michigan has a highly-regarded school of engineering housed within a large public university. It has the added advantage of being situated in one of the country's best college towns. The school graduates over 100 electrical engineers annually.
  • University of Texas at Austin: Electrical and mechanical engineering are two of the most popular majors at this school of over 51,000 students. The university's Cockrell School of Engineering consistently receives high rankings.

Always keep in mind that "best" is a subjective term, and remember that the best school for your own personality, learning style, and professional goals may differ from the schools listed above.

Average Salaries for Electrical Engineers

Electrical engineering is one of the highest paying engineering fields. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the median pay for electrical engineers in 2017 was $97,970 per year. PayScale.com breaks down the numbers further to note that early career employees have a median salary of $69,900, while mid-career electrical engineers earn a median pay of $118,100. These salaries are a bit higher than those earned by mechanical engineers and civil engineers.