What is an Electrical Engineer?

An electrical engineer applies the physics and mathematics of electricity, electromagnetism, and electronics to design and develop new electrical equipment and systems, to solve problems, and to test equipment.

Electrical engineers can work on various projects, from designing household appliances, to designing large-scale electrical telecommunication systems, electrical power stations, and satellite communications systems.

What does an Electrical Engineer do?

Electrical engineering specifically deals with electricity, electro-magnetism and electronics. It also covers power, control systems, telecommunications, and signal processing.

An electrical engineer checking the electrical system in an industrial plant.

Electrical engineering dates back to the late 19th century, and is one of the newer branches of engineering. The field of electronics was born with the invention of the thermionic valve diode vacuum tube in 1904 by John Ambrose Fleming, and was the foundation of all electronics, including radios, television and radar, until the mid-20th century.

Some of the most important pioneers in electrical engineering include Thomas Edison (electric light bulb), George Westinghouse (alternating current), Nikola Tesla (induction motor), Guglielmo Marconi (radio) and Philo T. Farnsworth (television). Innovative ideas and concepts were turned into practical devices and systems that paved the way to what we have and use today.

Electrical engineers work on a variety of projects, such as computers, robots, cell phones, cards, radars, navigation systems, wiring and lighting in buildings and other kinds of electrical systems.

More and more, electrical engineers are relying on computer-aided design (CAD) systems for the creation of schematics and to lay out circuits, and they use computers to simulate how electrical devices and systems will function.

Electrical engineers work in various industries and the skills required also vary. These skills can range from basic circuit theory to those required to be a project manager. The tools and equipment that an electrical engineer may need are also variable, and can range from a straightforward voltmeter to a top end analyzer to advanced design and manufacturing software.

An electrical engineer's job duties may require:

  • Evaluating electrical systems, products, components, and applications
  • Designing and conducting research programs
  • Applying knowledge of electricity and materials
  • Confirming system's and components' capabilities by designing testing methods and properties
  • Developing electrical products by studying customer requirements
  • Researching and testing manufacturing and assembly methods and materials
  • Developing manufacturing processes by designing and modifying equipment
  • Assuring product quality by designing electrical testing methods
  • Testing finished products and system capabilities
  • Preparing product reports by collecting, analyzing, and summarizing information and trends
  • Providing engineering information by answering questions and requests
  • Maintaining product and company reputation by complying with federal and state regulations
  • Maintaining product data base by writing computer programs and entering data

An electrical engineer sitting at a desk and working on a circuit board

There are many sub-disciplines of electrical engineering. Some electrical engineers specialize exclusively in one sub-discipline, while others specialize in a combination of sub-disciplines.

The most popular sub-disciplines are:

Electronic Engineer
Electronic engineers research, design, create, and test electronic systems and components to be used in areas such as telecommunications, acoustics, aerospace guidance, and propulsion control, or instruments and controls.

This career is very similar to that of an electrical engineer — both careers are used interchangeably in the United States. The main difference is specialization. While electrical engineers take care of entire electrical systems, electronics engineers hone in on the smaller parts, such as individual computers, electronic circuits, resistors, capacitors, inductors, transistors, and diodes and use their knowledge of electronic theory and materials properties.

Microelectronics Engineer
Microelectronics is a subfield of electronics and relates to the study and microfabrication of very small electronic designs and circuit components typically made from semiconductor materials. Many components of normal electronic design are also available in a microelectronic equivalent which can include transistors, capacitors, inductors, resistors, diodes, insulators, and conductors.

Microelectronics engineers use specialized equipment and unique wiring techniques such as wire bonding because of the unusually small size of the components, leads and pads. As techniques have improved, the scale of microelectronic components has continued to decrease, therefore, the impact of circuit properties such as interconnections may become of more interest.

The goal of the microelectronics engineer is to find ways to minimize these 'parasitic' effects, while delivering smaller, faster, and cheaper devices.

Signal Processing Engineer
A signal processing engineer analyzes and alters digital signals to make them more accurate and reliable. Responsibilities include developing, managing, and updating digital signals, and creating algorithms to process them more efficiently.

A signal processing engineer can work in areas such as image processing, speech processing, pattern recognition, chip designing, radio frequency designs, biomedical signal processing, and space and military applications, including satellite and mobile communications.

Efficient use of signals arises from implementing precise algorithms coded in software packages with concise steps and real-time outputs. Engineers need to develop the steps needed, provide the specifications, design the processor which acts like the machine, and simulate the system pre-hand before the fabrication.

Power Engineer
A power engineer, also called a power systems engineer, deals with a subfield of electrical engineering that involves the generation, transmission, distribution, and utilization of electric power, along with the electrical equipment associated with these systems (such as transformers, generators, motors, and power electronics).

Although much of a power engineer's focus is concerned with the issues faced with three-phase AC power, another area of focus is concerned with the conversion between AC and DC power and the evolution of specific power systems like those used in aircraft or for electric railway networks. Power engineers draw the majority of their theoretical base from electrical engineering.

Control Engineer
Control engineering, or control systems engineering, is typically taught along with electrical engineering at many universities, and specifically focuses on implementation of control systems obtained by mathematical modeling of a wide range of systems.

This type of engineering discipline uses the automatic control theory to design controllers that cause systems to behave in a certain way, using micro-controllers, programmable logic controllers, digital signal processors, and electrical circuits. By using detectors and sensors to measure the output performance of the controlled process and provide corrective feedback, desired performance can be achieved.

Telecommunications Engineer
Telecommunications engineering is a discipline centred on electrical and computer engineering which attempts to assist and improve telecommunication systems.

A telecommunications engineer's work will range from doing basic circuit design, providing high-speed data transmission services, and overseeing the installation of telecommunications equipment (such as electronic switching systems, optical fibre cabling, IP networks, and microwave transmission systems).

They use an assortment of equipment and transport media in order to design the network infrastructure (such as twisted pair, coaxial cables, and optical fibres), and provide solutions for wireless modes of communication and information transfer, such as wireless telephone services, radio and satellite communications, and internet and broadband technologies.

Instrumentation Engineer
Instrumentation engineering finds its origin in both electrical and electronics engineering and deals with the design of measuring devices for pressure, flow, and temperature.

In short, this field deals with measurement, automation, and control processes which involves a deep understanding of physics. Instrumentation engineers develop new and intelligent sensors, smart transducers, MEMS Technology, and Blue tooth Technology.

One can find instrumentation engineers working at almost all process and manufacturing industries involved with steel, oil, petrochemical, power, and defense production.

Computer Engineer
Most universities offer computer engineering as either a degree, sub-discipline of electrical engineering, or offer a dual degree in both electrical and computer engineering.

Computer engineers research, design, develop, and test computer systems and components such as processors, computer circuit boards, memory devices, networks, and routers, microchips, and other electronic components.

They specialize in areas like digital systems, operating systems, and computer networks. Computer engineering attempts to match digital devices with software to meet the scientific, technological, and administrative needs of business and industry.

Are you suited to be an electrical engineer?

Electrical engineers have distinct personalities. They tend to be investigative individuals, which means they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive. They are curious, methodical, rational, analytical, and logical. Some of them are also realistic, meaning they’re independent, stable, persistent, genuine, practical, and thrifty.

Does this sound like you? Take our free career test to find out if electrical engineer is one of your top career matches.

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What is the workplace of an Electrical Engineer like?

An electrical engineer can be employed in a variety of engineering industries: aerospace, automotive, chemical, construction, defense, electronics, consumer goods, marine, materials & metals, oil & gas, pharmaceuticals, power generation, rail, telecoms, and utilities. They work for corporations, non-profit organizations, and government agencies.

A large part of an electrical engineer's day involves project management, such as meeting with clients, determining budgets, and preparing project schedules. Supervising the work of other professionals, such as computer programmers, electricians, scientists, and other engineers, is also required at times. A typical work week is 40 hours, although there may be overtime involved to meet deadlines.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between an electrical engineer and a computer engineer?

Both electrical engineers and computer engineers are involved in developing and enhancing nearly every aspect of our lives, and are in demand by a wide range of industries. Electrical and computer engineering are very close, and are built around the same core subjects. Each major represents an area of study, and these areas overlap - there is no finite end of electrical engineering and start of computer engineering, or vice-versa.

Electrical engineering students have required courses, such as power systems and energy conversion, semiconductor devices and circuits, and electromagnetic fields and waves. Computer engineering students have required courses in software systems and software engineering, digital system design, and microprocessor interfacing.

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What is some good advice for electrical engineering students?

Here are a few obvious but essential pieces of advice to help electrical engineering students make the best of their years in university:

Go to class and do your homework
If you're not a morning person, try not to load up all of your classes for the first part of the day. It'll be harder for you to get to class, and missing class is just not an option. Not doing your homework is a surefire way to fail; if anything, you should do more problems than what the professor assigns.
Work with your professors
Use the professor's office hours to get any help you need and to work through any problems you may be having. This will show the professor that you are interested in the class and willing to put in the effort to learn.
Choose your friends wisely
If your friends or study mates are happy with getting C's and D's, then that's what you will end up thinking is acceptable, and what you'll end up getting as well. The opposite is true, if you hang around with people that aim for A's and B's, then that's what you'll be aiming for and getting.
Learn how to code
You'll become far more valuable to a future employer. You'll also power through equation-heavy assignments by being able to create some powerful tools to help you crunch numbers.
Make sure you do an internship
It is safe to say that most employers look for some work experience when hiring a new engineer. It is also a great way to make connections in the industry that may come in handy in the future.

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Electrical Engineers are also known as:
Electrical Project Engineer Electrical Project Manager Engineer