How to Become an Electrical Engineer
Paul Hummel is a professor of electrical engineering at Louisiana Tech University.
He earned a Bachelor of Science in engineering with a computer concentration at LeTourneau University, and went on to earn a PhD in engineering with a concentration in micro/nano electronics from Louisiana Tech. His dissertation was on manufacturing electronic devices using carbon nanotubes.
What is electrical engineering?
Electrical engineering is the skill or discipline of applying scientific principles to design and build devices in the areas of electricity, electronics, and electromagnetism. Anything that we use that involves electricity, from automobiles to cell phones, was designed and built by an electrical engineer.
What do you find most interesting about electrical engineering?
I find the electronics, specifically digital electronics, the most interesting. I grew up in the time when household computers and Internet connections became the norm. So how those devices work on a hardware level has always fascinated me.
What is your least favorite aspect of electrical engineering?
Power is my least favorite discipline in electrical engineering. I am very grateful for those that keep electrical power plants and substations running so that I have electricity at my home, but I do not find the material interesting.
Are there subfields of electrical engineering that students might not be aware of?
The main subdisciplines of electrical engineering are:
1. Power: covering anything with AC electricity, large motors, power stations
2. Control: covering devices or systems that have some type of control mechanism. For example, the cruise control in your car is a control system that keeps your car moving at a set speed.
3. Analog Electronics: although this area may seem to be shrinking to digital electronics, it is still very important in some fields like audio.
4. Digital Electronics: covering any circuitry or device that deals in digital information (data stored as groups of 0s and 1s).
5. Communication: covering the transmission of data from one device to another. This includes everything from FM radio to high-speed WiFi.
6. Embedded Devices: involving devices that include a microprocessor or microcontroller that are used to collect data or control a larger system. This area typically involves a significant amount of computer programming.
What careers do students commonly pursue with a degree in electrical engineering?
There is a very wide range of careers for electrical engineers as you may be able to guess from the range of disciplines I mentioned above. Students can work for oil and gas companies, power companies, automobile makers, computer companies, integrated circuit designers (build computer chips), radio stations, electronics manufacturers (everything from cell phones to TVs to microwaves), satellite companies (GPS), and using robotics in manufacturing just about anything ... just to name a few. Many of the graduates from Louisiana Tech pursue careers in the power industry because Louisiana has a good supply of oil and natural gas, although we are also making connections with electronics companies like Texas Instruments, IBM, and Intel.
Is a graduate degree preferable for a career in electrical engineering, or can someone enter the field with a bachelor's degree?
A bachelor's degree is fine for entering the field of electrical engineering. A master's degree does not really create any more opportunities for an engineer. When applying for a job, if you have a master's, it could be an incentive over a fellow candidate who only has a bachelor's degree. A master's degree could improve a student's opportunity for moving up into management in a company. A PhD degree will change the type of work an engineer will do in the field. A PhD is a requirement for some research and development positions, to work at a research lab like Los Alamos, or to work in academia. However, getting a PhD will exclude you from some job opportunities that are available to those with a bachelor's degree.
What personality traits do you think a student should have in order to be successful in an electrical engineering program?
Work ethic is probably the most important quality needed in a student. You do not have to be incredibly intelligent to get a degree in electrical engineering, although it does help. You must be willing to work hard though. The typical work load for an engineering course is four hours of outside work for every hour you are in class.
The next most important ability is problem solving. When solving an engineering problem, the actual work to solve it is not all that difficult. The difficulty is knowing what steps are needed. Knowing how to solve the problem is typically the most difficult part of actually solving it.
Lastly, I would suggest students get the best mathematics background they can before going to college. At college, engineering students are expected to be able to jump into calculus. In practice, many students are not ready for calculus in their first term because they were not prepared. Math to an engineer is like a wrench to a mechanic. The mechanic doesn't need to know all of the intricacies of how a wrench works, but he does need to know how to use it to fix things. The engineer doesn't need to know mathematics on the same level as a mathematician, but he does need to know how to use it to solve problems.
What electives would you recommend that a student in an electrical engineering program take?
I would recommend any math and science electives they can take. Any math subject can be useful. Science topics in physics and chemistry are probably the most useful. Computer programming can also be a very useful skill to have.
What study tips would you give to a student to help him or her succeed in an electrical engineering program?
Studying engineering is a little different than studying other subjects. In history, biology, and chemistry, students typically have to memorize a lot of information. In engineering, students learn to apply concepts. Memorizing the concept or formula is easy, but understanding the concept enough to use it in any application is difficult. The only way to really learn how the concept is applied in a variety of situations is to work a lot of problems. Usually some of the problems will be similar to ones worked in class while others have something in the problem that is a little different. The learning comes during the process of figuring out how that same concept works in a new problem. That process takes time and cannot be rushed in 10 minutes of doing homework. Students need to learn to not procrastinate on homework so they have enough time to adequately attempt assignments. Students also need to learn to be persistent when doing homework. The first attempt at a problem is usually incorrect. They need to learn to keep working on problems and not give up when they get a wrong answer.
Do you think electrical engineering is a subject that can be studied online, or is a traditional class environment ideal?
There are some courses in an electrical engineering degree that could be studied online. Some of the course material in an electrical engineering degree involves labs and hands-on building and testing that cannot really be duplicated online.
What subjects should a prospective student of electrical engineering study before entering an engineering program?
The most common one that students wish they had studied before starting electrical engineering is pre-calculus or calculus. Programming (Java, C, C++, Basic) can also be useful in some electrical engineering courses.
What pieces of advice, or caution, would you offer to a prospective student of electrical engineering?
I would advise them that studying electrical engineering is going to be much harder than high school. They need to be prepared for homework taking hours to complete every day. I also advise students when they are looking for a major to consider what job they would want. I tell them to go online and look at job openings at some of the companies they may want to work at. They can look at the job openings to find a position they would like to have. Then they can look at the degree options the company is looking for so they know what degree they need to pursue to get the job that they want.