What Does an Electrical Engineer Do?

Female and male electrical engineers designing and developing electrical systems

If you’re like the vast majority of students in America, you own at least a cellphone—probably a smartphone—and you likely use it on a daily basis. But does your usage stop there, or have you ever been tempted to take it apart to see how it works? Are you curious to know how your other electronics work, how the energy grid supplies power to homes or how GPS keeps people from getting lost?

Your curious nature may lend itself well to a career in electrical engineering. But what is an electrical engineer and exactly what do electrical engineers do? This career guide will help you become familiar with this exciting and dynamic profession.

What Is an Electrical Engineer?

You can thank electrical engineers for everything from traffic lights and fitness trackers to solar arrays and satellites. Electrical engineers are responsible for designing, building, testing and repairing electrical systems and equipment. In essence, these professionals keep the modern world running.

Because this field is so broad, electrical engineers have the opportunity to work across industries and to specialize in certain areas. Some of these specializations include the following:

  • Computer systems
  • Communications systems
  • Microelectronics
  • Power generation and transmission

The typical daily tasks of an electrical engineer will largely depend on their area of specialization, the needs of their employer and the particular project they’re working on at any given time. Some sample daily tasks include the following:

  • Study consumer demands or trends to inform the development of new electrical products
  • Design new electrical or electronic products, and design improvements to existing devices
  • Develop standard guidelines for the manufacture and installation of electrical equipment and systems
  • Develop and perform electrical testing for quality assurance
  • Ensure lab compliance with all federal and state regulations

Where Do Electrical Engineers Work?

Electrical engineering is a profession that is in high demand across many industries. Many of these professionals work in the development and manufacture of electrical products, including consumer electronics (like smartphones) and industry equipment (like medical devices). You’ll also find electrical engineers working on the generation, distribution and transmission of power (including traditional sources and sustainable alternatives like solar power).

Some of the other specific industries that hire electrical engineers include the following:

  • Power Distribution
  • Manufacturing
  • Telecommunications
  • Aerospace

Becoming an Electrical Engineer

Now that you know the answers to the questions “What is an electrical engineer?” and “What do electrical engineers do?” you may be wondering how you can work toward this rewarding career path. The pathway toward becoming an electrical engineer is academically rigorous, so be prepared to devote your best effort to your studies. High school students are strongly encouraged to speak with their guidance counselors as soon as possible about their career plans.

Your guidance counselor can help you adjust your course load to suit your career ambitions. For aspiring electrical engineers, physics and math courses are particularly important. You should plan on taking calculus or at least pre-calculus in high school, along with chemistry.

You’ll benefit to earn a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. It typically takes four years of full-time study to earn a bachelor’s degree. Next, you may decide to earn a master’s degree, or you might want to jump right into the workforce. 

If you decide to earn a doctoral degree, you may benefit from having at least a few years of work experience before beginning your advanced studies. Lastly, electrical engineers may also choose to obtain licensure. There is a licensure exam for new engineers, as well as an advanced exam for those with work experience. Some industries require an electrical engineer to obtain a professional engineering license.

Earning Your Undergraduate Electrical Engineering Degree

You can expect that an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering will consist of a blend of classroom instruction and practical, hands-on experience in lab classes. It’s ideal to choose a program that emphasizes hands-on projects with real-world contexts, as this will help you prepare for a career dedicated to overcoming the challenges of the modern world. The curriculum will vary from one program to the next, but you can generally expect to study topics such as the following:

  • Fundamentals of physics, with an emphasis on electricity, magnetism and optics
  • Electric circuits, with a look at node analysis, mesh analysis and operational amplifiers
  • The design, development, operation and debugging of software using object-oriented programming
  • Essentials of electrical and mechanical instrumentation and data acquisition
  • Energy development and delivery, including three-phase circuits, power grid networks and power storage

Your grades are important, but so is your ability to demonstrate practical skills in real-world settings. Because of this, it’s beneficial to pursue internship opportunities during the summers, especially as you become an upperclassman.

The student services or career services department on your campus can help you connect with opportunities in your field. Remember to retain the contact information of your supervisors at your internships, as they can provide professional references for you later on.

Should You Earn a Graduate Degree to Become an Electrical Engineer?

As you approach your college graduation date, it’s time to consider whether you want to continue your education with a graduate degree, such as a master’s or doctorate. It’s not strictly necessary to earn a graduate degree; you can apply for a first job in this field with just a bachelor’s. In fact, many electrical engineers enjoy rewarding and highly lucrative careers without earning an advanced degree.

However, you may have ambitions of pursuing the top-tier electrical engineering jobs, such as those in research and development. A master’s degree (and sometimes a doctoral degree) may be required or preferred by employers for these positions. A graduate degree will also be a requirement if you’re thinking of transitioning from being a practicing electrical engineer to being a professor of electrical engineering. 

If you’re not quite sure whether you should earn an advanced degree, your best option may be to work on landing your first professional job. After you gain a few years of field experience, you’ll be better equipped to make this decision.

Electrical engineers who aspire to become directors of research labs or professors of electrical engineering at a university may pursue a doctoral degree. A doctorate is a rigorous, research-intensive degree that generally takes about five to six years of full-time work to complete. You can expect to take some high-level courses, followed by writing a lengthy dissertation based on your own original research that contributes to the body of knowledge in the field. 

What Do Electrical Engineers Do to Enhance Their Job Qualifications?

Earning a graduate degree is one way to bolster your resume and make you a more desirable job candidate. However, it’s not the only one. You can also pursue licensure.

For the engineering profession, licensure requirements are established by the individual states. However, they generally rely on the exams administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). Obtaining a professional engineering (PE) license requires passing two standardized exams: FE (Fundamentals of Engineering) exam and PE (Professional Engineer) exam.

The Fundamentals of Engineering exam can be taken by recent graduates and undergrad students who are nearing their graduation date. The FE exam is offered year-round at Pearson VUE testing sites. It’s a six-hour exam (including an optional break time) that features 110 questions. Here’s a quick look at a few of the topic areas covered on the exam:

  • Mathematics, including algebra, complex numbers, calculus and vector analysis
  • Probability and statistics
  • Ethics and professional practice
  • Engineering economics
  • Properties of electrical materials
  • Circuit analysis
  • Signal processing

Once you’ve passed the FE exam and gained at least four years of full-time work experience in engineering, you’ll be qualified to take the PE exam. As you might expect, the PE exam is more rigorous than the FE exam. Depending on your specific career choices within your field, you can take one of the following PE exams:

  • PE Electrical and Computer: Computer Engineering
  • PE Electrical and Computer: Electronics, Controls and Communications
  • PE Electrical and Computer: Power

The “Power” exam is the only PE exam that is offered year-round; the rest are only offered one day per year, so plan accordingly. The PE exams range between nine and 9.5 hours in length with optional scheduled break times. A passing score means that you are officially a licensed Professional Engineer.

Since all exams administered by the NCEES are academically challenging, it’s strongly recommended that exam candidates prepare thoroughly ahead of their test dates. Exam preparation materials are available from the NCEES. Exam candidates should also take the time to review the NCEES’ guide to exam policies and procedures.

In addition to earning a graduate degree and/or licensure, another way to enhance your job qualifications is to join a professional organization. Some examples include the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE).

Many professional organizations connect their members to continuing education opportunities. Continuous advances in technology mean that this profession is constantly evolving. It’s essential for these professionals to commit to lifelong learning and to stay on top of the latest trends and breakthroughs.

Essential Skills and Characteristics for Electrical Engineering Professionals

Your degree program will instill all of the core competencies you need to pursue a career as an electrical engineer, such as knowledge of mathematics and physics. However, aspiring engineers can also benefit from actively nurturing key characteristics and skills that support their work. Some examples include the following:

  • Written and verbal communication skills
  • Creative problem solving and out-of-the-box thinking
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Sustained concentration and attention to detail
  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Critical thinking and analytical reasoning

Project management is also helpful. Although electrical engineers obtain limited training in project management, they do need to be able to handle a project through its lifecycle — from conception to implementation. Project management skills will become increasingly more important for those who climb to high-level positions.

You can combine your passion for STEM fields with purpose when you become a student at Grand Canyon University — a Christian learning community. The Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering degree program emphasizes hands-on learning experiences to provide students with important skills that are immediately applicable in the field. Students will graduate with strong competencies in math, engineering, critical thinking and creative problem solving. 

To learn more about joining our dynamic learning environment, click on Request Info at the top of your screen.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

Scroll back to top