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What does it mean to be an electrical engineer?

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I am a senior in high school and I applied to college as an undecided engineering major. I have watched numerous videos provided by colleges on what each field of engineering entails and what really interested me was electrical engineering. I am curious about what an electrical engineer does and works on a daily basis. #electrical-engineering #college #engineer #stem

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Chet’s Answer

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I have had three careers as an electrical engineer. I studied computer engineering and silicon processing in college. Having a technical degree opens many doors, as long as you build paths to the doors. Many engineers feel constrained by doing the job in front of them. But in most engineering fields there are others around you in sales, finance, technical support, management, etc. All these can be entered from beginning as an EE, if you work towards that goal.

My first job was in silicon processing, making computer chips in a factory. It consisted of understanding the specific tools and processes meant to do very precise and repeatable actions upon the silicon wafer -- depositing conductive or insulating materials, creating very fine patterns, removing material precisely etc. Lots of experimentation, statistics and monitoring. Discipline was very important.

The second career was in quality. I led a team where most had different decrees (Materials Science, Chemistry, ChemE, Physics, Mechanical, Computer Science, Electrical) and they helped troubleshoot computers that didn't work properly. The teams who designed and built them couldn't figure out why, so they would come to us and we would do detective work, and identify if it was a materials, manufacturing or programming problem. We got to work on old and new technology across the company, and meet with lots of really smart and capable people. Here you needed to be good at applying the Scientific Method, e.g., "How can we eliminate SW as a candidate?"

Now I am in a more traditional engineering role, we design power delivery for new computer boards. As the latest silicon microprocessors are created, we build motherboards which support them and demonstrate the new chip's capabilities. Computer manufacturers use our designs as a starting point to create their versions which support the new chips. So we understand what different power sources are needed, find components which provide that specification, design the schematic for the board, and test the design to check it works properly. This requires deep technical understanding, lots of flexibility and negotiation with other design teams, and you get to build the fastest computers in the world.

Each of these jobs was at the same company, but the feel was quite different, and different skills and qualities were rewarded at each one. So no matter what you choose, you can always pivot elsewhere. The EE umbrella is very broad and also suits many different roles.

Chet recommends the following next steps:

  • Join IEEE, talk to everyone you can!
  • Ask interesting people you meet for follow up informational interview (what do you do, what do you like, etc.)
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Sarah’s Answer

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Electrical engineers at my company design medical devices that sustain and improve life for patients around the world! I got to meet the electrical engineer who led the team designing our first implantable defibrillator device, which saved my grandfather's life - a life-changing experience!

A background in electrical engineering can open many doors in the medical device world. Here are just a few:
- Device design, where obviously you design and create the devices
- Verification and validation testing, where you create test plans to ensure devices are safe and effective
- Quality or Design Assurance engineering, where you work to ensure the devices are reliable and will meet worldwide regulations

These same general areas can apply in aerospace and other industries as well.

I obtained a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering at my local university. I enjoy designing, but I did not like the troubleshooting that often was a part of the process. It was more enjoyable for me to partner with my classmates in creating and perfecting a shared design. As I transitioned into my career, I was fortunate enough to find opportunities where I was able to help assess design accuracy and reliability, not just within the technical specification of the device but for patient and user safety as well. This was a perfect fit for me!

Engineering is a team sport - every day, I work with people from all kinds of different specialties and there is always something new to learn. I wouldn't change it! Best wishes as you embark on your journey!
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Alana’s Answer

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Electrical engineering can range from designing semiconductors or integrated circuits which is based on solid state physics at the lowest device level to high level printed circuit board design. Printed circuit board design involves creating block diagrams and schematics connecting active and passive components. There are analog and digital electrical engineers. Analog electrical engineers remain in high demand because there are fewer new analog electrical engineers. Analog electrical engineers design microwave components such as antennas as well as power supplies among other things. Digital electrical engineers may also write firmware in hardware description languages in addition to designing printed circuit boards. Many different industries hire electrical engineers.
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Todd’s Answer

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Rachel,

It's fine to enter as an undecided engineer. Typically, you could spend the first two years undecided as you fill your plate with core classes widely applicable to any type of engineering. If I could do my life all over again, I suspect that I would've enjoyed structural engineering more than I have electrical but I was never exposed to anything else so I missed that boat. I guess what I'm saying is that it's a good move for you to ask about the different types of engineering to explore your curiosity.

I'm going to tell you about a certain type of electrical engineering called Consulting Electrical Engineer. Only about 10% of electrical engineers go into consulting. Most electrical engineers work for manufacturers such as Apple, Boeing, GE, Lockheed Martin, and so on. Many others may work for utilities that generate and distribute electrical power. Consulting engineers design construction projects such as designing hospitals, office buildings, parking structures, schools, places of worship, museums...the list is endless.

As a consulting engineer, I have to know a lot about construction. I have to understand how a building gets built and what techniques the contractors that work on the project will use. Knowing about the products such as switchgear, breakers, lighting systems, sound systems, data systems, AV systems, generators, panelboards...another endless list. Indeed, consulting engineers have more in common with construction electricians than we do the other realms of electrical engineering. My days are filled using AutoCAD to turn my vision of what the electrical systems of a proposed building should be into blue prints and specifications that an electrical contractor will follow to construct the project. I have to work with a design team of a mechanical engineer, plumbing designer, structural engineer, civil engineer, and an architect. I get to travel and meet people far and wide.

What I like about this profession so much is the diversity that I get to do. Many of my projects are remodels of existing structures so I visit these structures to do a field survey of existing conditions. This helps me to design the project properly knowing what stays, what gets removed, and what gets added. I also visit the construction site during the build to make sure that the design is being followed and that the owner is getting what he paid for. All projects have problems that have to be solved so there's never a dull moment.

Oh the places that I've seen, visited, and worked on! The Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha (considered one of the top 10 in the world), University of Iowa, the Hoover Dam just to name a few. I've been all over the country to design Red Robin restaurants, Best Buy stores, Famous Footwears, Kinkos, and many banks. It's very fulfilling to see something you designed get constructed and come alive. Consulting work isn't for everyone but I greatly enjoy what I do. There's very little drudgery but the pressure to complete designs on time can be oppressive.

I say you should get out there and get exposure to many different engineering fields to see what appeals to you the most. There are so many fields of endeavor just within electrical. Joining IEEE as a student is a very good move as it costs very little as a student and it will allow you to attend events every week if you're up to it where you can rub shoulders with electrical engineers working in a mind boggling variety of jobs. Talk to them and find out what they love (or hate) about their job. It will expose you to worlds you never knew existed.
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