How to Become an Electrical Engineer

An electrician checking cabling and blueprints

Deciding to become an electrical engineer is a wise career move, whichever way you look at it. It’s one of the most sought-after engineering disciplines in the sector, it pays a very healthy salary, and it also offers opportunities across a wide array of fields.

But what do you need to do in order to get your foot in the door? What are the requirements and minimum qualifications?

In order to simplify it all, we’ve compiled a handy breakdown of all the important information, including everything you need to know about education, skills and interviews. So, if you’re interested in a career in this fascinating profession, read on. This is how to become an electrical engineer.

Is it the Right Job for Me?

Before you jump head first into any career, you need to ensure that you know both the pros and cons of your chosen industry. Electrical engineering involves the application of scientific concepts into design, manufacturing and power generation, so if you have a keen interest in technology, energy supply or communications, then it could be the right fit for you.

Make sure you get online and read as much as you can, and don’t just pay attention to the ‘good’ parts. Find out what people in the industry don’t like about their job as well and ask yourself if this is something that you’re prepared to take on yourself.

What Qualifications Do I Need?

Luckily, the training pathway for electrical engineers is relatively flexible, depending on where you are planning to work. You will most certainly need an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, although some companies are happy to hire you first and then sponsor your tuition. The key is to do your research on each employer.

In the UK, for example, it is possible to become an electrical engineer straight from school; many larger companies offer higher apprenticeships for A-level students (and, in some cases, even GCSE students). You’ll likely need to demonstrate some academic proficiency in mathematics (and probably physics, too), but if you’re accepted, the company will pay you a salary to learn on the job while also paying for your university tuition. In the US, vocational apprenticeships are perhaps not as popular, but it is still possible to find companies who are willing to sponsor your education.

Of course, if you’d prefer to fully embrace the university lifestyle, then you can always pursue an undergraduate degree by yourself. Most universities offer electrical engineering as a stand-alone course; indeed, some of the top universities for electrical engineering include:

  • ETH Zurich (Switzerland)
  • Georgia Institute of Technology (USA)
  • Imperial College London (UK)
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (USA)
  • Stanford University (USA)

In terms of postgraduate study, you may want to return to school later on in your career, particularly if you want to specialise in a certain field, but in the short term, it’s not necessary. ‘A master's degree does not really create any more opportunities for an engineer’, says Paul Hummel, an electrical engineering professor at Louisiana Tech University. ‘It could be an incentive over a fellow candidate… [or] could improve a student’s opportunity for moving into management, [but] a bachelor’s degree is fine for entering the field…’

What Skills Do I Need?

Having the qualifications and the educational requirements are one thing, but electrical engineering requires a certain set of technical and transferable skills, too. Some of the most important ones are:

  • Numerical skills. According to Hummel, the biggest problem that most electrical engineering students encounter is that they are not adequately prepared for the level of mathematics involved. Numbers are a big part of engineering, after all, and therefore he suggests getting firmly to grips – either at school or in your own time – with calculus before you start. ‘[An] engineer doesn’t need to know mathematics on the same level as a mathematician’, he asserts, ‘but he does need to know how to use it to solve problems’.
  • Problem-solving skills. Generally speaking, problem solving is the cornerstone of all engineering disciplines. ‘In [electrical] engineering, students learn to apply concepts’, says Hummel. ‘Memori[s]ing the concept or formula is easy, but understanding the concept enough to use it in any application is difficult’. It’s important to be able to approach things analytically and even think creatively when needed.
  • Communication skills. Nearly every job on the planet requires strong communication skills, and electrical engineering is no different. Understanding what people are telling you – and getting people to understand what you are telling them – is a vitally important skill, whether you are at the sensitive design stage of a commercial product or you are dealing with a city-wide power outage.
  • Organisational skills. Organising, prioritising and structuring your workload is an important aspect of electrical engineering, especially if you are the subject matter expert for your company. It’s a skill you’ll need during your studies, too, according to Hummel, who claims that the ratio of study time for an engineering course is ‘four hours of outside work for every hour you are in class’.

These are just some of the core skills you’ll need if you have hopes of becoming an electrical engineer, although as technologies evolve and roles change, it’s handy to pick up a few new skills, too. Programming skills are particularly useful (especially if you plan to work in the tech sector), as are patience and perseverance; leadership skills, meanwhile, are important for professional growth.

How Do I Land a Job?

Once you’re qualified, landing a graduate role is the next logical step. Luckily, electrical engineers are often in high demand, so market conditions are relatively favourable.

Before you start your search, it can be a good idea to look at job postings for the kinds of roles you’d like to do in the future, making note of the kinds of experience you’re going to need. When you begin your job hunt, you’ll then have a better idea of the companies and roles that will get you to where you want to be further down the line.

Finding a Job

During your last years of university or college, make sure you attend university gatherings, job fairs and other networking events so that you can start to make industry connections. Explore internships, too, which are a great way to gain experience or even potentially get your foot in the door for a permanent role.

Online job boards (including our very own CareerAddict Jobs) are now the primary method for most graduates to find work, so study them closely. It’s a good idea to make a spreadsheet of the companies you’re interested in as well as the application cut-offs and requirements for each one. Although it might seem like extra work, check out the careers sections of individual company websites, too, especially if you know that you want to work in a particular sector.

Finally, don’t even think of sending out job applications until your CV is up to scratch, either. As it’s likely to be your first, try to focus on your academic achievements and transferable skills, while if you’ve never written one before, then it’s a good idea to look at some résumé examples for inspiration and guidance.

Acing the Assessment/Interview

As a school leaver and, likely, as a graduate, too, you will be expected to sit one or more tests during your recruitment process. These are usually a balance between standard psychometric tests and confirmation of your understanding in basic electrical engineering principles, so as long as you approach them professionally and without distractions, you shouldn’t have any issues.

If you are then invited to an interview, the key is to be prepared. Make sure you can articulate why you want to work in electrical engineering, as well as your other motivations. Be aware of your potential employer’s values and ethos, too, and how your answers apply to them.

You may also be quizzed on how you’d approach a particular problem, in which case it’s important not to panic; digest the information that you’re given and, whatever you choose as your answer, just make sure that you can justify it. After all, interviewers want to see that you can approach issues in a thought-out methodical way, particularly in a field as complex as electrical engineering.

Where Should I Work?

As already mentioned, electrical engineering is a highly flexible profession; trained professionals are required in many major industries, including logistics, technology, production and manufacturing, healthcare, energy, and telecommunications. They are also highly paid in many countries, particularly those where top employers in these industries are present; the key is to identify early on the kind of role that you will find most interesting.

To give you an idea of where you could specialise, Hummel classifies the main sub-disciplines of electrical engineering as follows:

  • power generation and maintenance
  • control mechanisms
  • analogue electronics
  • digital electronics
  • communications
  • embedded devices (such as microprocessors and hardware).

As you can see, becoming an electrical engineer is not beyond the realms of possibility and, once qualified, you’ll be well recompensed – especially if you later make the move into management. Aside from the ability to understand certain mathematical concepts, though, it’s as much about your own desire and dedication – a sentiment that Hummel agrees with. ‘You do not have to be incredibly intelligent to get a degree in electrical engineering’, he concludes, ‘[but] you must be willing to work hard’.

Are you an electrical engineer? What advice would you give to those looking to break into the industry? Let us know in the comments section below!