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A Day in the Life of a Electrical Engineer

From radar to motors, electrical engineers design, implement, maintain, and improve all the electronics everyone uses everyday. “Most EEs love to talk about technology,” mentioned one, “and that is a wonderful thing.” Many engineers enter the profession for the intellectual stimulation and are generally driven people who aim to strike a balance between competition and mutual support. Over 85 percent of the EEs we surveyed cited interaction with their peers as the most positive aspect of the profession. Daily activities include studying technical manuals, articles, and other publications; designing, testing, and assembling devices; and writing reports and keeping track of various assignments. Computer skills are a must. Over 40 percent of the time is spent attending meetings, working on strategic planning, and tracking projects. The amount of interpersonal communication can be disconcerting to many project-oriented engineers; over 15 percent of newly hired EEs take in-house management organization or writing skills courses. Contact between professionals and clients is infrequent. This sense of “project vs. product” isolation actually seems to be valuable. Beyond designing and creating new circuits for televisions, VCRs, slot machines, or stereo equipment, engineers with creative instincts usually flock to more esoteric, unproved areas such as cutting-edge medical technology and HDTV. Specialization is important and happens quickly, with engineers moving into such areas as quantum electronics, acoustics, signal processing, and ferroelectrics. EEs must have patience; the average span of time from the design of a product to placement on a shelf is two years.

Paying Your Dues

An undergraduate degree in electrical engineering will suffice for most entry-level positions, such as tester and data collector, but an M.S. or Ph.D. will be necessary for those who intend to progress further. Coursework includes physics, chemistry, some biology, heavy mathematics and statistics. The defense industry provides a large portion of the job market for aspiring electrical engineers, so passing a security check may be required. The aviation industry provides another sizable segment of jobs. Candidates should be familiar with production, testing, and assembly of electronics components, the general methods and means of power transference, and, if possible, computer electronic modeling. Aspiring EEs who want to work for large corporations should be willing to follow already established procedures and protocols. Some of the most exciting and revolutionary innovations come out of smaller companies.

Present and Future

The twentieth century is the information age-made possible in large part by electrical engineers. The science as we now think of it essentially began with the invention of the microchip in the 1960s, giving rise to the modern personal computer. Through the 1970s, most major EE advances emerged out of defense industry-sponsored research, but in more recent years that trend seems to have reversed, with the most significant advances coming from the consumer electronics industry, particularly the computer sector. Product development is becoming more and more closely tied to the use of the microchip. It is estimated that of the $17 billion annually spent in the U.S. on research and development, over $7 billion in some way involves work done by electrical engineers.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

“Out of the frying pan and into the fire,” said two of our respondents about their initial years in electrical engineering. The pay is reasonable, but recent graduates-used to flexible deadlines and accommodating professors-find the transition jarring. Some 20 percent change jobs in their first three years, trying to find the match for their own personal working style. Work is highly supervised and highly compartmentalized; expect to be unable to distinguish yourself for the first two years, since you will be buried in the details of modeling, computer analysis, and drafting.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Specialization takes place between years three and five. Many move from “assistant” to “designer” or “quality control” areas. Pay and responsibility increase. Playing the corporate game is crucial for those at large firms. Contacts made early on are very important for those wishing to form start-up companies on their own. Just ten percent change occupations within the industry if there exists even a remote chance at advancement in the current firm.

TEN YEARS OUT

Almost 35 percent of electrical engineers control equity stakes in their firms, have filed for their own patents, or have started their own companies. A significant number of ten-year veterans become upper management and direction guiders within their own company. Electrical engineers spend more time forming budgets, allocating resources, and overseeing production than designing, drafting, modeling and testing. Ten years is regarded by some as an enormously significant time frame in this profession; at this point, your academic education has been exploited to its fullest and the rapidly changing electronics industry requires that you change with it or be left behind.