What Is the Difference Between a Degree in Electronics Engineering and a Degree in Electrical Engineering?

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What is Electronic Engineering?

This science is a subfield of electrical engineering (more on that below) that uses semiconductors, diodes, transistors, and other active electronic components to design and implement integrated circuits, devices, and electronic systems.

Electronic (or electronic) engineering is a relatively new technology that sprang from telephone, radio, and television equipment development. Until the late 1950s, the discipline was known as radio engineering, which evolved from broadcasting in the 1920s. World War II contributed further advancements with radar, sonar, and wireless communication systems. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that scientists began using the term – electronic engineering.

A milestone in electronic engineering occurred in 1947, when John Bardeen, William Shockley, and William H. Brattain invented the transistor in 1947. The three physicists worked for Bell Labs; however, history paints a conflicting picture of the group’s harmony. After Shockley’s initial failure, Bell Labs asked Bardeen and Brattain to assist. Subsequently, Shockley worked alone at home while the other two worked in the lab on creating a transistor.

In January 1948, Brattain and Bardeen filed their transistor patent – needless to say, Shockley was livid with being omitted, although not deterred. He soon came up with a different transistor and filed his patent nine days later, on January 23, 1948.

What is Electrical Engineering?

The discipline entails the design, study, development, and application of devices, equipment, and any system that utilizes electricity. William Gilbert (1544 – 1603) was an English physicist, physician, and philosopher who used the Latin word electricus, meaning “like amber,” in 1600. In Greek, amber, more correctly, beaming sun, is elektron; Gilbert studied static electricity using amber.

Until the late 1800s, electrical engineering was a subfield of physics; however, in 1882, a German University, Technische Universität Darmstadt, established in 1877, created the world’s first electrical engineering program.

The field of electrical engineering evolved into other specialties, for example:

  • Power or Energy Engineering
  • Telecommunications
  • Control Engineering (used in space flight)
  • Electronic Engineering
  • Microelectronic and Nanoelectronic
  • Instrumentation Engineering (flight instruments)
  • Computer Engineering
  • Biomechanical Engineering (ventilators, MRIs, pacemakers)

Electronic engineering and electrical engineering disciplines sound similar, and in many ways, they are. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) combines the two careers into a single job profile. Yet, there are significant differences in the work of electronic engineers and electrical engineers. At engineering schools that offer these majors as separate programs of study, there may be considerable differences between the curricula of these programs.

Electronic and Electrical Engineering Degrees

There are a lot of similarities between electronic and electrical engineering degree programs. ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) requires accredited degree programs in electrical and electronic engineering to meet the same criteria. These programs must cover advanced mathematics, specifically differential and integral calculus, probability and statistics, linear algebra, differential equations, discrete mathematics, and complex variables. They must include science courses in biological, physical, or chemical science. Students must study engineering and computer science principles and applications needed to analyze and design computer software, computer systems’ hardware components, and electrical and electronic devices through these programs.

That said, electronic and electrical engineering programs aren’t necessarily identical. In an electrical degree program, students take courses such as introduction to electrical engineering, electromagnetics, signals and systems, circuits, and semiconductors, according to U.S. News & World Report. Electrical engineering students might specialize in communications, nanotechnology, or other academic concentrations.

Students majoring in electronic engineering take more foundational courses in electronic, according to U.S. News & World Report. Rather than taking minimal coursework in circuits, they study alternating current circuits, direct current circuits, digital circuits and systems, and electrical components of circuits, including transistors and capacitors. Electronic engineers need to learn about programming, voltage, electrical currents, and random signal analysis. Through laboratory work and fieldwork, aspiring electronic engineers develop their technical skills working with hardware and tools. Specializations in an electronic engineering degree include mechatronic systems, renewable energy, and power systems.

Students interested in research and development or academia may be interested in a five-year dual degree program that awards both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in electrical or electronic engineering.

Bachelor’s Degree in Electronic Engineering

Looking at randomly selected curricula may illustrate similarities and differences between the two engineering disciplines.

The Southern California Institute of Technology (SCIT) in Anaheim has a Bachelor of Science (BSEE) in Electronic Engineering. The program emphasizes the application and design of electronic systems used in consumer products, biomedicine, digital and analog electronics, and more. Students can complete this degree within three years by taking classes year-round (no summer break).

Some of the technical courses include:

  • Digital and analog circuits
  • Semiconductor devices
  • Circuit analysis
  • Integrated circuits
  • Digital systems design
  • Electronic Communication

The General Requirements consist of algebra, calculus, complex variables, mechanics, statistics, and English composition and grammar.

Graduates of this undergraduate degree will have the skills to inspect electronic equipment, instruments, and products for safety compliance, including design components, products, and software for medical, commercial, or scientific applications.

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee offers a Bachelor of Science in Electronic Engineering Technology whose coursework mirrors most of the one above. Didactic and hands-on experiences instruct students on circuits, systems, electrical devices, and electronic applications.

The first two years have algebra and calculus with electrical fundamentals, circuits, physics, economics, and technical writing classes—years three and four study digital electronics, computer-aided circuits, electronic design, instrumentation, and technical design project.

Thomas Edison State University (TESU) in Trenton, New Jersey, has a B.S. in Electronic Systems Engineering Technology-different degree name with similar courses as the two examples above.

The ABET-accredited 124-credit program is for individuals who aspire for a career in computer hardware, avionics, instrumentation, or communications. There are 49 credits in the Electronic Engineering technology area- examples are:

  • Electric circuits: Alternating and Direct Current, each with a lab
  • Digital Electronic with lab
  • Microprocessors with lab
  • Communications Electronic
  • Electronic Instrumentation and Control
  • Occupational Health and Safety
  • Electives: 9 credits

Graduates will be able to analyze, conduct, and apply experiments’ results to resolve technical challenges and systematic problems.

Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering

The electrical engineering curriculum generally includes a range of sciences. Typically, searches for degrees in this field are more plentiful than electronic engineering. The following are examples.

The Boston University College of Engineering has a 131-credit Bachelor of Science in E.E. with classes in calculus, physics, engineering, electric circuits, and linear algebra during the first two years. The Junior and Senior years are primarily electives selected from electronic, electrophysics, computers, and technology.

First-year applicants to BU have several documents to submit with their application. These include:

  • High School Transcript
  • Senior Year Grades
  • Counselor Recommendation
  • Teacher Evaluation

Students’ high school years require four years of English and three to four years of mathematics, lab science, and history or social science. Plus, two to four years of a foreign language.

Georgia Southern University (GS) in Statesboro offers a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering with ABET accreditation. The 130-credit program includes 42 credits of General Requirements and 18 credits in the major. Examples are:

  • Electromagnetic Fields
  • Electric Machines
  • Power Systems
  • Microcontrollers with lab
  • Digital Design Lab
  • Logic Circuit Design

Students also choose six credits from an extensive list of electives covering nuclear power systems, power electronics, computer engineering, robotic systems, optical fiber communications, electronic warfare, cybersecurity, and many more.

With an emphasis on hands-on laboratory experience and classroom instruction, the GS program has similarities to electronic engineering. Graduates will have training in robotics, electronics, power systems, and digital communications that translates to the ability to design and implement electrical systems.

Study plans that blend instruction with laboratory hours afford practical experience that bridges the gap between electronic and electrical engineering. For example, the Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering Technology at Excelsior College in Albany, New York, has eight mandatory laboratories. Four are in the area of AC Circuits, DC Circuits, Digital Communications, Electronics I & II, and Microprocessors. Additionally, there are three labs in the concentration and one physics lab.

Students have the choice of an Electronics or Power Systems concentration. The former focuses on analyzing electronics, computers, and communication systems; the latter spotlights analyzing, designing, and operating single and three-phase electric motors and instrumentation.

The classes at Excelsior provide graduates with the knowledge and techniques to design and troubleshoot systems and components used in electrical technology.

Jobs in Electrical and Electronic Engineering

The field of electrical and electronic engineering is diverse, with opportunities and applications in transportation and automotive, telecommunications, aerospace, manufacturing, computers, biomedical engineering, semiconductors, energy, and electric power. Electrical engineers are responsible for designing, testing, and overseeing the manufacture of electrical equipment. The BLS reported that they use their knowledge of science and mathematics to develop new ways to harness electrical power in a wide range of electrical systems, from those used in aircraft and motor vehicles to generators, navigation systems, radar, and communication systems. In the course of their work, they must calculate standards and specifications, supervise manufacturing and installation processes, and solve any problems with the equipment that arise.

Electronic engineers also design and develop equipment, but they work with electronic equipment and components rather than electrical equipment. According to the BLS, this includes the parts and systems used in music players, broadcast systems, Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, and computer hardware. The work of electronic engineers is often used in medical, commercial, scientific, industrial, or military fields.

According to the BLS, there were 122,320 working as electronics engineers and 185,220 as electrical engineers as of May 2020.

Architectural, engineering and related services employ the most electrical engineers with 41,010, followed by electric power generation & transmission with 18,850. Of the top five industries for employment, scientific research is at the bottom with 8,420 engineers.

Within electronics engineers, 23,010 work in telecommunications, followed by semiconductors with 16,260, and the federal executive branch is third with 15,710. The fifth spot goes to engineers working in navigation, measurement, control instruments, and electromedicine with 7,420.

As a whole, electrical and electronic engineers earn a median salary of $103,390, slightly higher than the $92,220 median wage for all engineers and well above the $37,690 median salary for all occupations in America. Electronic engineers working outside the field of computers earn a median salary of $107,540, compared to $100,830 for electrical engineers, the BLS reported. Electrical engineering is growing slightly faster than electronic engineering. Over a decade (2020 – 2030), the BLS expects job opportunities for electrical and electronic engineers to increase by three percent, or the turnover in 20,400 positions.

These statistics fare better for individuals with a bachelor’s degree than an associate degree. According to the BLS, graduates with an associate can expect an average wage of $67,550 and a projected job growth of 2%. Consequently, there could be only 1,900 jobs created over ten years or 190 each year. Not a promising statistic.

The highest paying industry for electronic engineers is in natural gas distribution, with a median pay of $140,320. Electrical engineers working in oil and gas extraction receive the highest average salary at $131,710. The second highest income is computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing ($126,490) and independent artists and writers ($127,250), respectively. This last group seems like an unusual place for electrical engineers.

Geographically, more electrical engineers work in California (26,320) than in any other state. The same applies to electronics engineers, with 22,010 in the sunshine state.

Looking at metropolitan areas, there is a difference in the employment levels for each degree. Here are some of the employment numbers for electronic engineers:

  1. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara: 5,910
  2. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim: 5,750
  3. Dallas-Fort Worth: 5,020
  4. Portland, Oregon: 4,780

Employment numbers for electrical engineers:

  1. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim: 9,290
  2. New York-Newark-Jersey City: 7,290
  3. Boston-Cambridge: 7,190
  4. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara: 5,420

The figures for total employment in each profession (electronic and electrical) seem to favor a degree in electrical engineering. Furthermore, the geographical data provide more jobs in more places – another consideration. However, salary statistics should not be your only guide, and some of the stats are misleading. Our research revealed sources (Indeed site) stating that biomedical engineering is the fastest growing engineering discipline at 23%. The percentage is a stark contrast to the BLS 2020 projected growth for Bioengineers and Biomedical Engineers at only 6% or a change in 1,100 jobs over ten years.

Additional Resources

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