Electrical engineers are the engineers who design and develop electrical equipment of all kinds. A related engineering professional, electronics engineer, works specifically on electronic equipment, while another similar occupation, computer engineer, develops the hardware or software used to make computers run. If you’re interested in embarking on one of these high-paying, high-tech careers, you will need a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, electronics engineer or computer engineering.
Accreditation Requirements for Electrical Engineering Degree Programs
One of the first factors engineering students in any discipline should consider is whether their degree program is accredited. Accredited programs are approved by non-governmental organizations based on their compliance with quality standards. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) is the organization responsible for accrediting programs in all disciplines of engineering.
ABET’s accreditation criteria cover general curriculum requirements as well as program-specific requirements. All engineering programs must include at least one year of college-level math and basic science courses, a year and a half of engineering science and engineering design coursework and a major design project. Any program with the title of electrical, electronics or computer engineering must also include studies in subjects such as differential equations, integral calculus, linear algebra, discrete mathematics, complex variables and probability and statistics. These programs must also include a blend of engineering and computer science coursework that will equip students with the skills needed to analyze, develop and design electrical and electronics components and devices as well as computer hardware and software.
ABET also recognizes communications and telecommunications degree programs under the same umbrella as electrical, electronics and computer engineering.
If all electrical, electronics and computer engineering programs need to meet the same accreditation requirements, does it really matter which major you choose? Despite the similarities, there are also significant differences between these programs.
Students in an electrical engineering program typically start their engineering curriculum with an introduction to electrical engineering class. Coursework in circuits, signals and systems, electromagnetics and semiconductors are also important, according to U.S. News & World Report. Concentrations in electrical engineering programs include biosystems, communications, energy, multimedia and semiconductors and nanotechnology.
Often, electrical engineers work on large-scale engineering systems, like space exploration vehicles and large train systems, in which there are thousands of components working together.
The biggest distinction between electrical and electronics engineering degree programs isn’t what subjects are studied, but rather, what topics are most heavily emphasized. Electronics engineers do slightly different work than their peers in electrical engineering, focusing on projects like broadcast and communication systems, portable music players and Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Electronics engineering majors complete more foundational courses that focus on electronics specifically, according to U.S. News & World Report. This includes more extensive studies in subjects such as circuits and their electrical components.
Because electronics engineering is a subfield of the broader discipline of electrical engineering, many electronics engineering programs are specialization tracks within electrical engineering degree programs. In this scenario, students would still complete the same core coursework required for an electrical engineering degree but may also use their technical electives to complete courses on alternating current circuits, direct current circuits, digital circuits and systems and other components that make up electronic devices and systems.
Students of electronics engineering programs may take courses that prepare them for work developing the electronics used in traditional power systems as well as renewable energy systems.
How does computer engineering fit into the field of electrical and electronics engineering? Often, computer engineering and electrical engineering are combined into one department. Computer hardware engineers use the concepts and applications of electrical and electronics engineering but focus specifically on applying that knowledge to the design and analysis of computer hardware and software.
A computer engineering program typically will include more computer science coursework, like classes in discrete structures and data structures, than electrical or electronics engineering programs. Students’ engineering courses, too, emphasize computers more heavily through courses such as computer systems and programming, algorithms and models of computation.
Computer engineering focuses more on practical application than does computer science, a primarily theoretical major that is more closely related to mathematics than to engineering.
How to Choose Your Major for an Electrical Engineering Career
There’s certainly overlap between fields of study like electrical, electronics and computer engineering. It’s no surprise that many engineering schools combine two or more of these distinctions into a single department, division or major, given the similarities in curricula and employment prospects. However, which of these majors or concentrations you choose may affect the path of your career. Choosing a major with a narrower focus like computer engineering may mean that your skillset and knowledge base aren’t broad enough for certain electrical engineering jobs. Similarly, if you want to work in computer engineering specifically, a prospective employer might consider a more general electrical engineering degree to be too broad.
To solve the problem of programs being too broad or too narrow, many engineering schools offer options like joint majors and academic concentrations that allow students to customize their education.