How to Become an Electrical Engineer

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A line of transmission towers.

That light switch you flick, that flashlight you shine, even that smartphone you swipe — an electrical engineer played a role in bringing those products to market. The field of electrical engineering is truly fascinating and one that’s crucial to modern technology. Electrical engineers play a critical role in the development, design, and manufacturing of the electrical systems and electronic devices people use every day. It’s safe to say that the world wouldn’t be quite the same without electrical engineers. The devices they help create are tools that consumers and business owners depend on for convenience and communication.

Individuals who want to learn how to become an electrical engineer should know it begins with a formal education. Earning an online Master of Science in Engineering degree, with a specialization in electrical engineering, can allow you to enter the field with confidence and chart a bright future. The University of California, Riverside — and the Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering, in particular — has helped numerous graduates rediscover their occupational callings and find work in many different professions, including power system design, substation integration, resource management, and supply applications architecture. The robust curriculum can provide students with the tools they need to thrive in this vocation.

All this raises a key question: What are the steps to becoming an electrical engineer? Before getting into the specifics of education and work experience, it’s best to know more about the role’s job description and how the profession distinguishes itself from similar occupations.

What Does an Electrical Engineer Do?

Because electrical engineers apply their skills to a wide array of occupations, what an electrical engineer does day to day can vary significantly.

Electrical engineers are employed in a host of different work environments and industries, including engineering services, telecommunications, and research and development, as well as the federal government, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

There’s also a slight distinction between electrical engineering and electronic engineering. Electrical engineering involves electricity as a source of power and ensuring that it’s reliable. Electronic engineering involves working with end products such as software, consumer electronics, and hardware that people use to make everyday functions less labor-intensive. In short, electrical engineers focus on the delivery, and electronics engineers concentrate on the execution.

Electrical engineers may also seek to come up with new ways of utilizing electrical power so that it’s leveraged more efficiently. Electronics engineers, meanwhile, may modify the products they’re involved in designing to improve quality and technical performance. Some of this may involve testing to see what works.

With a degree in electrical engineering from UC Riverside, you’ll gain insight into both of these disciplines to help you discover which one is more relevant to your interests and strengths.

Electrician vs. Electrical Engineer: How Do They Differ?

Electrical engineers are also occasionally mistaken for electricians. Similar to electronics engineers, these professions use many of the same control systems and mathematical and scientific concepts to come up with solutions for the projects they’re working on.

It’s in the cycle of electrical utilization that these two professions branch off. While electrical engineers are involved at the ground floor — such as design and manufacturing — electricians deal with the application. Electricians are responsible for wiring houses and buildings or connecting electrical systems to power grids and circuit breakers. When comparing electricians vs. electrical engineers, a key distinction is that an electrician’s job is far more hands-on. However, they’re similar in that both seek to identify ways to improve or modify electrical performance.

Additionally, there’s a shortfall in these occupations, particularly among electricians. About 84,700 job openings for electricians are projected each year, on average, between 2020 and 2030, according to the BLS. This has the potential to make electricians a more lucrative profession, as higher salaries generally draw greater interest from prospective applicants. Electricians made a median annual salary of $60,040 in 2021, the BLS reports.

There’s a significant amount of overlap in engineering courses with electrical engineering as a specialty, so those who initially set out to become electrical engineers may decide the role of an electrician is a better fit and vice versa. An online master’s in electrical engineering at UC Riverside — which the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology has accredited — has various resources available that can help you enter the profession that’s most in line with your career goals and aspirations.

Becoming an Electrical Engineer

The path to becoming an electrical engineer is much like many other occupations: It entails a combination of academic learning and on-the-job training. As the BLS has noted, a bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite to enter the field. Students must learn the foundational terminology and arithmetic involved in electrical engineering before they proceed to more advanced concepts.

While a master’s degree may not be a mandatory component for becoming an electrical engineer, it can give you a leg up in an industry that’s known for being highly competitive. The workforce had approximately 313,200 electrical and electronic engineers as of 2020, a total that’s expected to increase by 7% over the next decade, according to the BLS.

The online master’s program at UC Riverside builds upon material that you may have learned while getting your undergraduate degree. Core classes include Principles of Engineering Management and Introduction to Systems Engineering. Students who seek to enter the electrical engineering field take these courses, along with others geared directly toward their specialty including Power Systems Analysis, Electric Drives, Introduction to Smart Grid, and Power System Steady State and Market.

Depending on the career you wish to pursue with an electrical engineering degree, you may need to take advantage of programs and opportunities where you can apply the skills you’ve learned. These help to build experience and establish authority in your chosen discipline. A great way to do this is through networking and seeing what resources may be available with your degree program.

Electrical Engineer Skills

Electrical engineering students pursue higher education to obtain the technical skills they need to thrive in this dynamic industry. However, soft skills are equally important, especially in the field of electrical engineering. The following are some soft skills that are key to success when working on how to become an electrical engineer, as detailed by the BLS:

Ability to Concentrate

From signal processing to instrumentation and microelectronics, there are many working parts to designing, investigating, and managing electrical processes. These can’t be implemented haphazardly, as doing so poses risks to safety and the quality performance of communication, power generation, and control systems. Therefore, electrical engineers must hone their focus, so they can develop and improve upon complex electrical elements, modules, and structures.

Clear Communication

This profession is one of collaboration, which means an electrical engineer is usually working with other professionals who must be kept up to date on the project at hand. Electrical engineers need to be able to explain their findings in a clear, concise, straightforward manner, so the next phase of the process — such as the manufacturing of a component — can be handled properly.

Critical Thinking

Why are seemingly fully functional components shorting out? How can navigation systems be upgraded,  so they deliver a better user experience? What’s the best way to lengthen the life of portable power generators for homes or businesses?

These are all excellent questions that electrical engineers may face in developing, improving, or troubleshooting systems that aren’t working efficiently or that require an update. They must rely on their working knowledge to diagnose what’s happening and what solution is the best and most cost-efficient one to apply. This requires outside-the-box thinking and analysis.

Computational Aptitude

Calculus, trigonometry, and other forms of advanced math are key elements of electrical engineering. Understanding the material and the ability to utilize it on a situational basis is critical in this line of work.


The electronics and electrical industry is one of modification, evidenced by the rollout of numerous iPhones since their debut in 2007. These products more or less do the same thing — make phone calls and send text messages — but today, they perform these functions faster and include other features that drive high demand. Electrical engineers may work in partnership with electronics engineers to come up with applications that can make existing products perform better, so they’re in line with state-of-the-art technology.


When a hurricane hits a town and knocks out the power, it’s proof that electrical grids are far from perfect. These are the types of problems that electrical engineers are sent to investigate and rectify. Successful problem-solving may involve coordinating with other professionals inside and outside the engineering profession, such as the local, state, and federal governments; utility firms; and power line workers. Electrical engineers need to think ahead to identify what potential problems may occur and how they can be mitigated.

What Is the Average Salary of an Electrical Engineer?

Electrical engineers need to possess advanced skills, and as such, the role is generally well compensated. The median annual wage for electrical engineers was $100,420 in 2021, according to the BLS. Those in the lowest 10% of earners made nearly $62,400, much higher than the overall median annual wage in the U.S. (approximately $45,800). The top 10%, meanwhile, earned more than $162,900.

In terms of which industries paid the most, electrical engineers in research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences industries earned the highest median annual wage, at $125,000, the BLS reports. This was followed by semiconductor and other electronic component manufacturing, at $107,200.

As for the electrical engineer job outlook, the BLS projects that the role will grow by 7% between 2020 and 2030. As of 2020, 188,000 electrical engineers are working in the U.S.

Begin Your Journey to Become an Electrical Engineer at UC Riverside

You have a lot of options when it comes to pursuing a graduate degree in electrical engineering. However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an institution that will better prepare you to become an electrical engineer than the University of California, Riverside and its online Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering. Throughout the entirely online program — which you can finish within 13 months — you’ll learn from the very best in the industry, many of whom have served in various electrical engineering capacities over their professional careers.

Take control of your career aspirations and apply today. Let UC Riverside be the engine that can power you to a bright occupational destination.

Recommended Reading:

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Chemical Engineering vs. Electrical Engineering: What’s the Difference?

Theme Park Engineering Jobs


Electronics Notes, What Is Electronic Engineering

Indeed, How to Become an Electrical Engineer

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Electrical and Electronics Engineers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Electricians