Study Electrical Engineering: Bachelor's, Associate & Online Degree Info

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What will you learn in an electrical engineering degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of an associate and bachelor's degree and potential careers.
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Electrical Engineering: Associate and Bachelor's Degrees at a Glance

Think of all the electrical devices you use on a daily basis - each one was designed and built by someone in the electrical engineering field. If your interests are sparked by electrical power and circuits, you may want to pursue an undergraduate degree program in electrical engineering.

Given the country's pursuit of new technologies, you might expect electrical engineers to be in high demand. However, job growth is actually expected to be slower than average, compared to all professions; the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected a 7% increase in jobs for electrical engineers between 2010 and 2020 (www.bls.gov).

Aspiring engineers must earn a bachelor's degree, but associate degree programs in electrical engineering are also available. Designed specifically as transfer programs, these allow students to complete the first half of their credits at a 2-year college, then move into a 4-year program with junior standing. Compare these programs below:

Associate Bachelor's
Who Is This Degree For? Those who want to become electrical engineers and choose to earn a 2-year degree prior to transferring into a 4-year degree program Those who want to become electrical engineers and choose to enroll directly in a 4-year degree program
Common Career Paths (with Median Salary) N/A - this is a transfer program Electrical Engineer ($86,000)*
Time to Completion (Full-Time Enrollment) 2 years 4 years for direct enrollment, 2 years for transfer students
Common Graduation Requirements None beyond the degree's required coursework Capstone experience that involves creating a design concept and/or prototype for an electrical product or system, individually or in a team
Prerequisites High school diploma or GED High school diploma or GED
Online Availability None found at this time Yes, though programs may be hybrid and require on-campus lab work

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 stats).

Associate Degree in Electrical Engineering

If you decide to pursue an associate degree in electrical engineering, know that it doesn't prepare you for a career - at least not on its own. This isn't a standalone program; rather, it eases your transfer into a bachelor's degree program. If you're interested in electrical engineering but not entirely certain that the field is for you, starting out in an associate degree program might be a smart option, since it requires a shorter commitment and costs less money. However, you may hit a problem with the program's availability, since it's not a common offering, and there may not be a school near you that has it.

Another tricky part about choosing an associate degree program in electrical engineering is that you'll need to consider two programs at once: the 2-year program and the 4-year program that you want to transfer into. Your community college will likely have transfer agreements with one or more universities; if you're interested in a university that doesn't have a formal agreement with your school, make sure your 2-year curriculum meets its requirements for transfer.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Enrolling in this type of program can save you some money, since your first two years are done at a community college
  • You can explore electrical engineering without feeling locked into a 4-year program if you discover that you don't like it
  • Starting out at a community college can help you transition into higher education, whether you're a new high school graduate or an adult going back to school
  • Even though earning the associate degree doesn't signal the end of your education, it can give you a sense of accomplishment to motivate you toward the bachelor's degree

Cons

  • Although transfer programs are meant to be seamless, switching schools is still an added hiccup that students in a standard 4-year program don't have to go through
  • Credits from community colleges aren't regarded with as much prestige as credits from 4-year schools
  • If you decided not to continue on to earn the bachelor's degree, you're not prepared for any particular career
  • Comparatively few schools offer this degree program (about 31 nationwide as of April 2012)*

Source: *National Center for Education Statistics

Courses and Requirements

General education courses, science courses and math courses make up the bulk of a 2-year electrical engineering curriculum. The required engineering prep courses are comparatively few, since those topics are covered more in-depth once you transfer into a bachelor's degree program. The general education component covers the humanities, social sciences and English; courses in technical writing and communications are commonly included, since engineers must be able to clearly explain complex, technical information (both to other engineers and to laypeople). In the sciences, a series of physics courses and a chemistry series are usually required. For math, you'll need to complete a calculus series.

Online Degree Options

These transfer programs are unique to begin with and aren't widely available even on campus, so it's unlikely that you'll find a distance-learning option for the 2-year electrical engineering degree. However, it's possible that your school may offer certain courses, particularly general education requirements, in an online format; for example, you might be able to enroll in online English and humanities courses while completing your science, math and engineering courses on campus. Since these courses introduce crucial fundamentals about things like calculus and engineering (upon which you'll build in a 4-year program), having in-person guidance from a professor may be more beneficial to you than self-directed online study.

Stand Out with This Degree

Electrical engineering programs are accredited by ABET, Inc., the organization that evaluates and approves degree programs in all disciplines of engineering. For the best career prospects, you'll need to graduate from an ABET-accredited program. Here's where it gets complicated: ABET doesn't accredit the associate degree programs themselves; rather, it accredits the bachelor's degree programs that 2-year programs transfer into. Therefore, you'll need to make sure that your 2-year school has transfer agreements with a university offering an ABET-accredited program. Alternately, if you're interested in an accredited program that doesn't have a transfer agreement with your school, you'll need to check to make sure that it'll accept your associate-level credits.

There's no guarantee that completing an associate-level program will grant you entry into a 4-year program - you'll also have to work hard and get good grades. Your GPA in your science, math and engineering courses will be particularly important to the admissions committee. Most applications include an essay section that asks you to explain your interest in your chosen field of study. Drawing from your experience in the associate-level program and researching the curriculum of the bachelor's program can help you in this essay - you could identify the electrical engineering topics that intrigue you so far, as well as the topics that you're excited to learn more about. You can also note your ambitions to become an engineer and explain how those have been reinforced by your first two years of classes.

Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering

You can either enter a bachelor's degree program directly after high school, as a college freshman, or - as described above - you can first earn an associate degree in electrical engineering and then transfer as a junior. A 4-year electrical engineering program features a rigorous curriculum that may be overwhelming if you don't have technical, mathematical and mechanical aptitude.

Bachelor's degree programs in electrical engineering are usually offered at colleges and universities, and the school you choose can have a big impact on your education and opportunities. For example, well-funded schools may have high-tech equipment and laboratories that students can use. A school with a research grant - such as a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant from the National Science Foundation - can allow bachelor's-level students to contribute to research projects with a level of depth and participation typically reserved for graduate students. Schools with co-op learning programs can give you work experience in electrical engineering while you're still a student.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • With experience, engineers can advance to manager positions without needing additional education beyond the bachelor's degree
  • Flexibility of online learning options
  • Offers appropriate training for the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) and Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) licensure exams
  • Programs typically offer students the opportunity for practical, real-world experiences, whether through research projects or co-op learning formats

Cons

  • Obtaining PE licensure involves passing two complex exams
  • Once graduates are employed, occasional overtime for engineers is common*
  • Since technology changes so rapidly, electrical engineers will need to complete continuing education throughout their careers

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Courses and Requirements

Electrical engineering programs require a lot of math, show students how to apply the fundamentals of engineering, have a strong design emphasis and introduce a research component, even allowing undergraduates to participate in departmental research projects. Depending on the research initiatives and labs your school has, you could assist in research on everything from renewable energy to artificial intelligence. You can expect to complete courses in the following subjects:

  • Analytic geometry and calculus
  • Physics, chemistry and statistics for engineers
  • Differential equations
  • Electronics labs
  • C/C++ data structures
  • Machine learning
  • Engineering design

The capstone of your program will typically be a senior design project, during which you participate in the design process for an electrical product or system. You may be presented with a problem that your design should solve, and the project may encompass everything from brainstorming to developing a prototype to presenting your plan to hypothetical (or sometimes actual!) clients.

Online Degree Options

These programs can also be found in online formats, though some online programs may still require students to complete lab work on campus. For non-lab classes, online electrical engineering programs may provide text-based or recorded video lectures, and you would read materials, complete homework problems and even take quizzes and exams over the Internet. The coursework is the same as in an on-campus program; online programs in this field are just designed to give students - particularly those who work full-time - more flexibility in their class schedules. ABET accredits distance-education engineering programs as well as on-campus programs, so it's important to find an accredited online electrical engineering program.

Stand Out with This Degree

You can enhance your career prospects by choosing a bachelor's degree program that involves co-op learning. The BLS notes that candidates with ample practical experience are attractive to employers and suggests co-op programs as one way to gain that experience while still in school. In a co-op program, students usually alternate between taking courses one semester and working off-campus full-time in the next semester; co-op students may even be paid for their work. Examples of potential co-op placement sites include electric and energy companies, advanced technology companies, security companies and even aerospace companies, depending on what industries operate in your local area.

The importance of ABET accreditation is even higher for 4-year electrical engineering programs, since graduation from an ABET-accredited program is a firm requirement for licensure. While professional engineer (PE) licensure isn't as crucial for electrical engineers as it is for other types of engineers (like civil or mechanical), the BLS explains that it's still recommended for those who might work with government contracts. You might choose to attain licensure to make yourself more valuable to employers; the BLS states that the PE license can increase your engineering job prospects.

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