Electrical Engineering Degrees: PhD, Master's & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in an electrical engineering graduate degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of master's degrees and Ph.D.s, and potential careers.
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Studying Electrical Engineering: Ph.D. and Master's Degrees at a Glance

While a bachelor's degree program in electrical engineering can provide the education needed for an entry-level engineering position, graduate programs in electrical engineering can prepare you for advanced engineering, teaching and high-level research positions. You'd take in-depth studies in electrical systems and electronic devices, perhaps learning to design or manufacture them yourself.

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected slower-than-average employment of all electrical and electronics engineers from 2010-2020, it noted potential demand for research and development positions. Engineering consulting and services firms could experience employment growth as companies eliminate in-house engineering positions. If you join an engineering services firm, or another business that offers engineering services to the public or government, you may need a state license. For licensure, many states require a degree from an ABET-accredited program.

Master's Ph.D.
Who Is this Degree for? Individuals interested in learning advanced engineering skills and leadership techniques Individuals who want to teach at universities or conduct scientific research
Common Career Paths (with annual salary ranges for majority of professionals) - Electrical engineer ($45,000-$99,000)*
- Senior electrical engineer ($65,346-$105,430 - with 5-9 years of experience)*
- Electrical engineering manager ($81,000-$162,000)*
- Engineering postsecondary teacher ($47,000-$153,000)**
- Research engineer ($44,000-$106,000)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years full time 3-6 years full time after the bachelor's (1-5 years if you have a master's)
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 30 credits or 6-10 graduate level courses
- Master's thesis
- Master's exams
- Additional graduate level courses
- Ph.D. qualifier exams
- Written dissertation and oral defense
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering or related field Bachelor's or master's degree in electrical engineering or related field
Online Availability Yes Yes, though rare

Sources: *PayScale.com (April 2012 figures); **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures)

Master's in Electrical Engineering

This program might award a Master of Science or Master of Engineering and is an option for those who already have an undergraduate degree and are looking to fine tune their technical skills or gain business and leadership acumen. You may choose to focus in one specific area of study, such as electromagnets or electronics, or earn a dual Master of Science/Master of Business Administration. While some programs are designed for professionals already working in this field, it may be difficult to find a program that can be completed on a part-time basis.

When considering graduate programs, know that not all master's degree programs are accredited by ABET (formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). Completion of an approved bachelor's degree (and work experience) currently qualifies you for the licensing exam, but some states may also require a master's degree beginning in 2020.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Can prepare you for leadership or research positions in engineering
  • May allow you to specialize in areas like control systems or digital systems design
  • Is available in thesis and non-thesis options
  • Some programs can be completed entirely online
  • Beginning in 2020, a master's degree (or equivalent) may be required to apply for the Professional Engineer (PE) licensing exam*

Cons

  • Only three ABET-accredited programs available**
  • Not necessary for an electrical engineering position
  • May be required to complete additional coursework if bachelor's degree isn't in electrical engineering
  • Not all programs have flexible schedules for working professionals

Source: *National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying; **ABET

Common Courses and Requirements

Coursework in a master's degree program in electrical engineering includes technical courses related to the design and functions of electrical and electronic devices and systems. Professional Master of Engineering programs typically require around ten classes and a research project. Master of Science programs often have fewer classes, but usually require you to complete a research-intensive thesis. Dual degree programs that award an MBA are also available; these programs typically include additional coursework in finance, management and business operations. Common course topics within all program types include:

  • Electrical power systems
  • Signal processing
  • Micro devices
  • Communications systems
  • Linear systems

Online Degree and Course Information

You can earn this degree through a 100% online program. Online program requirements differ by school, but may require you to complete independent study, a creative research project or an oral exam. While online electrical engineering programs typically require the same number of credits as their on-campus counterparts, the courses may be broken into shorter quarters or modules to help at-home students stay on track.

As an online student, you can expect to spend about 9-12 hours a week on assignments, exams and other coursework requirements for this degree. Online courses are similar to those offered in traditional programs and may covers topics such as electromagnetic fields, energy distribution systems and systems engineering.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

The BLS predicted that electrical engineers could see employment growth in the areas of wireless telecommunications, computer systems design and new technologies between 2010 and 2020. If you're looking for a way to stand out in this field, it may be worthwhile to focus your graduate studies in one of those areas.

2011 salary data from the BLS also indicated that electrical engineers who worked in the chemical product and preparation manufacturing, oil and gas extraction, and heavy and civil engineering construction industries had average salaries over $100,000. You may want to consider specializing in one of these fields if you're looking for a job with high salary potential.

Many schools have a variety of student organizations related to electrical engineering, such as the National Society of Professional Engineers, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) or the Society of Women Engineers. Joining one of these student chapters can provide you with professional development, networking and leadership opportunities that could be useful when it comes time to seek a job.

Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering

If you enjoy the research and development aspects of electrical engineering, you may want to consider continuing your education in a doctoral program. This Ph.D. program allows you to conduct in-depth studies on a specific area within the field of electrical engineering and can prepare you for a career in engineering research or a teaching position at a college or university. While there is typically a lot of competition for tenured positions at colleges and universities, the BLS has reported that new teaching positions should open up due to retirements and that more positions will open in the field of engineering than other areas, such as the humanities.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • May only need a bachelor's degree to enroll
  • Can choose an area of focus to match your interest
  • May secure a teaching or research assistant position for financial support
  • Good job prospects for postsecondary teaching options in engineering, compared to other fields*

Cons

  • May require full-time enrollment
  • Competition for tenure-track teaching positions*
  • According to a 2012 salary report, electrical engineers with a Ph.D. may not make a higher salary than those with a bachelor's or master's degree**

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; **PayScale.com

Common Courses and Requirements

Upon entering a Ph.D. program in electrical engineering, you'll typically work with an adviser to select an area to focus your research. This research area often guides your coursework selection and dissertation topic. Possible course topics may include:

  • Digital devices
  • Communication network systems
  • VLSI signal processing
  • Robotic controls
  • Advanced power systems
  • Laser electronics

As part of the Ph.D. program, you are typically required to take a qualifying exam to test your breadth of knowledge in electrical engineering. Some schools may offer this as a 2-part exam that also tests your research and presentation skills. Most programs also require you to complete a dissertation, or original research project, that makes a unique contribution in your chosen focus area of electrical engineering. Depending on the school, doctoral candidates may also be required to present, defend and publish their dissertation.

Online Degree and Course Information

Online Ph.D. programs in electrical engineering do exist, though they are not common and may require some on-campus components. The courses are typically the same as in on-campus programs and cover such topics as spacecraft electrical systems, wavelets and non-linear controls.

As an off-campus student, you may be required to complete exams or oral presentations with the supervision of a proctor or via video conferencing. Distance-learning students typically have access to the same resources as on-campus students for their dissertation project, such as the school's online library.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

As with the master's degree, you may have the most job opportunities in the areas that are expected to see the highest growth or technology changes, such as wireless communication devices. So if you're looking to set yourself apart from the crowd, you may wish to focus your research project or dissertation on one of these emerging fields. IEEE lists electric vehicles, cloud computing and smart grids among current emerging technologies. Other areas to consider include organic electronics, portable information devices and terabit networks.

If your goal is to secure a teaching position upon graduation, you may also want to secure a few teaching assistant positions to get experience in front of a classroom.

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