What Prevents Many EE Students from “Making It” to Professional Careers?
Forty to fifty percent of engineering students don't complete their degrees. What gives?
The merits of an electrical engineering career have become crystal clear heading into 2020, especially with the paramount place of EEs in the healthcare system amidst COVID-19.
The field has certainly gained esteem and popularity, especially during the past decade. But that doesn't always mean it's easy, especially when prospective EEs are pursuing an undergraduate education.
The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) found that between 40% to 50% of engineering students drop out or change their majors. Engineering students who do survive the academic gauntlet may then face difficulties in the job market.
What are some of the factors that prevent prospective electrical engineers from "making it" to the professional level? Is it school? A competitive job market? Lost interest in the field? We've looked to a few sources and experts for their thoughts.
The Causes of Low Retention Rates in College
First thing’s first: you can’t pursue an EE career without the requisite education—which, as we can deduce from the staggering dropout statistics alone—is no small feat. ASEE editor-in-chief Mark Matthews identifies three primary reasons for low retention rates:
- Poor advising and teaching
- The innate difficulty of engineering curriculum
- A feeling that one doesn't “belong” in engineering
These explanations support our longstanding (and somewhat obvious) assumption: electrical engineering programs are incredibly rigorous.
We reached out to Dr. Jack Bedell—department chair of electrical engineering at California State University, Fullerton—for further insight. Bedell explains, "Students often do not have the strength in the prerequisites they need such as math and physics especially. It is a tough enough major when you are well prepared."
Interestingly, drop-out rates actually decrease as programs become more prestigious as we discovered in our article on the top 20 colleges for electrical engineering; think MIT, University of California Berkeley, Stanford University, and so forth. Top-tier engineering programs typically require advanced mathematical coursework prior to college and as such, students in these programs tend to be better prepared.
Most universities introduce students to advanced mathematics and electronics coursework. If we look at the required coursework for electrical engineering majors at Princeton University, for example, we'll find a tall order on curriculum ranging from general to specific—from calculus and physics to "building cyberphysical systems."
Outline of the required electrical engineering coursework at Princeton University. Image used courtesy of Princeton University
Prioritizing and formulating sound study habits to succeed in these courses is a taxing process. The National Survey of Student Engagement found that engineering seniors spend more time studying and preparing for class than students in other majors. However, this data was gathered back in 2011 and more recent statistics are needed to assess whether the field's rigor has held true in 2020.
Infographic of time spent by full-time seniors in various majors. Image used courtesy of the National Survey of Student Engagement
The same survey found that two out of five engineering students spent more than 20 hours a week preparing for class, long out-studying their peers in other majors.
Graph of the percentage of full-time seniors who spent more than 20 hours per week preparing for class. Image used courtesy of the National Survey of Student Engagement
These statistics reveal why a significant number of engineering students (and specifically electrical engineer students) hit burnout. More dropouts also mean fewer students are transitioning into the professional realm.
Professional Competition is Stout
Engineering positions are highly desired for their relative stability and compensation.
While one would expect demand to be high, job growth has lagged. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics forecasts that the average job growth for electrical engineers is 2% from 2018 to 2028, but this number is called into question considering the economic effects of COVID-19. Still, this hopeful 2% actually lags behind most other occupations, which claim an average growth of 5%.
While the Bureau doesn't attach an explanation to these numbers, competition still seems to be hot in electrical engineering, especially for students fresh out of college vying for internships.
Alternatives for Once-Aspiring Engineering Professionals
Those who forego a traditional electrical engineering career may choose alternate professions. Study.com found that many engineers often turn to positions in physics, teaching, and sales.
Alternative professions of individuals who once studied or professionally pursued engineering. Figures are pulled from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Image used courtesy of Study.com
Engineers who aren't as keen for hands-on work may also become technical writers (for instance, for publications like All About Circuits!) This avenue allows electrical engineers to share their knowledge through articles and technical documentation, like app notes and white papers. The University of California Riverside even published a list of seven unconventional landing places for engineers that included skate park engineering and sports engineering.
Balancing Risk and Opportunity
Electrical engineering is a pursuit of passion, one that demands motivation from students and professionals alike. While another degree may pigeonhole you into select fields, electrical engineering education opens plenty of professional doors—even beyond circuit design alone.
We want to hear your experience with your education and entrance into the professional electrical engineering space. What obstacles were the hardest to overcome? What advice would you give to a newly-practicing electrical engineer or student? Share your thoughts in the comments below.