Degrees in electrical engineering: Sparks won't fly if you get it right

Excited by valves and circuits? Then sign up for a course in electrical engineering
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Prometheus had nothing on electrical engineers. Working out how to control fire just turned us into a bunch of sword-wielding fanatics and arsonists, but since Faraday went one better and stole the lightning, electrical engineers have helped to drive the biggest improvement in living standards in history.

Appropriately enough, while Prometheus spent 30,000 years having his liver gouged out by an eagle, electrical engineers face the more appealing prospect of a lifetime being paid well for doing something they enjoy.

Electrical engineering deals with the generation, transmission and delivery of electricity - everything from how to make it to how to make it work for you, whether you're a vast multinational or a householder looking to toast a scone. In most universities, electrical engineering is partnered with electronic engineering. Electrical engineering deals with high currents, from the plant to homes and businesses; electronic engineering deals with low currents, designing the hardware on which telecoms and IT gadgets run.

Harnessing electricity is, of course, quite difficult. For one thing, you can't see it. "One has to imagine an electron flowing," says Dr Bikash Pal, senior lecturer at Imperial College's electrical and electronics engineering department, one of the highest-ranking in the UK. "Rather than seeing, you're thinking. That makes electrical engineering unique. It's something between doing and thinking." So you are matching up physics and maths theories with the practical business of, say, making signal boxes work so trains don't crash.

Heady stuff. "Electrical engineering has the maximum application of maths in terms of complexity and modernity," says Pal. "New mathematical theories reach electrical engineering before any other part of engineering. That gives you a very sound analytical knowledge. From this discipline you can branch out into many other disciplines."

Getting in to study God's own technology is, as you might expect, a competitive business. Electrical engineering courses attract the very best mathematicians and physicists. And you'll be expected to have a passion for the subject.

For Teresa Yeo, it all started with electrical circuits at school. "It's something I've always been interested in," says Yeo, 22, a third-year electrical and electronic engineering BEng student at Imperial. The highlight of the course was her first-year project, building a radio.

"I've enjoyed the hands-on work," she says. "Forming a circuit and seeing it work is really interesting. I really enjoyed working with thousands of resistor valves, putting designs and calculations from paper into practical work." After graduating, Yeo is going home to Singapore to work in the defence industry.

A first degree in electrical engineering does not necessarily mean a lifetime in research and development. Yeo's friend Sohasini Sudtharalingam, 22, is an MEng student at Imperial. For her, the greatest fun has been in matching the theoretical and the practical. "I like the problem-solving," she says. "There's a lot of that. How do you use maths to explain a concept? How does the maths apply?"

Instead of specialising in one aspect of electrical engineering, Sudtharalingam has taken extra papers in business and management. This summer, she has an internship with Goldman Sachs, and next year she'll work in the City of London.

You do not have to study electrical and electronic engineering on their own. Electrical and electronic engineering departments often host computing and IT courses, and there is a lot of crossover. Most computing undergraduates want the hardware knowledge you get in electronic engineering alongside the software programming they learn in computing.

James Dibley, 26, studied computer engineering at Southampton, with half his course spent on software and the other half on embedded electronics and electronic engineering. "It started back when I was seven or so," he says. "I thought inventing was a really great thing." He now works for Sony at the cutting edge of the digital revolution, designing digital TV chips. "The best bit is when everything slots in to place," he says. "You go into the lab and see something physical that you've helped to make."

If you like solving problems, Dibley says, you'll like electrical and electronic engineering. "I've had a pretty good time," he says. "Anyone who likes logical puzzle-solving will find some kind of satisfaction from it. And there's more scope to it than Sudoku."