How Hard Is Electrical Engineering?

How hard is electrical engineering? It’s challenging, but not overly hard. If you’re good at math and physics, you’ll quickly learn.

The common pitfall with the field is how you need to think abstractly. But having an interest in electricity and magnetism will greatly simplify the process.

I’ve been a working electrical engineer for over 15 years. I’m very familiar with the field, and I can tell you the work isn’t overly complex. When you first start learning though, it’s not a cakewalk. But what field worth learning is?…

With the stage set, I’m going to go over what can make electrical engineering difficult.

Visualization of abstract concepts you can’t see

electric field terrain model 3D potential
Electric field terrain model 3D potential (Photo Credit: MikeRun)

You don’t observe any electric phenomena in your everyday life. Heck, most everything in electrical engineering you can’t see.

For example, you can’t see electric and magnetic fields and wireless signals. Even at the most basic level, you can’t see electric current moving through a circuit. All you see is a bunch of wires and alien-looking devices.

This captures the high level of abstract thinking involved. You need to use math to understand concepts, as the learning isn’t intuitive.

Imagine a long circuit run from a power source to a load. A voltage drop calculation can only tell you if there’s a problem in your circuitry. With a visual inspection alone, you’ll never know something is wrong.

In other engineering fields though, you can see and touch what you design. Just think of the designs in the structural engineering field. The conceptualization of concepts is much easier.

Overall, as an electrical engineer, you need a strong foundation in basic theory. This will help you better visualize electrical concepts. And this is key to high-level mistake-free design work.

Important Note: the concept of electricity you can simplify through a water analogy. We’ll use this analogy to understand why voltage drops when starting a motor.

Say you’re taking a shower and then someone flushes the toilet. Suddenly, you notice the shower head water pressure drops for a few seconds. This happens because a single water pipe feeds both your toilet and shower.

Similarly, think of voltage as electrical pressure. Voltage pushes current through an electrical line. So with a high current demand from a motor start, the voltage will drop on all loads connected to the circuit. This is why your lights may momentarily dim if they’re on the same circuit as the motor.

Electrical theory and real-world practice

case pipe with high voltage cables

You need strong engineering theory and real-world skills to maximize your potential.

Once you start working as an electrical engineer, you can’t forget engineering theory. Especially, when you lead complex cutting-edge design work.

As an example, I once had to design 15,000-volt and 230,000-volt cables deep underground in a casing pipe. The pipe was deep underground and traveled miles in a heavily populated city. The image above is a section view of the casing pipe in question.

Inside this pipe, there were some conduits with 3-cables inside. This was a non-issue, as their magnetic fields cancel out. But, single cables in a PVC conduit were potential problems.

Imagine a magnetic loop forming perpendicular to the PVC conduit, from rebar in the duct bank. The single-run cable’s magnetic field would induce a current in the rebar. This induced current would then cause heating and act as a parasitic load on the cable.

I had to carefully consider this matter in the project design. Because rebar is commonly used in duct banks for reinforcement. And without a strong background in electrical theory, I wouldn’t even know this issue existed.

In short, without mastery of theory, you can cause tens of millions of dollars in damages. Or even worse, someone can badly get hurt.

Important Note: you can get by, by not using much theory in the professional world. But, you won’t get to do very interesting work, and you’ll never maximize your career.

Usage of high levels of math 

practice engineering problems

While studying electrical engineering, you’ll use the following types of math:

  • Bode analysis
  • Fourier’s transform
  • Laplace’s transform
  • Calculus/differential equations
  • Vectors
  • Lagrangian multipliers
  • Matrix algebra

I can go on and on. The point is, you use a lot of math, more so when you’re in school.

A lot of the math can seem foreign to you too. It can be difficult to wrap your head around some of the abstract mathematical concepts. For example, using partial differential equations to solve electrical circuitry problems.

So, you need to like math and be pretty good at it.

Important Note: in the real world, engineers use much less math than in school. You use more basic math. But, it’s still important to understand complex math concepts to some degree.

Otherwise, you can’t properly review software outputs, and identify software limitations. Also, visualizing electrical concepts comes down to understanding how equation variables relate together. 

Your interest level in electrical engineering

If you don’t have an interest in electrical engineering, learning the material will become a huge drag.

I’m not talking about a slight interest either. I’m talking about thinking and dreaming about electricity. I think about electrical subjects and engineering in general a lot!

So, if you check off the interest box requirement, you’re ahead of many of your peers. Because many only become electrical engineers for money and other superficial reasons.

To point out, in school you’ll study and memorize challenging subjects to earn a good grade. But, practical knowledge you gain in the working world through an interest in the field. And if you strive to ever become a 10x engineer, you’ll need to endlessly self-learn. If you solely rely on what you learned in school, you’ll be in a world of pain.

All in all, I find self-studying trumps formal education in most instances. And the only way you’ll self-study hairy subjects is when you have a deep interest in a subject.

Creativity and problem-solving aptitude

Is your mind wired to think outside of the box? If not, electrical engineering can be a challenge, even if you have a deep interest in the field. Because creativity and visualization abilities are critical for this abstract field.

You can still become an electrical engineer without these skills. But, you won’t lead challenging cutting-edge engineering projects.

The great thing is though, you can always level up your creativity. Formal engineering education is never meant to be the finish line in your learning. In fact, formal engineering education has many shortcomings.

Instead, take a look at the engineering creative process for the Golden Gate Bridge. This case study will help you understand the creative demand in real-world engineering. Also, check out my 20 tips to improve your creativity.

You’ll find much of intuitive creativity, comes through a lot of experience. Over the years, I greatly leveled up my creativity by gaining work experience. I was then able to better come up with solutions and better connect the dots over abstract ideas. So, a lot of what we call “creativity” comes with practice.

But, there are levels to engineering aptitude. No matter how much experience you have, you won’t become the next Nikola Tesla. Not all engineers are geniuses, far from it. But if you challenge yourself to be more creative, you’ll reach your full potential.

“How hard is electrical engineering” wrap up

If you’re just getting your feet wet in electrical engineering, be patient. The learning process takes time and you need an open mind.

With passion though, you’ll overcome the challenges. Then soon, your mind will open up to a whole new awesome world of thoughts and possibilities.

Heck, you can even try to figure out how black hole jets form from magnetic fields. And the icing on the cake is, the future of electrical engineering looks bright!

What are your thoughts on how hard electrical engineering is? Do you think electricity and magnetism are hard concepts to grasp? 

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