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Did you think electrical engineers only work behind a desk for factories and utility companies? If so, think again! This electrical engineer, who does work for the department of homeland security and national defense finds himself assigned to critically important and new and exciting projects every 12-18 months. He sat down to share his story with us to help others understand the exciting opportunities available to electrical engineers.

Q: What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?

A: I am a senior electrical engineer working in research and development on projects for homeland security and national defense. I have worked in this area for over ten years. I would describe myself as inquisitive, methodical and patient.

Q: What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best?

A: I am a white male from New Jersey, no jokes please. I work in what was once a male-dominated field so I have not experienced any discrimination.

Q: How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?

A: My colleagues and I solve problems based on our clients’ needs. We do everything from modifying an existing commercial product for a custom application to building a satellite system completely from scratch. To design and build our projects, I use computer software, I hand build components such as circuit boards for prototypes, and I travel to not-so-exotic locations to field test them. Some people think that engineers spend their days behind desks crunching numbers. My work is much more varied and interactive. I get to play with a lot of fun toys and cool electronics.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?

A: I would happily rate my job satisfaction as a 9. If I could change one thing, I would spend less time doing paperwork. I’m asked to do a lot of documentation that while necessary isn’t as interesting as planning and designing new systems.

Q: If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?

A: Engineering is definitely the right line of work for me. I have known that I wanted to be an electrical engineer since I was a freshmen in high school after I read a Discover Magazine article about Rodney Brooks of MIT and his work in robotics.

Q: Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?

A: I have a very supportive wife who encourages my creative side both at work and at home. My hobby is building and launching large-scale model rockets, a fun, time-consuming and not inexpensive pursuit.

Q: How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?

A: After completing my master’s degree, I took a civilian job working for an Army research laboratory. The nature of that work wasn’t hands-on enough for me so I moved to my current job where I am delighted with the types of projects and the level of my involvement with them. If I could make one change, I would have taken classes to complete a second bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering while an undergraduate.

Q: What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?

A: I learned that sometimes you can’t convince management to do what you know is right, regardless of how persuasive of a case that you make.

Q: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

A: Everything that you learn in school for engineering isn’t nearly as useful or as important as the professors claim. In the real world, theory matters very little and hands-on experience is worth its weight in gold.

Q: What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?

A: I had only been working for the Army for a few days when my colleagues took me out to a field to demonstrate a small drone aircraft. I would be working with the drone which was about the size of a model airplane. After a couple of flights, they asked if I wanted to control it. My flight was going great until I crashed it into a tree. My colleagues then informed me that I had just crashed $100,000 worth of equipment. As you can imagine, I was very upset. But then they explained that the plane was designed to fall apart upon impact. We retrieved it from the tree, put the wings back on with rubber bands, and immediately flew it again.

Q: Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?

A: The challenge of the work is what gets me going. Knowing that each day will bring new and interesting problems to solve keeps me excited about what I do. I wish I could provide more details but the work I do is classified and considered matters of national security. Unfortunately the work that I am most proud of, I can’t discuss publicly at all. I can’t even tell my family about my successes on the job.

Q: What kind of challenges do you handle and what makes you want to just quit?

A: There is never enough time to do the work with as much care and thought as I would like to give to it. I face deadline pressure daily. Arbitrary deadlines imposed by people who don’t understand the complex nature of the work they have requested frustrates me greatly.

Q: How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?

A: My job is moderately stressful. Most days I am able to leave the job behind me when I come home. However, I do a fair amount of traveling for testing purposes and being away from my family adds to the stress of the job.

Q: What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?

A: An electrical engineer with a master’s degree and a security clearance can expect to make six figures, which allows me to live comfortably with my family.

Q: How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?

A: I take about two weeks vacation a year although I earn about twice that much. It would be nice to take more time off but deadlines often prevent it.

Q: What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

A: Earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree in electrical engineering is a must to get started in the field. It is crucial to gain hands-on experience either through an internship, an extracurricular activity or a hobby. Knowing which end of a soldering iron to pick up is invaluable. It helps in this line of work to want to get your hands dirty and interact with the hardware as opposed to giving orders to someone else to fix it.

Q: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

A: Pay attention in school but take every chance that you can get to get practical experience. Find a technical hobby that you like, that will help you learn more than all of your coursework. I helped to build a rocket payload for NASA when I was an undergraduate and it taught me the value of teamwork, communication and dedication to a project.

Q: If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

A: I like being a worker bee. Five years from now I see myself at the same company working on more interesting projects. The projects that I work on typically last 12-18 months so there is always something exciting coming along.