Electrical and Computer Engineering
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Frequently Asked Questions Features
  1. What is computer engineering?
  2. What set of skills do I need to be a computer engineer?
  3. What job opportunities are there for computer engineers?
  4. What degree plans are there for students interested in computers?
  5. What are the differences in these degree plans?
  6. What’s the difference between computer engineering and computer science?
  7. Which computer degree plan is better?
  8. I can’t decide whether to do computer science, computer engineering, or electrical engineering.
  9. What if I change my mind?
  10. I’ve used computers and written simple programs, but I still really don’t know what a computer engineer does.  How do I know it’s for me?
  11. I don’t see too many women engineers.  Are women successful in computer engineering?
  12. I have some other concerns about being an engineer
  13. How do job prospects compare for the various computer related degrees?
  14. What are the starting salaries for computer engineers?
  15. What are career salary prospects for computer engineers?
  16. I am interested in transferring from a two-year community college into Computer Engineering.  What courses transfer?
  17. What haven’t I asked?

1.  What is computer engineering?

Since engineering is the application of the principles of basic science to the solving of problems within constraints (that is, building things), computer engineering is engineering applied to computers and computer-based systems.  In other words, computer engineers design computers such as PCs, workstations, and supercomputers.  They also design computer-based systems such as those found in cars, planes, appliances, electronics, phones, communication networks, and many, many other products. Computer engineers typically design not only the hardware, but also much of the software in computer-based systems.

In general, computer engineering is concerned with all elements of information processing systems. These elements include the application environment (visualization of results of a computation and artificial intelligence), paradigms for representing information (algorithms for numeric and non-numeric applications, symbol manipulation, and language processing), paradigms for processing information (distributed computing, software engineering, information storage and retrieval, hardware execution models, and neural networks), and tools for designing computer systems (for example, Computer-Aided Design Tools -- CAD tools).   Also like computer science, computer engineering is concerned with human/machine interfaces, vision systems, robotics, graphics, reliable computer systems, logic circuits, hardware devices and structures, and application-specific computers. However, computer engineering tends to be more concerned with the implementation aspects of the previous subject areas, while computer science is generally more concerned with the formal structure of these areas.

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2.  What set of skills do I need to be a computer engineer?

All scientists and engineers need a firm foundation in basic science and math.  They also need to be able to work in teams and to communicate their ideas both verbally and in writing.    Computer engineers specifically are comfortable with both computer hardware and software.  Depending on where your interests lie, either one can be emphasized.

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3.  What job opportunities are there for computer engineers?

Computer engineers work for computer companies such as Intel, Compaq, MicroSoft, Sun, and Texas Instruments, and also in industries and agencies that build or use computer-based systems, such as Federal Express, NASA, and others including telecommunications, automotive, and aerospace industries and agencies.  Many computer engineers also get jobs as software engineers and programmers.

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4.  What degree plans are there for students interested in computers?

  • Electrical Engineering
  • Computer Engineering
  • Computer Science
  • Computer Engineering Technology

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5.  What are the differences in these degree plans?

Electrical engineering, computer engineering, and computer science degree plans place more emphasis on mathematics (for example, calculus, discrete mathematics, differential equations, linear algebra, etc.) and basic science (calculus-based physics, chemistry, etc.) throughout the curriculum while the computer engineering technology degree plan places less emphasis on mathematics and basic science. Therefore, students that select electrical engineering, computer engineering, or computer science should have an aptitude for mathematics and basic science, as well as an interest in computers.

Computer engineering degree plans are regarded by many as the integration of electrical engineering and computer science degree plans.  That is, computer engineering degree plans emphasize the foundations of electrical engineering (for example, circuits, electronics, linear systems, random signal analysis, etc.), and computer science (for example, data structures, advanced data structures, and operating systems).   Moreover, computer engineering degree plans require additional courses in other engineering disciplines (for example, engineering thermodynamics).

Computer science degree plans generally provide the opportunity for a more general education, including a wide range of humanities, social sciences, business, and natural sciences.  Computer engineering is more constrained in that the degree program must also provide the engineering education as well as the computer education.  Computer science students could more easily double major in a field such as Psychology, etc.

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6.  What’s the difference between computer engineering and computer science?

a. In terms of the degree plans, computer science provides more flexibility to take courses in Arts and Sciences and to pursue other interests.  Computer engineering degree plans use the flexibility found in most computer science programs to require the engineering courses that enable the student to become a professional engineer.

b. In professional practice, computer engineers often build hardware while computer scientists generally do not.  However, computer scientists certainly know enough about hardware to analyze computer system operations and to interact with hardware engineers. Computer engineers tend to know more about the physical systems in which the computer is often one component.

c. Computer scientists tend to know more about the underlying theory of computation, programming languages, and operating systems while computer engineers tend to know more about the underlying theory of hardware.  Most system level programs such as programming languages and operating systems are designed by computer scientists rather than computer engineers.  However, computer engineers often write the application programs for computer-based systems.

d. Many industrial positions require a graduate with either a computer engineering or computer science degree since both provide strong backgrounds in software development.

e.  A company that builds a compiler (for example,  C/C++ compiler) is more likely to hire a computer science graduate, while a company that develops computer hardware and software to control a jet engine is more likely to hire a computer engineer.

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7.  Which computer degree plan is better?

The job markets have been—and are expected to continue to be—excellent for electrical engineers, computer engineers, computer scientists, and computer technicians.  All can lead to very interesting and rewarding careers.  You should choose according to your preference and career goals.

Example arguments favoring a Computer Engineering major:

1. Interested in becoming a licensed professional engineer (PE).  Computer science and computer engineering technology majors are not eligible to become licensed professional engineers in many states.

2. Undecided between computers and some other degree program in the College of Engineering.

3. Particular interest in embedding computers in other systems and design of computer hardware and computer interfaces.  This area of specialization requires more in-depth knowledge of electrical circuit theory provided by foundational courses in electrical engineering.

Example arguments favoring a Computer Science major:

1. Interested in a more general education, including a wide range of humanities, social sciences, mathematical, or natural science courses.

2. Interested in a double major within the College of Arts and Sciences such as Psychology, English, Philosophy, etc.

3. Undecided between computers and some other degree program outside the College of Engineering.

Example arguments favoring a Computer Engineering Technology major:

1. Interested in studying state-of-the art technology rather than basic principles that are required for a deeper understanding and design.

2. Interested in computers but less interested in mathematics and basic science.

3. Interested in working with the state-of-the art rather than advancing it.

4. Interested in configuration, test, support, and maintenance rather than design of computer-based systems.

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8. I can’t decide whether to do computer science, computer engineering, or electrical engineering.

If you don’t much care how computers physically work, then the computer science program may be more appropriate for you.  Also, if you are interested in the formal theory of programs and languages rather than just writing software, that’s more likely computer science. If you are interested in hardware, hardware/software integration, or in the way computers work, or in building systems with computers in them, then that’s more likely computer engineering. If you are mostly interested in programming and software development, either computer science or computer engineering can meet this goal. Electrical engineering is a more general degree with less software-oriented coursework and more coursework in electronics, energy conversion, communication theory, signal processing, and electromagnetic field theory.

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9. What if I change my mind?

If you are REALLY undecided, I would recommend learning as much about hardware as you can as an undergraduate.  I don’t know why it is, but certain things just seem to be much more difficult to learn after you graduate than others. This is certainly true of math and also seems to be true of circuits and electronics. Also, it is generally easier to get a master’s in computer science with an undergraduate degree in electrical or computer engineering than the other way around.

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10. I’ve used computers and written simple programs, but I still really don’t know what a computer engineer does.  How do I know it’s for me?

This is a tough question:  you really won’t know until you try. 

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11. I don’t see too many women engineers.  Are women successful in computer engineering?

To be sure, women are underrepresented in most technical fields, but we see a greater proportion in computer engineering and computer science than in many other fields. As far as women being successful I can answer an emphatic yes!  Typically, our women students get higher GPAs than men students and appear disproportionately more often on Dean’s Lists, Outstanding Seniors lists and membership rolls of honor societies.  Their job opportunities after graduation are usually outstanding.

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12. I have some other concerns about being an engineer:
 

  •  I really like people
  •  I’m pretty sure I want to be an engineer now, but I can’t see myself doing it for the next 40 years
  •  What I really want to do, eventually, is to run a company.
  •  Is engineering for me?

Engineers have an undeserved reputation of not being “people friendly.” Nothing could be further from the truth:  engineers almost always work in teams and must interact with each other constantly.  People skills are essential to being a successful engineer.  To expand on this idea—the internet, that ubiquitous communication mechanism, was invented by engineers and scientists so that they could discuss their work with each other cheaply and conveniently.  Also, many engineers leave the day-to-day technical aspects after about five to ten years and become managers, or go into marketing and even sales, the most people-oriented of all jobs.  There they find their engineering backgrounds to be a huge advantage.  In fact, many CEOs and entrepreneurs began as engineers.

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13. How do job prospects compare for the various computer related degrees?

Let me start with a universal warning about career advice:  job markets can change radically in just a few years, so there are never any guarantees.  That being said, all computer related majors are very much in demand and have been for a long time.  I can’t think of any other field with equally good prospects.

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14. What are the starting salaries for computer engineers?

Of the students in our department who did well (not necessarily great, just well) most everyone we know of who wanted to get a job did so.  Many had multiple offers.  According to nation-wide data, the average starting salary for a Computer Engineer with a Bachelor's degree was $51,297 as of September 2004.  Computer Science students are in a similar situation—they are very much in demand and their salaries are close to ours ($49,036).  The students who do really well tend to get recruited months before graduation, get higher starting salaries, and are long gone by the time the statistics are collected.  On the other hand, students who just squeak by often take longer to find jobs and tend to get lower salaries.  But it should be noted that employers don’t look only at GPA; they generally put a great deal of weight on enthusiasm and communication skills.

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15. What are career salary prospects for computer engineers?

Longer term, if you were to become a typical successful engineer, you could expect your salary to increase steadily at least into the $80K range in the ten plus years after you begin working.  After that, your salary will very much depend on how much your expertise is in demand and whether you go into the business related aspects of your company, say management or marketing, or not.   Of course, keeping up with your field is absolutely essential to advancing, or even remaining employable.

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16. I am interested in transferring from a two-year community college into Computer Engineering.  What courses transfer?

Please check with your college advisor about transferring courses.  Also, please see the current U. of Memphis catalog for specific degree requirements (http://www.memphis.edu/ugcatalog). Here is some general advice.  Your best bet is to take courses in mathematics (calculus) and basic science (chemistry and calculus-based physics) along with general education courses (english, history, economics, social science) rather than courses with "computer" or "circuits" or "electronics" or "technology" in their title.  Courses with these names in their title are most likely to transfer into a computer engineering technology program rather than a computer engineering or electrical engineering program.  Find below example courses that have been transferred from a two-year community college into a computer engineering program in the past (this list is not exhaustive, just representative). 

English: ENGL 1010, ENGL 1020, ENGL 2201/2202

Economics: ECON 2110

History: HIST 1110, HIST 1120 (please see U. of Memphis General Education requirements for specific courses that satisfy the Hist/Phil pre-1500 and post-1500 requirement)

Social Science: most introductory Psychology, Political Science, Sociology courses, etc.  (please see U. of Memphis General Education requirements for specific courses)

Chemistry: CHEM 1110, CHEM 1111 (this is chemistry for science and engineering majors, not for allied health programs)

Calculus: MATH 1910, MATH 1920, MATH 2110, MATH 3120

Physics: PHYS 2110 , PHYS 2120 (please note these are calculus-based physics courses)

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17. What haven’t I asked?

About work experience while you are studying.  Many universities, including the University of Memphis, have ‘co-op’ programs where you spend summers or even semesters working at local companies.  These tend to be fantastic opportunities.  If you do reasonably well and the company is still doing OK when you graduate, they are very likely to offer you a full-time job and at a higher salary than you would have gotten otherwise.

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Chrysanthe Preza

Dr. Chrysanthe Preza, Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, received a $743,781 National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Award for her research. The Career Award is the most prestigious award junior faculty members can receive from the NSF.

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Contact The Electrical & Computer Engineering Department | 206 Engineering Science Bldg | 3815 Central Avenue | Memphis, TN 38152 | Phone: 901/678-2175
Last Updated: 1/9/13