Monday, July 1, 2013

How to Become a Knowledgeable Radio Frequency (RF) / Microwave Engineer

{EAV:13d26c010fcbce99}As an Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) PhD Candidate, I consider myself to be a RF / microwave engineer. Prior to beginning my PhD, I had industry experiences designing RF and Microwave systems and subcomponents. I want to give the steps one can take to become an RF / microwave engineer and become knowledgeable in your field. You don't have to earn a PhD to achieve that goal. Although, a PhD certainly wouldn't hurt if you want to be considered an expert in your field.

Step # 1: Earn a Bachelor of Science (BS) Degree in Electrical Engineering (EE) or ECE

Before you can specialize in any subfield, you need to know the fundamentals of the primary field. By earning a BSEE or BSECE, you will obtain basic knowledge of several key areas: linear circuits, electronic circuits, control systems, wireless communication systems, electromagnetics, and microwave components. In addition, you must master Calculus and physics because they both provide key tools for analyzing every kind of engineering problem that exists.

Tip: If your BS program does not include any computer science or computer engineering courses, I highly suggest that you take classes to earn a computer science or computer engineering minor.

Another advantage of earning a BSEE / BSECE degree is that your coursework will end with either a senior project or a capstone course. As a student,  you get to define your senior project. If you're interested in becoming an RF / Microwave engineer, I suggest that you do something simple like designing a high-power microwave amplifier or a phase locked loop (PLL). It's very tempting to commit to an overly difficult project, and you'll find you can't get all of the pieces to work. I should know, as this happened to me in my senior project at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo: "A VHF Receiver Capable of Direction Finding." I was able to get individual pieces of the receiver to work, but I had issues integrated the individual components into one system. Luckily, my senior project advisor recognized that I did a lot of hard work, and he gave me an A for my project.

If your BS program does not have a senior project requirement, make sure you take a capstone course in RF / wireless systems. A capstone course combines materials you learned from multiple EE / ECE courses you took the last several years. The course will have a team project that forces you to develop some kind of RF / microwave system to solve some problem (i.e., develop a portable antenna testing range). The teaching professor will likely have a short list of projects in mind, but sometimes students are given the option to choose their own project.

Step # 2: Earn an Amateur Radio Degree and Join a Ham Radio Club

If you want to become an RF / Microwave engineering, you'll need to get some practical experience with radios and other RF / microwave components. Becoming a ham radio operator is a fun way to do this because you can join a local ham radio club, and you can make friends who are also interested in radios and RF / microwave engineering. The FCC also requires that you pass tests on radio theory, so this adds knowledge that you might not have learned in your undergraduate courses related to RF / Microwave engineering. Each FCC amateur radio license level adds more theoretical knowledge related to radios, propagation, antennas, and FCC regulations.

Tip: Don't just get a Novice/Technician license. Earn your Extra class license.
Tip: Join your college's / university's ham radio club.

If you're an undergraduate student, I highly suggest that you join your university's ham radio club. You'll make friends with fellow classmates who are also interested in RF / microwave engineering. Not only can you become study / project partners, you can also work on RF / microwave projects outside of class. This would also look good on your resume for potential employers, as you offer skills and experiences that other undergraduates do not have.

Step 3: Get Industry Experience in RF / Microwave Engineering

As I mentioned before, you really need practical experience to become a knowledgeable RF / microwave engineer. If you are a junior or senior in an undergraduate program, I highly suggest that you go on a six month co-op with a company. When I earned my BSEE, the co-op program was optional, but I've heard that many Universities make this a requirement for graduation. You basically take six months off from your undergraduate degree program and work for a company while paying tuition. The co-op gives you an opportunity to get hands-on, practical experience designing RF / microwave circuits, components, subsystems, etc. You'll also get a valuable opportunity to be mentored by an experienced RF / Microwave engineer. Your mentor will share his/her knowledge with you and give you valuable tips and suggestions, so you can become a better RF / Microwave engineer. There is another valuable reason for doing a co-op: You could have a potential job after you graduate.

Tip: Make sure you have a mentor during your first job out of college

After you graduate, get an entry level position in RF / Microwave engineering. Do yourself a favor and make sure that you choose a company whose culture and purpose is a right fit for you. The next several years of your life might be miserable if you don't love the work that you do, and you'll be unhappy if you can't get along with your coworkers. As you spend time with the company, you'll gain experience in developing RF / Microwave products. You also be given projects with more responsibilities and difficulty levels. You could get promoted into more senior positions.

Step 4: Earn a Master Degree with a RF / Microwave Engineering Specialty

I remember that my dad insisted that I earn a Master degree after I completed my BSEE. He was wise for insisting that I do this because a Master degree allows you to specialize in your field. You can take a few approaches to earning your Master degree:

  1. Go into a Master degree program directly after earning your BSEE / BSECE degree.
  2. Work for a company for several years, then take off a year and a half to earn your Master.
  3. Earn your Master degree while working for a company.
Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. I will not go into all of the details here because this would be a blog post in and of itself. However, if you've been working for a company, the third option might be your best choice. Your company will reimburse your tuition costs provided that you pass the courses, and you can apply your Master level courses to your job. Just keep in mind that you will be expected to work at least 40 hours a week, so I would take only one class at a time (at least when you begin). You'll have no time to yourself, your job performance will suffer, and your graduate class performance will suffer. The downside to this option is that it will take you several years to earn your Master degree.

Bonus: Earn a PhD Degree with a RF / Microwave Engineering Specialty

This is by far the hardest step to becoming an expert in RF / Microwave engineering. However, if you want to become an expert in your field, perform industry or academic research, or become a faculty member in a College or University, you must earn a PhD. If you decide to earn a PhD degree, please read my two blogs with tips on getting accepted into an engineering PhD program: Part 1, and Part 2.

I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.


Jonathan Becker
ECE PhD Candidate
Carnegie Mellon University

A 2.4 GHz Variable Frequency Transmitter with RF Amplifier (Copyright Jonathan Becker)