An Interview with David Probst

“Good engineering students have determination and tenacity. They should not believe the stereotypes presented by The Big Bang Theory on TV which characterize engineers as bumbling. In reality engineers take their work very seriously. ”

Professor David Probst teaches electrical engineering at Southeast Missouri State University at Cape Girardeau. He has been teaching for over 22 years, and currently teaches courses in analog electronics. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Physics along with a Bachelors of Electrical Engineering degree in 1981, followed by a Master of Engineering degree in 1987, and a PhD in electrical engineering in 1990.

Professor Probst currently chairs the department of physics and engineering physics at Southeast Missouri State, where he began as an assistant professor. He eventually became an associate professor and then a full professor. His research focuses on lasers and optics.

In your own words, what is electrical engineering?

Electrical engineering is a very broad field which studies the science behind the functioning of electricity in many different systems and machines. It is 1 of the 3 branches of engineering, along with mechanical and civil engineering.

Within electrical engineering, I also study the interdisciplinary field of engineering physics, which uses the basic principles of physics to solve applied problems. Engineering physics explores the science of electricity in many different systems such as communication devices, local power grids, and lighting systems in buildings.

What classes do you teach in electrical engineering?

I teach an analog electronics course that looks at analog devices and their use of circuit elements for things such as amplifiers and wave shaping applications. Signals fall into 2 categories, analog or digital. Digital signals are recognized by computers in 2 states, 0 volts or 1 to 5 volts. Digital content is represented by combinations of these 2 states. Analog circuitry is continuous and represented in wave form. We experience the world as analog, as when someone speaks and their voice is heard as a continuum. The analog electronics course teaches how analog signals are processed into digital signals in order to be recognized by computers.

How long have you been a professor of electrical engineering?

I have taught courses in electronics and analog electronics for over 22 years, if I include the courses I taught while I was a graduate student.

If a student said to you, “I’m interested in studying electrical engineering,” what would your response be?

I would tell a student that engineers find great satisfaction in solving problems, and they are well salaried. Entry level work for people with Bachelor of Electrical Engineering degrees pays an average of $50,000 to $65,000 nationally, though more money is made on the coasts and in the cities than in the Midwest. There are not many careers that allow you to walk out the door with a bachelors degree and start earning that kind of money, and the careers are relatively insulated from economic fluctuation as well. There is generally a decent demand for engineering jobs. In fact, Americans are currently not entering the field in sufficient numbers so lobbyists on Capitol Hill are pushing to allow immigrants to come to the United States to do electrical engineering work.

In your opinion, what are the biggest hurdles or difficulties that students entering an electrical engineering program have?

The workload required by the study of electrical engineering and the deep understanding of the concepts necessary overwhelms some students, though most appreciate it as a challenging career field. They have to put in a lot of hours in and need intelligence and fortitude in order to thrive. Students who put the same effort into college that they had put into high school may be able to breeze through some majors, but not electrical engineering or engineering physics. A basic absorption of the course material is not enough. Students have to gain a conceptual understanding deep enough to allow them to solve problems.

Students that take a full load of classes and work a large number of hours generally struggle. I see a direct correlation between students working more than 10 or 15 hours a week at a part-time job, and the deterioration of their grades. They simply do not have the hours necessary to learn what they need to.

Finally, a lack of creativity may be a hurdle for some students. Many students think the field is not a creative one, a misconception held about engineering in general. Art and music are generally recognized as the creative disciplines, but engineering is a very creative endeavor as well that applies math and science to solve problems in novel ways, develops products and services, and benefits society.

What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as an electrical engineer and what traits would hinder success?

Good engineering students have determination and tenacity. They should not believe the stereotypes presented by The Big Bang Theory on TV which characterize engineers as bumbling. In reality engineers take their work very seriously.

Timeliness is also an important trait. Procrastinators do not make good engineering students. They need to be able to finish their assignments on time and ask questions if necessary.

What courses in electrical engineering are most important for students to take?

The knowledge base for electrical engineering is established by 2 semesters of circuit analysis, signal processing, control theory and courses in electronics. Larger programs allow for more specialization with upper level electives but this course path is well defined and used by most universities.

Outside of electrical engineering, what courses would you recommend to a student?

I would recommend a student take courses in communications, public speaking, English, and technical writing. Lots of students go into engineering because they don’t like English or history but they do need that knowledge. Engineers need to be good communicators. Design reviews will require students to stand and present orally. Students may have to present their work at professional and academic conferences, and engineers in general have to be able to communicate technical information to clients, coworkers and their supervisors. A lander was recently sent to Mars that crashed on the surface because someone had failed to do a proper unit conversion. Better communication could have prevented that multi-billion dollar space probe from becoming a burning pile of rubble.

What skills can students expect to gain while studying electrical engineering?

Students will gain the problem solving and critical thinking skills that are critical for all engineering work. Because engineers have those skills, they are sought after for managerial and supervisory positions in different fields. Engineers are problem solvers.

Can you give a few study tips that would help an electrical engineering student succeed?

Students need to actually read the course book, both before and after lectures. Having a preview will help them get their questions answered by professors. Like any form of learning, repetition is important. Students need to schedule ample time for thinking and rethinking assignments. Very few students understand this when they begin undergraduate study. I am convinced, by all the attempted shortcuts I see students taking, that young people do not read these days.

For a student who is not interested in an academic career, what is the optimal level of education needed for a job in the field of electrical engineering?

A bachelors degree is sufficient for a wide variety of careers. The majority of my students, at least 2 out of 3, go to work right after their undergraduate studies. The remainder pursue masters degrees in different engineering focus areas. Many electrical engineering careers dealing with integrated circuit fields and microprocessors require advanced degrees, as the undergraduate curriculum is too broad to include that content. A bachelors degree is a general exposure to the field, and a masters will allow for more specialization. PhD students go on to study very deeply on one very narrow topic.

What is the job outlook for students with degrees in electrical engineering?

Engineering is one of the more lucrative and economically stable professions. There is a broad range of opportunities available, as many engineering companies and manufacturing operations need engineers. Those who go on to MBA programs have managerial opportunities. Government agencies like the FBI and CIA use engineers as field agents, computer programmers, and technicians. Engineers develop and oversee programs and devices for private industry and the government, and are often in demand.

How can undergraduate students prepare themselves if they are interested in studying electrical engineering at the graduate level?

Advanced degrees require specialization, so prospective students should find schools that offer the specific focus areas of their interest. Not every graduate school offers every specialty. Students considering advanced degrees must have already demonstrated ability in the basics of electrical engineering.

In order to prepare, students should visit graduate schools as they did for undergraduate school. Meeting the faculty and others involved with their particular area of interest is important. A good way to gauge a professor as a possible mentor or advisor is to talk to the professor’s students. Some are good while some are slave drivers. Choosing a school is in part a networking operation, and students should get their boots on the ground to make sure they fit their institution.

When students consider different schools, they do not need to choose a school in a region or city they would like to work. Engineers are very mobile and are needed all over the country.

If a student is considering advanced study, they should know a degree in any of the engineering fields or a closely related field such as physics is necessary and should be complemented by a lot of basic science and math. Someone with just a technology degree will have difficulty getting into a graduate program.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying electrical engineering?

In order to study electrical engineering students need to be broadly educated, especially at the undergraduate level. Much of the cutting edge of developing technology is interdisciplinary and requires expertise in biology, chemistry and physics. Students need open minds about where their interests may lead. They should be excited about what they are getting into.

Interested students should also intern somewhere during their junior or senior years, as 80% of my students do. When they enter the field they should have a good idea of the what is required of them because they already did similar work while interning.

Many of my students intern through the REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program in order to bolster their career and advanced education prospects. REU is funded by the National Science Foundation and organizes undergraduate students into groups of 10 or 15 in labs with graduate students. It pays a nice stipend, $4000 or $5000 for one summer. It allows students to see what graduate school might be like. Some students find internships with local industry. Industry internship positions depend a lot on whom students network with. Southeast Missouri State University encourage students to apply for REU positions and has some contacts in the area, but students should be proactive in seeking them out.