Education and Training: Bachelor's or master's degree
Salary: Median—$75,770 per year
Employment Outlook: Very good
Definition and Nature of the Work
Microwave engineers are electronics engineers who specialize in designing, manufacturing, testing, and installing electronic components and systems used to transmit and receive microwave, or short radio wave, signals. A wide variety of devices use microwave signals. These include cellular telephones and radios, portable communications systems such as personal digital assistants, wireless Internet devices, satellites, global positioning systems, aircraft navigation equipment, guidance systems for missiles and other military hardware, and magnetic resonance imaging machines.
A microwave engineer's primary task is to design integrated circuits and other electronic components used in microwave devices. This process may begin by meeting clients to determine the types of products they need and establishing engineering and performance standards for those products. The microwave engineer then works with computer programs to model and lay out potential circuit or component designs for the product. Following the design stage, the engineer tests the model and evaluates its performance against predetermined standards. He or she also ensures that the design meets standards for microwave performance set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This may include preparing and submitting licensing documents or other paperwork to the FCC.
Once a design has been successfully tested, the microwave engineer oversees the engineering and manufacturing staff responsible for creating the final device or component. The engineer meets with marketing personnel to explain the features and advantages of the product so that it can be marketed and sold effectively. In addition, microwave engineers perform follow-up work with customers to make sure the device meets their needs and to troubleshoot any problems the customer may experience.
Sometimes microwave engineers are called on to do fieldwork with existing microwave hardware. This typically involves evaluating microwave towers and transmission equipment and determining the need for improvements and upgrades. The microwave engineer must make sure that any newly designed equipment can operate effectively in existing microwave towers. This evaluation may include analyzing tower clearances and lines of sight to ensure a clear path for microwave signals. The engineer must also determine if existing antennae and support equipment are compatible and function efficiently with any new hardware.
Microwave engineers often have supervisory responsibility for the team that is designing new components and equipment. In this role, the engineer assigns work, establishes and tracks budgets, oversees the work of associate microwave engineers and microwave technicians, and sees that all schedules for the project are followed. As a project manager, the microwave engineer also reports to management personnel on the progress of the work.
Education and Training Requirements
Microwave engineers must have an extensive background in engineering and electronics. Most positions require a bachelor's degree in electronics engineering or a related field, and many require a master's degree. A thorough knowledge of microwave equipment and support systems is necessary. Experience working with and designing integrated circuits and other electronics components is highly desirable and often required. Because testing and evaluation of designs are a critical part of the job, the microwave engineer should also possess good problem-solving skills. Strong interpersonal and communications skills are important as well for dealing with clients, marketing and sales staff, and management.
Getting the Job
Becoming a microwave engineer typically requires several years of experience in microwave design and development. Sometimes employees move up from within their own companies. The personnel offices of such companies usually advertise openings within their firms. Employment opportunities for microwave engineers are also advertised in newspaper classified sections, industry magazines, and Internet job banks.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Microwave engineers who start out as part of a design team may eventually work up to positions as project manager, overseeing the work of an entire team. An experienced project manager may advance to a position in upper management within the company. Microwave engineers who are skillful in communicating complex ideas to clients may take positions in marketing or sales where they can combine their technical knowledge and interpersonal skills.
The use of wireless and microwave communication technology is growing rapidly in the United States and around the world. Because microwave-based systems involve far less cost and trouble to install and maintain than wire-based systems, the wireless communications field should continue to expand for the foreseeable future. Many developing countries that do not already have extensive wire-based communications systems rely heavily on microwave communications technology. Thus, demand for microwave engineers should remain strong not only in the United States but overseas as well.
Microwave engineers spend a great deal of their time designing and laying out microwave circuits or components on computers. This usually takes place in a clean and modern office environment. Once the design and layout is complete, the engineer must test it in a laboratory setting. Microwave engineers must also meet with clients to determine their needs and provide product support. Engineers working with towers or other field equipment may spend a fair amount of time outdoors.
Where to Go for More Information
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA
1828 L St. NW, Ste. 1202
Washington, DC 20036-5104
National Society of Professional Engineers
1420 King St.
Alexandria, VA 22314-2794
Earnings and Benefits
In 2004 the median annual earnings for electronics engineers in general was $75,770. A microwave engineer with extensive experience who works as a project manager can earn up to $120,000 a year. Most companies that employ microwave engineers also offer benefits that include paid vacation, medical coverage, a retirement package, and perhaps incentive bonuses and profit sharing. Some firms offer a signing bonus to highly desirable applicants.