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I know I need a degree, but in what?
April 27, 2012 6:12 PM   Subscribe

I'm 24, I've been kicked out of college twice, and I want a degree that will be a good springboard for going into the guitar effects/amplification field. Also, a >$40k salary starting out would be nice. Is electrical engineering the right fit for what I'm looking for?

I cheated my way through high school and graduated with a 3.7 and absolutely no study habits. I then got a scholarship to a somewhat prestigious private university where instead of going to class or studying, I formed a band with other students and toured extensively in the local area while spending my free time smoking weed. After getting kicked out for academic performance I spent a year at home trying to figure out my direction and decided to pursue a mechanical engineering degree at the local state school. My first semester in the program I relapsed into my old stoner ways and subsequently dropped out of school. I've spent the last 2 years working part-time jobs, playing music on my own, tinkering with making beats, and thinking about my life situation.

I know that I won't ever be able to live the life I want on a part-time salary, and I know that ideally I'd want to have a degree that would allow me to enter the guitar effects or amplification fields later on if I were so inclined. I'm thinking about electrical engineering because from what I've heard from two friends who are both electrical engineers, the salary straight out of school with a decent (>3.5) GPA is somewhere between $40,000-50,000 USD (with room for growth several years down the road) and that the actual workload is rarely more than 50 hours/week.

Given my circumstances and desires, would electrical engineering be a good fit for me? What advice would you give to someone considering a degree in electrical engineering? I'd love to hear from electrical engineers, if possible.
posted by bumpjump to Education (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
What school?
posted by Ardiril at 6:23 PM on April 27, 2012


I feel like engineering is really hard, so I guess my first piece of advice would be to get better study habits.
posted by spunweb at 6:23 PM on April 27, 2012 [13 favorites]


Variations on 'kicked out of school' come up semi-frequently, and sometimes there is a bit of a pile-on re. what have you done to ensure you're not going to mess up in the exact same way again? Often for very good reason, often from people who have been there (I wasn't kicked out, but I left, and went back later, and I was a totally different student).

I was friends with lots of engineering students of various stripe in uni, and engineering is a demanding program. Kicked out twice + two years with what you describe does not make it sound like going straight into a challenging program is what you want to rush into right now. Unless you are leaving stuff out about "and saw my therapist weekly and discussed what led me to do things that I knew would see me booted, and made changes in my personal life that make me confident I've changed and can get a great GPA."

Are you sure you can even get back in at this stage? You might have to pull off a few semesters at a community college with good grades before that's a possibility. And college would be a good way to test out where your academic habits are now.
posted by kmennie at 6:26 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have a BS and MS degree in computer science. I was an EE major for a semester or two at a school with a very strong engineering department. I also do analog modular synth DIY projects for fun, and otherwise dabble in electronics.

Engineering is hard work, EE particularly so. You need to be a calculus badass who can grind through a stack of gnarly calc problems. This isn't necessarily incompatible with smoking weed and playing in bands, but you need some serious math chops before you can hope to tread water in your EE coursework, much less excel.

That said, you don't really need an EE degree at all to do guitar FX and amplification. If you want to do it on your own, it is more important to have the basics of analog circuits down and do a lot of experimentation. If you want to work at a company like Eventide or Lexicon, you probably need to focus on CS and DSP skills more than EE. Those pedals are basically embedded DSP systems that run high performance digital algorithms. They do have some EE guys to get the basic PCB working, but most of the interesting work is in the software.

The core problem I see is that you want to make $50k a year doing music. Sorry, but that's probably not going to happen. Go get an EE or CS degree and find a job in a field that is hiring, and you can make $50k+ easy. Then do music stuff for fun on the side.

You need to figure out how to work your ass off. Instead of worrying about 50 hour weeks, start psyching yourself up for 70 hour weeks. Study like a madman. You can still get stoned (I know many workaholics that do), but you have to bust your ass in the beginning. Once you've built up some chops, you will easily be able to get your work done in 40-50 hour weeks. But if you've been bumped out of school twice for slacking you just need to force yourself to learn how to work your ass off to catch up with the kids who have been since high school.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:27 PM on April 27, 2012 [18 favorites]


(Slowing the weed habit down to weekends only, or even less than that is also a really good idea, but you probably don't want to hear that.)
posted by b1tr0t at 6:29 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


If I were you I would go to a technical school with a two year program in sound engineering and get into a studio as soon as you can. Music is the kind of field were experience counts for a hell of a lot more than education and you seem like the kind of guy that is more of a doer than a thinker anyway.
posted by empath at 6:31 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


OP here.

Ardiril, no clue. In all likelihood, probably a state school either in California or Washington. I dropped out of California State University Sacramento most recently and because of budget cuts they're only accepting transfer students or first-time freshmen in the foreseeable future. I only have ~12 credits from there so I'd have to go to community college to get enough credits to transfer.

I forgot to add that I plan on getting as many lower division units as possible done at community college, both so I can get my study habits up to par and also because it's much more affordable. Also, I've completed Calculus I, II, and III with A's in all of them. I hated math until I started calculus.

Finally, I'm not planning on smoking weed or touring during school. I just want to get a degree as quickly as possible so I can get a job and finally have the financial resources to live my life the way I want.
posted by bumpjump at 6:31 PM on April 27, 2012


Also I'm prepared to not work in the music field and pursue that outside of work, if that's the most realistic option.
posted by bumpjump at 6:31 PM on April 27, 2012


I asked because one school's senior project is another school's freshman lab, and you have the spectrum in between. Pump the community college courses for all they're worth for now, but hit whatever career counseling they offer ASAP as to which school you should consider next. Your story is not a new one, and counselors have tons of experience with your situation. They likely will recommend that you consider making the transfer shortly after it is practicable rather than maxing out at the community level.
posted by Ardiril at 6:43 PM on April 27, 2012


Also, I've completed Calculus I, II, and III with A's in all of them. I hated math until I started calculus.
This changes everything. Go look up the EE101 texts that your local classes use. Buy 'em, and start working the problems. Continue on with your calc. If you can grok integration, differentiation and differential equations then just dive deep and learn as much as you possibly can and you will end up sailing through classes.

The intro EE classes are often giant seminars with a ton of students. Don't expect any help from the professor, and don't be surprised if the TAs only know the material a little better than you do. You can absolutely teach yourself, and then sail through the intro courses if you already understand how calculus works.

Don't rule out Oregon - the cost of living will be lower than in Seattle or the Bay Area and the education will still be solid. There are a bunch of boutique pedal companies in Portland, so you might be able to do some part time work while you study.

ABSOLUTELY DO INTERNSHIPS! I can't stress this hard enough. If you want to graduate with a job, do an internship EVERY SUMMER. If your school has a 5-year co-op program with pre-packaged internships, that's even better.

Finally, quit the weed now, but do it slowly. Get into exotic tea or espresso instead. Engineers love caffeine. (They also often love weed, but you need to become a studying machine before you start hitting the bong again. Who knows, weed might even be legal by the time you graduate)
posted by b1tr0t at 6:46 PM on April 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


Also, you might consider taking a course that you have absolutely no interest in at your local community college and then force yourself to get an A+ in that class. Just prove to yourself that you can do it.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:53 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Are you reading Tape Op? Subscription is free (in the US and UK), and it's packed with inspirational in depth interviews with people working on the technical side of music, mostly on the recording side but also on the 'designing and building kit people use to record' side, including amps and effects (as well as all the other kit you might find in a studio). In terms of the latter, pretty much all of the interviewees seem to mention having electrical engineering backgrounds.

It's also just a great magazine for anyone involved in music.
posted by motty at 7:05 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Guitar effects/amplification is the kind of thing that doesn't need a degree. EE would certainly help, especially if you know little about electronics and can't be assed learning on your own, but EE is a hard nut to crack, putting you at risk of debt / wasted years and still no degree.

But if you can find a way to transfer those mechanical engineering credits towards an EE degree, that seems like a good way to salvage your losses and jump-start your future.

If you have to start over from scratch OTOH, think carefully about the costs and risks. Especially if you're capable of moving into the field via experience rather than a degree.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:17 PM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Look at Expressions, maybe, in Emeryville? Expensive, but they have degree programs in Sound Arts.
posted by salvia at 8:07 PM on April 27, 2012


My (only) impression of Expressions: I'm sure if you're really REALLY ready to apply yourself, study hard, and get some quality internships, you'll be fine. But I worked with a guy from there who simply did not have the most basic project management and trouble shooting skills I'd expect from someone who had worked with electronics. One guy is definitely not an entire school for sure; just don't be that guy.
posted by smirkette at 8:21 PM on April 27, 2012


I'm thinking about electrical engineering because from what I've heard from two friends who are both electrical engineers, the salary straight out of school with a decent (>3.5) GPA is somewhere between $40,000-50,000 USD (with room for growth several years down the road) and that the actual workload is rarely more than 50 hours/week.

I've got a EE degree. You know what I learned to call the kids who got into engineering for the above reasons ?

Washouts.

I went to a fairly highly regarded engineering school and the EE program had a washout rate of close to 70%. The reason for this is that you need to love doing EE work. Love love love it.

If you don't love it, you will fail, because it is hard and boring and nobody except true engineering dorks likes the subject enough to suffer through it. And you have to master so many things before you can even begin to do the most basic and simple stuff.

If you love the idea of making EE money, then go to business school. You'll work less hard for better money, and the women are both hotter and more numerous. The kids who did well in engineering loved the subject. The ones who didn't love it washed out or suffered through it long enough to get a degree in engineering and a job in sales.

Now, look, I'm not trying to be a douche - I barely graduated from high school, got kicked out of the marines and knocked up a stripper by the time I was your age, so I know what screwing up your early 20s smells like. I didn't even make it to college until I was 32. But the only reason I made it through the engineering program is because sitting through 3 semesters of fields and waves was unmitigated awesome for me.

Also, an EE program is very heavy on theory. It is pretty much all you will do. There will be some projects and other hands on stuff - in third and fourth years - but the main goal is to generally prepare you for further training wherever you get a job at. If you aren't self motivated enough to train yourself to some large degree, this can leave you wholly unprepared to do anything useful when you graduate.

Based on what you've said here, I think you should take a couple years to work and save up money. This will be a good marker as to how committed you are to the idea and the extra money will make it easier to focus on your studies*. Maybe get an take some classes or get an associates in electronics/music production from a community college.

Good luck, whatever you decide.

*my grades really suffered because I had a kid and had to work through college. If I had it all to do over again, I probably would have worked less - but my relatively low debt at graduation was a nice benefit - so maybe not. Point is, if I had more money when I started, it would have been much better.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:38 PM on April 27, 2012 [12 favorites]


Just knowing you need a degree may not be enough to ensure you won't relapse into your old ways. Ensure your mental health and drug addictions are taken care of before you enroll somewhere new so that you can graduate and enter your chosen profession.
posted by lotusmish at 8:48 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


The paradox of disciplines like EE or CS is that they are hard as hell AND you can teach yourself.

The paradox is resolved by understanding that these disciplines are so hard that coursework can only guide you towards understanding the subject. You have to put in a lot of work to really understand the subject yourself. So much that the lectures themselves don't take much time or effort by comparison. So the kind of person who will be successful in an EE or CS program is also the kind of person who can succeed without the program, because fuck it: they will teach themselves.

That's also why people who succeed at such programs are in high demand and earn paycheck a few standard deviations away from a median income. If you can graduate with a decent GPA from an EE or CS program, a hiring manager can be reasonably confident that you can be thrown at a tough problem and just kind of figure it out.

Designing guitar pedals is easy, by comparison. Designing digital algorithms that simulate vintage pedals is the hard stuff. For more on simulating old FX units, check out the Valhalla DSP blog. Valhalla's focus is mostly on classic digital reverb units, but Sean gives a lot of insight into the process of analyzing those units and figuring out how to create similar effects in software.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:29 PM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


(I became a CS major because I didn't fall in love with the EE courses like Pogo did. I'd much rather study Turing Machines than differential equations.)
posted by b1tr0t at 9:30 PM on April 27, 2012


Have you started building amps or effects already? Lots of guys on forums like Build Your Own Clone make effects and amps with just a little bit of electrical knowledge. With some time and practice, some have went on to design their own units and have started small (very small) businesses.

If you can find a copy of Dave Hunter's Guitar Effects Practical Handbook, there are interviews with famous effect builders who explain how they got into the field.
posted by drezdn at 10:38 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Take a look around your area for a good hackerspace you can hang out at.
posted by victory_laser at 2:15 AM on April 28, 2012


Whatever you decide to do, I would recommend starting small, with one course. That way it won't be as overwhelming or as expensive if college turns out not to be for you. If you do well in a few courses it's a lot easier to get back into the swing of things and to start applying to colleges. But you should remember that EE is really demanding on a consistent basis; you can't just put in the effort when you want to, you have to work consistently.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:56 AM on April 28, 2012


Go get an EE or CS degree and find a job in a field that is hiring, and you can make $50k+ easy. Then do music stuff for fun on the side.

Don't think it's this easy. I have very similar interests to yours. When I got my full-time programming job, I thought I could build modular synths on the side. But the programming job uses up my mental engineering energy. Figuring out why my circuit isn't making any sound doesn't seem as fun after I spent all day figuring out why my multithreaded C++ program is locking up.
posted by scose at 8:38 AM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


MIT has recently started trialling an online course system called 'MITx' - at the moment they only offer one course, 6.002x Circuits and Electronics. You can read about it on the blue.

If I were you I'd sign up for the course, and go through the lectures and assignments. If you find it interesting, enjoy studying it, and complete it with a good grade you'll be well prepared for university. If you find it boring/that it isn't for you, better to know that now than to drop out after spending thousands of dollars.

Seconding b1tr0t's suggestion of internships.
posted by Mike1024 at 9:20 AM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Aside from designing things, there's a market for people who fix things like pedals and amps. You don't need an EE for that--just lots of experience and patience. :)
posted by luckynerd at 10:08 AM on April 28, 2012


>> Also, I've completed Calculus I, II, and III with A's in all of them. I hated math until I started calculus.

> This changes everything.


Maybe, maybe not. In my case, I didn't hate math, but I didn't have to work at it at all and that got me through through Calculus. However, I failed Linear Algebra the first time I took it. I took it again, did the homework and got a B. I did fine in a CS program, but EE would have been really really tough for me.

I thought the technology behind electronic and computer music were great and ended up working for four years at E-mu Systems working on samplers and recorders. At the end of the day, it had little to do with music except that I had monitors in my office. It was embedded software development with moderately shitty tools.

I disagree that the EE in digital effects is not as important as the code. Particularly if they're battery powered, getting fidelity and good battery life is a hard & interesting challenge. Making digital audio devices with good fidelity (low noise floor) is helped by better silicon but hurt by ever squeezing budgets.

Repairing amps is an important job, but it won't pay as well as designing them unless you're a magician to the stars. It could end up being more rewarding though!
posted by morganw at 10:40 AM on April 28, 2012


Figuring out why my circuit isn't making any sound doesn't seem as fun after I spent all day figuring out why my multithreaded C++ program is locking up.
I guess this is just going to depend on the person. For me, diving into analog electronics after a full day of coding (or, now, dev management) is fun and energizing. Starting in middle school, I used to come home from school, do homework, and then work on various other projects. So I've had an always-on approach to doing projects for decades. Not everyone in tech has this sort of approach to life, but almost all of the top engineers do.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:53 AM on April 28, 2012


Amateur musician, hobby effects builder, and IT major/young professional here. I graduated in IT but started in Engineering, so most of my friends graduated as engineers.

What your friends say about EE salary is true, but you won't find that starting salary in the music industry, or very unlikely.

You say you struggle with schoolwork and studying? I dont think engineering college is for you. Its really one of the hardest majors to get a degree in, if not the hardest. I was capable, and had good grades, but I wasn't willing to put in the hours to get the work done for more than the first year. Thats why I dropped out of it and switched to IT (I started in compsci, moved to Information Technology, a more general / managerial / project management degree.)

I recently started building stompbox effects through DIY kits. Check out http://www.diystompboxes.com and http://www.generalguitargadgets.com for good beginner projects. While an EE degree would aid in innovation, and give you a headstart, its not impossible to teach yourself. You have to rate the opportunity cost of an education.... 4 years of school to get a degree and >$25,000 of debt (in my experience.) So thats a big hole to dig yourself out of. Look at the "boutique" pedal, amp, and cabinet builders... they run their own very lucrative businesses out of their home workshops, and everything's handmade. I can't comment on their salaries, but I know they have more orders than they can physically fill themselves, and usually buying a boutique music product means a 6-month or so wait time while the builder completes his backlog. So thats one opportunity.

The other thing, if you get an EE degree and want a $40k+ job, it will be with a large engineering company or government contractor (Boeing, Northrup Grumman, etc.) You'll be spending 50 hours a week doing something that doesn't interest you, if your passion is music. Thats what I'm doing now, because I need to pay off the massive debt my degree cost me. College is often seen as a free-pass to a comfy salary and comfy life.... more realistically, I see people graduate with a degree, land a job with a nice salary, only to discover its completely soul-sucking and eventually take a $10-$20k paycut to work a job they actually like. Or, they get married, have some kids, and keep the soul-sucking job the rest of their lives.

So I'm ranting a bit on my own experience, but you sound like a passionate guy who can't invest yourself in things that don't interest you. Theres nothing wrong with that... maybe look at an associates degree program or trade school in electrical engineering to get your foot in the door, and look for entry level jobs at Marshall / Ampeg / Fender / etc. It won't be designing amps from the get-go... but you gotta start somewhere.

This is a general "how to reach my goals" advice.... look at the jobs you want, and see what the qualifications are. In the professional world, sometimes there's a bachelors degree barrier to entry (BA required bottom line)... but you'll find that the smaller / better / more interesting companies are more realistic and value experience over education. 4 years of amp-building experience would count more than 4 years of EE degree and no knowledge of how an amp works, know what I mean?
posted by el_yucateco at 6:30 AM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Another +1 that taking a break from the bud helps too to find yourself and your direction in life. Doesn't mean that you'll never come back to it when you're more stable. Better to get stoned and relax because of the success you've achieved for yourself, than to get stoned to forget about your failures.
posted by el_yucateco at 6:41 AM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know a bunch of people that probably fall on a spectrum of what you'd want to do- from a boutique pedal maker, to guys who own studios, to a Texas Instruments employee who does DSP design and builds his own audio equipment on the side.

There really is no guitar/effects fields, per se. What staff positions exists at these companies are few and far between, and would be considered pretty shitty factory jobs were they not tangentially related to the 'entertainment industry.' Most (easily 99+%) of the boutique operations out there are one man shows. And there's A LOT of them- you have a super saturated market as it is. The bigger companies, like Line 6 and Dunlop, hire people like Jeorge Tripps, who started Way Huge way back when- that's your competition- people who have been boutique builders for almost 20 years.

Like another poster said, if you dream of working for Lexicon, Eventide, etc- you will need to study DSP, but if you want to do analog stuff it's basically just hands on work. Most people get their start at music stores doing basic repairs. Find a place that will let you grow, work your way up into repairing effects and amps, figure out that cool thing that's not being done, and create your own products. That is, IF you want to really make effects and amps your career.

Also, your goal for salary is pretty attainable without getting an EE degree- and if you'd only do that path to hope to work in music- yeah, don't.
posted by tremspeed at 7:54 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


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