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Making a Decision

It is helpful to have some experience in the core classes for these two majors. The good news is that if you are a student at BYU, you generally may not have to decide which path to follow until you have been in your program of study for a few semesters. The key thing is to meet with the department advisor and map out a path to graduation in one of the majors. Early on you will be taking core classes that are required for both majors. As you take courses in electronics, digital logic, computer organization, and signals and systems, you hopefully will begin to understand what parts of these two degrees are attractive to you and can then pursue the corresponding major. You can often make the switch between degrees with minimal penalty for a number of semesters. Eventually, the cost of switching will become prohibitive as you realize you have taken a number of classes which will not apply to the other major. Happily, however, that will likely not happen until your 3rd or 4th semester of study.

So, what are some things you might use to make this decision? Following, in no particular order, are points you might take into account for your decision.

Remember: The Line is Fuzzy at Best

Any given person familiar with EE, CS, or CpE may take issue with the insights provided here. They may simply feel they are not representative of what that person has encountered in the work force. Remember, the line between EE and CpE is fuzzy at best. For example, the statement that the goal of the CpE degree program is to prepare students to design computing systems does not imply that having an EE degree rather than a CpE degree will preclude you from doing so. On the contrary. You may simply find it easier to fill out your study list with the courses you want to take, based on your career goals, if you choose one degree over the other.

Your Employability Depends on Your Course Selection - A Lot!

Your choice of courses can have a dramatic impact on your career path. If you have taken no Computer Architecture courses, don't expect to find employment designing the next generation CPUs for Hewlett Packard. Likewise, if you have taken no Control Theory, you won't be attractive to recruiters looking for that skill.Numerous recruiters have mentioned that the course selection a student shows on a transcript is crucial. The label CpE or EE is insufficient to tell a recruiter what you may be qualified to do (or be interested in doing).Plan your path carefully. Talk to potential employers, talk to the faculty, talk to the department advisor, talk to family friends. In short, use every means available to understand what is entailed in the various sub-disciplines of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Then, you have a better chance of making a good decision.

Be Aware of Multiple Meanings

As you investigate the field, be careful using terms you are not very familiar with. For example, assume you have heard of company X and you understand they do the design and manufacture of VLSI integrated circuits and you decide you are interested in that field for whatever reason. When you visit a faculty member to get some counsel on your program of study the first question asked will be: "what do you want to do?" While seemingly a step in the right direction, an answer of "VLSI" is not much more helpful than "something technical having to do with circuits." The reason is that the term VLSI itself refers to a broad range of topics including:

  1. Integrated circuit manufacturing (also called fabrication or processing). This is what we do in room 487 CB in those white bunny suits.
  2. Sub-micron device (transistor) development, modeling. This draws heavily on physics, particularly solid-state physics.
  3. VLSI integrated circuit design - circuit level. This is very electronics- and circuits-intensive design work. Circuit complexities are lower (fewer transistors) because the goal is to develop integrated circuit building blocks with nearly optimal speed/size/power characteristics. These building blocks include logic elements (gates and flip flops) as well as analog components (amplifiers, DACs, ADCs, static and dynamic memory cells).
  4. VLSI integrated circuit design - logic level. This is not quite as circuits intensive as above, the goal being to design large building blocks (arithmetic units, memory interfaces, control units). Often, this is done using canned building blocks (gates and flip flops) developed by circuit level VLSI designers. The emphasis here is more on dealing with the complexities of higher transistor-count chips.
  5. VLSI integrated circuit design - system level. At this point the emphasis is clearly on managing complexity of chips or systems containing many millions of transistors. This higher level of abstraction precludes much attention to the physical detail in the building blocks employed. "Getting it right" is a big concern due to the complexity of the task involved. Large, complex, and sophisticated computer-aided design (CAD) tools are required to accomplish this work. These kinds of engineers are also the architects of the system being built and so require a very broad training in most areas of EE and CS.

Item 1 above can be the task of physicists, chemists, chemical engineers, or manufacturing engineers, as well as electrical engineers. Item 2 may be done by electrical engineers but also by physicists. Items 3, 4, and 5 are very much within the scope of both EE and CpE with Item 3 more of an EE topic and Item 5 being more of a CpE topic. As you see, there is a definite continuum with few precisely defined boundaries.

Some Skill Sets Cross Over the Boundary

Using the above VLSI example again, it is clear that if you eventually decide that VLSI (at any of the 5 levels given) is where you want to work, you will benefit greatly by taking courses across the whole range. A common complaint is that the process engineers don't really understand the design they are manufacturing and that the designer does not sufficiently understand the silicon technology being used.
Faculty can be a great aid in helping you understand the bounds of your interest area and devising a program of study to help prepare you in that interest area if you choose to do so.