As a new academic year gets underway, our columnist SJ has some valuable advice for engineering graduates on the vital role that preparation should play in helping them to forge the career of their dreams
Lately, I’ve been hearing the same line again and again from the young engineers who I mentor: “I don’t know if I want to go to grad school for another year, or if I want to get a job in industry and start working.”
It’s by no means a new dilemma, but the pandemic has brought with it a whole new set of complications to take into consideration. Many of my mentees, for example, see staying at grad school as a safe stopover until the economy and job market lumber back to something we recognise as ‘normal’.
I tell them what I always tell them: I’m a firm believer that luck is where preparation meets opportunity – so how prepared are they really for the world of work?
I speak from experience here. My first job interview at a hospital as a young and impressionable engineer, fresh out of grad school and looking to make a career for myself in medical devices, wasn’t great.
Sweating in my suit and tie, as cardiologists and orthopedic surgeons glanced at my resume over thin-rimmed glasses, their feedback crushed me.
It took me almost two weeks to pluck up the courage to ask what skills or qualifications I would need to get a similar position at the hospital.
I was told that my lack of medical terminology and inability to operate clinical equipment was a huge gap. Plus, I didn’t have the professional engineer (PE) licence that was a minimum requirement to bring a medical device from prototype to practice.
Ultimately, I was able to make opportunities happen for me through hard work, consistency and a lot of legwork and networking. But was I prepared? My universities had led me to believe I was, but were they mistaken?
A grave miscalculation
It took some painstaking analysis to see what was going wrong for me, based on comparing the educational requirements and minimum qualifactions for jobs I’d saved on online jobs boards with my own resume. As an engineer, the gravity of my miscalculation hit hard: I wasn’t actually prepared for any of the medical jobs I wanted.
What these employers were looking for was an engineer with some serious CAD skills, a strong medical background, and a solid track record in 3D printing.
The next day, I switched tactics and started searching LinkedIn for positions focusing on CAD or 3D printing in general. For every job I applied for, I added the requirements to my list of objectives. If the qualification was easily obtainable – a simple CAD certification, for example – then I would sign up for the certification class using my student email.
Over the course of 18 months, my skills expanded rapidly as I took advantage of free education programmes for students. It rounded out my resume, and as I added the skills to my LinkedIn profile, I began showing up on the radar of more and more recruiters.
Again, I reiterate – luck is when preparation meets opportunity. One day, I was bumping around the internet when I spotted a metal 3D printing start-up in the next town over. I picked up the phone and gave the owner a call to ask if I could interview him about the industry as a recent graduate.
We spoke for 30 minutes. He seemed not to mind my rabid curiosity and he gave me names of other people who might speak with me about the industry. A few days later, I got an email back requesting if, this time, he could interview me, for a new position opening on his team. The role focused on 3D printing metal implants for an orthopedic surgeon. I remember holding my breath as I said yes.
Two months later, I was there on my first day as a biomedical engineer, 3D printing patient-specific implants. It may not have been in a hospital, as I’d always imagined, but I was surrounded by like-minded engineers who were just as passionate about 3D printing as I was.
Asking the hard questions
The road to success is never linear. I just hope that the new graduates who I mentor are currently asking themselves the hard questions.
Are they prepared for the positions that they actually want, not the ones that their peers and professors have been spouting about? Do they have all the skills and training they need to get there? And, if not, do they have a plan to level up, to get the experience and qualifications they will need in order to advance in their careers?
If having a graduate degree is a requirement for the job you want, then I say it’s a safe bet to pursue more education. But if you start looking at job descriptions and they don’t have an Master’s degree or PhD requirement, then it’s likely to be far more advantageous to get work experience as early on as possible.
And I’d also like to add that it’s perfectly OK if unfortunate circumstances mean this isn’t your first attempt at launching your career. It’s not easy to navigate the workforce in the beginning. But please take unlucky breaks as opportunities to test your mettle and to learn more about your strengths and weaknesses, in order to prepare better for the future.
So my advice to new grads trying to decide if this is the best time to fly the nest and start the journey? You simply won’t know until you try your luck.
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SJ is a metal additive engineer aka THEE Hot Girl of Metal Printing. She currently works as a metal additive applications engineer providing AM solutions and #3dprinting of metal parts to help create a decarbonised world.
Get in touch at @inconelle on twitter