Updated: Oct 15, 2020
By Max the Magnificent and Adam the Amazing
Believe it or not, there are some advantages to growing older. As one example, when I was starting my career in 1980 (it’s Max speaking now), I had to wear a suit, shirt, and tie to work. When I came to America in 1990, the company I worked for had “Casual Fridays,” which may sound exciting, but basically all it meant was you could take off your jacket and tie. These days, by comparison, all I wear is Hawaiian shirts (and jeans and shoes, of course).
In fact, apart from a couple of pairs of old shorts and T-shirts that I sport while working in the garden, Hawaiian shirts and Jeans is all I’ve got, along with a penchant for colorful socks (see also On Mushrooms, Socks, and Ducks). I wear pretty much the same clothes wherever I am -- at home, in my office, and when I’m asked to give a presentation at a company, or a guest lecture at a university, or a paper at a technical conference. My first decision when I arise in the morning is “Which Hawaiian shirt will I wear today?” As a result, I start the day smiling.
Another aspect of growing older is that it’s amusing to look back in time to when you were just starting out and to reflect on how you thought you knew so much about “life, the universe, and everything.” It often brings a wry smile to your face when you reflect on how little of a clue you actually had back then.
Recently, your humble narrators (Max the Magnificent and Adam The Amazing) were chatting about this very topic, including how we originally got into engineering and our first jobs and what we’ve learned along the way. Based on that conversation, we decided to write this 3-part miniseries about how to get a job in engineering and, once you’ve got it, how to keep it (or move on to something better).
This column will focus on the early days at high school, college, and university. Part 2 will concentrate on getting your first job, including creating a resume (a.k.a. curriculum vitae, commonly referred to as a CV) and experiencing the joys of being interviewed. In Part 3, we will focus on how you keep your job, grow in it, and evolve your career.
Prior to writing these columns, we asked some of our engineering friends and colleagues to share their thoughts. Although this column is written in the first person (just to make it easier for the writers and friendlier for the readers), it reflects everyone’s inputs.
One question you should ask yourself when you are at high school and preparing for the next step is if getting a degree is right for you. Don’t get us wrong here, we are firm believers in education and it’s well documented that people with degrees earn more, on average, than people without them, but leaping headfirst into a 4-year degree course isn’t for everyone.
We know a lot of people without degrees who took technician-type courses and who could out-engineer most engineers. Depending on the country in which you live, there will be a variety of alternatives to consider. In some cases, an apprenticeship at a large engineering company might be the way to go. In the USA, there are 2-year courses called Associate Degrees, which you can take at local, affordable community colleges. Once you have your Associate Degree, you can count this as the first two years of a 4-year degree if you wish to proceed further.
In the UK, there are Higher National Certificate (HNC) courses, which are equivalent to studying one year at university, Higher National Diploma (HND) courses, which are equivalent to studying two years at university, and Foundation Degree courses, which are equivalent to studying three years at university. In all these cases, you can use these courses as steppingstones to higher levels of study. Having said this, it’s important to have a plan before you start so you can ensure any courses you take will indeed be accepted as precursors to any courses you might want to take in the future.
A big part of this is your spending the time to find out what courses are available and what they entail. Before you do this however, it would be a good idea to consider your long-term goals, both personal and professional. We know this is a bit much to ask of younger folks, but it really does help to clarify things. If you heart’s desire is to work on rockets and deep space probes, for example, then you should use this as a basis for planning your education and the sort of companies you want to work for. The main thing is to have a plan. Of course, you should also be prepared for the fact that plans change, but “If we don’t have a plan, we’re no better than the French,” as the soon-to-be-old saying goes.
When I was at high school (it’s Max speaking again), I knew I wanted to do things like work with robots and suchlike. I thought the only options open to me were degrees in mechanical or electronic engineering. On “Careers Day,” when our guidance counselor asked what I wanted to do, I said “Electronics” and he responded, “Great, universities have courses for that... next!” As a result, I started off taking a course in electronics, only to find it was almost purely theoretical. As far as I’m concerned, calculating the angular momentum of electrons is something you can do in your spare time. When I talked to my lecturers about this, they said, “You want to be taking a degree in Control Engineering,” so at the end of my first year I transferred to the Control Engineering degree, which featured a core of mathematics accompanied by courses in electronics, mechanics, and hydraulics and fluidics. This turned out to be the degree for me -- I only wish I’d known it existed when I was applying to universities in the first place.
And what about when you are actually at the university? Some people prefer a purely academic type of course, while others are better suited to a more hands-on approach. I took what they called a sandwich course in the UK (they call it a co-op course in the USA) where I spent the first year at university, then six months in industry, then another year in class, followed by another six months in industry, then back to university for a final buffing and polishing.
When we put the call out to ask our engineering friends and colleagues what they thought about all this, one of them responded as follows:
I received my bachelor’s degree in 2013, so I’d like to share some advice aimed at engineering students who have some time left in university.
Prefer an engineering internship over a summer job. It may be difficult to find during freshman or sophomore year, but an internship is a great way to learn about how businesses operate since university does little training in this area.
Find out about interesting research or labs at your school and volunteer. One of my regrets is that I didn’t look for such opportunities (they’re not well publicized so one has to be proactive). Volunteering for someone’s lab is a great way to network and get exposed to the real-world science and engineering that undergraduate classes are approximating. Spending time in a lab is also one way to evaluate if a graduate program is a good fit.
Network with professors. Some professors will have more connection with industry than others. Try to learn about their fields and use office hours or request an appointment to ask them about their research or work outside of the university. Show interest by reading trade materials, but don’t be a know-it-all. Show you’ve done your homework by asking real questions rather than showing off your ability to memorize factoids.
Make friends and work on a project. If nothing else, you’ll have something to show during an interview.
All of these are really good points. We would expand on these by suggesting that you do your best to practice your writing and speaking skills. We both know engineers who are fantastic at what they do, but they’ve been doing the same thing for the past 40 years and they spend their lives in small cubicles in obscure parts of the facility. They remind us of the professor in the movie Independence Day when he somewhat ruefully says, “They don’t let us out very often.”
Being able to capture your thoughts on paper is a skill that may take time to develop, but that will pay dividends in the future. Similarly, being confident enough to speak to a crowd will open many doors. One way to start on the speaking front is to join the Toastmasters International organization, which will help you hone your communication, speaking, and leadership skills.
Other useful skills include being able to use the main Microsoft Office tools (or their open-source equivalents), including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Rather than having only a limited ability with these tools, you should strive to become proficient in their use.
There is so much to talk about, and so little time to do so. Our hope is that this column will at least provide a useful foundation for people hoping to enter the engineering profession. Also, it will hopefully provide the stimulus for other students and engineers to share their thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.