Career Advice for Graduates

I woke up one morning and had several thoughts about the advice I wish I could go back and give to myself right before I graduated from college. I have been in industry as an Engineer in some shape or form for the last 15 years. I started writing this with the hope that it may help someone graduating in the near future. Most of this is targeted toward a new Engineering graduate but some things are applicable to all graduates.

Think about and understand what your goals are in life. This needs to be answered honestly. If you lie to yourself or go down the wrong path then you will be unhappy or you will end up changing jobs multiple times. Changing jobs multiple times is still a red flag to some employers (it shouldn’t be). Your plans after college should be guided by your goals. For example, if your goal is to make as much money as possible then don’t waste your time in Engineering, it’s too much of a longshot. Pursue an MBA at the best school you can afford and intern with companies known to make middle managers and higher wealthy. If Engineering and tech are really your thing then pursue an MS and intern with a company known for research, development and innovation (there are still a few).

Non-technical business colleagues and managers don’t usually make much of an effort to understand technical topics. Learn how to communicate technical topics with non-technical people. Your career will advance rapidly if you can master this skill. This is difficult to do. I’ve known one person in my field that was very good at this and was somewhat of an entertainer as well. His services were requested globally and he did very well for himself.

When you start working you may feel like you didn’t learn anything very practical in college. You probably didn’t. Colleges (US ones anyway) seem to be mostly focused on minting academic researchers. Don’t sweat it, things will work out if you make an effort to learn.

When you interview for a position make sure you understand what position(s) you are interviewing for. If you are offered a job, request to be notified of any changes in your assignment between the time you accept the offer and the time you start. This may seem unnecessary, but I had the switcharoo put on me in my first position after college. By the time I realized it had happened (my first day on the job) I had sold a house, moved a family and bought a new house. I wasn’t very interested in the new job and would have turned it down if it were initially offered, but was committed by the time I found out. Don’t let this happen to you.

  • Ask to meet the person you will directly report to.
  • Ask to meet some of the people you will work with.
  • Ask what specifically you will be working on.
  • Ask about things that are important to you: Flexible hours? Annual evaluations? Bonuses? Expected to work overtime hours? Is overtime paid?

Research the company, understand what they do, how long they have done it, how the business is doing, locations, business units, employees, projects, etc. If they are public their annual report will be a good source of information. Read it, highlight it, scribble in it, make the pages dog-eared and take it with you to the interview, pull it out and ask questions from it.

Remember that the interview should be just as much about you interviewing them as it is about them interviewing you. You want to know that it will be a good fit for your goals just as much as they want to know if you will be a good fit for them. If the interview gets to the point of them asking something stupid like where you see yourself in 5 years, you screwed up. It should never get to this point. If you are really interested in the position you should do enough research to take over the interview and make it yours. Don’t worry about offending anyone with your assertiveness, the interviewer(s) will be impressed with your preparation. I have been on both sides of this.

The managers that I have worked for didn’t do a very good job at career counseling. Some companies have well designed business systems that require an annual evaluation where you and your manager discuss your career goals and what you can do in the next year to achieve them. Most of the time this is a waste because there is very little follow through and no follow up or help from the manager. Don’t wait for someone else to manager your career, it probably won’t happen.

I talked an interviewee out of a position once. I liked him, he was prepared, had a good background, his resume was well written, etc. He did volunteer work for a sorority and put it on his resume, which put him at genius level in my opinion! He knew what his goals were, what he wanted to do, where he wanted to be. But he didn’t have a very good plan to get there. He thought an engineering project management job with us would be a good stepping stone, but hadn’t thought it through very well. His real goal was to get an MBA and make a lot of money. I told him I would recommend him for the position, but thought that he should try to get an MBA from the best school he could afford and intern with a company known to make managers wealthy instead. He declined our offer so I hope that our talk put him on the correct path.

If you are going to work in industry (i.e. industrial production of whatever) then your position will typically be labeled as Engineering but will fall into one of four categories (or some combination of them):

  1. Capital Project Management
  2. Maintenance “Engineering”
  3. Reliability “Engineering”
  4. Process “Engineering”

When people talk about Engineers never having a hard time finding a job, they are correct, but it is typically one of these types of positions. Be aware that these types of positions do very little (if any) actual Engineering and promotional opportunities are very limited (at least where I have been).

You are the only person responsible for your career. Make sure you are honest with yourself and understand what is you want to achieve and develop a solid  plan to get there. Time will not wait for you.

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