How students or early stage researchers can pursue the best for their career is a very popular question. There are several web sites that provide suggestions (see for instance here, here and here). They are often written for the general audience and therefore may lack specificity.
I have the fortune to be in touch with several students and researchers in science and engineering and thus it is clear to me how they are eager to get advice on the best way for shaping their future. Engineering and science are not oxymorons as some scientists think, but for sure engineering science is a very specific niche where scientific discovery needs to be very pragmatic and useful to solve real problems. Moreover, engineers bear the responsibility to ensure that their scientific research and their results do not cause misdesign which would expose persons at risk. For this reason, I think that the advice for a successful career in science and engineering needs to be specific. In the web I did not find anything like that and therefore decided to write this post.
Engineering may be defined ad "the branch of science and technology concerned with the design, building, and use of engines, machines, and structures". Today engineering design is mainly operated digitally by using commercial software. Moreover, engineers are increasingly required to interact with stakeholders to provide convincing support to their decisions. Therefore, computer skills and communication abilities are essential ingredients for a successful career, thereby implying the need for additional learning with the respect to the past. On the other hand, skills that were required in the past are not as necessary today. An example are the skills in analytical mathematics that is being replaced by numerical computation.
Furthermore, another essential premise is that the world is changing today quicker than in past, thus implying the need for a continuous update of knowledge. In the past the date of the degree marked the frontier line between learning and working. Today such line does not exist anymore.
So, what are the advices that I would like to give here? Let's discuss them one by one.
- (The first suggestion is the most complicated to write and - I think - to understand.) Make an effort to learn the most during your degree programme. Learning is more than studying and passing an exam. Learning means that you understand what you are studying. Studying allows you to memorize the theory, learning means that you get why you need the theory and gain ability to apply it. Most of the processes that are studied in engineering can be observed. Observation is essential to learning. I am teaching hydrology, that essentially focuses on water flow. I frequently tell my students that observing flowing water is essential for learning hydrology after having studied its theory. Learning gives experience, which is gained through observation and practice. A young person can be experienced, provided they make an effort to observe and learn.
- Be self confident but keep a low profile. Of course we don't have to look excessively ambitious, but we don't have to think that a reasonable target is not in our capacity. Be motivated, believe in yourself but don't look pretentious or arrogant. It may look like a difficult compromise, but it is not. If you are really self confident you don't need to show it to others.
- Be enthusiastic and positive. If you are happy with your degree or research programme, make that evident. If you are unhappy, expose your criticism in a constructive manner. Managers are impressed by enthusiasm and independent thinking. The more you are known as a positive, critical but always constructive person, the more your chances of success.
- Maintain a good work life balance. If you are in doubt, give priority to the latter. Being happy with your day and keeping a good health enhances your motivation to work, your positivity and constructiveness. Take care of your physical shape. If you are trained you can better sustain your work load and maintain a good mood.
- Learn additional languages. An engineer speaking several languages is unlikely to get unemployed. It is not necessary that you become like a native speaker, but being able to communicate with a diversity of persons is one of the most exciting experience in life.
- Pay attention to your colleagues. One of the skills that are valued by employers is the ability to team working. Developing good relationships with your colleagues, providing support to them and contributing to team building will be much appreciated and will help you to feel better in your workplace. Listen to your teammates and provide advice if asked. Don't gossip.
- Improve your communication skills. Scientists and engineers do not work in isolation. Learn to present your results and conclusions clearly, with a positive attitude, through good looking reports and figures. It may help to rehearse your presentation several times with loud voice. Be timely, do not use more than the allotted time (can't understand how can some people get to their talk without having an idea of its duration). Participate actively to social events. I know that talk to people and stay with them may be tiring, especially for a non native speaker, but it is definitely worth doing the effort.
- Be reliable. Employers don't like to hire a new person every month. If you accept a new job, make sure to ensure stability and reliability. Don't get considered as a person who is not worth investing time and resources.
Now, some more technical suggestions.
- Be efficient. There are several ways to get a task done, identify the best solution in terms of both quality of the results and timing. It is not true that "haste makes waste", efficiency means that you achieve quality by saving time. Engineers perform tens of task in a day, if you save 1 minutes for each of them at the end of the day you gain a lot of time for relaxing, make sport, meet friends, stay with the family, therefore further enhancing your performance the next day.
- Get the best from your PC. The personal computer and internet revolutionised education and research. Today, a good scientist and a good engineer must be very confident with digital analytics and information technology. Some items that deserve your attention: software for data analysis, drawing software, web publishing, geographical information systems, open source community, operating systems. In particular, make an effort to learn several operating systems with particular attention to open source solutions. If you know several alternative tools you can easily identify and use the best one for quickly delivering good results.
- Learn programming languages. I could have incorporated this item with the previous one, but I think it deserves an individual attention. Some students are convinced that engineering design can be entirely carried out by using software that is already available. It is a mistake! In many cases a quicker and better solution is achieved by writing your own program. Give priority to open source languages and remember: once you learned your first programming language it is very easy and quick to learn other ones.
- Make your own website and be active on the socials (but don't become a social potato :-) ). One of the most rewarding decisions that I took was to build my own website. It took to me much time, but brought many opportunities to learn and get in touch with people. Social media are an opportunity to know people and give visibility to your skills. Of course we need a selection, we cannot be everywhere. Give priority to science and engineering and be careful of your look. Your activity on the web is a reference letter.
- Carefully prepare your interview. Get the necessary information, refresh your studies if appropriate, try to anticipate the questions that you may get and rehearse your replies. Be concise, adopt a low profile but look enthusiastic, motivated and self confident to the optimal extent. Employers like motivation and determination to get the job. In my opinion it is not necessary to say "Thanks for your question" but pay the highest respect to interviewers. They are dedicating their time to you, and may be nervous themselves. Do your best to make them comfortable. Be prepared to reply to questions like "What do you think is your best achievement", "what do you think are your strengths and weaknesses?", "What is your dream for your career?", "Do you have any question for me?" or "Would you like to say something?". The questions with an apparently easy answer may be the key ones for the success of your interview.
- Mind deadlines. Gaining a good track record of timeliness and delivery is essential.Timely and delivering persons have much more chances to get employed. If you are asked to provide a quote for the provision of a professional task make sure that it is appropriate. You don't want to sell out your work and neither claim exorbitant professional fees.
- Take the necessary responsibility. Being an engineer means being willing to accept responsibilities. Don't be afraid of that. Get the necessary information, make a proper risk assessment and, if the risk/gain ratio is acceptable, then go!
Finally, after writing suggestions that may look as rules, I would like to give a final tip, which you may interpret as you like, therefore giving ample freedom to your creativity:
- Be the exception that does not confirm the rule!
I hope you appreciated the above suggestions. This is an evolving page, if you are interested you may come back once in a while to check my updates. If you have any suggestion please email me.
Last change on Nov 21, 2022