Engineers are experts on the systems they work with, but even skilled engineers sometimes find themselves stymied when it comes to building on their own successes. Here’s how to advance your career whether you’re coming in at the ground floor or already have that office with a view.
Find Your Inspiration
Who made you want to become an engineer? Did Steve Jobs’ or Bill Gates’ success stories inspire you, or did you look farther back in history to draw inspiration from Ada Lovelace? Learn what drove the people you most admire, and you could find valuable skills to learn and traits to emulate. While finding inspiration is important for entry-level engineers, it’s an equally meaningful exercise for more established engineers who want to reconnect with what sparked their interest in the field in the first place.
Build Your Portfolio
Artists and writers need portfolios, and so do engineers. Being in a STEM field doesn’t release you from the need to build a collection of projects and track your participation in them. Prospective employers seeking engineers for management positions want to see someone who has seen a number of projects through to completion. By being proactive and hands-on with a wide range of projects, you showcase your skill set in ways that a resume alone doesn’t cover. If your current work history doesn’t give you many chances to shine, look for personal projects to tackle or look for opportunities within a university system.
Interpersonal skills are often as important as job skills, yet many engineers overlook them as an unnecessary distraction from their real work. Increasingly, your personal and professional spheres overlap. Being able to network with fellow seminar attendees, alumni association members, co-workers, and other people associated with your industry is a must. Stay connected via social media and professional organizations, too; the time you spend to create a profile or register is tiny compared to the potential benefit your contacts could bring you.
Engineering schools prepare their students admirably in academics, but they often miss out on a key aspect of the workplace: teams. Depending on your industry, you may find working alone a rarity, and being able to contribute to teams is a vital skill. If your past work experience hasn’t given you much in the way of teamwork, look for other ways to be a part of a team effort, even if it’s outside your professional life.
Being a part of a team gives you valuable experience; leading a team sets you apart as executive material. Volunteer to take point position on projects and show that you have leadership ability as well as job knowledge, and you’re on your way up.
What are your three best traits? Your greatest strengths? Your biggest challenges? It’s critical for you to know the answers to these questions long before you talk to an employer or hiring director. Only through regular self-evaluation can you learn and grow as an engineer. Look for feedback from former employers, team members, instructors, and others who have an impact on your professional life. Being able to take constructive criticism and combine it with a realistic self-assessment is a strong predictor of future success.
Learning doesn’t stop at graduation; it’s a lifelong process. Take courses whenever you have the opportunity, and don’t restrict yourself only to immediately relevant coursework. A class in business, finance, or sales positions you as a qualified candidate for upper-level management positions because you have a wider field of view than others who have compartmentalized their educational efforts.
Some of the most startling and original insights great thinkers have came to them not from linear thinking but from sources far afield. August Kekule’s dream of snakes swallowing their tails gave him the concept he needed to visualize benzene rings, for example. Take courses in art so you become better at expressing your ideas visually. Study literature to become more adept at communication. Try a music appreciation course to develop your skill at making mental connections. When you take yourself out of the office, you open yourself to a world of other experiences that can inform your professional life.