If you’re reading this article, chances are you already made one of the best decisions of your professional life: You’re pursuing a career in engineering.
As an engineer, not only are you book-smart, but you’re also forward-thinking. After all, it’s one of the fastest-growing and most in-demand career opportunities in the world right now.
And now, it’s time to translate all of that brainpower into landing your first engineering job. Whether you’re still in college or considering your first move after grad school, here’s some advice to help you stand out to employers.
1. Build a Career Portfolio
All too often, engineers struggle to sell themselves. That’s why, when mentoring my high school and college interns, I require them to create a career portfolio, which is a story about yourself that you share with potential employers.
This tactic solves two problems at once. First, you’re seeing yourself from the proverbial 30,000 foot view, which helps you focus on what makes you stand out. Second, you’re giving potential employers a way to learn more about you, even before the interview begins.
A great portfolio typically includes:
A bio page, which summarizes your strengths, education, and recognitions
Information about your coursework, internships, volunteer work, language proficiency, hobbies, and other things that set you apart from the crowd
Testimonials or recommendations from people you’ve worked closely with, such as former employers, professors, or clients
Evidence of your technical skills. This might be examples of projects you’ve worked on, links to your Github profile, or even flowcharts or tables that illustrate how your disparate traits come together to make you the ideal job candidate. Don’t be afraid to be creative!
Evidence of your non-technical skills. When describing your internships, for example, don’t just include links or photos, but explain how your work benefitted the business. This applies to personal accomplishments too—instead of just stating you ran a marathon, discuss the self-discipline needed to train for the event!
Your portfolio should live online, so you can include it on your resume, LinkedIn profile, or any other materials you’re submitting with your application. But it’s also a great idea to bring a hard copy to every interview so the hiring manager can flip through your content. Displaying your portfolio in multiple formats makes it easier for potential employers to spend more time examining your work.
2. Know the Business
You’re an engineer, so no one is questioning your intellect. You’ve made it through some serious courses in calculus, physics, programming, and data analysis, after all. But do you know how your technical skills translate to the company’s balance sheet? Too many times, engineers don’t, so if you can show employers that you have some business savvy, you’ll stand out.
If you’re interviewing at a publicly traded company, read the annual report to gain an understanding of its customers, sales channels, and costs. For a private company, go online and find out as much as you can about the company’s markets, competitors, and customers. These activities will arm you with intelligent questions to ask, which impresses hiring managers.
In addition to using the online resources around you, don’t be afraid to reach out to people who work at your dream companies, and even industry leaders. More and more, I hear of senior executives having informational interviews with aspiring engineers. But be warned: If you’re sitting down with a big gun, have something substantive to say. Here’s a great guide for reaching out over email, and one for making the most of the meeting.
3. Invest in Yourself
Could you live in a house for 30 years and not maintain it? Of course not. The foundation would start to crumble, literally. Well, the same is true of your career.
As an engineer, you constantly have to build new skills. To do that, consider joining a professional network, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), or the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and participate in their conferences.
Also, stay open to challenging and diverse projects, even outside those you’re assigned at work or in school. Look for short-term jobs, freelance assignments, or personal side projects to gain experience. Consider what skill sets are in need right now that aren’t being addressed, and then make it your goal to acquire them.
Finally, make a point to develop your leadership and social skills. You can gain confidence by networking and taking online classes. And, once you do land a position, consider joining (or starting) an employee affinity network, which can help you navigate your new work environment and build skills on the job.
That said, don’t let groups like these limit you. Sure, it’s okay to join a female engineering affinity group. But realize that over time, labels can become self-limiting (even at progressive companies like mine, where more than half of our engineering interns are female!). As an African-American woman, I can tell you how important it is to not allow your gender, race, or any one factor define you. Surrounding yourself with people who have different backgrounds, experiences, trainings, and perspectives than you will help you become an even stronger engineer—and professional.
There’s no shortage of engineering jobs these days, but employers still want to hire the best people. If you show them what you’ve got to offer, make an effort to understand the business, and focus on knowing your craft, you’ll not only land an amazing job, you’ll have more success in your career than you could ever have imagined.