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Engineer Career Advice on Switching Careers, Getting a Job, and Gaining Experience

Reader J.Joy asked on this post: How I got a $13,000 raise each year

I usually look through your website for inspiration, and I was wondering if you have any words that can be directed at me.I recently got terminated at a call-center job–in my write-up, the corporation told me that I was losing them money because I was giving out too many good will adjustments for customers.

I think that although that’s a great learning experience for me to stop being a push over and feeling sorry for other people, I’m pretty upset that I lost a job and that the ax came down so abruptly.

I’m actually an electrical engineer and am finishing up my degree this semester.

How can I make myself more marketable for engineering firms?

I have never had a previous engineering job (just random call-center jobs) but I’ve worked as a researcher for my professor and have some coding skills, as well as reputable academic publications.

Would going to engineering firms in person be a good idea (vs. sending a resume via the website) or would that be considered a nuisance?

Should I ask for skills-based volunteering opportunities?

I polled a few engineers I know and got their following responses:
 Sarah from Live to List: I’m a 20-something professional engineer who lives in a two bedroom warehouse conversion with the BF.  I live in Sydney, Australia.
I work for a government owned power company and applied through a graduate program (which they have stopped due to the economic climate of the industry in our area of the country).  If I hadn’t applied this way, and with 7 years experience now, I would suggest looking at graduate programs at big firms/companies.
This gives you the best opportunities to try a few roles over a few years, before applying for a permanent placement at that organisation (or then you can leave and apply for a job elsewhere).Alternatively, there are recruitment agencies that specialise in certain industries.  Seek these out in your country or city, and consider using them – the costs of recruitment are usually borne by the employee not the applicant.Even my partner’s small niche firm (not engineering) uses almost solely recruiters!Remember that you have a TON to transferable skills – working in a call centre would mean you have great ability to speak with a wide range of people.  Writing in journals means you’d have strong skills in formal language.

As a hiring manager, I’m looking as much at current skills and how I can train and develop someone.  And a huge part of interviews is ensuring you get someone with the right behaviours (coming to work every day, working hard, asking questions, independently thinking, seeking to improve processes etc).

The manager who hired me straight out university told me years ago, he recruited for ‘potential’.


Is an engineer.

My advice would be to make the last semester and summer count. Here’s how I recommend getting started.

She already has some experience in coding, and being published is a pretty big deal (I think, so kudos to her), and she should build on those experiences.

Did she enjoy those experiences and did those give her any insight on what she wants to pursue after graduation? If so, she may already have a head start.

Does she know what she wants to get into – programming, design, consulting, research, etc.?

At this point she should have an idea of what topics she enjoyed.

If she can identify that, then she can focus getting experience in that field, through working with a prof, focusing her projects, volunteer at a lab/extra curricular activity, a summer intern program, etc. Look into industry associations she can join.

Usually membership fees for students are really low (take advantage!), you get to attend the events and make some connections.

If there are certain individuals’ careers or research they really admire, reach out and ask them for coffee. Some people may say no, but you have nothing to lose. If she is aware of a relationship between those individuals and people she knows (i.e., her profs), try building in those connections.

Schools usually have resume workshops and inteview/ job prep work shops. Find out what they are and go to as many as she can.

These are great resources and very expensive after university. I think it’s even worth it to pay for the service to have someone look over your resume and give feedback. Again, this is a very expensive service after university (although her school may offer this service to alumni as well).

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had a friend/acquaintance tell me they’ve been looking for months – but when I read their resume, I think I understand why.

Finally, I think a carefully crafted cover letter tailored specially to the job she is interested can make a big difference, depending on who is hiring.

Keep it concise and job specific. If she doesn’t have time, then don’t even bother.

A generic cover letter is worse than a no cover letter. I wouldn’t suggest going to a firm to meet in person without doing her research and reaching out first. She may be imposing on their time, if she just drops into their office.

Emily from Urban Departures is an engineer by day and daydreamer by night, she aspires to bring beauty into the lives of everyone around her and lives in Toronto, Canada.

Look at graduate programs at big firms/companies.

Those programs do not expect any technical experience, just those transferable skills. When I first started, I definitely was not hired for my technical skills but my potential.

It is critical to network. Instead of going to engineering firms in person or even making phone calls (they won’t give you time of day), find a mutual acquaintance to introduce you.
For example, if I wanted to work Sarah’s firm, I would meet up with Sarah and see if she can introduce me to someone at her firm, or, at the very least, get the HR/hiring manager’s name for the application.
The best way to see how people are connected is through Linkedin and speaking to friends and friends of friends (a bit harder for someone entering an industry, but valuable exercise nonetheless).
Would it help if the new grad to share projects from school to demonstrate some sorta technical experience?
It was suggested I do that coming out of school but that was many many years ago and not sure if it’s still the practice. I would assume the work with his/her prof and the technical publications would help with the self-promotion?
PK of Don’t Quit your Day Job is a software engineer by trade, living and working in Silicon Valley.

I’m a Computer Engineer by education – Computer Science plus Electrical Engineering.  I’ve always stayed closer to the software side during my career, but as an Electrical Engineer who can code, you and I are just two different sides on the same EE – CS scale.

First, a few caveats: I’m American, and I haven’t been job searching for a long time.  However, I’ve now been on both sides of the table, and I’d love to give a few thoughts.

It’s too late to get an electrical engineering internship at this point (at least before you graduate), but the key is usually to make your resume stick out in some way.  You’ve got published research – you should play it up on your resume, and find a way to bring it up in any interviews you go to.  Fact is, you should have your technical knowledge down, but once you get through that screen, you want to have a topic that you’re comfortable with and people will remember.  Relevant, too, would be if you’ve worked on any hardware projects – especially in hardware, if you have something you can bring to an interview that you can speak passionately about – you’d stick out.

Since you’re still in school, your best move would be to take advantage of any of the programs your school puts on.  Resume help, contacts with recruiters at firms, the job database, and any career fairs – drop your resume off and talk for a few minutes instead of just walking away, that will help you stick out.  Don’t be shy about applying to a lot of companies – it’s a numbers game to get to the phone screen since early on your resume will probably be scanned quickly by a non-engineer.  Once you get to the phone screen you can let your talent really shine through – and using your university’s resources can help you get to phone screens faster.

Good luck out there, and try not to take anything personally – remember that you, too will have to reject a lot of firms in the end… you’re only going to take one offer!  Oh, and start now!


  • J.Joy


    Thank you so much for doing all this!

    I just want to provide an update: This is my last semester and I am finishing up school. I’ve actually delayed my graduation because I had some incidents in my personal life that made me take less courses and work, instead.

    I had some other (non-related-to-my-field) job offers and I was mulling over. One offer was for ‘insurance advisor’ at a bank, and it paid about $8 more than the one I was working at, but I told the recruiter that I would get back to her since the place I was working at had a program in place that allowed people to move up. I was hoping to eventually move up to an IT related position.

    Anyway, after I sent you that reply, I looked at my email and saw that the deadline for the insurance had lapsed and I would have to be unemployed and have to start from scratch (I don’t have the internet at home, so I could only check my email very sporadically)–I still called up the recruiter right away to see if she can take me and she did. I’m starting work this coming Friday.

    I’ve also recently joined some meetup groups to hone my programming skills. My degree did not give me much exposure to software and programming, but I took two required programming classes and fell in love with it! I’m hoping to eventually see if I can network via those groups and get into a programming-related job or at least improve my skills.

    That’s it for now, but I’ll keep you updated!


  • SP

    Start skimming the Ask A Manager blog for general career advice and knowledge about professional norms. I suggest because showing up in person is outside of professional norms, and the more you can learn about how the professional world works and how hiring managers think, the better.

    EE is a big field. Figure out one (or a few) areas you are interested in, and find companies that do that kind of work. Target them (although don’t necessarily limit yourself to them). What are the publications on? Can you play that up? Is it relevant to any industry .If you are open to a lot of areas, that is fine – but don’t say as much to a future employer. I once interviewed a new grad that basically said “I’m just interested in any job right now.” Honesty is good, but there are more polished ways to phrase something like that while showing enthusiasm for the job at hand.

    If you want to go the coding route, volunteering or starting your own projects or contributing to existing projects on GitHub would be a place to start (and seek out targeted & current advice of someone in the field on the best way to do this).

    Depending on your interests and other talents , there are other things you can do with an engineering degree, like business/management consulting. I personally don’t recommend this route (and you need soft skills and some knowledge of business to be competitive), but the point is that you can look beyond engineering if you can’t find a fit that seems to be a direct path from your degree.

    As others have said, career fairs at your school will be a big help, because employers there aren’t expecting experience. Bigger companies are more likely to hire a lot of junior engineers.

    Good luck!

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