It’s often said that engineers aren’t born, they’re made. Or more accurately, taught, tested, and accredited by universities. If you’re in high school, you’re probably starting to think about potential career paths and may be considering an engineering degree. A lot of work goes into a good college application, and it might seem like the hardest part is getting in. However, if your end goal is to get yourself a great engineering job at the end of your studies, it pays to have your head up from day 1!
I Just Need A Degree, Right?
Back in my freshman days, there was a saying that was popular on campus, particularly with those studying STEM topics. “Ps get degrees.” Your college’s grading system might use different letters, but the basic gist was that a pass mark was all that was required to get your piece of paper at the end of your four years. While this is technically true, it’s only really a useful ethos if your aim is to simply get a degree. If your goal is to use that degree to score yourself a plum job in your field, it would be unwise to follow this credo.
The reality of the modern job market is that it’s highly competitive. Recruiters can receive hundreds of applications for a single job, meaning the vast majority of applicants don’t even make it to the interview stage. To trim down the pile, various criteria are used to pick out the ideal candidates. An easy way to do this is to sort by grades. Having a low GPA can therefore see your application relegated to the trashcan, before you even get a chance to impress anyone with your carefully honed skills.
Grades aren’t the be all and end all of recruitment, but it never hurt anyone to show up with a top-notch academic transcript. Plus, being on top of your book smarts can be very useful in interview situations. Often, recruiters like to run aptitude tests with questions not altogether unlike what you will find in a university exam. This is particularly common in software fields, where candidates are often asked to solve problems live on a whiteboard. Aceing these could be the difference between making it to the next stage of the interview, or being politely shown the door.
It’s About More Than Grades
It can be daunting to make major decisions on a career path at high school and college age. However, if you have a clear idea of where you want to go, and what you want to do, that can be an incredibly valuable thing when it comes to looking for that first adult job after graduation.
For instance, let’s take two students, Todd and Amy. Both graduate high school and begin studying mechanical engineering at a good university. Todd isn’t really sure where he wants to end up, but figures that a degree will be a ticket to a well-paid career, and goes about his studies. Along with some friends, he chooses a capstone project in renewable energy storage because it seems like a solid option.
Amy, on the other hand, has always dreamed of working in motorsport. In addition to her studies, she joins her university’s Formula SAE team. The team performs okay, finishing somewhere in the middle of the pack most years. In the process, Amy learns a bunch about the practical realities of running a motorsport program, as well as how to work effectively in a team environment. Her capstone project is to design an aerodynamics package for her school’s race entry.
Come graduation day, and both Todd and Amy collect their degrees, with good marks across the board. Amy applies for a graduate position with a locally-based NASCAR team. Upon looking at her resume, the recruiters see that Amy already has a broad base of experience with motorsport at an amateur level, and has learned how to use several professional race engineering packages through her Formula SAE experience. Todd has learned that, after his capstone experience, he finds renewable energy a little dry for his tastes. He also applies for the NASCAR position, hoping to find an exciting outlet to apply his engineering skills. While his grades are similar to Amy’s, when it comes down to ability, there’s no contest. Amy already knows all the terminology, has experience tuning a vehicle for the track, and has followed the tyre dramas in the recent season. With the scales tilted thusly, Amy gets the job hands down, and Todd is left to search another day.
If Todd now decided that motorsport was his one true passion for his career, he’s going to find it difficult to compete. There’s plenty of Amys out there, all who have several years of experience more than Todd, and now that he’s graduated, there’s no easy way to catch up either. It’s certainly possible for Todd to find a way in to the field, but it will be much harder. He may have to take on a much more junior role to learn the ropes, or get some experience off his own back, perhaps by running his own racecar on an amateur level. All this takes a lot of time and a lot of money, and in the meantime, Todd still needs to find a job to pay the bills! This could mean years of working in more unfashionable roles. Spending 40 hours a week designing windshield wiper linkages can be a bitter pill to swallow when you see your former classmate cheering at the pit wall on ESPN when their car wins the trophy.
While this is a fictional example, it goes to show how much difference a couple of small decisions can make. Whether the field is motorsport, rocket science, or semiconductor design – if you’ve got your heart set on a particular field, getting stuck in early can give you a huge head start down the track. Whether it’s your own tinkering at home, activities through a university-affiliated club, or choosing a relevant final project, if you know where you want to end up, start heading there now. The reality is, if you don’t, someone else will!
For those heading down the path towards an engineering career, it may seem like a road of ceaseless toil and very little fun. This doesn’t have to be the case! There’s plenty of room during your time at university to socalize, party, and enjoy the experience. But paying just a little more attention in class, studying hard, and making the right decisions could pay off in a big way when it comes time to enter the workforce. Good luck!