My Stock Advice for Engineering Students

Good engineering students often do a poor job of managing their career opportunities. I want to help.

I’ve participated in career fairs and job interviews various times on each side of the table, hiring and searching. I have been in the room making decisions on who to interview. I’ve been in the room making decisions on who to hire. I’ve offered people internships. I’ve managed interns, and recommended them (or not) as permanent hires. So I have some understanding of how all of this works, and a whole series of stock rants about it.

Often, I interview awesome people who probably have very high potential, but have not optimally developed that potential, or haven’t done what is necessary to communicate their potential clearly. I want engineers to do better—especially BYU engineers. Thus I share my compiled rant/wisdom, such as it is.

(This should go without saying, but this is on my personal site, and it reflects my personal opinions—I do not speak for my employer, Valero.)

Goal: a traditional engineering job

There are various career paths open to an engineer. In this post I’m assuming your goal is to get a traditional engineering job after graduating with a bachelor’s degree. I have an oil & gas perspective, but the principles seem to be similar for engineering jobs in aerospace, automotive, etc. Some engineers instead want to do consulting, patent law, academic research, etc., in which case some principles from this post may apply, but you also ought to find more specialized advice.

If you want a job after graduation, you need to try to get an internship before graduation—ideally several internships, one every summer for the length of your degree. The best way to get an internship is to have had a previous internship. So the perennial question is: how can I get my first real engineering internship? In this post I lay out advice for getting there. Then for future internships and jobs, the same general principles apply.

Focus on developing your resume

You need an attractive resume to get a good engineering job. There are many components to having an attractive resume; it’s nice if you can hit “all of the above” and be a trilingual champion athlete with a stratospheric GPA, a demonstrated commitment to community service, and prior internships in your field. Employers will talk about valuing various thing, and they even do. And you should not base your whole life on employers’ opinions.

But cut through all of that, and you really, really need to keep adequate focus on two key things:

  • Maintain a good GPA
  • Get engineering work experience

It is going to be awfully tough to get a desirable internship if you don’t bring a good GPA and some kind of engineering experience to the table. So prioritize these things over other work!

Engineering students are typically hard workers, and often have non-engineering employable skills. In the short run, they can often make more in other opportunities (random hourly jobs, skilled trade work, running a small business, pest control, whatever) than they can doing anything engineering-related. Engineering homework has a wage of zero. Doing engineering in a club has a wage of zero. Starting out in an engineering research lab often has a wage of zero.

Nonetheless, you may well be better off in the long run doing engineering work for free and focusing on holding/raising your GPA (and taking on student debt as needed), instead of working even a $25+/hr non-engineering job. The difference between getting a top engineering job opportunity and an average opportunity is potentially tens of thousands of dollars a year for your entire career, so play the long game. If you are smart enough to hack it as an engineer, you’re probably better off the sooner you commit.

(Aside: I never actually found out the hourly rate for my first engineering job. Dr. Thomas Knotts, who is great, hired me saying something like “I will pay you whatever the department standard rate is” and I said “ok” and got to work, in the full knowledge that the real pay was the knowledge I was gaining and the experience on my resume. And without telling my whole life story, skills and stories from that job directly helped me get all my other jobs I’ve had since.)

Maintain a strong GPA

As far as GPA is concerned, students often ask “what is a good GPA?” Depends on the company and the individual recruiter. I am familiar with at least two companies that have flirted with a 3.5 cutoff. In my mind, anything in the 3.8-3.9 range is great, and anything above 3.5 is good. Holding a near-perfect GPA can smack of perfectionism, and may not be optimal vs. slacking off a bit more in school and reallocating your efforts to something else (like gaining non-classroom experience). The 3.2 to 3.5 range is OK; it’s not setting you apart from the crowd, but great experience and other factors may be able to counterbalance that. Anything under 3.0 is getting into resume-killer territory. Normally sophomore-level engineers have higher GPAs than junior-level engineers; a 3.8 is a lot less impressive when few of the constituent grades came from hard engineering classes.

It is good to take hard classes early, so that you can take some easy classes later too. Do enough practice problems, spend time on the homework, etc. Avoid overextending yourself.

So enough about academics. Let’s talk about the other pillar of your resume: getting some experience.

Get a real engineering job

It can be challenging to get your foot in the door with engineering experiences, and as mentioned, it can feel like you need to have experience to get experience. My standard advice is to make a list of all the professors in your department, in order of how interesting their research is (use Google, department website, etc.). Take the professor whose research you like the best, read the last couple of academic papers he has published (Google again), and then go talk to him. “Professor X, I am [name]. Here’s my resume. I’ve read your last couple of papers on [whatever] and I think you are doing the coolest research in the department because [flattering comments]. I’m looking to get some engineering work experience. Is there any possibility of getting a research job working for you? I’d be willing to work for free for a while to prove that I can make a real contribution.” If he doesn’t have anything for you, go down the list. This was more or less my process for getting my first MechE job. I can all but guarantee that someone will hire you.

If no one in the department responds to this, then do the same thing with engineering extracurricular activities (Mars Rover, super-mileage car, whatever)—work down the list until you find somewhere you can get some experience solving engineering problems.

These experiences are not a substitute for getting an internship (don’t just do research and assume that is as good as an internship—it is not) but they can help you get your first one. In terms of resume value, paid engineering internship > paid engineering work on-campus > unpaid engineering work > paid non-engineering work, so act accordingly. Also note that teaching assistant jobs are not really engineering work; I don’t think I have ever heard a good engineering problem-solving interview story from a teaching assistant job.

Work hard at writing your resume, and get help

So now you’ve got a good GPA and some engineering work experience, and you need to communicate that to the world using your resume.

I’m going to gloss over this quickly, because resume principles are simple. Emphasize your achievements (I made the company $100K by going above and beyond!), not your responsibilities (responsible for pushing papers around!). Use action verbs. Quantify things. Maximize space spent on your unique achievements, particularly on-the-job achievements. Minimize space spent on the obvious—yes, every student thinks they can use Excel, engineers take engineering classes, etc. Put your GPA and your intended graduation date front and center; the recruiter is looking for this info and will just be annoyed if it’s not prominent, even if it isn’t great. Use standard resume formatting. Stick to one page; engineering students with multiple publications, multiple internships, and multiple scholarships can fit it all on one page, and you can too. Read the top Google results for something like “engineering resume advice” and consider their advice. When you have done all of this, get a few knowledgeable people to mark up your draft. Student organizations sometimes do workshops for this sort of thing, your department may be able to help, parents or family friends may have good input, etc.

Now, with your resume in hand and great engineering stories to tell, you’re ready for the career fair?

NO! There is much more work to do before the career fair!

Do sophisticated research on companies of interest

There is a stupid idea out there in the world that “the career fair exists so that students can learn about companies.” But if you want a job, the career fair is not a place to learn—it is a place to perform. So you need to prepare.

Prepare for the career fair like it will determine the course of your entire career, which is very possible. Read the list of employers, so that you know in advance who is hiring. Pick your target companies. If employers are taking 4 resumes per interview, and doing 4 interviews per hiring slot, you’d better be having quality discussions with at least 16 target employers to get your 1 job. (Or better yet, more, because 1 expected-value-probability job is not the same as 1 actual signed job offer.) Research each target company.

(Please, please, never, ever utter the career fair suicide-phrase “so what does your company do?”)

Base-level research consists of Googling the company, finding out what industry they are in, and scanning through some of their stock HR-speak about “exciting opportunities to develop yourself, while working with a team of the best and greatest people, in the context of the best and greatest HR organization.” This is good. If you have not done this, you will likely disqualify yourself from getting an interview. But every other credible candidate has already done at least this level of research.

If that’s basic research, what does sophisticated research look like? For any public company, you should look at the company’s annual report and investor slides. Let me repeat, look at the company’s annual report and investor slides. Every publicly traded company will produce an annual report and investor slides that contain information like:

  • What is this company’s leadership most proud of? If you think it’s cool, tell the recruiters! They probably agree, and will be flattered.
  • What are the company’s main strategic projects and priorities? More flattery-fodder! Also, these supply ready-made questions for the recruiters. “Has your department had any involvement with [strategic project]?” can start an interesting conversation.
  • How does this company view its relationships with competitors? Is it trying to be a technology leader? A low-cost producer? The biggest? The best in a narrow niche? This can help you talk intelligently about the company itself, rather than just the company’s industry.
  • What parts of the company are the most profitable? How do the parts of the company relate to each other? Having a concept of this can help you understand how your recruiters fit into the business, and what you might do if hired, again contributing to intelligent conversations.

To really take it up a notch, could also read the most recent quarterly earnings press release, or even listen to their earnings call (or better yet, read a transcript), where company high-ups reviewed the quarterly results with the investment community.

You can also learn about the company by talking to employees. Prepare for this appropriately, by reading all of the above stuff. Then ask recruiters, alumni from your school, friends of friends, etc. who work for the company if you can quiz them about it for twenty minutes sometime. Many people are pretty open to chatting about their jobs, even with random strangers. This can be a more frank and lower-stakes discussion than the moment when a recruiter says “any questions for us?” (That actually means “prove to me that you are actually interested in my company by asking me insightful, well-researched questions” and is not the best time to ask any question that could imply less than starry-eyed enthusiasm about the company.) One caveat: recruiters are busy during career fair week, and you should already be interacting with them at the career fair and info session. So plan ahead and do networking calls early, or find people other than recruiters to talk to.

Even for your 16th-favorite company, you should still spend a half hour looking at their investor slides. You need them to feel like you are seriously interested, and you will be if you have no other job opportunities! Doing half an hour of research on 16 companies is only one day worth of work. Not that hard.

Do sophisticated research!

Make the most of career fair week

So now you’ve got your resume tuned up and printed, you’ve done your research, and it’s time for career fair week.

The career fair is almost 100% about getting an interview. Hiring decisions are made based on interview performance, and interview decisions are based largely on resume and career fair performance.

Make sure you attend the info sessions for your target companies, which are often before the career fair! Participate during the info session. Stay after the info session, introduce yourself personally to the recruiter, give them a resume, and ask them one or two intelligent questions. Listen to their answers to other students’ questions.

At the career fair, work down your previously selected list of target companies. I’ve only been involved in one virtual career fair (which didn’t seem to be very effective), and I’m hopeful that we will have in-person career fairs within a year or two. So I’ll give advice on for in-person events, although similar principles apply to virtual career fairs too.

Walk up to the recruiter with a smile on your face and a resume in your hand. Introduce yourself and hand them your resume before they ask (they are expecting it—no need to even say “here is my resume”). Express interest in their company for a specific reason, ideally “I am interested in your company because of [unique capabilities and positioning within industry]” rather than “I like [industry, including you and all of your competitors].” Show you have done your homework and actually care. Draw their attention to a few key points of your resume—maybe give a twenty-second summary of your best work experience. Answer any questions they have; some recruiters treat the career fair like a mini-interview, and/or will want more detail on certain experiences on your resume. Ask one or two intelligent questions about the company. Express your desire to have an interview. Say thank you for their time. Don’t rush, but do avoid monopolizing the recruiter’s time if there’s a line to talk to them; a two or three minute conversation is often about right. Do talk to other recruiters from the same company.

Consider practicing your personal introduction with your roommate or the mirror or whoever until you can do it smoothly. If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear. Watch other students, and imitate the better ones. Ideally you should attend the career fair as a freshman, when stakes are low, just to see how these interactions go.

Hopefully all of this effort impresses recruiters and gets you some interviews.

Study for interviews like they are tests

A job interview is like a final exam on your professional life up to that point. Study for it like an exam! (Maybe more than for an exam…I know how some students approach exams.) Practice for it!

Most engineering employers will use behavioral interviews. The theory of a behavior interview is that past performance is a good predictor of future performance, so if you tell an employer how you have acted in the past, they can predict how you will act in the future. Or if you have never acted in the past, they will wonder if you will ever act in the future—this is why you need relevant job experience, as discussed above.

There are only so many ways to ask someone “were you a good engineer at the last place you did engineering,” so most behavioral interviews end up being pretty similar. To prepare, Google “behavioral interview” questions/techniques/etc. and read the top 5 or 10 articles to get a sense of what the questions are likely to be, and the standard advice for giving a clear answer (e.g. STAR, talk about Situation, Task, your Action, and the Result). Make a list of common questions from those articles, write out your answers to them, and literally practice telling your story/answer out loud until you can do it smoothly. Seriously, practice!

Since many of the questions are variations on themes, if you have a dozen really good behavioral interview answers, chances are at least one of them will fit almost any question. Your answers should probably be 3-5 minutes long, with a focus on concrete details (no hypotheticals) and things you personally did (no “we”). Some interviewees fell the need to tell me what they learned from an experience; I would generally prefer more detail about what they did.

Also think about whether the company in question has any specific values or needs that might come up in questions other than those on the standard list, and what stories you might tell related to those. For example, safety is very important to Valero (this is obvious from our website, info session, etc.), and thus our engineering job interviews pretty much always include a question about safety. Wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask older students what kinds of interview questions they have received…the types of questions you get will probably be similar, and even the exact wording of a given company’s questions might go unchanged for years.

Classwork-related answers can be OK, but are often weak. I think one day, more than half of the people I interviewed used the same group project as one of their stories; hard to stand out from the field with class-related stories when everyone else has taken the same classes. This is a huge part of why you should put so much effort into gaining engineering work experience: so you can have good, unique interview stories about actual engineering work. When looking for a job, you should ask: “is this a job where I will be able to get good engineering interview stories?” (Or will I basically be doing rote tasks?) And on the job, remember that being an outstanding employee will often result in a good story, and similarly, thinking “what would I want to tell an interviewer that I did” can help you act like a great employee. So get and use non-classroom engineering stories.

Anticipate a question about your geographic preferences. Remember that companies do not have a lot of flexibility; they are usually trying to fill specific positions in specific locations, not create a job just for you. Consider the long run; employers may be looking to get interns who they can then hire long-term in the same location, so going somewhere you hate “just for an internship” may be silly for both you and the employer. At the same time, you can and should be open-minded. Good job experience in a dubious location beats homeless unemployment in your first-choice location. Be and act as geographically flexible as you honestly can be. Less is more: “I am very flexible” is music to a recruiter’s ears, and whatever you say is probably going to be condensed into a yes/no or single sentence summary anyway, so don’t load them up with a lot of ambiguous information. “I am very flexible, and I’d be especially enthusiastic about [location] because I have [family/connection/interest/etc] there” could also be appropriate, or “I am very open to all of your locations except California.”

An interview will generally end with a chance for you to ask the recruiter questions. Prepare two or three smart questions in advance, based on your sophisticated research (see above). Do yourself a favor and do not ask “what are you looking for in an intern?” One of the number one qualities most employers want in an intern is literally the ability to understand requirements without having them explicitly stated in great detail.

Do ask the recruiters for their contact information. Send them a short email thank you note, ideally within a few hours of your interview. They may be making hiring decisions before they leave campus, so to the extent you want to impress them, a paper thank you note will likely be too late.

I got an internship—now what?

Purchase and read the book “The Unwritten Laws of Engineering.” You maybe also be able to find some or all of the content online. I was given a copy as an intern, I’ve since have read it multiple times, and I made it standard-issue for my new engineering hires. I do not expect to write a blog post on how to be a successful engineer, because this book, published in 1944, is still the authoritative word on the subject; the principles are timeless.

Wow, this is great advice, thank you!

You’re welcome! Feel free to share this post; some of this is zero-sum (if everyone formats their resume better…) but a lot of it is not. If every engineer ends up better-prepared, notably by seeking engineering experience early, that should actually improve the world’s standard of living. If engineers did better research into companies, they could end up better-matched with their employers, again resulting in welfare gains.

Congrats on making it to the end. Rant over.

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