How to Grow the Career You Want
Believe it or not, it’s like finding and settling with a boyfriend (or girlfriend)
“How can I grow a career in bridge engineering [or some other discipline]?” Students often ask me such questions at career or speaking events. But I cannot respond in the short time available as there is no straightforward answer. Yet, after giving it some thought, I think I can summarize the answer as this: “follow the industry where you want to grow your career, prepare according to its needs, and professionally present yourself.” Let me elaborate on what that means.
The industry needs career-seeking professionals as much as you need a career opportunity. As an aspiring professional, you perhaps won’t realize how much time and effort any organization spends on recruiting and retaining good staff. Once you understand this concept, you are already on good ground and ready to take the first crucial steps to help you launch your career.
First, you should aim to stand out in an industry, not any particular company. If you have the right skills and experiences relevant to your industry (for example, bridge engineering), one of the relevant companies (possibly a bridge design or bridge-building company) will pick you up pretty soon.
Second, equip yourself with the skills that match your interest and the industry requirements. Find out what skills are in demand now and are likely to be so in the foreseeable future. For example, given the ever-increasing domination of computer models, engineers proficient in industry-standard software will have plenty of career opportunities. However, proficiency with the current technology is not enough. You also need to constantly update yourself with new developments such as a recent version or new software or refreshing your knowledge with courses or training. (You will need to be a life-long self-learner, more on this below.)
Third, move to the location where the companies of your interest operate or are based. If you want to work with a top-notch organization, you have to find out where it carries out its core activities or where it is based. A British company is unlikely to hire someone from Bangladesh for its European or Australian operation; you must be present in Britain or one of these markets. Follow such companies and their recruitment process through their websites, LinkedIn, and industry magazines. Internationally operating companies may have preferences about schools whose graduates they like to hire, often because they have had a good experience with such graduates or some of their senior managers have graduated from those. Find out if this is the case, and enroll yourself in one of those for a master’s degree, if possible, or at least post-graduate training. But entry into a reputable organization can still be tricky unless you have a good reference. You can get it either through an internship in that company or by conducting research work under a professor with good industry links. That will give you a stepping stone.
Fourth, grow your social proof so that potential employers have a way to assess you. As a norm, they will look for something in you to which they can relate. That way, even if an employer doesn’t know you, it will have a basis to evaluate you. A degree from a school known to the company is essential. Apart from the academic program, enrich yourself by doing things that show you have the right attitude and ability to take up a role the industry might offer. Start it when you are still a student by doing part-time work, volunteering, participating in extra-curricular activities, and networking with the alumni. I have elaborated on some of these tips in another article here, and you may find it helpful. Be honest in presenting yourself, don’t try to be someone you are not or do something you don’t enjoy doing. For example, become a volunteer only if that is your genuine interest, not to impress others.
Fifth, present yourself professionally. It applies to everything you do in your public life; the way you dress, speak, write and post on social media, or keep a commitment. Cultivate honesty; do what you say and say what you do. It needs constant practice and grows with time. You may not realize it at this stage, but whatever you practice in your student life remains with you all along. For example, your teacher wants you to read a particular section of a book or a research paper before coming to the following lecture. If you do so and prepare with questions or comments on it, you will stand out. The habit of going to meetings with adequate preparation will help you in more ways than you can ever imagine. People will take notice that you are giving them the respect they deserve. In return, they will start respecting you.
Finally, try to be a self-learner. It’s an essential skill. It means you can learn new things by researching (e.g., from the Internet) and constantly update yourself with the developments in the industry. I once interviewed a young engineer who seemed to have good skills in steel structure design which he acquired by self-learning. But he also admitted that he was still learning, and there were many things he didn’t know yet. He was a self-learner, honest and bold. I recruited him.
In summary, growing a career is quite similar to finding and settling with a girlfriend or boyfriend. You have to find someone with similar needs, tastes, social backgrounds, education, and shared values, which will help you grow the relationship with time. If there is a mismatch, neither of you will enjoy the other’s company, and that’s the end of it. Similarly, if you like the industry, you will grow with it, as it will also grow with the collective contribution from all the professionals like yourself. And, while looking for a company to work for, analyze it for its culture, market, business model, sector, and people. Once you are convinced that you are a good fit, pursue a career with it. But if any of these changes and you are not a good fit anymore, prepare to move on.
Just follow the industry and grow the skills that it needs. That way, you will always be in demand, and the work will continue to be a source of enjoyment.
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