Mark Savage has 29 years experience as Director of Engineering Career Services at Cornell University, placing engineers for this prestigious school in jobs in the US and internationally.
He tells us how to get creative with your networking, the new inter-disciplinary roles on offer for engineers, and why computer scientists find it easier to land a job in the US!
Why do employers value engineering grads?
Engineering is a desirable degree because students learn a particular way to analyse and solve problems. This is attractive, even to employers outside of technology, because of the analytical and problem-solving skills that students pick up, along with their comfort with numbers and technology tools.
Any tips on getting a job after graduation?
The biggest mistake that students make when looking for employment is that they go online to large websites, look for openings and apply there. They post their resumes, not realising that tens of thousands have done exactly the same. And, to make matters worse, they are often competing against more experienced unemployed people willing to take a pay cut for an entry level job.
I’ve had students complain, “I applied to 150 jobs out there and nothing's happening.” It can feel like your resume is going into a black hole. But any job search needs to utilise networking.
How important is networking in an engineering career?
Networking is the most important skill that students need for their careers. Once you start working, stay connected with professionals you met during previous internships; after graduation, become active in professional societies, go to conferences and stay active because that’s how you become known. If you need another professional opportunity, it’s better to have a group of people that know and trust and respect you. These could be alumni or other professional contacts.
Students tend to think that they need to network only with people who can directly help them. That’s not true. You have to treat networking like a webpage; you have to go down a couple of levels to find what you’re looking for. You may not know who can help you, but you can strategise to approach people in positions who can lead you to those who can help you.
For example, let’s say you want to work in the biomedical sciences or with prosthetic devices but you don’t know anybody. Where’s a likely place to look? You could ask the manager of a prosthetic devices shop. Their contacts may be in sales, but that can be a good place to start. You can also use networking tools such as LinkedIn to find relevant alumni.
When our students search for Cornell on LinkedIn, they will get around 200,000 results. Even if we account for 10,000 of those to be professors and others with a casual acquaintance to the university, we’re still left with a huge number. Look for alumni
in your chosen profession; the more areas where you and they overlap, the better; and just pick their brains. Ask them: “How did you do it? What are the steps you took to get there?” Don’t initially ask someone who does not know you for a job!
Think about it this way. If someone from your high school came to you and asked you for advice on engineering degree programs at your university, what would you do? You would probably give them advice, and the same applies to alumni.
At Cornell, we encourage students to reach out and take advantage of resources that their tuition money already pays for. We like to think that career fairs are like window-shopping. Though some do get jobs from them, the purpose is to gain perspective for your options. Typically, over 35,000 university-wide jobs are posted a year on Cornell’s system. In addition, we have on-campus recruiting programs, with employers coming on campus every day to conduct interviews.
How does Cornell help students get internships?
We also provide internship and shadowing opportunities. In fact, Cornell is one of the few schools that offer job shadowing for first-year students. Over breaks and vacations, students can spend some time with an alumnus at their organisation and start to build their networks. We don’t like to use the word “placement” because we believe that students place themselves. We just provide the opportunities for them to start building a professional network that can lead to job offers.
Have you seen great changes in engineering courses over the years?
I’ve been at Cornell a long time and, in that time, engineering has become more interdisciplinary. It used to be if you wanted to do a certain type of job, you had to have a certain engineering major. Now, the disciplines have blended. There’s more emphasis on multi-disciplinary skills and the need to be able to work in multi-disciplinary teams. Today, students need to focus on marketing their skills rather than their majors.
How has recruitment changed over the years?
The market has also changed significantly. It used to be that mostly large Fortune 500 companies did the recruiting. Now, both large and small companies, and even start-ups recruit on campus. Due to mergers and acquisitions, many of the large companies that used to dominate technical recruiting no longer exist, which has led to fewer on-campus interviews, but not necessarily fewer available jobs.
Another change is that new inter-disciplinary fields have evolved. The presence of the internet has created thousands of new jobs. The jobs available for an engineer span from bio-engineering to sustainable energy to nano-materials. You can get a job in intellectual property, financial services, consulting, and a lot more with a technical degree.
Any examples of interesting jobs Cornell grads have gone into?
I’ve come across a lot of interesting jobs in my time at Cornell. Our graduates have gone into toy design, consulting in the life sciences, and energy fields and warehouse supervising. We’ve even had some begin in top CEO roles at small start-up firms. There was a student here who wanted to move into theme park design. His initial interest was roller coaster design, so we connected him with a roller coaster enthusiast organisation and it turned out that an alumnus who was prominent in roller coaster design headed a committee that the student joined. As a result, that student was offered internships at theme parks in Japan, Germany, and Disney in California.
Have the demographics of the student body changed much over the years?
What challenges do international students face after graduating?
For international students, working in the United States can be a challenge. After graduating, international students are allowed 12 months of practical training on their visa. In the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, they can obtain an additional 17 months beyond their practical training. There’s a lot of controversy regarding our immigration laws. In fact, some companies are concerned about a possible brain drain in the US as graduating international students who cannot find good jobs in the US take their skills and training back to their home countries.
Currently, students who study computer science have no problem. Microsoft, Google and small start-ups will hire them. However, an international mechanical engineer who wants to work in jet engine design will find it hard because the vast majority of job opportunities will be with defense contractors. Compared to a US citizen, there are more hurdles to jump through, and many job opportunities may be dependent on their knowledge of the English language, along with developing their networks.
Students from abroad aren’t always confident in what they can offer an employer, and sometimes, at Cornell, we have to enhance their perceptions by offering a Boot Camp very early because our Career Fair occurs within weeks of their arrival on campus. They will need a formatted English resume, an understanding of job search protocols in this country and, in some cases, may require a change in cultural norms.
For example, young women from Asia may have been brought up to believe it’s rude to look older people in the face. In an interview, however, you need to do just that. This can be a very difficult thing to change. Some people may also have a different concept of hygiene, or may wear too much perfume or cologne, which can be suffocating in a small interview room.
However, there are many things in an international student’s favour. Leaving one’s country, family and home to get an advanced degree in a language which may not be their own is an achievement that one can mention with pride in an interview.
Do many Cornell grads go abroad?
For US students, finding an international internship can also be tricky. In Europe there seems to be a perception that American students don’t want to go abroad because they have many job choices at home. In the UK, it can be very difficult to obtain an internship as an international student. Even for an unpaid internship, one may need to register with a university in the UK and, sometimes, even take classes. However, there are organisations which can help to obtain the relevant visas for that.
In the College of Engineering at Cornell University, we honour engineering students who complete an international experience, whether it be study, work, research, or service learning. We offer a certificate of recognition which is signed by the Dean of the College during a special ceremony to induct them into our Engineering Global Fellows Program
. We believe it is important for our students to understand and participate in the engineering global community.