The end of the academic year is drawing near, and most students are in the midst of exams. Soon the results will be out, and for continuing students it will now be time to go off to their summer-time work placements, or to some well-earned holiday somewhere. For the final year students, it will now be time to prepare for the graduation ceremonies to come, and to nail that first graduate level job if they have not done so already. My focus is on the continuing student: What do you do with your results when they come out?
As I have said time and again, engineering school is no longer just about attending classes, doing assignments and reading for and writing exams. In addition to academic performance, employers now demand that prospective employees be able to demonstrate that they are work-ready. This means that more than ever before, students now need to take charge of their own learning and professional development. One good thing is that the engineering curriculum has undergone huge changes to include employability and work-readiness skills for students. However, in today’s competitive graduate-level job market, this is hardly enough. Students now need to go that extra mile to ensure they stand out amongst their peers. This means that the student of today should now take full control of planning, monitoring and reviewing their own learning and professional development, starting from the first year in university, right up to the day they graduate and leave university.
Before embarking on their studies, the diligent student now needs to identify their own learning and professional development goals, as well as figuring out how these will be achieved and how they will be evaluated and evidenced. Continual professional development (CDP) and personal portfolios immediately come to mind. Engineering institutions are expert at this, and hence, more than ever before, it is now imperative to take up student membership of an engineering institution in your discipline.
The release of the end of year academic results is an ideal period for the individual student to reflect on their whole learning journey over the recent academic year. This review and reflection should also focus on all the self-directed professional development activities that you participated in. If, however, you have not been following a personal learning and professional development plan, the release of academic results is the best time to develop one for the coming year. Here are five suggestions on how you can undertake your own personal review as well as making plans for the coming year.
- Evaluate your attainments against your goals for the year
The first step is to assess the extent to which you met your learning and professional development goals in the passing academic year. Which goals did you meet? Which goals did you surpass, and which goals did you miss? For the goals that you met, identify the activities and strategies that contributed to this. And for the goals that you surpassed, ask yourself why you were so successful. Is it that you outperformed your expectations, or you set a low bar when you wrote them down at the beginning of the year? For the goals that you missed, identify the reasons why you missed them. Were you too ambitious, or did you underperform? Most of us are susceptible to blind spots in our own performance. To avoid this, it is best to carry out this exercise with a supportive colleague. They can give you their honest assessment of your performance, and you can do the same for them.
- Revisit your interest and commitment to your planned career
As we progress with our studies, we gain a deeper understanding of the career that we are preparing for, as well as better insights into our own interests, aspirations and capabilities. In some cases, our studies will affirm our choice of career – namely that the career makes a perfect fit with our personality. In some instances, as we progress through our studies, it may dawn on us that our intended career is not the right one for us, or we become aware of other more interesting career possibilities that we were previously unaware of. Either way, we need to assess the match between our personal interests and possible career choices available to us.
This situation is fairly common. For example, according to the 2014/15 Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey, less than half of all UK engineering and built environment first degree graduates entered into careers in these fields. In the case of mechanical engineering, less than a third (27.6%) took up a career in their field of study. This was even lower for electrical and electronic engineers, of whom only about a fifth (22%) took up a career in their field of study. A possible reason for this is that in the UK students often have to choose a particular engineering discipline when they apply to university. It can be argued that at this stage few students are fully aware of what their chosen discipline fully entails, or they may have an incomplete perception of their own interests, inclinations and capabilities. The end of the year is therefore an ideal opportunity to review career goals and to lay down plans for the forthcoming year.
- Study the successes and failures of others
There is a lot that one can learn from other students. This includes learning from those in other year-groups, and those in other disciplines and subject areas. There is evidence to suggest that engineering careers are now more interdisciplinary, more diverse, and cut across more subject areas than what the current disciplinary divisions of engineering in universities suggest. Studying the trajectories taken by students in year groups ahead of you helps to improve your understanding of current career opportunities. You also learn what works and doesn’t work in your situation. Establishing personal connections with students ahead of you will ensure that you are kept informed of current trends and opportunities in industry. The economy is never static, and employment fluctuates from year to year, and from one field to the next. Keeping track of students ahead of you will enable you to make more informed decisions as you progress through your course. You also get to know what works and what doesn’t work from their successes and failures.
- Have a coach to make sure you stick to your plans
It is difficult to stick to a plan over the course of a year. Other things might come up and distract you. These may be personal or academic, or both. Or your course may demand more from you than what you expected when you developed your plan. Or it may simply be that you just get lazy over time and let things go. We are human, after all. In particular, in the first and second year of your studies you may feel that you are still far away from when you have to look for a job. This will be completely wrong, as jobs tend to go to those who are most prepared.
To ensure that you stay on track you need to find someone to whom you are accountable for your own personal learning and professional development. Such a person should be prepared to follow up on you, and to take you to task if you start falling off your planned trajectory. That person could be a fellow student, in which case you can be their coach as well. Or it could be someone from outside the university. In either case, that individual should be committed to keeping track of your progress, and should be an individual whom you can take into your confidence.
- Enjoy your learning and professional development journey
This may look out of place, but the fact is that those individuals who go on to succeed in their careers really enjoy what they do. As a student you should enjoy your studies, and should enjoy taking part in extra-curricular activities related to your future career. In addition to gaining skills and expertise in your prospective career, this also helps you to develop confidence in yourself as an individual and in your abilities as a budding engineer. Self-confidence and being comfortable with your prospective career are important in securing and holding onto work placements and your first job after graduating.