I’d like to thank all the big people

I’d like to thank all the big people

This week’s theme on Engineer Blogs relates to networking and finding jobs.  I have both worked in the Real World™ as well as being a grad student and an engineer in an academic research group.

My experience getting jobs before I returned to school in my mid-twenties was almost bi-polar.  People didn’t go so much on recommendations, and most of the jobs I applied for were in the paper.  (Yes, back before the internet became the world’s largest classified ad.)  I was living in southern California at the time, so that meant, of course, that I had a hard time getting jobs because I was usually competing against several hundred applicants.  I had an easy time getting jobs that I didn’t want and that didn’t pay well, but it was very difficult to find jobs I actually enjoyed.  The low spot was spending a year working as a secretary at a juvenile detention facility.  I’ll save the details for another time, however.

I suspect I may have had an easier time getting a job had I had a foot in the door via someone else’s recommendation.  I discovered this whole concept in grad school.

After applying for my MS, my application was lost in routing, so I wasn’t formally accepted until a week before school started. By then, all the assistantships had been assigned.  However, I talked to a professor I knew in my old department, and he gave me a TA in the dual-listed (grad/undergrad) optics course.  It wasn’t a normal TA: I actually spent the semester writing a manual to help guide TAs through the labs.  (Many of the grad students had not often had an optics course with a large lab component, so it could be challenging to TA a lab when you don’t have experience with the equipment.)

After that, my advisor called me in and said he’d like me to take an RA working with another professor.  The professor was in another department, and he needed someone who had a background in electromagnetics. To be honest, I wasn’t interested. I also didn’t think I had the necessary background, but my advisor said that I had more background than anyone in the other professor’s department. (He also really pushed me because he had no other students available.)  I took the position, and ended up with a pretty nice paper, as lead author, out of the deal.  It also sparked an interested in electrostatic discharge as a field of research.  (Pun intended.)

I was looking for another RA about the time one of my advisor’s other students left, and so he asked if I’d want to work on the project the other student had been doing.  This ended up being a pretty crucial job for me.  As it turns out, I ended up working primarily at the place where I am now employed.  I spent about two years there, working on two separate projects, before I graduated.  One of them ended up as my master’s thesis.  When it turned out that my PhD advisor didn’t have money to fund me over the summer, my old job was happy to take me back for a few months.  When I finished up my classwork and moved back to Fargo last summer, they again took me back.

As a grad student, my advisor was crucial in helping to get me into situations where I could do some good research.  He has helped all of his students make connections to people both in industry and in academia, and he stays connected to his students after they’ve left.

In Hollywood, the stars often like to thank the little people.  However, for those of us who are graduate students, we really appreciate the big people, i.e. our faculty mentors, who nurture us until we’re out of the nest – and sometimes after.