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Advice for undergrads planning on non-academic careers

  1. Oct 22, 2014 #1


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    I am writing this post to provide some personal experience and advice to current undergraduate and perhaps school leavers who will soon be entering a university.

    It is probably is good idea to get these random bits out of the way before I write anything else:
    • If the information in this post is nothing new to you, good on ya! I didn't know things are like this during my undergrad years. My parents and most of my friends still had the relatively outdated "higher degree = job" concepts. I am just hoping people who read this do not walk into the situation I am at now
    • I am based in Australasia so things may be a bit different in other places
    • I may come across as rude to certain individuals, that is definitely not intended, just poor choice of words which I am trying to improve
    • Tl;dr, scroll to the bottom for my advices

    I am a graduate with a Master of Science degree with First Class Honours from a University which is among the top 100 in QS world rankings (we can discuss the insignificance of university rankings later). After literally pulling all my hair out to get my thesis done, and falling asleep like 5 times per day reading papers from academic journals, I came to the realization that I will not enjoy an academic career. It is not like I have anything against people who do academic research as part of their jobs, it just isn't my cup of tea.

    Having made that decision, I decided to dive head first into the job market. Knowing I have little work experience aside from tutoring and working in the labs of the company that sponsored my scholarships, I will be targeting entry-level jobs, and "graduate programs." Since my Bachelor's degree is inter-faculty - my courses cover mainly physics and electrical engineering, I applied for jobs looking for electrical/telecom (my specialization related closely to fibre optics) engineers.

    This is where I found my problems. With the current job market, companies are absolutely thrilled with choices from thousands of graduates spat out from top universities around here (just a rough idea, 9 universities are ranked in the top 100 across AU+NZ, our combined population is around 28M). Now, lets say you work in HR of a telecom company and you are looking through thousands of applicants for, say, 20 positions for telecom engineers. Why would you choose someone with a MSc degree with little industry experience over hundreds of other applicants with BE in electrical or telecom engineering and have internship experience with some major telecom companies? Every time I receive a rejection letter (assuming I get one, most companies here don't bother now, too many of these to send to I guess), I just think about the above question and shake my head because I can't find an answer that I can convince myself with.

    Speaking about my MSc, I have asked around and looks like this is what a lot of people, including recruiters think of when they see someone with a Master's degree applying for entry level or graduate positions:
    • This is person had horrible undergraduate grads and is hiding it behind a better grade of the Master's degree,
    • This person did this degree to get their residency (apparently some overseas students get acquire Australia PR by doing specific master's degrees), or
    • This person just doesn't have a clue on what to do with their life.
    We are argue the validity of these perceptions but that is not the point. When recruiters are buried neck deep with job applications, just a single line they don't like (regardless if the dislike is justifiable) is enough to make them stick the CV into a shredder.

    Well, let's talk about how I got myself into this mess. Towards the end of high school, I was doing very well, I am discovering my interest in physical sciences and am able to grasp concepts very quickly. I have ironed out my problems with using English as a second language (some may disagree...) and even my grades in the compulsory English literature courses are popping to the upper quartile. I was even enjoying some success in playing sports. Like some teenagers, I thought I knew everything, including what I want to do in my career. I wanted to be an academic in physics. I didn't even bother exploring any other options. During one presentation I attended in the university for perspective students, the coordinator of the inter-faculty degree (mentioned above) did an excellent job to promote this degree. It includes most of the core physics courses and engineering courses to keep options open. I thought, sure, why not. So I enrolled in that degree. My studies in my undergrad times were pretty smooth, I was getting scholarships, summer research opportunities, and good grades. I wasn't enjoying uni life as much I thought I would. My friends have warned me my degree specializes a very specific industry and research area. I have went to careers fairs with people telling me a Master's degree is useless because they look for experience. I ignored it all, despite having thought about working outside an academic institution since my junior year. I didn't do more research on what sort of graduate companies wanted, and I didn't even apply for internships. So here I am, having been applying for jobs for over half a year, not a single offer so far, two interviews, most don't even bother to send a rejection letter.

    There are a lot of factors and people that made me wanted to pursue an academic career and more or less prevented discouraged me from acquiring industry experience during my undergraduate studies, but in the end it is my responsibility to make the right decisions for my future.

    After all these walls of text, I recommend the following to current undegrads and relevant high school students, especially those who are considering careers outside academia:
    • Keep an open mind to your future. Things change over time, people change, don't close off your roads
    • If you want to study something multidisciplinary, think about the degree name, can people get a good idea of what you do without having to look up on the name of the degree? If not, consider double majors, minors, conjoints etc. You may have to deal with busy schedules, class clashes, higher fees, but think of it as an insurance
    • If you have an idea which companies you may want to work for, search about them, look at their job listings, see what degrees and experience they are looking for. If you are still not sure, email or call them and ask, you have nothing to lose by doing that.
    • Do internships
    • While parents always (well, almost always anyway) try their best to give the best advice. It is still possible that their experience and concepts are outdated. My parents want me to do PhD ever since i was in high school, simple from a case they heard about someone who didn't get a promotion for not having a higher degree (can someone comment on that? I find this bizarre even for days before higher education was popularized)
    Nothing in this post is new in this forum but I really don't want future graduates falling into this hole I am in now.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 22, 2014 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    Many students follow this same path. Nowadays you need to do more to get a job. Its not too late and it doesn't matter if you have no experience your college skills shows you can learn new things and thats a skill companies still want and need.

    You have to begin customizing your resume to job you're applying for, by that I mean emphasizing in it what they are looking for to get by the HR department screening process or the automated search screening filters used on your scanned in resume.

    You need to research the companies to find this info out and craft it to really catch thier attention. You need to try to guess by the jobs posted where they are going and what skills they may need and then show them you have these skills. The best is if you can focus on some real people at the company, read thier papers, understand their work and send them an email to get the ball rolling.

    Eventually you will find someone who will go to HR looing for your application and pull you in for an interview. You need to keep track of what resumes you've sent where so that on interview day you'll know what they're using to ask you questions. Everything on your resume must be accounted for to minimize questions, broken time periods where it looks like you did nothing of importance... and you need to have compact and precise answers to projects you've emphasized. Coomunication is the greatest skill that you possess.
  4. Oct 22, 2014 #3


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    Hi jedishrfu, thanks for the advice. Just a small question: what sort of paper do you refer to?
  5. Oct 22, 2014 #4


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    Take a company like IBM or GE and you are interested in doing electrical engineering work then you'd look at the IEEE conferences to see if any engineers presented papers on their work. This can give you contacts that you can email. You might tell them that you've read their paper and it was very interesting and you'd like to know more... From there you might be able to learn of upcoming jobs for that group and you can then target your resume in that direction...
  6. Oct 22, 2014 #5


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    Oh I see! Thank you for the tip :)
  7. Oct 23, 2014 #6


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    wukunlin, a few questions for you:

    (1) How many resumes have you sent out? Because half a year (6 months) isn't really that long of a job search. There have been stretches where I've been unemployed for that long even when the economy was doing well.

    (2) You said that recruiters don't think highly of a Masters degree. Did they give you any specific advice on ways to improve your job search?

    (3) Since your background is inter-faculty (physics + electrical engineering), I would assume that you have some background in programming. Have you considered applying for programming jobs?

    (4) Have you considered leaving Australasia (Australia/New Zealand) for work elsewhere? I know many Australians and New Zealanders working in Canada, for example. I also know of some Australians & New Zealanders who studied Mandarin Chinese and are now working in China. Having experience overseas may give you a leg up in terms of experience.

    (5) Have you considered joining the Australian/New Zealand military?
  8. Oct 23, 2014 #7


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    Approaching triple digits. Actually it has been more like 3 quarters of a year since I sent out my first CV. I realize that it hasn't been that long and I have been a bit selective to what sectors I want to work with, but when most of the time I don't even get a rejection it really started to get disheartening.

    I have politely asked for feedbacks but it has really been difficult to get anything other than automated replies.

    Yes I have applied for programming jobs and but got my behind handed to me in phone screening. I can write simple programs with several object oriented languages but when asked about things like details about how compilers operate, it became clear they want a comp. sci. or software engineer instead
    I prefer to be in places where I can stay indefinitely without a work visa, but if things really are so bad here than I will start exploring overseas options seriously
    It has come across my mind on a few occasions but I haven't seriously considered.
  9. Oct 23, 2014 #8

    That might not be as large a number as you think. After getting my MS in physics I submitted about 700 applications over about two years before getting one interview. During that time I took even more classes and tried to connect with as many engineering people as I could. I finally got an interview and got that job. I think I was very lucky to get that. I could easily have been applying to hundreds more for years more with no
    interviews or even interest.

    Its tough if you don't have specific job related experience or skills. And after you graduate internship opportunities aren't really available anymore.
  10. Oct 23, 2014 #9


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    Wow, it feels like I really have to resort to a spray and pray tactic. Alright, time to finish this cover letter!
  11. Oct 23, 2014 #10
    For sure. But don't just blindly apply. Cater your resume and cover letter to where you are applying. I had a half dozen or so main versions that came out of applying to different types of positions. Eventually when I was applying for a similar type of position is was easy to change just a little and apply. I saved every resume and cover letter I submitted organized by company. That way I could look back at what I submitted in the past to change it up a little for submitting again. Places like Boeing or Intel were easy to spam the resume across multiple positions. I applied over a hundred times to each of those places with not one call back. But then, I never did see a listing looking for a physics BS or MS with no skills... I finally did wind up in the semiconductor industry which makes the most sense to me since my graduate research and engineering classes pertain there more than elsewhere. But it still baffles me a bit why they hired me. lol
  12. Oct 26, 2014 #11


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    You should Taylor your resumes to each job application. Simple things like changing the order of skills and changing wording for the particular job can make a HUGE difference.
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