November 09, 2009 09:00 ET

Launching Your Career -- Lessons From the Professionals

Industry Thought Leaders From IEEE Give the Inside Scoop on How to Get Ahead in a Difficult Job Market

PISCATAWAY, NJ--(Marketwire - November 9, 2009) - There was a time when the question "what do you want to be when you grow up?" seemed like it presented endless opportunities. Fast forward to present day: getting a job has become a reality. Your mindset has shifted away from the most important aspects of the job search -- such as how to approach the search, where to look and what tools you can use to get best results -- to drudgery and fear. If that isn't stressful enough, students are now making critical career choices in the midst of an economic downturn that is producing unprecedented unemployment levels. While the economic climate and the difficult job market are beyond anyone's control, there are a number of things that you can do to position yourself for a successful entrée into the working world.

IEEE, the world's largest technical professional association, approached some of its most successful members to ask them what students can do to gain a competitive edge in the job market. Here's what they said:

Take courses outside of what's required.

With a daunting course load, there's always a temptation to pad your GPA with easy, meaningless classes and avoid the challenges that will ultimately prepare you for success.

"There are thousands of students out there with good GPAs, so that's not going to separate a candidate from the pack," said Karen Panetta, Ph.D., Chair of the IEEE Women in Engineering Committee and full professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Tufts University, Boston. "In order to distinguish yourself from the competition, take courses outside your required curriculum, such as graduate level, hands on courses, Capstone classes, and internships to gain real-world experience, as well as courses outside of your major to give you increased depth. For example, an engineer with a concentration in English would find these skills highly relevant when writing a grant."

Think globally.

The availability and use of global communication has grown considerably in the past decade, and will continue to do so moving into the future. At the same time, companies are focused on expanding their global footprint, and to that end, face fierce competition in serving a global client base. Taking the time to understand what's going on in the world can be as simple as picking up a copy of The Financial Times.

"Students need to understand where the market is headed," said Eleanor Baum, Ph.D., IEEE Fellow. "Companies are truly global now, with teams scattered across continents, working in a variety of time zones, languages and varying cultures. In order to position themselves as ready to step into this world, students should invest time into learning a foreign language, understanding other cultures and/or participating in a global exchange program."

Get involved.

There are so many activities that a student can get involved with -- but where to begin? It's important to send a message to potential employers that you take your career seriously. To do this, get involved in relevant organizations long before you begin your job search. For example, if you're an engineer, join a professional society such as IEEE. This shows that you're already taking action, and going above and beyond. Additionally, active participation in extracurricular activities and organizational membership will clearly differentiate you from the competition.

"Get involved in student activities on campus, such as an IEEE student chapter, as well as professional groups," said Howard Michel, Ph.D., IEEE Region 1 Director. "It shows you have the initiative to do things and get additional experience, which can translate into real world experience on your resume. Involvement in professional groups shows that you're taking your prospective career seriously, and provides a great opportunity to network."

Taking it a step further, Michel warns, "Don't join additional activities just to pad your resume -- that will be obvious. If you aren't going to invest time in it, it is meaningless. Do fewer things, but get very involved, especially in positions of leadership."

Be prepared.

Once you have dedicated your time and energy to accomplish these things and bolster your resume, you have to be able to communicate them effectively in an interview, or else your efforts have been in vain.

"Be prepared to talk about the unique experiences that you've had," said Leah Jamieson, 2007 IEEE President and the John A. Edwardson, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Engineering at Purdue University. "It's up to you to create the opportunity during the interview to make sure that the interviewer sees the whole person, and not just the transcript. Have your elevator speech ready -- a one minute synopsis of your skills, experience and achievements. You should be able to talk about how you've developed a rich set of professional skills that they can't risk passing up!"

Find something that makes you happy.

In this market, people often make the mistake of joining a team that isn't right for them, as opposed to selecting both an interesting job as well as a great company. Before accepting a position, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Are you passionate about this field of work?
2. Can you see yourself learning from the people you're talking about?
3. What will success look like for you -- how do you envision your career
   and is this a step in that direction?

"Interview companies to see if they are a fit for you. It is not just the company conducting an interview. Determine if a company's lifestyle and culture is a fit with yours and if you can truly be authentic at work," said Sophie Vandebroek, Ph.D., IEEE Fellow, Xerox Chief Technology Officer and President of the Xerox Innovation Group. "Above all else, make sure you are happy with the job you are doing and the team you are part of. With happiness comes passion and the willingness to take risks. This is key to being a great innovator and a great leader."

If you follow these simple steps, you'll not only be head and shoulders above the competition, but most importantly, you'll be passionate about the career you choose, which will position you for great success!

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