The Road Not Taken – An Examination of the Career Path of an Engineer

April 20, 2013

From the time I enrolled in the college of engineering, I expected a linear career path from school to work to successful career. Few engineers follow such a direct path. Contributor Rachel Cantor Fogarty is back to offer another perspective on career choices based on her favorite Robert Frost poem. See Rachel’s previous post about How to Find Employers that Respect and Reward their Employees.

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“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.”  This is the first line from my favorite Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken.”  When making important choices in life or at work I often think about this poem, as each choice is a juncture and has the potential to make all the difference.   How does one figure out some of the different “roads” that engineers might take in their careers and the different options that you might consider when facing decisions in the workplace?  Let’s start by taking a general outlook on how to define which career path might be right for you.

After attending a grueling 4 (or in many cases 5-6+ years) of an engineering degree program, many engineers are excited to get a job and use some of the newly gained tools from engineering school in the field.  Often in this excitement, some career path options may get overlooked, which can have dramatic effects on what career opportunities may come along.  A first job in one’s career, if carefully considered and wisely chosen, may begin to define a lifelong career path. This is not to say that you won’t be able to make minor tweaks, adjustments, or even major changes along the way based on changing interests or market demands.  It is important to start thinking about and defining these decisions early on, since knowing those decisions can help you to make better choices.  So as a young professional facing so many opportunities, which road is the best one to choose?

Luckily, you will not have to make an instant decision on which road to start running down. Here you have the option of time to start molding your career towards the things that you enjoy doing.  Even after starting a job, you should be continuously working on understanding the things you enjoy doing, which will help you further understand which path will make the difference for you.  So let’s start walking down the path at a leisurely stroll.

To begin, I recommend pulling out a notebook and a pencil and start making a list.  Create two columns a “likes” and a “dislikes” column.  Under the “likes” column, start writing down everything that you can think of that you enjoy doing, including things from both your professional and personal life. Now repeat in the “dislike” column. You may want to keep this list handy, as the more you can add to it the clearer your understanding will be, and the easier those choices are to make on which path is right for you.

After creating a pretty comprehensive list, go through and start grouping the “likes” and “dislikes” into broad categories that make sense together. For example, enjoys social settings, leading large groups, and going to conferences might fall into a similar category. If possible, try and name each grouping and generalize a title for each grouping. In the example I just gave I could name this grouping “extroverted.” There is no right or wrong way to this. The purpose of this exercise is to help you to define your own likes and dislikes to heighten your awareness of it for the decision making process.

After the list has been categorized and sorted, look at each title grouping and think about where most of your likes and dislikes are listed. Pull out a new piece of paper and write down grouping titles where most of your likes and dislikes fall under. In following my previous example, if you had 5+ likes under extroverted I would make sure and include this under your new list.

Keep this list handy and work on it over the next few months and define the traits best suited for the different paths in your career. This list is used to help define which career path you may be best suited for.

The best advice is to be honest with yourself on the things that you enjoy doing, and this goes regardless of whether you are just beginning your journey or if you are in the middle of it.  If you find that your choices have not lead you down a path that is suited to your personality and skill set, it is time to make choices that will lead you down a different path.  This is how you determine your own destiny.

Keep this list accessible as having a clear understanding of your own likes, dislikes, and desired career direction come in particularly handy during review time.  I recommend using these traits to talk to your boss about where you see your career heading. Using the earlier example, once you are able to clearly communicate that you prefer interacting with clients all day instead of sitting in front of a computer doing production work, you will find that opportunities for this sort of thing become more noticeable.  And of course, don’t be afraid to step outside the norm and follow your passions down a road that may not be traditional or well worn.  As long as you are heading towards your passions, you will know you are on the right path.  As Robert Frost points out as he ends his poem, the road less traveled can make all the difference.

Rachel Cantor Fogarty is President of RC Associates, an engineering recruiting firm, which provides retained recruiting services to growing engineering companies nationwide. For more information visit www.rcassociatesllc.com or contact Rachel at Rachel@rcassociatesllc.com or 813-286-2075.

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5 Comments
  • Rachael is spot on, great advice for a you engineer (or employee) or one with more experience, when you need a change, follow the same advice, write it down, find a new situation that charges your battery’s. or as jimmy buffet would say “it’s good for your soul”

  • This is a good honest post, a linear structure is ideal in any learning curve however when it comes to and engineers path its obvious that this is not the case. like stated in the post one thing that makes this a lot easier is a genuine interest, i love the fact you mention the pencil and paper comparison. i call it the “Black and white on paper” due to the phase “its black and whit”. this is a great way to monitor/see if you enjoy or will enjoy what you will be doing.

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