Setting a Clear Career Goal

November 25, 2011

By regular guest blogger: Rafael Gomes de Oliveira

Two months ago, I had a conversation with some peers about why I decided to study structural engineering and how I went about finding a job. Structural engineering was a natural response to my interest in man-made world wonders, such as the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China, and especially in high-rise structures like the Empire State Building.

When it was time to find a job, I targeted companies that design tall buildings around the world. That didn’t make the job-hunting process any easier, but instead of wasting my time blindly sending resumes to as many companies as I could, I chose to spend it thoroughly researching and applying for jobs at the few companies that matched my interests. The results were very positive. The cover letter I wrote to each company was unique and used the language of that company’s corporate culture – or so I hoped, based on my observations during the research process. At each interview I was able to discuss several of the company’s projects and ask relevant questions.

My targeted approach wouldn’t have been possible without very clear career goals. It surprised me that several of my classmates, when asked just before graduation about their plans after college, would respond, “to get a job.” “Which kind of job?” I would ask. “Oh, just any job.” The time to pick “just any job” is when looking for an internship or part time job two years before you graduate. There are consequences to being undecided after graduation.

This is not an unsolvable problem. Many resources related to the different branches of civil engineering can be easily accessed online. Your professors and advisors would be more than happy to help you decide which career direction to chose. Even more importantly, nothing is stopping you from contacting a company and asking them if you could stop by for a visit in order to get to know a little bit more about what they do. It would be very flattering, especially for smaller companies, to have potential employees show interest in them. You need to take the initiative to find out more about what you might be doing for the rest of your life.

If you do find a job, will you know it is the right one for you? At a Texas Rangers’ game last year (congrats, pennant winners!) two engineers told me that their initial career plans completely changed after their first job, which they didn’t much enjoy. They rationalized that this was a very common experience. Do you want to end up settling for “just any job?” Once in that comfort zone once, you’ll have more overall responsibilities, and it may be difficult to move on. The two Rangers fans appeared content with their eventual career path, but deep down I could sense that a little part of them wondered “what if I had chosen the path I wanted in the first place?” If you do not want to have to live with that doubt, you should take time to decide exactly what it is that you want. Never settle for less.

Many people keep their options open because they think that’s their best shot at finding work. They might actually limit their opportunities. Hunt for jobs with a sniper’s rifle rather than a shotgun. Having a clear career goal is rarer than you think. In a time when it’s very difficult to find work, you want to use every advantage you can to get yourself over the hump.

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  • Great advice on goal setting.

    You may also want to check out and download a free ebook on goal setting called “Goals! How to Get Everything You Want – Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible” at

  • A Dream Job: What a great thought. Is this reality or really a dream? Certainly there are great fits between some people and positions (jobs). After a bit of experience, stake your claim and work for yourself, making the job you want. The challenge is, will someone pay you to do what you want to do.

    Civil Engineering is great, I love what I have studied and the work I have done in the civil engineering field. Many employers will not have just a civil engineering job but jobs that are structural engineering or even more specific concrete bridge structures or environmental engineering but more specific in just water treatment plants. ABET criteria requires that a BS in civil engineering be broad ” … apply knowledge of four technical areas appropriate to civil engineering; ” Finding a job with broad duties in several technical areas of civil engineering may be a challenge, particularly working for medium to large size companies. It is likely that some of the classes studied for the degree appealed to folks more than others and that is where the beginning of figuring out where your interests are. However, taking any job to pay the bills, which likely includes paying some student loans, is necessary at some point, if not to cover your expenses then to at least become independent and continue growing along the path from a child-student-young adult – to an adult.

    Given the economy today, just following one’s passion and not getting the job you want or waiting for the “right” job to appear in the focus of the specific sights you are aiming at does not seem practical. Begging to work, any work, and working your way up has tremendous value also. I am NOT opposing what is written above. I am just offering a bit more practical thought to a bit too optimistic point offered – that a dream job is really out there for everyone. Many factors matter, timing, contacts, etc. Large companies will hire graduates knowing that they can fit in when school is finished. Many small and medium sized companies do not have that luxury – the job is posted when it is available. I think of how one medium sized engineering company president talked about interviewing college students and asked, “when can you start” with responses ranging from “this afternoon” to “after I get back from backpacking through Europe following graduation” because the student wanted to see the world a bit before working. I had no passion for travel when I graduated college but I do now. What civil engineering job will pay me to travel and see the world or at least give me a few months in the summer off for travel? My sights are focused on that!

    Additionally, any time you make a choice you can think about what the outcome of having selected the alternative would be. What if I had gone to Purdue or Rose Hulman? What if I had studied transportation engineering instead of construction management as an elective?

    True, no need to settle, “never settle for less” but also less you settle for ever-ever to be, maybe never, take what you can find for now and get to where you want in the future.

    Also, your job is not your complete life. It is a means to make money and for many folks it is just that, just making money. If you just want a job to make money – that being your goal – so that you have time and $ for travel, family, reading, solving differential equations, that is fine. It was a cultural observation I had while in the Peace Corps, how many people introduced themselves in terms of their family and their family’s original village rather than their job as is the case in the US. I am Dave, a civil engineer who now teaches or I am Dave, Tom and Kathy’s son from Fort Wayne.

    • Thank you very much for adding to this discussion Dave. I agree that your job should not define who you are. People should try to tailor their careers in order to allow them to pursue other important aspects of life.

      You mentioned that just following someone’s passion and waiting for the right job is not practical, but I think the passion part is. It doesn’t mean that you will have to refuse other jobs that could serve as stepping stones to reach what you want. And most likely those jobs will change your mind and help you determine what you really want for a career.

      In addition, based on my personal experience, very few people seem to be actually following their passion with regards to their profession. Therefore, the ones that are have a great advantage over the ones that are not when looking for jobs.

      I am not trying to tell people to make unrealistic choices. We all have to make practical choices as we mature in life. I am trying to tell them to spend some more time figuring out what they really enjoy doing, and then focusing all their efforts in going after that. The path will not be straightforward, but the goal must be.

      Lastly, maybe it is just my overly optimistic opinion, but I firmly believe that a dream job is out there for everyone who truly dares to dream.

      Because a dream job is not the one that pays the most or the one with the most prestige. It is the job that makes you feel like you are doing what you are really meant to do.

      Thank you again for helping clarify that people should not wait around and waste important professional opportunities.

  • Comment by Anthony Fasano, P.E., LEED AP, ACC
    Bestselling Author, Civil Engineer, Coach & Speaker: Powerful Purpose Associates

    Rafael did a wonderful job with this article. I couln’t agree more, in fact there is a section in my book called Never Settle for Less. Here are some thoughts from me if you would to add them:

    Rafael is right on with the importance of goals in your career. I always use the analogy that not having a goal in your career is like driving somewhere for the first time and not having an address of where you are going. It becomes very difficult at every intersection (or decision) to know which way to go. Also Rafael touched on the most important point of goal setting in his opening remarks when he talked about WHY he wanted to be a structural engineer. When setting goals, understanding WHY you want to pursue a goal is just as important as what the goal actually is. The WHY is essentially your true desire!

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