How we prepare Mechanical Engineering students for an uncertain future

Image Credit: This is Engineering, Unsplash

In this post, Katherine Cameron and Stephen Warrington from the School of Engineering and Matt Vickers from the Careers Service describe the changes and re-design of the sessions run by the Careers Service for engineering students and how they help prepare them for an uncertain future…


The Careers Service runs sessions for engineering students on making the most of their time at University (first year) and options after their degree (second year).

In mechanical engineering (third year) this is followed-up with a whole-year, 10-credit course: Professional Issues for Mechanical Engineers 3.  Semester one focuses on career development and semester two aims to raise industrial awareness and is supported by two site visits.  The course was initiated collaboratively in the early 2000s between the School of Engineering and the Careers Service in response to poor quality applications for industrial placements (MEng) and summer internships (BEng & MEng) and a lack of engagement with the Careers Service more generally.  At this time, students would apply to a “realistic” graduate position with their “application” (CV and covering letter) being graded.

The course undoubtedly improved the quality of applications.  However a need was identified to refocus on the wider application context, as opposed to merely the production of a CV/covering letter.  In other words not just how to write them, but why write them this way?  How can students better understand the recruiter’s perspective and market themselves accordingly?  It was also recognized that many students felt uncertainty over their career.  There was a need to educate that career is not a ‘once only’ decision, rather an ongoing process throughout life – in response to personal life changes and external influences (e.g. Credit Crunch; oil price crash; COVID-19) and technology.

Changes and Re-design

A desire for change led to discussions with Rebecca Valentine from the Careers Service (providing valuable insight from her work with the Business School).  The course had always included lectures from the School, Careers Service, Edinburgh Innovations and returning placement students, but while we understood the reasons for including these, the students sometimes didn’t. Consequently a desired outcome from this review was that career development planning created a narrative thread throughout the course.  Key changes include:

  • The CV exercise now allows students to choose their own vacancy to apply to, in order to make it more meaningful. (This could be a summer internship, placement, graduate job or postgraduate course.)
  • Students meet in groups to peer-review their CVs/covering letters, allowing them to gauge their achievements in the context of the class and to pick up ideas for material they could include in future applications.
  • Embedding the idea of planning as a process which can/should be continued throughout students’ degrees and beyond. This deliberately mirrors the CPD requirements for Chartered Engineers.
  • Students submit a Personal Development Plan (PDP) and a reflective piece on their learning from the course.

Assignment Brief

Your Personal Development Plan should address the areas of your professional development that you have now identified that require improvement to enhance your CV in the next 9-12 months (approximately) – think of applying for a Graduate position/Masters (BEng) in December 2020 or for a placement (MEng) in September 2020. Give details on how this will be achieved and what issues/risks you will need to overcome in attaining these goals. Be as specific as possible about what’s involved and what you plan to gain (i.e. the skills, qualifications and opportunities) and how will you evidence them.

You should include, at least two, experiences you plan to participate in, such as clubs and societies, work experience, volunteering, internships and further study. You should also include, at least one, networking activity detailing whom you plan to contact and the help you hope they’ll provide.  Remember to give full details – dates, time, location, title of event, names, how to sign up, who you hope to meet, what will you gain from the event, …

Reflect on the whole process you have undertaken – from the sessions delivered by the Careers Service during the course, through writing your CV and covering letter for your selected position and reviewing your peers’ applications, to arriving at the actions you have detailed in the section above.  Comment on the general lessons, as opposed to specific points, you have learned from completing the whole process.

Observations after the assessment

  • For many students this is their first time writing a CV/covering letter, so is extremely valuable.
  • Career exploration for their PDPs led to some realising that they had not understood/appreciated the entry requirements for a PhD or Masters, e.g. a Masters is not always a prerequisite for a PhD in the UK:
  • Many submissions showed a poor appreciation of timescales and a lack of rationale and focus.
  • Some students needed to learn to evidence abilities or skills developed, rather than simply listing them; and to be more specific e.g. cite programming rather than AutoCAD or Python.
  • Students found it very difficult to fully appreciate what is required in reflective writing – for most this was their first experience of it.
  • For many it was also their first consideration of employability and future career and so was a ‘wake-up call’:
    • several commented on their realisation of the need to take responsibility…
    • …and that employability is more than academic grades.
  • The benefit of CV peer review shone through: students seeing others’ CVs (style) helped, but for many it was seeing the content (experience) their peers had and making comparisons that was most informative.
  • Many students didn’t have a ‘Plan B’, despite the uncertain world we live in!

What’s Next?

We are pleased with how the course is structured now and 2020/2021 will be the second year of running the course since the review. The students are showing insight into their career plans rather than chasing a grade with a perfect CV. Further developments will include the Careers Service new Career Compass framework being worked into the School-based sessions to ensure students appreciate that career planning is a continual process. Reflective practice will be introduced in years one and two of Engineering programmes from 2020/21 through a major curriculum renewal which should allow a deeper level of reflection when students reach third year.

The uncertain future has now arrived and another change will be a greater emphasis of this and the need for resilience to the students, in particular:

  • Highlighting labour market fluctuations (Credit Crunch, oil crash, COVID-19)
  • Flexibility: having alternative plans
  • Flexibility: MEng placements do NOT limit students’ careers to one sector
  • Normalising failure in applications

Asking students to reflect on how unforeseen events may upset their plans for the future will seem more relevant now and undertaking the CDP process during third year can only benefit them on graduation.

To find out more…

School of Engineering

Careers Service

Katherine Cameron

Katherine Cameron is the Industry Engagement Manager for the School of Engineering. This remit includes the management of the School’s six month MEng placement programmes and embedding employability into the curriculum.  She works closely with her team and the Careers Service to prepare students for their placements and to support them while they are away.  She has previously worked as a researcher in the School’s Institute for Integrated Micro and Nano Systems working on LiFi and neuromorphic electronics.

Stephen Warrington

Stephen Warrington is the Dean of Student Experience in the College of Science and Engineering responsible for the student experience of students within the College. Prior to this he was the Director of Teaching, and Deputy Head of School, in the School of Engineering. Latterly, his research interests have also involved the benefits that students obtain, academically and professionally, from carrying out industrial placements as part of their undergraduate studies.  Recently, as Course Organiser of the third-year Professional Issues for Mechanical Engineers 3 course, he has worked with students to prepare for their placement, or completion of their studies, in their fourth year.

Matt Vickers

Matt Vickers is the Careers Consultant for the School of Engineering and the School of Maths. After a degree in geography from Aberystwyth, Matt taught English in Eastern Europe for 18 months before returning to the UK. Working for the Careers Service of Bangor University as a projects officer led to a move to Edinburgh where Matt was a Careers Information Officer for eight years before moving into consultant work in 2006.

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