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After graduation: Insights into transitioning from student to professional
The summer is a time of transition. Many Buckeyes have just graduated and are ready to begin their journeys, degrees in hand, as bona fide engineers. Others are at internships, planning how to make the most of their experiences to prepare for their careers, while students earlier in their academic paths are still considering the best practices that will set them up for success during their time at university.
Facing so many choices can sometimes feel daunting. But, rest assured, thousands of Buckeye Engineers across the globe and across generations have navigated the same challenges. To share some insight, two department alumni—Di Peng and Christine Bromley spoke about their experiences transitioning from students to professionals after graduation.
What year(s) did you graduate from Ohio State and what degrees did you receive? Were you involved in any research projects or student groups during college?
Peng: I graduated from Ohio State in 2014 with a PhD degree in aerospace engineering. I worked on quite a few research projects from NASA, U.S. Air Force and ARO (Army Research Office) through my PhD studies. My research mainly focused on the development and application of advanced optical measurement techniques for aerodynamic testing.
Bromley: I graduated in May 2015 with my bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. While at Ohio State I was active in Engineering Scholars, was a teaching assistant in the department machine shop and was involved in the start-up of the Maker’s Club.
How did you know Ohio State’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering was the right place for you to pursue your degree?
P: To be honest, I had very limited knowledge of universities in the U.S. when I was applying for graduate school in 2007, as an undergrad in Beihang University (China). Back then, my source of information was mainly the U.S. News & World Report rankings and the department websites. But still, I was extremely excited when I got acceptance from Ohio State in February 2008, since I knew Ohio was the birthplace of aviation, which would make it an ideal place to study aerospace engineering.
B: Once I saw the Oval from the top floor of Thompson Library during my first visit to Ohio State, I knew this was my school. Mechanical engineering took me a while to realize that it was the right home for me, but once I made that decision everything fell into place!
What did you do after graduation, and was that what you had originally planned to do after you graduated?
P: I joined Shanghai Jiao Tong University right after graduation and became an assistant professor in the School of Mechanical Engineering (I was recently promoted to associate professor). Actually, my original plan was to gain some working experience in the U.S., either in academics or industry, for a few years before going back to serve my country. However, a great opportunity came up as I was finishing up my dissertation and it was almost impossible to say no to one of the top universities in China. I guess sometimes it was just fate.
B: I knew I wanted to go in to the automotive industry after graduation, but I did not expect to be in the role that I am currently in at Fiat Chrysler Automotive. It is not the intense math problems and thermal calculations I envisioned, instead I am in more of a management role over our supply base, and I love it!
Since graduating, what’s the most exciting thing you’ve used your engineering knowledge to do?
P: I cannot think of a particular thing that is most exciting. But in general, it feels great as I'm using the knowledge I've learned during my graduate study to help my own county gaining progress in the field of experimental aerodynamics. The advanced measurement techniques being developed by my own group will provide powerful tools for aerospace research in China.
B: Launching the new Ram 1500 has been my most exciting and rewarding experience so far. I worked with our supply base to launch the manufacturing of interior components. The launch process in my role is a combination of program management, implementing quality controls and root causing build issues, which I enjoy. Getting to see your work driving down the road every day is a pretty cool perk as well!
Now that you’ve been living in the “real world,” what advice can you share with current engineering students about how to prepare for life after graduation, such as finding a job, building a resume or networking?
P: I always consider my time of graduate study as "the good old days". That is actually a valuable period of time where you can truly focus on study and research. In contrast, life in the "real world" is usually fast-paced and much more complicated. Therefore, it is important to think clearly of your future plan in advance and make best use of your time as a student. My decision to take the academic road was more of a last-minute call. I would be better prepared for my job if I had made up my mind earlier.
B: Even if you do not accept a job offer or do not receive an offer, continue to keep in touch with your recruiters; they can be a great tool as you go through school. Also, remember that your first job won’t be your only job. Once you are in the work environment, talk to people in other departments and understand what they do. You might find a job you didn’t even know existed that you are interested in.
What has been the most surprising part about making the transition from life as a student to life working as an engineer? And can you share advice with recent graduates—or soon-to-be-graduates—about how to make that transition easier?
P: For me, it was more of a transition from student to professor. But I think my experience applies to other types of transition as well. The most valuable thing I've learned from my PhD study was not the knowledge in math and physics. It was essentially the methodology to learn new things, to deal with problems and to overcome obstacles. Life is full of unknowns, problems and obstacles, which you will be facing directly as you step into the real world. The transition will be much easier if you possess the right philosophy.
B: I think the most surprising expectation is that you will have the responsibility to lead groups shortly into the job. I have had multiple projects where I was given a task and a team, and was expected to lead – you have to be organized, be clear and concise, and lead groups of people that are much older, which can be intimidating right after school. My advice – fake it until you make it, and ask your team for guidance and feedback.
Can you offer your perspective on how engineers can work toward their ultimate career goals while enjoying the journey?
P: It is probably not necessary for everyone to set up an ultimate goal. Instead, it is the small steps that matter the most. I prefer to have clear and achievable short-term goals and work towards them. For me, I always feel great when I've resolved a research problem and achieved advances in technology using my knowledge. I think I've enjoyed my journey so far.
B: Eat lunch with your coworkers. Not only is it a great time to learn about what other people are doing in the company, but work is so much more enjoyable when you are surrounded with friends. You will spend a lot of time with these people, so it is nice to be able to talk about your family, weekends or vacations, too. Years down the road, you and your coworkers may be in different departments, so this is a great networking tool as well!
After the familiar support networks of the university are gone and you move to a new city, how easy was it to setup new support networks? Have you met any other Buckeye Engineers?
P: Surely it was a challenge to adapt and setup my network in a new city. Fortunately, I got a lot of help from my colleagues at SJTU, so that I could quickly blend in, get familiar with the academic circle and understand how things work in the academic world of China. I guess you just have to embrace the new environment and play by the new rules. I have attended quite a few events organized by Ohio State’s China Gateway in Shanghai. I know several Buckeye Engineers who work in academics and industry.
B: Believe it or not, there are a lot of Buckeye Engineers in Southeast Michigan, so many that we have an alumni club. I’ve met a lot of Buckeyes that I didn’t know while at school, but became friends with while at work. Getting involved in organizations outside of work have helped too, I’ve done sports leagues and church groups which have helped me become involved. I would recommend these to anyone moving to a new city.
Any other thoughts or advice you have for recent or soon-to-be graduates?
P: While you still can, go and enjoy every home game of the Buckeyes. That's something I truly miss.
B: Don’t be afraid to ask your employer if you can start a little later in the summer. Most employers will allow this, and this is a great opportunity to take some time after graduation to explore and relax before starting work. Enjoy every moment you have at Ohio State and on vacation before embarking on your next adventure!