Written By: Nicole Castagnozzi
For today’s undergraduates, concerns about finding steady employment after graduation are common and well warranted. With an increase in the number of people earning college degrees, white collar employment has gotten more competitive, and companies often ask for experience even for entry level positions. Further complicating the situation is our current “robotic revolution,” a technology driven innovation economy where newer, smarter technology is constantly evolving and edging out older manufacturing practices, consumer products, services, infrastructure, and operations within businesses. Students in STEM fields already have a leg up when it comes to entering into this rapidly evolving economy, because an analytical, methodical and scientific educational foundation is often required in technology based “innovation” fields. However, maintaining curiosity and creativity is important for efficient and novel engineering design and optimization. For students who are inspired by the idea of entering into the exciting, fast paced world of modern technology – and perhaps even dream of starting their own company one day – obtaining a STEM foundational education, while curating a variety of skills along the way is an ideal preparation for a successful modern career. Although it may seem counterintuitive, following a non-linear career path can also be a great way to explore passions and find the job best suited for an individual. To get an inside scoop on what it’s like to be a career-wanderer turned entrepreneur with an engineering background, I spoke with Justin Rothwell, CEO and co-founder of the startup ProAxion based in North Carolina.
ProAxion builds small adaptable devices that attach to machinery in manufacturing plants, and monitor indicators of that particular part’s health, such as vibration speed and temperature, in order to monitor and alert floor supervisors to problems before there is a catastrophic break that holds up the entire production line. This simple device can save time and money by anticipating problems before they occur. Justin, a mechanical engineer by training who holds a PE license in Massachusetts and an MBA from Worchester Polytechnic Institute, co-founded ProAxion with a friend and fellow engineer Elliot Poger in 2015. Below are some interesting points from our conversation.
Early Jobs Working as a Design Engineer: Expectations vs. Reality
“I was always fascinated with machines, kind of how things worked, I was really just taking things apart, not so good at putting them back together!” Justin says of his choice to major in Mechanical Engineering in undergrad. “Engineering became a path that interested me, and the people in my life said ‘you know that’s a good field, you can make some good money, and it’s a good career path’”. Justin was very interested in space exploration and the exciting technology NASA uses for its rockets and satellites, and he was also inspired by a family friend who worked as a design engineer for airplane turbines. With the goal of working as a design engineer, he graduated from Northeastern University with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. When he graduated, he did find work as a design engineer, as he’d planned to do, for a company that designed and produced specialty pumps. However, the experience was not what he expected. “It wasn’t very glorious, no satellites or anything,” he says.
He found that the purely academic approach to design and problem solving he learned in school was not effective with the product he was working with. “I remember being told, because I brought a bunch of textbooks from my college courses with me to the job, and the senior engineer there, who had been doing this for 30 years, said ‘yeah, no textbooks, we don’t have any textbooks here. This is the real world of engineering’. I didn’t know what to make of that”, Justin explains. “You’re taught in school, there’s a problem, you outline it, come up with a proposed solution, reference some equations, and then you get a solution, and there you go. And these machines, they were very high speed pumps, with very close tolerances between the moving parts and non moving parts, and you know they didn’t follow any type of equation.” Real world design was more about experience and resourcefulness, and Justin found the mathematical equations he relied in in undergrad had a narrow applicability. Learning to think outside the textbook was a common challenge among his peers as well, he says. “If you’re [majoring in engineering] to become a teacher, tenure track, then, it stays very much the academic approach.” but, “in engineering there is a wide spectrum from the pure academics, all the way to the other side which is field engineers, [who use] a lot of creativity, resourcefulness, throw the book out and just make it work,” he explains. Later, Justin decided to take an opportunity to work as an engineering consultant designing entire water treatment plants. “It was, to me, very fascinating to learn about how the whole plant worked,” he explains. Again, expectations still failed to line up with reality. “I was expecting, hey, we are going to design the best system we can, the best plant, you know, because it’s all public water supply. But at the end of the day it was a business and there was a lot of pressure to do things quickly and cut corners. And that created a lot of frustration,” says Justin. The lessons learned in that job, although tough and at times discouraging, spurred an interest in business and he decided to enter graduate school to earn an MBA.
On graduate school and the value working in a cohort (like i-Trek cohorts!):
Justin’s MBA program was a part-time, cohort program that was 32 months long and focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. Working together in a cohort allowed Justin to develop deep relationships with his classmates and he learned about himself and what personalities he meshes with in a working environment. “At the end of the 30 months, I was friends with everyone, but there were certain people that I worked better with,” he says. “You get a few layers deep in terms of people’s strengths and weaknesses and how everyone is different. How puzzle pieces fit together in terms of a team. And that experience although it helped us in our cohort, provided a lot of learning in a professional context, especially if you are going to work as part of a team, or grow a team.”
On the value of an engineering education and diverse working experiences:
Aside from the obvious technical expertise engineering students learn, there’s another more intangible learning that goes on. “To me, that was the biggest benefit of engineering school, learning to be a problem solver. Not memorizing formulas, or how to solve this specific problem, just generally how to be resourceful, think critically about a problem and be creative. But it wasn’t until I got into the professional world that I realized that that is a skill set you learn”, Justin explains. While many of the technical engineering skills may only be applicable to very specific professions, this resourceful, problem-solving mindset is widely applicable to a huge range of professional roles. “You become a critical thinker, it’s a good experience, that is translatable in a lot of non-technical ways,” Justin says.
Additionally, as careers develop many engineers may chose to move out of technical engineering roles. “If you apply this [education] differently, that’s ok, that’s all kind of part of the experience. If anyone tells you that they had a plan on day one, and executed it perfectly 10 years later, I mean, I think they’re full of it,” Justin says. Given his experience with his own career development, Justin advocates taking a non-linear path to find your own success. Diverse job experiences allow young professionals to find out about themselves, what they like to do, and what kind of role is a good fit for them personally. Coming out of undergrad, the focus is frequently on the formulaic technical skills. “I think switching jobs or roles gives you that kind of experience” that allows young engineers to grow and develop self awareness, so they can work better in teams and be more dynamic. “It can be scary, but I tend to advocate for that”, he says. “Get some other data points that are much different than the ones you have, so you can triangulate, and I think it’s a lot of self discovery. Like, that was an awful experience. Well that’s great, because now you know, ‘I’m never doing that again’.”
On creativity, risk taking, and making mistakes:
Sometimes neglected in the academic engineering environment is the creativity and agile adaptability that Justin has found indispensable while building his own company. To develop the product that ProAxion is now selling, he and his co-founder focused on what he calls an “80/20” approach: “Don’t spend too much time engineering the perfect solution up front,” he advises. “Get an 80/20 approach, but then repeat that rapidly. If you do enough 80/20 passes on a problem, you’ll get there much more efficiently than if you spend a lot of time trying to get to the 99 percent solution without even trying it, without the experience”. Using this approach they were able to design their product, which is now ready for commercial applications, in about a year. “The first one was just a proof of concept, we were never even trying to sell it, it was just a developer board in a small box with a mac mini in a waterproof suitcase. Just something that, what could we get done in a week? Something out there to prove that it has a business need, something with a customer would let us put in and pay us for”, he says. “Our current system is generation 4, within 18 months. And… it’s a commercial product now”. In essence, his experience has taught him that putting your designs out into the world and trying them out is an efficient way to optimize. “There’s so much learning in the mistakes, and trying to get something out there”, he says. “Focus on the learning of mistakes. Not the mistakes”. In addition to the learning opportunities that can be obtained from small failures, taking smart risks and persevering through challenges may help young professionals get noticed by people who can help them grow their careers. “There are a lot of people out there who are successful who really appreciate that quality: Smart risk taking, because you focus on the experience”.
On finding mentors:
Professional mentorship is valuable in most fields, and engineering is no different. Especially when starting significant projects, it’s important to have someone – or ideally a few people – with more experience than you to bounce ideas off of. “I have some mentors and people that are helping us build our company and I’ve been very fortunate to have them… be a resource”, says Justin. “They ask good questions, ‘well how do you feel about it? And what’s the downside? And what’s the upside? What don’t you know? Then go for it. That support group is really helpful. I would recommend getting some people 10 or 15 years senior, and a lot of people want to help.”
Written by: Vanessa Avila
The STEM field is very diverse with career opportunities that it can stir indecisiveness when it comes to picking the right STEM major that one can be solid about. It’s not unusual for students to wonder whether they are pursuing something they truly want if they don’t even have the slightest clue about the reality of their ideal careers. STEM undergraduates particularly have intense curriculums that bound them to their academic responsibilities, while other STEM students juggle their school life with part-time jobs. It makes it easier for these students to disconnect with their own school advisors or individuals who can help them know more about the working environment relevant to the majors they are pursuing.
Having someone who will shed light about the atmosphere of a specific career or major in STEM can help undergraduates know what to expect as they apply their knowledge and skills to the real world. In a time of doubt and uncertainty as to whether one is in the right track, a mentor who can speak from experience can come in handy! To have a good look at the scope of what one can reap from being mentored, a series of questions were asked to mentors and STEM students, thoroughly discussing the perks and the bouts of mentorship.
Preparing STEM Students for the Future Through Mentors
Typically, students identify their lack of interest for their majors through the courses they take, but there exists many students who enjoy their courses and complete them successfully. However some students feel dissatisfaction once they start working their careers. As mentioned, professional mentors working in the areas being studied by STEM undergraduates can help students have a true grasp of their potential roles in their ideal careers. Students can have an idea of what it will be like through the words of an experienced mentor, and it can help individual students assess whether their chosen majors are the right ones for them at an earlier time before completing a degree in a field they might regret working in.
Sayrah Muyco, a current undergraduate pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering in Xavier University (Philippines), has expressed how she was given the impression that her chosen career path was one of the challenging paths to take in the engineering world. Under the guidance of a mentor, she claims that he has helped her prepare for future situations she might encounter in her career by exposing her to relevant lessons and situations that can stand as potential challenges towards her journey of becoming successful. In addition to this, he also helped her identify her own strengths and weaknesses. She states, “I realized that I’m good at programming, yet bad at lab works,” when discussing what she was able to take out of the activities he provided for her to identify her strong and weak spots. STEM mentors who are capable of showing their students their strong and weak sides enable the knowledge of what the student can refine or improve. This in turn can mold strengths that will uniquely represent them apart from other contenders who have acquired similar skills necessary for a specific career.
STEM Undergraduates can also increase their networking pool for valuable connections with the help of a mentor. These connections can be a boost in having important opportunities in-hand and enable students to be noticed by working professionals while still studying in school. A great example is Jordan Oliver, an undergraduate student fulfilling her academic responsibilities as a mechanical engineer. “Networking crossed my mind before I met my mentor, but I didn’t practice very often since I rarely attended events where networking would be possible,” says Jordan. “But whenever we’re with people, my mentor encourages me to continue sharpening my networking skills, or sometimes, I watch her network and see the talking points and questions she chooses. ” Jordan has maintained a good relationship with her mentor for over two years and continues to find her as an inspiration.
Sharing A Different Perspective in Following Career Paths
Not only can mentors relay tasks and responsibilities inside the working environment to their protégés, they can also show how one can be creative with a specific major and follow a non-linear career path. This is evidently true for Vianne Greek who is a Cloud Services Administrator at Virginia Tech and a current mentor in a STEM mentorship program held at Virginia Western Community College. In regards to her experience, she explains, “the degree may or may not lead you to your true path. My career has taken a very circuitous route to lead me where I am, and I’m in a role for which my natural talents and abilities are a natural fit, but in a field in which i have no formal education. So, while it’s important to complete the degree, your chosen major may not dictate your life or career going forward.”
Vianne initially obtained a bachelor’s degree in Marketing and soon topped it off with a master’s degree in Business Administration. However, her current career involves information technology. Throughout her college study, she transitioned from marketing to databases, to financial, back to marketing, switching again to marketing a database-based platform, and finally to marketing and administering technological software. The skills she has obtained throughout her college and work experience have been generously exhibited through her various occupations, both in marketing and information technology, and it has shown her creativity in utilizing her foundational majors. She also has set another milestone for herself by being a strengths coach, venturing in another path that fuels her various interests.
Mentorship Encouraging the Close to the Gender Gap in STEM
It has definitely been stressed in today’s society that there is a scarcity of women joining the STEM field. Yong describes that women taking engineering courses is similar to “running a psychological gauntlet” with having to evade from sexism and the “implicit tendency to see engineering as a male discipline.” In addition to this, he highlights that it has been found that the U.S. only has 13 to 22 percent of women with engineering doctorates, not to mention the overall low percentage of women in the sciences as a whole (Yong, 2017). This reels in the roles of female mentors and how it is recognized as an important factor to bring more women in the STEM field and break the stigma of these known “male-dominant” professions.
“Engineering was very much considered ‘men’s work’ when I started in 1979, and the few bosses who served as mentors to me made up for the dozens of others who either subtly or blatantly indicated I didn’t belong,” answers Kimberley Homer when asked why she chose to be a mentor alongside her occupation as a Systems Engineer/Analyst. “Young people, or any person studying for a new career, hear mass marketed messages designed to sell the student loans, computers and apps, online courses, clothing, and cars that the sellers want to sell,” added Homer. “A mentor serves the protégée for the purpose of her well-being.”
Homer had the opportunity to mentor a young lady named Aziza Longi who she describes as an insightful and empathic person that has walked a life completely different from her own. Aziza is currently following an engineering curriculum but realized that it is not the path she feels strongly in continuing. Meeting Kimberley Homer taught her that in order to succeed, one needed to fail and experience rejection for it is essential to one’s growth. “She breaks the stereotype of engineers being anti-social and stubborn by learning from people through all walks of life, spending her time traveling and joining various social events.” says Aziza. She has been the ultimate role model for me and I’m so glad that I have met her.”
Alexie Jean Jacques, a female undergraduate pursuing Civil Engineering, was mentored–and continues to be connected to Sarah Glenn, a fellow structural engineer and project manager for AECOM. When Alexie was asked how Sarah helped shape her perspective about the working environment in STEM, she explains, “Sarah taught me that it is more than possible to be a female engineer. So often when we hear the word ‘engineer’ we think ‘male dominated field.’ Women play a vital role in the engineering field performing just as well as men do. The engineering world, believe it or not, has women, mothers, wives, breast cancer survivors… The list goes on.” Alexie admitted that through her study as a civil engineering student in Virginia Western Community College, she has had moments of feeling discouraged when she did not automatically understand a concept taught in class. Sarah’s words and encouragement have been sources of motivation for Alexie to power through her courses.
A recent study showed that female engineering undergraduate students with female mentors have “higher retention in engineering and more intentions to pursue advanced engineering degrees,” compared to the ones who were assisted by male mentors or no mentors at all. Although the study reflected that male mentors and female mentors were “equally conscientious”, it was evident that female students found more comfort and similarities with female mentors and the resulting effect from some male mentors fell along the same line as having no mentors at all (Dennehy and Dasgupta, 2017).
A consultant for TFR Services, LLC, Kim Long mentions that through her work as a consultant in the company, she often encountered young women who felt “overworked or underpaid” despite being recent graduates. Her efforts as a mentor involved her teaching her own mentee about how she was able to work around an environment filled with males. “I never let it be an excuse, I didn’t complain or go to HR or anything like that,” says Kim. “I wasn’t a ‘whiner’, for lack of a better way to say it. I ‘sucked it up buttercup’ and worked both harder and smarter. I carried the book ‘Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office’ for a long time earlier in my career. It wasn’t until later that I learned I could be nice and get the corner office… In the end, I told her I can honestly say [that] I have achieved every single career goal I’ve ever set for myself.”
Is The Idea of Mentorship Not as Dispersed?
When asking STEM students about who they consider have guided and taught them about the actuality of their majors, the usual response was the incapability to pinpoint a specific person who has fulfilled that role. When mentors were asked if mentoring is extended commonly to society, many seemed to agree that while it exists and plenty of individuals get the chance to be guided by knowledgeable peers, there are still a good number of individuals who do not have this guidance for various reasons. A mentor herself, Diane Stokes, believes that there is no “deficit” when it comes to mentors and mentorship, rather there is a need to reach people who do not have access to such a resource.
Dr. Victoria Cox, a mentor and a Nurse Recruiter for the Department of Veterans Affairs, mentions how connectivity in a mentor-protégé relationship also plays a role in the blossoming of a mentor-filled community. “It is being encouraged more in today’s society yet the formalities are met without the connecting relationships. The mentoring experience is more than a checkbox or time to complete, it is about establishing lifelong connections from which both parties involved can grow!” says Dr. Cox. “Mentorship is important to educate and inspire youth to the principles and morals that are the foundation of this nation’s existence. In this time our world is faced with such challenges that lifting one another up, if only by one relationship at a time, is essential to the continual being of mankind. The mentorship connection is necessary to grow the people.”
What is your major?
I major in civil engineering at the illustrious Morgan State University.
How did you get interested in STEM?
My college career is rooted in STEM, because I am always focused on solving problems! Growing up, I was intrigued by how products were developed, and STEM is the brainchild of the future in which we are heading.
How did you find out about i-Trek?
I found out about i-Trek from Christopher Gaines, my former Calculus professor and a colleague of Niaja.
What have been doing since participating in i-Trek?
After the trek, I interned in Los Angeles where I worked on an earthquake-engineering project. This involved assessing the spatial correlation of tall reinforced concrete buildings and ground motions.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I enjoy soccer and taking trips.
What is something you are really looking forward to?
I look forward to using my degree to change the world and visiting one country on each continent.
Would you recommend the i-Trek program to current undergraduate students? Why or why not?
I-Trek is one of the most useful programs of which I have ever been a part. From networking with students, faculty, and CEOs, all participants benefit from the diversity of thought and obtain great insight into the different paths to take after graduating college. As a team, we also built strong bonds with people from all over the country, which is essential in building out a contact base for professional networking.
What skill are you most proud of possessing?
I am most proud of, and thankful for, my intellectual creativity. It is what keeps me up at 3AM writing in my “idea book.”
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In 10 years, I definitely see myself out of graduate school and working on my goal of creating a company that forms a healthy coalition between business and engineering.
By: Niaja Farve
The most common justification given to STEM students for pursuing a graduate degree is the promise of a “free” education. Rarely is there an explanation for why this is the case and how it works. Is simply being accepted and registering for a program enough? While the large majority of STEM students never pay out of pocket for their graduate degrees, they do work for them. Graduate school is generally available without out-of-pocket tuition expenses because you, as a graduate student, are now a researcher. In return for the knowledge you create through your research, your advisor, department or institution takes care of your academic fees. Therefore, as a graduate student you are employed by the school — you now have a full time job! However, it is not your only job. You are a still a student expected to fulfil certain academic requirements prior to receiving your degree. So yes, your graduate diploma may not cost you money, but it will not simply be handed to you.
There are several ways to achieve a debt-free graduate experience — each has its pros and cons. The following options are specific to STEM graduate programs.
Research Assistantship (RA)
The majority of your academic fees are paid for by serving as a research assistant. This is the default title for a graduate student conducting research. Most research institutions will require you perform research every semester, regardless if that is how you plan to pay for your semester. To obtain an RA appointment, you typically need to seek out a professor with funding for an open research position that you would fill. Therefore, although you may be in love with a lab and the research they do, if the professor does not have funding, you cannot hold an appointment with that lab unless you have your own way of paying for your academic expenses.
A fellowship is the ideal way to pay for graduate school. Fellowships are comparable to scholarships. They are given based on merit, although applications will ask about your research experience. Fellowships allow you to have more control over where you do your research. You are essentially a free student to a professor. If they have the time and resources for you, there is not much incentive for them to turn you away. The only caveat is that fellowships come in varying amounts. Therefore, you will need to make sure you understand how much funding the fellowship provides and for how long.
Teaching Assistantship (TA)
A teaching assistantship is exactly what it sounds like: an appointment for a semester where you help teach a course. Most programs will generally require you to hold an appointment for at least one semester. While serving as a TA, you are still expected to progress with your first job (research) and depending on your schedule, your own courses. Therefore, a TA position typically functions as a third job that you have to balance.
Grants are funding specifically for a research project. A graduate student would most likely only apply for a grant with an advisor that will serve as the primary investigator. This route is generally only pursued once you have joined a lab and have a clear project. Since it is given based on a set research proposal, a grants limits the flexibility of your research.
Last but not least, loans. Loans are an extreme effort taken in very rare cases.
Each STEM graduate program is different and has varying funding methods for students. While most programs leave it to the student to decide how they will find funding, some programs take care of everything as soon as you are accepted. This article is meant to help inform you about the options that exist. Make sure to know all the facts before making a decision on where you want to earn (and pay for!) your graduate degree.