Keeping in mind that every company will evaluate your interests, experience and qualifications differently, here’s some generic advice I’d share.
What Should I Study?
While some companies still require a specific degree to fill a role, robotics seems to be stacked with people who break this mold. I work in a world of PhDs, college dropouts, mechanical engineers who write software, and software engineers who design mechanical parts. Some roboticists make it all the way through college without any direct robotics exposure, while others may be employable with skills compiled in a high school robotics program.
Be brave and willing to experiment in college and with internships, as these are great opportunities to learn what you like and what you don’t like. Try to find what you’re passionate about early; it is a lot harder to change your path late in your career!
The internet has democratized education, and most employers are aware that someone with a high school diploma and a zealous interest in software can easily develop into a stellar software engineer. As a result, you’ll see more and more job postings that list requirements similar to “MS in software engineering, or equivalent experience.”
Still, a conventional college education is by far the most common path to a job in robotics, and the most popular degrees are in mechanical, electrical, software, computing, systems, and if your school offers it, robotic engineering.
How do I Get Experience?
It can be hard to find an interesting job without relevant experience on your resume. Keep in mind that part-time jobs during high school demonstrate reliability and soft skills that are often implicitly required in job applications.
Lucky for you, most engineering companies have embraced the idea of hiring college students for summer internships. Again, when you’re just trying to get your foot in the door, make salary a second priority. Focus on finding yourself a job that will give you the necessary experience. I met an American high school student who found an interesting drone design firm in Japan, and through a carefully crafted email that pointed out all the improvements he could make to their website, managed to get hired for a summer. He even contributed to their drone software before the summer was over.
Another student who offered to work for free if he could report directly to a company CFO wound up getting a paid internship despite the fact that no job was posted, and he had no relevant prior experience. A cover letter stating that you want to work for XYZ company so badly that you’ll sacrifice your salary is a powerful tool that will generally get your application some attention.
If you have some great idea you want to pursue, consider a self-led project; these look great on a resume and can teach you some invaluable skills.
Actively Shape Your Future
Once you’re looking for a longer-term job, make sure you’re honest about what you do and don’t enjoy. Even in an interview, I appreciate having candidates who are genuinely interested in figuring out if the job is a good fit for them. If you openly talk to determine fit, there is a better chance you’ll find a role you love. Conversely, if you land a job by exaggerating your experience/skill/interest, it is unlikely to work out in the long run. While you are on a quest to search for a job or college, remember that recruiters and employers are doing the same, looking for potential employees who would be a good asset to their company.
Once you’re in a job, make sure it is leading you in the right direction. A lot of small companies may not have a structured career planning program, or your manager might just be oblivious to the concept. Don’t be afraid to drive this conversation yourself; talk to your manager about where you want to take your career, and together find opportunities to build relevant skills. If you find yourself in a position where you can’t seem to get the experience you’re looking for, cast a net and see what other opportunities you can find.
Lastly, know and believe you deserve a great job. A little self-respect can go a long way in building a good mutual relationship between you and an employer. Ultimately it is up to you to forge your unique experience, and I wish you the best luck on your journey!
Matt Coady has spent more than 25 years in the robotics industry, working in a broad range of robotic industries. As Realtime Robotics’ VP of Engineering, he is responsible for ensuring that engineering fully realizes the company’s vision, delivering the strongest possible product to customers on time and with the expected quality.