In our Summer 2021 series, we're asking alumni and current students to tell us about their career interests, experiences, and reflections.
Are you a May 2021 grad? Take 5 minutes to tell the career center about your current post-grad plans (including if you’re currently searching for opportunities)! Just complete the annual First Destinations Survey – no matter where you are in the decision-making process.
I’m Jonathan Ramirez, Class of 2020, and I graduated as a MechE. As is somewhat common with engineering, my job has little to do with what I went to school for - I’ve been working as an automation engineer in the NYC metro area since graduating. When I’m not working, I enjoy spending time with friends, hiking, and sitting on the couch to watch playoff basketball while drinking a smoothie. I value time spent outdoors, but since I don’t get to spend nearly as much time outside during the day now as I did while I was at UVA, I go to the gym and on mini walks during the week when I can. More recently I’ve been trying to find some volunteer opportunities centered around helping kids - I’ve always found joy in working with kids, and doing so would bring some healthy balance to my week.
Describe your current role and how your undergraduate experience prepared you for it.
In my current role, I work as an automation engineer for one of my employer’s customers, Merck. My employer, Control Associates, has engineers that work with customers on a project-to-project basis and others like me that work exclusively with one customer for years at a time. At Merck, I work to integrate any new, automated equipment or system with Merck’s existing systems. In part, that basically means that I identify what data we want to collect from the equipment or system, decide where we want to store that data, and make all of that actually happen. A huge part of working with any new equipment is making sure that it complies with all regulatory requirements since the pharmaceutical industry is highly, highly regulated. I also support and maintain any existing automated equipment or systems. The most helpful class I took at UVA for my career was easily Mechatronics - Prof. Garner taught us how to design the circuits of electro-mechanical systems, program their controllers, and how to choose the right hardware for the specific application at hand. The technical and strategic skills required to do so are all relevant to what I do today. The experience that I got from that class even proved to be valuable during my job search, which is pretty rare for a required course.
Walk us through a typical day at work.
In a typical day, I’m working from home, although that will change over the next few weeks. By 9am, I’ll have already identified the main tasks and projects that I want to work on for the day - and ideally, I’ll have just finished answering any emails that I have to attend to. These emails could deal with project coordination, document reviews, or support for any issues with existing systems. I’m always working on more than one project at a time, so updating and prioritizing my to do list is an essential morning task. After that, every day is different. I might have the opportunity to spend a lot of time working on a document that I have to get done, plan how a new system will be implemented, or instead I might be meeting with other members of the automation team. We might talk about the strategy that we’ll take to implement a new system, the development of a new SCADA, or how to troubleshoot a system that needs attention. In order to do any of these things, I need to know how a PLC (programmable logic controller) works, how a SCADA works, and how data is transferred from a PLC to different types of databases. I also have meetings with people outside of the automation team - in a way, these are the most important ones. They involve people in different areas of the organization, and it is essential that I provide them with the relevant information that they need without going into the detailed, inner workings of automation. Identifying the needs of others and giving them clear, concise answers is incredibly important in my job, as I’m sure it is in many others. This is especially true when I’m working with people whose role does not concern automation.
In what way(s) did you feel most and least prepared for your job?
When I started my job, I felt confident in my ability to learn new things and ask the right questions. Your ability to learn new things will be really valuable in any field you enter because virtually every employer knows and accepts that you won’t have much relevant technical experience when you graduate. That being said, I felt least prepared for my job in the fact that I had no idea what a SCADA was, and a very basic idea of what a PLC was, when I started applying for jobs. And that was okay! In many cases, you are in no means expected to be anywhere close to a technical expert when you start your job.
How do you stay up to date with your skills and industry knowledge?
This is honestly something that I need to do more of. However, I do follow a Youtube channel that has great, informational automation content (the channel is RealPars for anyone interested). By far my biggest resource is other people at my company. Those guys and girls have much more experience than I do, and they’re always willing to proactively share their experiences, skills and discoveries to other people in the company. This is an incredibly valuable attribute of my company, and I highly recommend that you treat it as a priority if you are fortunate enough to be able to choose from multiple employers.
Think back to your job search. Share some of its challenges/successes.
My job search was pretty difficult because of the fact that I had to do it when Covid was just starting to take over in the spring of 2020. Even though the subsequent hiring freezes lasted for a few months, I was able to make good use of that time. Networking was HUGE for me. I know that might be scary to read, but I was like many of you in that I did not know any engineers that I could reach out to for advice. However, UVA has an incredibly strong alumni network that I was able to tap into. I spent a good chunk of the post-Covid hiring freeze reaching out to alumni who were complete strangers and asking them about what they did in their jobs so that when the time came to apply again, I had a well informed idea of the different kinds of careers that were out there. I highly, highly recommend that you reach out to UVA alums to ask them about what they do and learn about the different opportunities that are available to you, no matter what stage of the job search you’re in. Networking also proved to be invaluable interview practice. It gave me the opportunity to formulate and practice interview questions and answers in a professional setting. When the time came for actual job interviews, I was already comfortable in an interview setting.
The most helpful resource during my job search was the Center for Engineering Career Development (specifically Heather Palmer!!!). I got strategies for outreach, interviews, networking and job applications from them, and ALL of them were incredibly helpful in my job search. Heather and I spoke several times throughout the pandemic to talk job search strategy, and she was even there to help me choose from multiple job offers. I can’t recommend them enough - they genuinely care about everyone’s success and they have an incredibly valuable perspective.
Looking back, I wish I would have known that UVA alumni were so open to offering career insight and advice. The idea of starting to do some networking was pretty intimidating to me, but as long as I took a genuinely curious approach, I found that every alum I spoke to was eager to speak with me in a friendly, down to earth way. The conversations I had with them went a long way in helping me to both choose a field and prepare for job interviews. If anything, I wish I could have started doing it earlier than I did in order to help secure a different internship than the one I ended up doing.
If you could go back to college and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help in the job search! Your friends probably have the same questions and are experiencing the same struggles that you are. And your professors and those that work in the Career Center have heard the same questions that you have before, so don’t worry about sounding like you’re at all behind or inexperienced. The job search is a struggle for everyone, so ask for help! Your friends, professors, career advisors and alumni are all more than happy to help you, because every one of them remembers how tough their first job search was.
For current students hoping to go into your field, what are some of the most effective things they can do right now to prepare themselves for future success?
By far the biggest bit of advice I have is to network. I know it’s intimidating at first, but there are so many people in the Career Center, professors, and alums who are eagerly willing to help you to find the best opportunity. The key is to approach every networking conversation like you are trying to learn about that person’s career, and not like you’re expecting them to hand you an offer. Asking different questions about what they do will make you better informed about the different careers that are available to you and also prepare you for a real job interview. It might be slow, and you might not get the highest response rate, but networking was the single biggest help in my job search because of how well it built up my interviewing skills.
Learn more about organizations and resources mentioned by Jonathan:
Ask alumni (and others) about their career path, in search of tips and advice, through an informational interview.