My name is Marja Pimentel, I graduated with a bachelor’s in chemical engineering back in 2016 in Brazil and I decided to adventure myself and take a different path in another country by pursuing a Master of Science in Biomedical Engineering in the US, which I concluded in 2019.
While doing my Bachelors, which was heavily focused in industrial processes, I had some interest in research, but I had it clear that by becoming a chemical engineer I would be destined to work in an engineering role on the production of chemicals or fuels. During senior year, it was a mandatory requirement to work in a co-op prior to graduation and that is when I started my first industry experience, not in a chemical or fuel plant, but in an automotive one. I worked for almost 1 year as part of the materials engineering team and this experience opened my eyes to different possibilities that I had not been considered during previous years. My curiosity and passion for exploring different paths led me to the US where I switched from chemical to biomedical engineering. The wonderful thing about engineering is that the different modalities of engineering have a lot of shared prerequisites, which facilitates the transition from one specialty to another. There was an incorporation of biological pre-requisites, which was new, but the biggest change was the amount of research involved in the MS Degree, which in my case was full-time.
During the masters I expanded my scientific mindset, I got to publish a few papers and after 2 years, a few months before graduation, I started asking myself what I would like to work with. I liked research, but I was an engineer, and, in my mind, I had still not deconstructed the idea that engineers should work in engineering projects, like building something, and not only research. I ended up working for 3 months in a small biotech startup while I was looking for “engineering jobs” and finally got a job offer in a medical device company, which I will share my application process experience a little later in this article. I worked as a test engineer on the product verification step of product development. If we think about product development, for example, from idea to commercialization, there are a broad range of roles that could be taken by an engineer, and many times all these roles can be found within the same company. Despite not enjoying the work I was doing in the company; this experience opened my eyes to different opportunities I had never considered for my career path.
When we focus on the biomedical engineering field for example, if one is not planning to stay in academia or applying for medical school, which are also great options, there are a wide range of roles one can take in this industry. Medical devices, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, no matter the field, there are multiple companies and within each company multiple departments that you can start your career path. And when I say start and not really “find your dream job” is because it can take time to really find what one really likes. Giving myself as an example, after one year working in the medical device industry, I realized that I really missed working with research and I decided to shift paths, which there is nothing wrong about it. I am currently working in the R&D department of a gene editing biotech, focused on the discovery phase which is the first phase of drug development. If I think back when I was doing my bachelor's in chemical engineering, I can tell that I would never have guessed what I would be today.
Therefore, it is ok to have questions about the future career path you would like to take or which area you would go to once you graduate. My main advice is that you just need to start from somewhere. This article will not cover all the details, but you will be able to find an overview of the different career paths around the biomedical engineering field, as well as some soft and hard skills involved with it; and finally, I will share more on my previous applications and interview processes experiences and a few general tips & tricks that I gathered over the years both from a candidate and interviewers perspective.
Please bear in mind that the list below is not at all exhaustive, but rather an overview of the Biomedical Engineering field.
No matter the field you are in, if you just graduated or are close to graduate, there is one common question that is almost shared by everyone, which is “what I will do now?” And with this question, many other questions may start to appear: which companies would I apply for? Which industry do I want to go to? Do I know enough or am I good enough to start a job in this industry? It is common to have some fear, I had this fear myself, but I can tell you that no degree can prepare you to be 100% ready or not even 50% ready for what you will find when you start your first job. I learned over the years that for an entry level job there are a lot of companies that are looking for a cultural fit other than technical skills. They normally want people that will bring enthusiasm, curiosity, and a can-do attitude and all the technicalities can be learned with time.
My current job, my previous job and even the Co-op I did at the automotive company back in Brazil, have one thing in common despite being all from different industries. All these 3 positions I applied through a referral. Of course, even with a referral, I had to go over the interview process like any other candidate to prove my strengths, but the companies do value a good referral. So, a big piece of advice is to build an extensive network of connections. Do not feel ashamed or embarrassed for reaching out to people on LinkedIn for example, because I guarantee there are a lot of them who would be open to give you a referral. Of course, they will need to know a little bit about you first and feel confident that you indeed are a suitable candidate, but the way you approach and the questions you ask can help you have a positive impact. When I was about to finish my graduate degree, I started looking for the companies I would like to apply and searching for their employees on LinkedIn that had some background in common with me (e.g., attended the same school or were from Brazil for example). I reached out to people I have not met in person before but had great conversations with them and got a few referrals out of it. It may look simple reading that way, but it is not an easy task to be honest. I lost count of how many people I reached out to only get a few replies, or the many positions I applied through career websites to only get 2-3 interviews at the end. But I look back and see everything as a learning experience. All the arduous work builds up and I can tell that today it becomes easier and easier to go over an interview call or look for jobs.
Talking about interviews, you have some homework to do and from that you cannot really escape. You need to prepare your ground, do your research, and get ready to answer frequent questions that always popup during interviews like, what are your best qualities, or challenges you have faced and how you solved them, why the interest in this company and role. One can follow all the guidelines and tips you can find on google for example, but interviewing always leaves us with that cold in the spine no matter how much you prepare. One thing that helps me a lot during interviews and that I learned with time is changing the common mindset of being evaluated/judged. Instead, my advice is for you to try to have fun during the interview process. You have already advanced one step which is having the opportunity to meet and talk with someone within the industry you chose, and this is a great networking opportunity! So, know your qualities and what you are best at, and make that a tool; companies are normally looking for someone with a curious mindset, a can-do attitude and passion. Of course, each company has its own culture but overall, these values are more than welcomed in any space. Be confident; it is not only the company that needs to evaluate a candidate, but the candidate also needs to evaluate if a company is a good fit and a good place to work. So, during the interviews you need to ask as many questions as you can about the company goals, about the team, the work environment, and about topics that may come up during the interview that you can take advantage of to make a follow up question. Make the interview a chat and not a machine gun of questions only to you. Remember they will not only evaluate the technical skills but also if you will be a good fit for their team.
Overall, do your homework so you feel prepared, but once the day arrives try to enjoy your time, either in person at the company or through a virtual interview. And keep in mind that if it does not work out it is not because there is something wrong with you, but there was just another candidate that aligned better with the company needs. I have also been on the other side of the table interviewing candidates and I had to give a thumbs up to someone in the middle of other great candidates because we only had one available opening.
I believe every step I took guided me to where I am right now. Most of them were not fully planned in anticipation. I had ambitions that were heavily focused on hard-working and not on a specific path, but I followed my instincts and my passions most of the time. I would tell my younger self “Keep up the great work! In the future you will look back and be proud of the great achievements you will make.”
There is no right or wrong when it comes to the passion to do what you like. It may take some time to finally converge on a job that will bring you satisfaction and make you get out of bed with a sense of purpose, but once you achieve it you will understand how great it is to work not only looking for the monthly paycheck. So, work towards finding a company/role that will extract the best of you and that will make you feel challenged and accomplished every day.
Be positive, do your research and apply for positions that really motivate you!