Engineering career advice: You are not your GPA, but sometimes your GPA is you

I am handed a random young person's engineering resume quite often. Sometimes, it’s relayed by a close friend or trusted colleague. More frequently, however, their brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate is doing the relaying. The first thing I do is look for the GPA.

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The scenario is an oft familiar one: so-and-so recently graduated with an engineering degree, but thanks to some indistinct reason, say "The Economy" (or solar flares or perhaps even El Niño), so-and-so is having some trouble securing a job. Since I somehow dual-wield engineering and writing powers (thanks to an accident with a radioactive mochaccino) I'm naturally called upon for a bit of resume triage. The assumption is that perhaps there's a better way to spin the content and presentation. Yet most of the time the problem has nothing to do with writing at all. It's about GPA.

Of Pokemon and space tortillas

When these requests cross my inbox, I am usually happy to oblige, considering that every new engineer is an investment in the future. Scanning the resume in question, it's only a few moments before I spot it. Or more correctly, I spot the absence of it. The resume is missing a GPA.

This of course prompts a question: what's so-and-so's GPA? That question, by the way, is not one an engineering employer will typically ask, because by then they've already tossed your resume in the same pile as other job-seekers who applied using Pokemon cards or pictures of their corgi.

It's not super effective.

Knowing that, I inquire about the MIA GPA. In such a scenario I usually get a reply in the sub 3.0 range. Then I sigh like a well-trained ISS astronaut must sigh when a supply mission explodes in mid flight, taking the spare docking ring and a booty of space tortillas with it. This is not going to be good.

A cruel numbers game

For a newly minted engineering graduate, your grade point average (GPA) is darn near everything. Don't think you can hide from it. Don't think no one will notice. Leaving your GPA off an engineering resume is like showing up to an interview sans pants: while you could technically do so without risk of bodily harm, it's just the worst of ideas.

You might protest at the cold reality of it all, the unfairness of a numbers game for which measurement can never be unfailingly accurate. How can the entirety of your engineering education – and the essence of whom you are – be distilled and trivialized as a solitary number? Fret all you like, #86459. A 2.8 doesn't just happen in a blinding flash. You were complacent in some way to finish school in this state. Someone probably should have talked to you about it along the way. And if they somehow didn't, however tragic, you're getting the hard message now. Sometimes your GPA is you.

Now that being said, between two candidates, one with a 3.9 and one with a 3.5, will the higher GPA prevail?

Not necessarily.

Employers typically use GPA as a qualification of entry (otherwise known as a filter) but not an absolute measure of worth. In much of the professional world, the price of entry is at least 3.0. Anything less and there's trouble.

The road ahead

Let's say that you're one of those poor engineering graduates with a 2.8, does that mean you need to pack out your trash and join the circus instead?

Hardly.

But know this: your early road is going to be much harder. Uphill. In the snow. Carrying the spare docking ring on your back. It just might be hard enough that you're better off focusing your time on something you are clearly better at or at least more passionate about. Are you sure you want to be an engineer? Only you can answer that with any degree of certainty.

If the answer is still yes, here's what you can do:

  • Experience card: If you have managed to work an internship or a co-op successfully with a company, congratulations. You are a known quantity to someone. Your best bet is returning to them, provided the relationship was a good one.
  • Startup!: This is also an option if you skipped school entirely. You might think working for a startup is all about lattes, bean bag chairs, and crushing it. And sometimes they can be. But behind all that is a lot of back-breaking, soul-crushing hard work, often for next-to-nothing in hopes of a payoff that never comes. Some can and do ride into success this way. Most won't. Just go into it with open eyes. A positive experience that hones your skills, even if the company ends up going nowhere, can actually make a difference in your future career.
  • Bottom-up: A variety of smaller companies work on less glamorous things and usually have significantly less money and forgettable locations, but nonetheless offer decent jobs. Maybe you wanted to work on ISS hardware. Try some tiny HVAC company in the woods. Build a foundation and work your way up slowly.

At one point does your GPA no longer become you? Some might say 2 or 3 years. Others say longer. The real answer is it depends on what you do in your early career.

Make the best of it, and good luck.


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  • Kevin De Smet

    For me I follow Deming’s approach that 90 to 95% of performance of an individual is determined by the system he finds himself in. Someone that does well in academia might do poorly in industry and vice versa. Any efforts to try to filter people based on singular numbers is a shortcut whose flaws outplay the benefits.