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Getting into the field.

Discussion in 'Electronic Basics' started by [email protected], Jul 25, 2006.

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  1. Guest

    I wonder if some engineers out there might help with some advice on
    getting into the field.

    I have a degree in physics and research experience in experimental
    physics, which the physics rags have always told me was the cat's meow.
    But employers don't seem very interested in that. I'm considering
    taking some undergrad level courses on control theory and
    microcontrollers, without going for a whole new degree. I'd be aiming
    for the controls engineer type of market. And I'd appreciate some
    opinions on what a hiring manager would think about that sort of thing.

  2. A (smart) hiring manager is only going to care about two things:
    1) Can you do the job. i.e, do you have the practical experience.
    2) Do they like you.

    Most of the time qualifications don't mean squat in this industry.

    Occasionally they overlook #2 if you have #1

    Forget the undergrad courses, unless you think that's the only way you
    can get the practical skills required.

    Plenty of microcontroller kits out there, go buy one and start building

    Dave :)
  3. Greg Hansen

    Greg Hansen Guest

    Here's a problem I see-- I buy a microcontroller kit and start building
    stuff, and tell an employer that I bought a microcontroller kit and
    built stuff. But how does he verify that? How does he verify the
    quality of my work, or that I put together some non-trivial projects?
    Coursework at least documents a minimum set of skills and experience.
    If I think from an employer's perspective, someone who claims to be
    self-studied could have done little more than skim a book. I've studied
    control theory in the course of doing my physics, but nobody seems to
    have been very impressed by that.

    School labs are also better equipped than my basement.

    I was told by another person that engineers hire engineers with
    engineering degrees, not someone who's taken a few courses. They're
    quite selective about that, I was just told. Am I to believe that I
    should give up hope of being hired as an engineer unless I have a full
    degree in engineering, or that I would become employable as an engineer
    after dinking around in my basement for a while? I'm just not sure what
    is expected.
  4. They don't necessarily need to verify it, just like no employer ever
    goes and checks that you actually completed your degree. That's why a
    smart employer will grill you in the interview with technical
    questions, ask you to solve problems, draw circuits, explain stuff.

    It is *incredibly easy* to tell if someone knows their stuff with a few
    choice questions.

    If you know your stuff you'll do it easy, if you don't know then you'll
    choke - doesn't matter what qualifications you have.

    Sure it helps if you can prove stuff, and there are many ways to do
    this. Getting something published helps, set up a website detailing
    your work, or bring your work into the interview and show them.
    Not really, it only documents that you were able to pass the course by
    whatever means necessary.

    I once had a guy come into an interview with his thesis project
    documentation. I grilled him on it and hew couldn't answer a single one
    of my simple questions on his own project, he was clueless. It was fine
    documentation (he must have paid someone?), but he didn't know a thing,
    so he didn't get the job.
    That's because you only studied it, you didn't do any real practical
    Smart employers care about what stuff you have actually designed, built
    and worked on.
    Sure, but that doesn't make the difference you think it might. You can
    do a hell of a lot with a CRO, meter, and soldering iron at home.
    Then you were told wrong. Smart engineers hire people who can do the
    For a graduate with nothing else to show, the course might be
    important, but for an experiened person in the real world it couldn't
    be further from the truth. Your qualifications pale into insignificance
    once you have experience.
    No, not at all, you just need practical experience. You already have a
    degree, combine that with some practical hands on experience and you'll
    be fine.
    Engineering is certainly one field were you do not really need formal

    I'm talking about private industry here BTW, Government jobs etc
    usually have strict requirements.

    Dave :)
  5. Guest

    Thank you, Dave. You've given me hope that my money would be better
    spent equipping a workshop and pursuing some of those things I've been
    thinking about. I would be a little worried about amateur sloppiness,
    like incomplete documentation. I've seen a number of texts on
    electronics and computer programming, and they haven't dealth with that
    sort of thing well or at all.

    Can you recommend a good kit and instruction materials? I suppose I'd
    have to pick up a Windows computer from somewhere.

    I've also seen the opinion elsewhere that of all the degrees,
    engineering probably has the biggest gap between what's taught in
    school and what's needed in the real world, and the fresh grad
    generally can't hit the ground running. Any comments on that?
  6. Don Bowey

    Don Bowey Guest

    The new Mac computers can run Windows without emulation
  7. Chris

    Chris Guest

    Hi, Greg. If I could offer another opinion, I'd suggest that you get
    into an area of the electronics field where your degree in physics
    would be more of an asset.

    I'd suggest looking at sales, applications engineering, and quality
    careers. For those positions, a "generalist" is more valued.

    Keep learning about electronics, of course, but these are good places
    in electronics to start where you can put your research experience to
    work right away.

    Good luck
  8. Rich Grise

    Rich Grise Guest

    Take your new device to the interview, demo it, give the guy full docs,
    like as if you were presenting a product. ("Now, you understand, this
    is just the prototype...") But do it up all pro-style, where "anyone
    skilled in the art" could take your docs and build another one - they
    like paper. ;-)

    A picture is worth a thousand words, and a working model is worth probably
    at least a couple of dozen pictures. :)

    Good Luck!
  9. Rich Grise

    Rich Grise Guest

    Or, you could free-lance. I just got paid for some design work I've done
    for a new client. On my invoice, I have the letterhead:

    Rich Grise
    Contract Inventor
    [address, etc.]

  10. Rich Grise

    Rich Grise Guest


    If you're going to pick up a new computer, be sure that the drive is
    partitioned (or learn how to do it yourself) so that you can dual- or
    multi- boot the system, i.e., a Windows partition, (98 or 2K, or both),
    a DOS partition, and at least one Linux partition. And of course, as
    many data partitions as you want - just be sure to keep your data separate
    from your system drive. (when you need to reinstall windows, it reformats
    the drive for you.)

    Have Fun!
  11. Sure, documentation can be important, but the smart employer will know
    that the most important reason they hire you is to design, build and
    implement stuff. Documentation changes from company to company, some
    don't care, others (usually larger companies) will have a whole archaic
    system you have to follow. As long as you can show you have basic
    documentation skills, that's usually good enough. They can mould into
    their way of doing things.
    These days, if you can speak and write English that's a big plus! :->

    Some guys will spend *too long* on documentation!
    Yeah, most stuff is windows.
    Tough call on the kits and things, such a broad area. But for
    microcontrollers you can't go past either PIC or AVR, that's what
    everyone is using these days. Make sure you know C and a bit of
    assembly. Source code documentation can be more important than hardware
    design documentation!
    You'll find plenty on this in the forum archives.
    Yes, there is a *massive* gap in the skills a grad has and what you
    need in the real world. Those students who simply do the course and do
    no additional work, or have no interest in electronics outside of the
    classroom will be absolutely clueless when they leave. By far the best
    people are those who come from a hobbyist background and have a real
    interest in electronics.

    I've intereviewed plenty of grads, and the standard is nothing short of
    appalling. They might be great at maths and passing exams etc, but they
    know jack about even the most basic stuff like how to use a scope, let
    alone how a scope actually works.

    I have a set of very basic interview questions I ask grads and other
    "junior" people, stuff like what is the beta of a transistor, calculate
    a LED dropper resistor, name one brand of microcontroller etc and most
    fail dismally.

    My favorite exercise is to give them a populated PCB and get them to
    tell me anything they want about it. When you get replies like "well,
    it's a PCB isn't it, and that is a resistor, and that's a chip..." you
    just want to cry!

    By being here in this forum you are already one step ahead of them!

    Dave :)
  12. Bob Myers

    Bob Myers Guest

    Just for another perspective on this - I have always maintained that
    all an engineer really does that's worth the money he or she is paid
    IS documentation. Engineers don't build things; that's what manufacturing
    does. Engineers DO design things, but the best design in the world is
    absolutely worthless if you can't provide manufacturing with a clear
    understanding of HOW to build it (that includes schematics, code,
    whatever it takes) and the guys in the field with a clear understanding
    of how to support it. And that, folks, is "documentation," plain and
    simple. I'll take one competent engineer with good documentation
    and communication skills over three who produce great designs but
    can't explain them to anyone. And you certainly can't expect to
    advance beyond the level of "plain ol' MTS" (or whatever your local
    equivalent is) without good communications skills.

    Bob M.
  13. Greg Hansen

    Greg Hansen Guest

    After that little assessment, I almost feel like I'm three steps ahead
    of them without additional training or experience!
  14. Melodolic

    Melodolic Guest

    I'd second that. I deal with a fair amount of precision mechanical design in
    my job (do some myself, and comment on work by others). Aside from a talent
    with mechanical CAD, most of what I rely on is the experience I gained from
    having a small lathe and milling machine in my spare room.

    Documentation is always as complete as you can be bothered to make it. If
    you're doing it as a serious career development thing, then do docs that
    will stand up later as the work of somebody that's worth employing.
  15. Greg Hansen

    Greg Hansen Guest

    As much as I would like to have a lathe and milling machine, I can't
    afford anything like that. I used to use machine tools, and I'd like to
    assemble a small workshop. Someday when I have an income that's worth
    more than spit.

    Right now, I'm thinking of starting with some test instruments with nice
    wood cases that I can build with simple hand tools. Next week. I have
    a time-suck until then.
    My worry is more that I don't know what docs, or what standard of docs,
    is expected from somebody that's worth employing. Schematics, sure.
    Physical placement of components and wiring. Shop drawings of peices
    that need to be manufactured, like frames and brackets and cases. For
    more complicated projects I suppose graphs of transfer functions, state
    charts, ladder diagrams, whatever.

    Any good books on electronics engineering versus electronics theory? I
    think I can find all the theory I need-- I'd like to find something that
    covers the design and documentation part of it.
  16. Melodolic

    Melodolic Guest

    I know the feeling - patience and all that. :) If you can, try to keep
    some cash aside in case a real bargain comes along. Don't know what size of
    machines you envisage, but the current crop of imported Chinese modelmaker's
    machines are very good value - I bought my mill new, and the lathe used, 3
    or 4 years ago. Paid about 300ukp for each at the time, and they've dropped
    a bit since then (don't knwo where you are, but the same kit is quite a bit
    cheaper in the US). You're probably aware that rather a lot of additional
    budget will go on tooling - but at least it can be bought bit by bit.

    What are you thinking of making, and how would you go about making boards
    (if the instruments need them)?

    To my mind, documentation has to (as someone has already said) provide the
    information required to build A Thing from scratch - schematics, board
    layout, bill of materials, mechanical parts with drawings where required,
    how to assemble it, all that stuff. Depending on the company, there may also
    be a desire for docs that explain how the circuit works, how it's calibrated
    or serviced, how it's used.

    No idea. To my mind, engineering is about designing stuff to meet some need
    or other, within certain constraints (like cost, material type, timescale,
  17. Bob Myers

    Bob Myers Guest

    It's hard to make a detailed list of everything that might be expected
    of "decent documentation," as this will vary a lot depending on the
    exact nature of the design in question. But the most simple, basic
    consideration is this: suppose you hand off your design to manufacturing
    or whoever today, and tomorrow you're hit by a bus. Would the
    documentation provided readily permit someone else to build, service,
    and support what you've designed, with NO further input from you
    personally? Could another engineer easily "come up to speed" on
    your design, and support/modify it as necessary? Another real-world
    test - if, months or even years after you handed off a design, your
    phone still regularly rings with requests to explain how the thing works,
    how it's supposed to be built, or what to do when it breaks, you
    DIDN'T do a very good job of documentation.
    Meaning, books that tell you how things really are in the "real
    world," vs. what you learn in engineering classes? I sure don't
    know of any. The rule of thumb I was told is that you can pretty
    much count on a fresh-out-of-school engineer being almost
    completely useless on oaverage for the first 6 months to a year,
    as he or she learns this stuff the only way possible. I suppose
    such a book could be written, but on the other hand, the only
    ones who would believe it would be those who don't NEED to
    read it...:)

    Bob M.
  18. Greg Hansen

    Greg Hansen Guest

    Power supply and function generator, for starters. Even used equipment
    of that sort seems amazingly expensive on eBay. I was lucky enough to
    have picked up a scope from a school that was throwing out old
    equipment. Circuit boards aren't a problem, I can get that from the
    local Radio Schack. They even have copper blanks and etching supplies,
    which I haven't tried yet. They have an interesting mix of parts that
    I'm amazed that they carry and parts that I'm amazed that they don't
    carry. Mostly the latter.
  19. Melodolic

    Melodolic Guest

    However, the advantage of eBay is that it's easy to do market research - the
    completed listings option lets you see what sells for what price. Once you
    draw up a shortlist and set up searches with the email alerts activated, the
    bargains will come along sooner or later. I was recently looking at function
    generators - the cheaper deals for lower speed generators (say 500Khz to 1
    or 2MHz) seemed to start at around 15-20ukp.

    There are always the freebies. :) I got a 60MHz scope and a twin-rail
    0-15V 2A PSU (with bouncy needle meters) from work when they were deemed to
    be too old and feeble for our needs. Both are a bit beat up, but work fine.

    Have a look at my home-brew bubble etch tank and 1st attempt at a board



    Sounds like Maplin in the UK. There used to be an offshoot of Radio Shack in
    the UK, called Tandy, but they disappeared after a few years - I think
    Maplin beat them at their own game (Maplin used to be much more oriented
    towards components and projects, but now does computer bits, radio
    controlled cars, GPS, all sorts).
  20. Greg Hansen

    Greg Hansen Guest

    I think that translates closely enough to $40USD. I'd pay that. Then,
    I suppose, it would be another $40 for shipping.
    I went to the local community college and asked the electronics
    instructor whether they replace old equipment with new equipment and, if
    so, whether it would be available for sale. He said yes and no. He
    would love to be able to sell old equipment to students, or sell it on
    eBay to get funds for the classroom, but the system is carefully
    designed so that individuals and the department can't benefit by it.
    Rather like the old screw-mount lenses I found at a national lab that
    nobody used and barely remembered. But to get them, they would have had
    to be surplused, and I would have had to bid for them at auction along
    with a pallet of monochrome monitors, broken typewriters, and other
    useless crap that mainly only has scrap value. Carefully designed to
    eliminate all possibility of personal benefit. Or spend ten dollars to
    save one, the instructor said.
    Can't seem to find those. Are the URLs right?
    But it's my most accessible source. And so I puzzle over them having an
    LM317 but not an LM337, and having some wire wrap supplies but not a
    wire wrap tool. Mail order takes some of the spontaneity out of it.
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