Want to earn what you are worth? Learn to negotiate

Now that I mentor younger female engineers and students, I think about what I would have done differently if I had known then what I know now. One piece of advice I wish I’d had when I was starting out is to negotiate your salary.  When I went after my first job it never really dawned on me to do so.  I, like most women, was just excited to get an offer.  Later in my career I read “Women Don’t Ask” by  Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever and learned that most men negotiate their salary from their very first job offer.  However, most women do not. Now I cringe when I think about how much money I probably left on the bargaining table back then.

Studies show that women typically get paid less than men.  This is likely caused by a number of factors, but the fact that women don’t step up to push for what they deserve surely contributes to the problem.  Many feel that if they do a good job, they will be rewarded.  I can tell you from my experience that you have to actively campaign to show your worth and get the rewards you deserve.  Your boss does not get paid to be your advocate.

From the financial side, it is well worth the effort to negotiate your salary.  Money-savvy blogger Ramit Sethi from I Will Teach You to Be Rich points out how much financial bang for the buck you get from negotiating your salary just one time.  Rather than wasting time following the “latte factor” advice of denying yourself  every day to save a few dollars, one salary negotiation early in your career could boost your income thousands of dollars a year.  In “Women Don’t Ask”, the authors provide an example of how a $5k difference in salary at age 22 can add up to over $350k in missed earnings by age 60. 1

So once you are convinced that you should negotiate your salary, how do you do it?  This is where you absolutely need to do your homework ahead of time.

  • Find out the market rate for your position – You can check websites like salary.com, salaryexpert.com, or check with local trade groups (for example, the IEEE collects salary statistics for electrical engineering positions).  Bring this information to your negotiation to back up your claims
  • Be prepared to tell why you deserve the salary – If you are asking for a raise, point out what successes you recently had that justify your increase.  Don’t tell your employer that you need the money for some personal reason (to pay off a college debt) – they don’t care about that.  They need to see your value to the company
  • Know your “BATNA” (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) – What happens if you don’t come to an agreement?  Do you have another job offer in the wings or a recruiter interested in working with you?  Having other options can give you a point of strength in salary negotiations, especially if you are negotiating for a new job.
  • Know the company’s BATNA – What does the company lose if you don’t come to an agreement?  Can they easily find someone else with the right skills?  If your skill set is difficult to find, you have an upper hand at the negotiating table.
  • Decide on your numbers – Have an exact figure for the your desired salary and also the minimum you will accept before you approach the bargaining table.  Having these determined ahead of time will keep you from making a split-second decision you will regret.  You also want to have the number in mind for where you want to start the negotiations (this should be higher than your goal) so you have room to negotiate when the other side counters.

Negotiating can be difficult, even when you believe you have the advantage.  Women often find their confidence crumbling after they get to the bargaining table.  To best prepare, practice with a friend first or, better yet, attend a workshop on the subject.  If you want to learn more about women and negotiation, check out the following books:

Whether you are just starting out or are in the middle of your career, you need to be your own advocate.  No one is going to look out for your interests better than you!

1 Babcock, L. & Laschever, S. (2008).  Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want. New York, New York: Bantam.

Engineering Career Path Options

Wireless Test Bed – Idaho National Laboratory

Although many engineers work research or design fields, this is not true for everyone.  Types of engineering positions vary and an engineering degree can even lead to a completely different field.  Engineering can open many doors of opportunity, so don’t think that you will end up boxed into a cubicle designing widgets if that’s not what you want to do.  Here are some insights on the types of careers that may be possible:

Research & Development:  Do you like the theoretical work or want to be an inventor?  Engineers in research and development (R&D) work at the cutting edge of their field.  They develop new ideas and technologies that in some cases may not be used in commercial applications for many years.  Their work can be theoretical in nature and is often conducted in laboratories where new ideas can be investigated and tested.  Many engineering positions in R&D require graduate-level degrees since masters and doctorate students get more research experience.  R&D careers include tenure-track professors who perform research at universities and investigators at large laboratories (think National Labs like Los Alamos, Fermi, Brookhaven, Argonne, etc).  Many large corporations also have R&D departments (like AT&T/Bell Labs) where they investigate promising technologies to eventually develop into new products with a competitive edge.

Design: Do you like building and designing new things?  Maybe you really like the “hands-on” experiences in your engineering labs?  Then a career in Design may appeal to you.  While R&D engineers develop new technologies (e.g., developing battery technology for an electric car), design engineers design a specific product (e.g., designing the Chevy Volt).  Design engineers design everything from bridges to software apps to manufacturing equipment to better snowboards.  These jobs are the ones that most people think when they think of engineering jobs.  This type of work is all about practical applications of engineering and making new, usable devices and products.  Design engineers can be found at large corporations, small businesses, and engineering firms.

Field Engineering: Are you someone who likes “hands-on” practical work?  Do you enjoy troubleshooting (doing detective work to track down a problem) and doing work away from a regular office cubicle?  If so, field engineering might be a good fit.  Field engineers often work at customer sites to install products, maintain equipment and troubleshoot issues.  Depending on the position, this could provide opportunities for travel as well.  These types of engineers are commonly employed by large corporations who make equipment or products used by other companies.

Quality: Are you a numbers person?  Do you like to investigate and improve things?  Then a job as a quality engineer may interest you. Quality engineers monitor design and manufacturing processes to ensure that the final product works reliably.  They will often use statistical techniques to watch manufacturing yield rates and field return rates and may help track down root causes for failures.  These type of engineers are most commonly employed by large corporations.

Business and Management: Do you like engineering but are more of a “people-person” and really want to be in a leadership role?  Then a business or management career may be for you.  Many corporations have two different tracks for the engineering career ladder: technical or managerial.  Those who enjoy the hands-on aspects or technical challenges of day-to-day engineering choose to stay in the technical track and may eventually culminate their career as Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).  However, those who prefer to exercise their people and organizational skills may choose the managerial track.  These careers include not just management of an engineering group, but also include project management and corporate leadership positions.  Unlike engineering managers who manage a staff of engineers, project managers are in charge of specific projects.  Their role is to ensure all the pieces of the project are completed on time and that any unexpected issues are resolved.  They coordinate activities between the different team members.  Some project managers pursue professional certification such as Professional Project Management (PMP) as part of their career development.  Managers who wish to advance to high-level positions within their company may pursue an MBA degree to enhance their business knowledge.  Engineers with outstanding leadership skills are often sought after for executive leadership positions at high-tech corporations because they can understand the technical aspects of their business.  Engineers can be found in the CIO, CTO and CEO positions of many corporations.

Medicine, Law and Others:  Many friends of mine used their engineering degree as a springboard to pursue other professional careers.  About 50% of the students in my undergraduate biomedical engineering class went on to medical school after finishing their bachelor’s degree.  Several of my friends went on to law school and used their engineering degrees as a technical foundation for patent law.  Having a technical background can be a benefit in these other career fields.  For example, doctors who understand the latest technological advancements can push for new medical technologies that will improve their patients’ treatment plans and outcomes.

Entrepreneurs: Are you a motivated, independent worker who prefers to work on your own projects rather than what the company dictates?  Then perhaps owning your own business would appeal to you.  Some engineers decide that working for someone else just isn’t for them and chart a course on their own.  I have several friends who left large corporations to start electronics, software or consulting businesses.  Most of these were bright, creative, people-oriented engineers who discovered that being an entrepreneur fit them perfectly.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the possible career choices for engineers, but can be used as a starting point.  It’s great to know that there are a variety of roles to choose from depending on what aspects of engineering you find exciting.  Additionally, if you decide not to pursue an engineering position , your degree is not a dead end but can lead you to careers in other fields, too.

Engineers Making a Difference

When high school girls are asked what they want from a career, one popular response is that they want to be able to make a difference in the world. They want to make a positive impact and help people. Unfortunately, many people don’t necessarily link that goal with engineering and that is a shame.

I know that engineers are out there making a difference.  Last fall I read an article from the LA Times about biomedical engineer Edward Damiano who is working on a new device to help Type 1 diabetics. For him, the project is personal since his son has the disease.

Unlike Type 2 diabetes which can be caused by the body’s inability to use its insulin and is often linked to obesity, Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly kills off the cells that produce insulin. Without insulin, sugar in the blood cannot be processed and used as fuel. When this occurs, sugar builds up the in the blood and life-threatening complications can occur.

Currently there is no cure for Type 1 diabetes, although researchers are still searching.  For now, patients must manage the disease by monitoring their blood sugar and injecting insulin several times a day.  Some patients must still rely on shots, but others are lucky enough to benefit from newer technology that has replaced insulin shots with a continuous insulin pump. Blood sugar levels in the tissues can now be detected using a continuous glucose monitor.

Managing Type 1 diabetes is tricky.  If the blood sugar goes too high, it can cause complications and contribute to long-term damage to the nervous system, eyes and kidneys.  If too much insulin is applied and the blood sugar goes too low, a patient can go into convulsions, lose consciousness and go into a potential deadly coma, as the character Shelby did in the movie Steel Magnolias .  Unfortunately, the disease is nicknamed “Juvenile Diabetes” because it is usually diagnosed when patients are children or young adults.

The device Edward Damiano is working on manages the blood sugar by mimicking the pancreas. It senses the sugar level in the blood and releases glucagon or insulin to raise or lower blood sugar as needed. The specific piece that Damiano is developing is the software control algorithm. He is using techniques from a field called Control Theory, also commonly used in robotics.

When I read his story of jumping into this project to help treat his own son’s disease, it hit a chord with me. This could really make a difference in not only his son’t life, but others as well. My nephew was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 3. I hated hearing about how he was getting shots several times a day. My sister told me that anytime he gets sick enough to vomit, she has to take him to the emergency room because it can throw his blood sugar into a dangerous state. When he was little she couldn’t leave him with a regular baby sitter since few are qualified to manage his diabetes. And they have to vigilantly count the carbs he eats to ensure he gets the right dose of insulin.

Since I have a background in biomedical engineering, this story had me thinking about jumping out of the telecommuncations industry and finding a job on one of these diabetes projects (there are other groups doing similar work). And I might have done that if I didn’t have personal commitments preventing me from up and moving. There is just something about working on a project like that which really motivates me. The satisfaction from helping others makes me proud to be an engineer.

To learn more about Type 1 diabetes and the current research efforts, check out the JDRF website .

To try your hand at managing diabetes, check out the Diabetic Dog Game.

A Day in the Work Life of an Electrical Engineer

When you think of what an engineer does on a daily basis, what comes to mind?  Do you think we sit around and solve math problems all day?  Maybe you think we sit in a cube and work on our projects alone.

Well, I have to confess that I don’t perform calculations all day.  I’m sure that there are some engineers who spend time “doing the math”, but most of the calculations I do are either relatively simple or I rely on software to do it for me.

So, what is life as an engineer like?  What do I do in a typical day?  Considering that engineers aren’t typically known for their communication skills, I spend a considerable amount of time communicating via emails, in meetings and on conference calls.  Oftentimes, I am communicating with colleagues around the world.  (It gets really interesting when you have an engineer in Mexico explaining an issue to an engineer in China speaking all in English when neither of them is a native English-speaker!  I am amazed that they can understand each other, but they manage.)

The engineering work I do includes design, implementation and testing of my part of a given project.  I design both hardware (electronics – think circuit boards) and software for each project.  I review the requirements of the project (what does this need to do?) and come up with a solution.  Many of our projects are related so it is common for me to re-use pieces from old designs and then create new pieces to fulfill the new requirements.  This part of the project requires me to spend time in my office thinking, planning and drawing up my ideas.  If I hit a roadblock, it is common practice for me to go talk to other engineers in my group to see if they can offer some suggestions.  Although we work individually on projects, we often discuss our work with each other and share ideas. (We have a shared lab space and end up talking to each other quite a bit)  Around our office if someone tries out a new concept that works really well, they will be enthusiastically showing it off in the lab.

One of the great things about working with electronics is that I generally get to “play” with my design in the lab and tweak it.  You can’t really do that if you design roadways for a living.  So, when I design a circuit board, someone (a technician or factory) will build the board and send it to me.  Then the fun of troubleshooting starts.  The board gets plugged in and tested.  Then, if something doesn’t work as expected, I get to play detective and try to figure out what is going on.  Although it can be tricky to troubleshoot when the design isn’t working, I usually learn a lot from the effort. Troubleshooting sometimes requires me to be clever and creative to get to the root of the problem.

Once my design works for me and I send it out for it’s intended use, I still have to support it.  This usually results in my trying to troubleshoot problems with it remotely.  This can be challenging and frustrating, but if you can fix a problem that is happening at a factory on the other side of the world you feel like you can fix anything!

Most of my work takes place in my office or lab, with the occasional trip to a factory.  Other types of engineers do their work in other places – factories, oil fields, electrical substations, nuclear plants, to name a few.  Most of us spend at least some time in an office working in front of a computer.  To read a little bit about other engineering fields, you can check out the  Engineer Your Life website.