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Becoming the Odd One Out

It’s another first day at a new four-month internship.

As the incoming round of interns introduce themselves to each other, my heart races as my turn approaches. A computer engineering student, a couple of computer science students, a software engineering student…

All eyes are now on me.

I take a deep breath. “Hi everyone! My name is Tiffany, and I study chemical engineering at the University of Waterloo…”

“I’m sorry, what did you say?”

Something along the lines of this has been a typical reaction that I’ve gotten from both interns and full-time employees at internships in high-tech companies.

To be frank, I can’t blame them. Chemical engineering is certainly not the first program that I expect someone in a tech company to have graduated from.

However, I’m in this line of work because there are too few legitimate chemical engineering positions available in the current Canadian landscape. In any given term during which we’re scheduled to find a placement, there may be 300 chemical engineering students—possibly more—targeting the same 50 available positions—and having 50 available positions in any given term is considered a blessing.

I’m here because my first internship after my first four months of university consisted of teaching elementary and high school students about science and engineering—including computer programming—to encourage them to develop a lifelong passion for these subjects. For someone with no prior exposure to programming, this was a neat opportunity for me to quickly pick up rudimentary concepts and encourage students to stick with STEM.

I’m here because I loved reading and writing in high school—Advanced Placement English Language and Composition was my absolute favourite course throughout the four, pre-university years—and discovered a line of work called “technical writing” during the latter half of freshman year. This was an appropriate way of learning how my company’s technologies worked, and it also exposed me to other functions in the company, such as Product Management and Customer Support.

I’m here because I’ve had internship experience in a small design-build firm doing process engineering, which essentially involved designing a system that transforms input materials into desired, outputted products. This was the only “real” chemical engineering work experience that I’ve ever had, and surprisingly, it’s what led to my current internship as a Scrum Master.

If you lack the support of having an IT background from your studies, or if you’re in IT but want to transition into non-IT work, here are some tips based on personal academic and internship experience.

  1. Know what you like and dislike.

After my first numerical methods course learning MATLAB in freshman year, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sustain a long-term passion for programming. However, there are still functions in high-tech companies that require a plethora of skills that aren’t based on having technical expertise. If you enjoy writing, check out technical writing. Have business chops? Read Cracking the PM Interview to see if product management would be up your alley. Enjoy motivating teams of people and optimizing their performance? Get to know more about agile software development through Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time and learn more about the value-add of Scrum Masters.

  1. Get to know colleagues at your company who were in the same boat that you’re currently in.

While I interned as a technical writer, I discovered that two full-time colleagues in Quality Assurance both did their undergrads in chemical engineering. Talking to them and learning about their decision to pivot into tech roles early on in their careers helped ease my sense of imposter syndrome.

  1. When you apply to internships, do plenty of research and self-reflection—and then some more of both.

A key aspect of applying to positions is knowing how to best sell yourself to employers. Nowadays, with so many resources available to us, it’s simple to search up relevant skills and characteristics to be successful in any type of position. On the other hand, self-reflection takes conscious practice. As a starting point, I recommend using a “SWOT analysis” to consider your personal strengths, weaknesses, opportunities for professional development, and threats to personal growth. With time and great patience, you will make noticeable strides in leveraging your past experiences and acquired knowledge for future career opportunities.

  1. Use moments of self-doubt as personal check-ins.

There have been numerous times throughout my undergrad studies when I’ve asked myself, “Why am I still in this program?” As often as I still beat myself up over having done insufficient research into a wider variety of engineering programs offered at my institution, I now ask myself, “Outside of school, am I investing enough time to self-learn about the high-level concepts of subject areas that my program doesn’t cover?” and, “Do I have a clearer end-goal in mind? If so, what is it?”

  1. If you are discontent with your field of study in that it offers extremely limited transferable skills and knowledge to get you closer to your end-goal, talk to an academic advisor to gather all relevant information pertaining to switching programs and, ultimately, work with them to come up with an action plan to switch.

My first instinct to switch out of chemical engineering happened in the latter half of my freshman year, after my first internship. Now in my junior year, switching programs would do more harm to me than good—financially and time-wise. Thus, I really regret not heeding the doubt in my intuition two years ago. However, even if you make the final call to stay in your program, you will be able to justify to yourself later down the road that you had considered all factors before making the decision.

As it’s said, “all roads lead to Rome”, so orient yourself along where you wish to go, work hard and work smart to get there, and don’t forget to enjoy the journey along the way!


Tiffany Chang, 2019 RTC Fellow

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