Career profile: going from academia to an AECOM graduate job

What's it like to work at AECOM? Engineer Joël, who spent ten years in academia before joining AECOM's graduate development programme, explains.
My advice for interviews? ask questions.

I have always been passionate about science and solving problems. I am particularly interested in water and environmental engineering because increasing the sustainability of the world around us enhances people’s lives. I stayed in academia after my bachelors degree because I wanted to push my limits and because I enjoyed research.
I completed an exchange programme between my home country of France and the US and started a PhD. However, after ten years in academia, I felt it was time to try something new by going into industry.

Applying to industry

I was looking for an employer that worked on a diverse range of projects and offered lots of opportunities for career progression and for working internationally. AECOM is a global company and seemed to open up many career possibilities. I applied for a role in the London area because I still wanted to work internationally, but return to Europe and not be too far from Paris.

When you apply for an engineering job, other candidates will also have relevant degrees (although they won’t necessarily have spent as long as me in academia). It is advantageous, therefore, to have lots of activities on your CV outside your classes. I had pursued my love of photography and triathlons and been involved with societies while at university. I also think my experience of teaching in academia strengthened my communication and leadership skills, which came across in the recruitment process. My advice for interviews? Ask questions – show that you want to learn more about the company. Also do your research and make sure to say how you could help the company.

Solving problems

There are around 700 engineers working in AECOM’s water business in the UK, but I work in a team of four specialising in asset management. My current project is for a water company, creating a strategy to enhance the management of their assets (eg pipe networks, water pumping stations and water treatments plants) to inform their investment decisions. For instance, we look at how assets behaved in the past to create statistical models to predict how they will behave in the future. Water companies have to be able to justify the investment decisions they make to stakeholders, so having robust and transparent models is crucial. I enjoy using my engineering skills to solve problems – it is as if you have a huge puzzle and you need to work out where the pieces fit.

On this project, I’m mostly office based, but on other projects I’ve spent more time on site and I love the variety of this. For example, a client asked us to assess damages caused by tunnelling works on a few of their underground pipes. I developed a mathematical model capable of automatically analysing thousands of pipes without the need to analyse one pipe at a time. I led site visits, produced business case reports and chaired design review meetings with key stakeholders. This is more responsibility than a graduate can ordinarily expect, apparently, but I always believe in challenging myself.

Being a top colleague

In my last performance review I was rated as being in the top one per cent of AECOM’s water business in the UK and I’m delighted that I placed second in the rising star award at the TARGETjobs National Graduate Recruitment Awards 2017. What’s most important to me, though, is being a supportive colleague: I am a committee member of the AECOM sports and social club; I help organise ongoing training; I’m a health and safety champion for my department. Last summer, I cycled 545 miles over seven days from San Francisco to Los Angeles for AIDS/LifeCycle and, with the support of my colleagues, raised almost £3,200.

Making choices

If you are deciding whether to go into industry or academia, I suggest that you thoroughly investigate opportunities in industry first, as you will already have a sense of what academia involves and you can always go back to school later. Try doing as many internships as possible. Go to open days and careers fairs and speak to employees: ask what projects they are working on, the challenges they face in their work and about their career path. Attend meetings held by professional institutions and engineering student societies, as employers are often invited and it is a good way to build a network.

Actually, that’s the same advice I would offer to students who are wondering which employers to apply to: do all you can to get to know the company culture. It’s important because, no matter what happens on a project, everything is so much easier when you have a good working environment and supportive colleagues.

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