Build a Career Path Through Specialization

Need help in planning your career? You are probably not getting it from your boss—unless you consider being told to get another job career advice. High school and college might have provided some career planning, but most likely you landed in the “real world” of work very much on your own.

Career advice may have come along with the trauma of unemployment and been required to qualify for your state’s unemployment benefits. States can provide testing and career counseling.

But even the best thought-out and detailed plans for your career path may encounter speed bumps or roadblocks. Most regrettable, however, could be unexpected opportunities that were never acted on.

Outside influences that will affect your happiness and fulfillment can, and should, play a part in your career planning. Many organizations actively push certain types of people into certain types of jobs.

Those that get into the field of engineering because it is something they genuinely want, rather than being something they are pushed into, tend to be the most content with their career. If engineering is something that truly interests you, if it is enough to make you want to stay after work to get a design just right, you will be a contented engineer. If you have been pushed into it by others, you will not find the work truly compelling. Do you really want to spend your whole working life fulfilling someone else’s vision of what you should be? Be an engineer or technician because it keeps you engaged and you can’t imagine doing anything else. If you do it for any other reason, consider it time to reexamine your goals.

Narrowing the Focus Within the Engineering Fields

Engineering is a huge field of study. The term is often used to broadly denote a range of technical pursuits including engineer, researcher, designer, technician and others. You can break it down by discipline and then by sub-discipline. For example, the mechanical engineering discipline can be broken down into the sub-disciplines of machine design, manufacturing, machinery, robotics, electro-mechanical assembly and more.

Narrowing down the sub-discipline can be daunting. Many graduates will simply just “try to get a good job” and let the sub-discipline be decided by fate. That’s certainly one way of handling it. On the other hand, being too precise can limit choices and cause frustration. Somewhere in between rigid planning and taking the best offer lies the happy medium. You should have a general idea of a plan but still be flexible so you can recognize an opportunity when it knocks.

Engineering Language of CAD

Every engineering discipline’s communication is graphical, and more often than not, takes place with CAD. There are still disciplines that use 2D as a matter of course, but most CAD now is 3D. 3D makes communication of the design so much more straightforward and also sets up data to be used in many downstream applications.

The list of CAD tools is as broad as the engineering field. It is rare, but there are people who specialize in using a general-purpose CAD program. However, a better choice is a CAD program that has an industry focus. Generalization has its advantages but the opportunities are better with a sharper focus and experience with a specialized application.

Specialist or a Generalist?

It can be tough to be a generalist. A CAD generalist would be limited to teaching roles, admin/management or project management. CAD software resellers hire engineers that are generalists without any specific experience in any specific type of design or manufacturing method. This kind of experience can work for younger workers trying to move to something bigger or more specialized, but you don’t see many mid- or senior- level people in these jobs because the options moving forward if one stays a generalist are very limited.

Specialization does, by definition, limit your options. However, it also opens up as many options as it shuts down. The options that specialization opens get opened even wider. Employers see a real reason to pick you over someone else. In other words, it’s easier to stand out as a job candidate if you have a specialty rather than if you are just a generalist.

Plot a Path

Specialization is not a speculative venture—it only has value after you have accomplished it. Let’s say you want to specialize in plastic design. You can’t sell that skill until you are an expert in some form of plastic design. To become an expert in plastic design, you have to know more than a little about molds, molding, mold design and plastic materials processing. You can get the kind of experience that helps you achieve these goals in a number of ways:

  • Work at a manufacturer or a service organization where they put you on all of the plastic projects.
  • Work at a mold shop.
  • Work with a mold designer.
  • Work installing, setting up and running mold machines.
  • Work with a machinist building molds.

You will probably have to hold a couple different positions in the product chain from design to tooling to manufacturing before you can claim some sort of specialty or expert status in plastic design—or any other sub-discipline.

Accumulate the Right Experience

Because most engineering and manufacturing product details are expressed in the language of CAD, at least one of the positions in the career path of a plastics expert needs to be a desk job, working directly with the plastic or mold CAD data. You also need to spend some time turning wrenches, taking metal chips off your shoes before you go home and actually touching metal or plastic with your hands. In other words, you can’t be an expert without gaining experience on both sides of the design and manufacturing divide.

This idea goes for other areas of design and manufacturing as well. You can’t be a good machine designer without spending time assembling, disassembling, repairing and adjusting machines that work. You need comprehensive experience to make any sort of claim as a specialist or expert.


There’s a lot of bad, misleading or self-serving career advice out there, and it can be difficult for someone starting out in the industry to know which advice to take and which to ignore. It’s not fair to have to make important decisions about the rest of our careers early, before we have reliable information. We tend to have reliable information by the time we are later in our careers, but then is more difficult to make changes.

As the poet Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

Detailed career plans can get derailed by chance opportunity. Knowing when to pounce on the right opportunity has to be impulsive—anathema to those who have carefully laid-out career plans. A more flexible approach is to have a general plan of where to go and let serendipity handle the details.

Engineering and CAD are great career fields, but for the most opportunity, you need to include hands-on manufacturing work in your resume. Work toward a specialty and line up both design and hands-on work to back up your knowledge. Then you can sell yourself as an expert.

Read more about CAD Administration in Why Do We Have 3D Standards and What Is Best Practice? and The CAD Admin Basic To-Do List.

You can also check out the whitepaper How to Reduce Non-Value-Added Work in Engineering.

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