Keeping in mind that each company will assess your interests, experience, and qualifications differently, here are some generic tips I would share.
What should I study?
While some companies still require a specific degree to fill a role, robotics seems to be stacked with people breaking that mold. I work in a world of PhDs, college dropouts, mechanical engineers who write software, and software engineers who design mechanical parts. Some roboticists make it all the way through college without any direct exposure to robotics, while others may be employable with skills compiled in a high school robotics program.
Be brave and willing to experiment in college and with internships, as these are great opportunities to learn your likes and dislikes. Try to find what excites you early on; it is much more difficult to change paths at the end of your career!
The internet has democratized education, and most employers are aware that someone with a high school diploma and a zealous interest in software can easily become a stellar software engineer. As a result, you’ll see more and more job postings that list requirements similar to “MS in Software Engineering, or equivalent experience.”
Still, a conventional college education is by far the most common route to a robotics job, and the most popular degrees are in mechanics, electrical, software, computer science, systems, and, if your school offers it, robotics engineering.
How to get experience?
It can be difficult to find an interesting job without relevant experience on your resume. Keep in mind that part-time jobs during high school demonstrate reliability and soft skills that are often implicitly required in job applications.
Luckily for you, most engineering companies have embraced the idea of hiring students for summer internships. Again, when you’re just trying to get your foot in the door, make salary a second priority. Focus on finding a job that will give you the necessary experience. I met an American high school student who found an interesting drone design company in Japan, and thanks to a carefully written email that highlighted all the improvements he could make to their website, I managed to be hired for a summer. He even contributed to their drone software before the summer was over.
Another student who offered to work for free if he could report directly to a company financial manager ended up getting a paid internship despite not having a job advertised and having no relevant previous experience. A cover letter stating that you want to work for XYZ Company so badly that you will sacrifice your salary is a powerful tool that will usually draw attention to your application.
If you have a great idea you want to pursue, consider a self-directed project; these look great on a resume and can teach you invaluable skills.
Actively shape your future
Once you are looking for a longer term job, be sure to be honest about what you do and what you don’t. Even during an interview, I appreciate having candidates who really want to know if the position is right for them. If you talk openly about what’s right for you, there’s a better chance you’ll find a role you like. Conversely, if you land a job by exaggerating your experience/skill/interest, it’s unlikely to work long term. While you are looking for a job or college, remember that recruiters and employers do the same, looking for potential employees who would be a good fit for their company.
Once you’re in a job, make sure it’s leading you in the right direction. Many small businesses may not have a structured career planning program, or your manager may simply not understand the concept. Don’t be afraid to lead this conversation yourself; Talk to your manager about the direction you want your career to take and find opportunities together to develop relevant skills. If you find yourself in a position where you can’t seem to get the experience you’re looking for, cast a net and see what other opportunities you can find.
Finally, know and believe that you deserve a great job. A little self-respect can go a long way in establishing a good mutual relationship between you and an employer. Ultimately, it’s up to you to craft your unique experience, and I wish you luck on your journey!
Matt Coady has spent over 25 years in the robotics industry, working in a wide range of robotic industries. As Vice President of Engineering for Realtime Robotics, he is responsible for ensuring that engineering fully realizes the company’s vision, delivering the strongest possible product to customers on time and with the expected quality.