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Personal development planning for engineering


This course is focused on your career as an engineer. It provides an opportunity to interrogate and scrutinise your career plans. This might be the first time you have really considered your future career as an engineer; although, particularly if you are already working in engineering, it won't be new at all. Even if you do already have strong career plans, don't think that these plans can't be reflected and improved upon. It might not be your first time considering and planning your career as an engineer, but it might be the first time you can do it without your boss or line manager peering over your shoulder.

A cartoon image of a man completing a plan at his desk while being observed by his boss
Figure 1 Quality reflection

In general, personal development planning, or PDP, encompasses the importance of recording, reflection and planning in helping you to manage your learning and development in an efficient and effective way. In the same vein, career development planning focuses on the principles and processes that are involved in effective career development, and examines the benefits of developing and/or updating a career plan during your studies and beyond. If you have already gone through the development planning process, you might have a current plan for development. If so, view this as an opportunity to review your current plans independently of people who might have a conflict of interest with regard to your career trajectory. It's always a good idea to periodically review whatever plans you have made.

As an introduction to career planning and thinking about your career in general, listen to Audio 1, which discusses the benefits of PDP for a career in engineering and considers how you might go about gathering evidence. Remember to make notes as and when you feel it is necessary.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: PDP and career planning
Skip transcript: Audio 1 PDP and career planning

Transcript: Audio 1 PDP and career planning

Richard Moat
During a career as an engineer, it's important to keep a record of the projects you've been involved in and the tasks that you undertake so that when you need to find evidence of your skills it's readily available. Because when it comes to reflecting, if the evidence isn't readily available it can make the process more tiresome and far more difficult.
That was Richard Moat, an author for T176. In this audio we're going to hear some views on why it's worth doing PDP, and how you may want to approach collecting evidence. But firstly, Mark Endean on why you are already in a great position.
Mark Endean
One of the real strengths of studying engineering at The Open University is being able to study alongside working. The two areas of activity interact with each other in a very positive way. The study provides like the conceptual, intellectual framework that you can use to make sense of what's happening in the workplace, and the workplace provides examples and experiences which can really illustrate and bring to life the things that you're studying.
So, what is the value of doing PDP?
Richard Moat
By engaging in PDP you have the benefit that when it comes to promotion within your job, you can back up the statements you're making regarding deserving promotion with evidence. There's also the benefit that promotion often includes a pay rise. But probably more directly, the chance for you to become a Chartered Engineer or an Incorporated Engineer at one of the engineering institutions normally requires you to collect evidence of your skills as an engineer, and if you had to do this at the end of the process it would be far more complicated than if you collected evidence during your career as a student or as a junior engineer, and up to the point of trying to become Chartered.
So career advancement and professional qualifications are a key motivation for tackling PDP now, but are there any other benefits? Mark Endean.
Mark Endean
There are two obvious benefits of reflective practice. One is about knowing what you're like as a person. Knowing the things you're good at is very important in working out how to achieve the goals that you set for yourself. The other thing is looking back over the recent past to add to and refine your toolbox – your collection of processes, of strategies. Being better as a professional person, as an engineer.
Professor John Bouchard made well-thought-through choices at every stage in his career. How did he gather evidence and what did reflection mean to him?
John Bouchard
As part of my training for chartership I kept a career log. Following that, I've kept sort of key documents and I have from time to time looked ahead, trying to develop a plan. I think reflection is a very important part of controlling or directing one's own career, looking back to see where one's come from and thinking whether staying in the same situation is the right thing to do.
So how can you start? Firstly, you need to gather evidence in order to help you reflect.
Richard Moat
Some examples of ways you could record your evidence could be in a paper notebook, where you note down tasks and skills that you've been developing; or in a more formal manner, you could get your supervisor or line manager to sign off documents which say you've been involved in certain projects or have done certain jobs; or you could put together a dot directory on your computer that you collect copies of all the documents you think might be useful for the future, for collecting evidence for your skills as an engineer.
Jon James
I would start with a blank Word document and just start to brainstorm, probably with a heading of myself and my own attributes, things I find difficult and things I find easy, strengths and weakness, history of what I've done and where I've been, and how I responded in each of those roles – start to consider the future and where I wanted to go.
That was Jon James. In many jobs, career planning is formally structured. That's true if you are employed at The Open University.
Mark Endean
The formal career development appraisal process that we have encourages you to look back and use that to define where you want to go in the future, and also to align that with goals which are outside your own personal requirements – so to see that you're making a contribution to the organisation, that you're contributing to some larger imperatives.
But when it comes to career planning, engineering is perhaps a special case – both because of the necessity of PDP for professional qualifications, but also because of common working structures.
Mark Endean
A lot of engineering practice is project focused, either with project teams within large organisations or as self-employed engineers going into businesses to do constrained tasks. And therefore it's really important to have a view of how you're motivated as an individual so that you can find the right roles, find the right place for yourself within the organisation, find the right approach to market yourself, to promote yourself to a client, a manager, a project leader, and to find other ways of exploiting your real strengths.
But we should never close down opportunities because they don't fit the plan – it's a question of planning to allow for flexibility. This is what David Sharp found.
David Sharp
Thinking back on the earlier stages of my degree and my early career, I didn't necessarily know exactly where I was going. And I would just say that if opportunities arise that send you off in an unexpected direction, but it's a direction that interests you, then embrace that and follow it through.
John Bouchard discovered that for him, a fundamental of his career plan was being proactive.
John Bouchard
In the 1990s I noted that some colleagues had an interesting life – they went to conferences and they got involved in international projects. And I thought, 'Yes, I'd like to do that'. I think the thing I learned from them was that you don't actually get to a conference unless you apply, and so from that point on I started to apply for conferences. It made me realise that it's on your own initiative that things can happen.
But one of the most important outcomes of taking control of your career is being able to plan to maximise enjoyment and satisfaction in your working life. A final word from Mark Endean.
Mark Endean
We underestimate the importance of enjoyment and happiness at our peril. We all find ourselves doing things at times that make us unhappy, that we find unsatisfying one way or another, and they need to be balanced by a good dose of things that we gain real enjoyment out of, that make us feel really happy as people. And unless we take the time out to reflect on what we've done, we won't know what those things that make us happy really are.
End transcript: Audio 1 PDP and career planning
Audio 1 PDP and career planning
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The activities you are asked to do here will require significant thought, so I would expect you to take approximately 10−12 hours to complete the course (including reading, contemplating and completing the activities). It is difficult to give guidelines for each individual activity because you may or may not have visited the topic in the past. Therefore, I suggest you keep in mind that there are a total of 12 activities and I expect you to take no more than approximately 12 hours to complete the entire course. Some activities require thought and reflection and might take 1.5 hours, while others simply require collection of information and might only take 10 minutes. You might want to spread your study over several days to give you time to reflect on your responses.

While working through this course you will need to log your progress. You will notice that on many occasions you are prompted to make an entry into your 'learning log'. This can take many forms. You can use a word processor or computer note pad or you can use an online journal or organiser, it could even take the form of a book in which you make hand written notes. However, for the purposes of creating evidence of completing this course, I recommend that you use some sort of electronic note-taking software (this could be Microsoft Word), that is capable of saving a document containing all your inputs when you have completed the different tasks.

This OpenLearn course is an adapted extract from the Open University course T176 Engineering: professions, practice and skills 1.

Learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • provide evidence of critical assessment of personal career development

  • provide evidence of a career development plan linked to the requirements of professional engineering institutions, with a clear strategy for achieving personal goals

  • demonstrate an awareness of factors that might help or hinder personal development towards becoming a professional engineer

1 Career development planning

1.1 PDP and career development

To start you thinking more deeply about what personal development planning actually means, and why it is useful to you as a student and as an engineering professional, here are some statements about its role in (engineering) education.

PDP is a structured and supported process undertaken by a learner to reflect upon their own learning, performance and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development. It is an inclusive process, open to all learners, in all HE provision settings, and at all levels.

(QAA, 2009, p. 2)

The primary objective for PDP is to improve the capacity of individuals to understand what and how they are learning, and to review, plan and take responsibility for their own learning. This will help students:

  • become more effective, independent and confident self-directed learners
  • understand how they are learning and relate their learning to a wider context
  • improve their general skills for study and career management
  • articulate personal goals and evaluate progress towards their achievement
  • develop a positive attitude to learning throughout life.
(Houghton and Maddocks, 2005, p. 1)

The most important ideas to take from the statements presented above are those of responsibility, reflection and undergoing a continuous process. But in addition, and quite significantly because of the theme of this course, career development is also referred to as a key part of personal development planning. Thus we can apply each of the three key ideas of PDP in general to career development planning specifically, as follows:

  • A willingness to take responsibility for personal development planning is something that more and more employers are expecting from their employees.
  • Reflection is one of the key cognitive skills you need to create evidence for in this course, and thinking critically and thinking for a purpose are two key aspects of reflection. For example, later in this course you will be asked to think critically about your strengths and weaknesses when mapping your skills and competences against the demands of relevant occupational standards and frameworks. This involves thinking for a purpose – in order to identify skills gaps and potential development needs.
  • The notion that the cycle of reflection, planning and action must be a continuous one is also crucial and links the process to lifelong learning and employability.

Now take a few minutes here to listen to the interview with Professor John Bouchard. John comments on how, at each stage of his career, he stepped back and thought about what he was enjoying and how he would use this to determine his next career move. If he hadn't taken the time to think about what he enjoyed and what he was good at, he probably wouldn't be doing what he is now.

John Bouchard: Professor in Materials for Energy; degree in mechanical engineering, masters in the physics of materials; member of IMechE; CEng
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Interview with Professor John Bouchard
Skip transcript: Audio 2 Interview with Professor John Bouchard

Transcript: Audio 2 Interview with Professor John Bouchard

John Bouchard
My name is John Bouchard. I'm Professor in Materials for Energy at The Open University, and I lead the Materials Engineering Research Group here. My first degree was in mechanical engineering at Bristol University. I then took a masters degree, by research and study, in the physics of materials. And after that I was frustrated, I think, with academic work. I did plan a PhD at that time but instead decided to work for industry, and I joined a civil engineering company – some consultants called Halcrow, and they were involved in the design and installation of a large dry dock complex in Dubai.
Well, when I first went there I was a little frustrated because I was given repetitive clerical jobs: a lot of paperwork, a lot of drawings. But I did have the opportunity there of visiting site – that was going to the Middle East for about eight months. So I got involved in a lot of installation and commissioning work for the equipment being installed on this dock: learning how engineering worked, contracts, dealing with contractors and seeing different roles of different types of work. I think there were two specific jobs at Halcrow which I particularly enjoyed, and those were more technical based and analytical, and I think that was an indicator to me that I was more interested in that side than in project management.
Then I went to join Rolls Royce, and in particular I was working in the stress office, which was involved in the design of gas turbine rotating components. And I was exposed to the challenges of high technology in terms of materials and operational performance of safety-critical components in aero engines – for example, looking at the failure of blades and the effects of bird strike. And I think from that stemmed an interest in failures of engineering components and structural integrity, which was later to become a strong theme of my career.
Having got experience at a prestige company under my belt, if I was going to move job then that was a good time – so I decided to look for a job elsewhere. And at that time the Central Electricity Generating Board, CEGB, had an excellent reputation in terms of technology and also in terms of pay and recognition of engineers, which was an important factor. I was recruited to work in the central office, which was involved in constructing new power stations. At that time there was a government enquiry going on, so I was involved in helping to answer issues being raised at that enquiry, but also to help develop the basis for the Pre-Construction Safety Report, demonstrating how the proposed plant would meet UK safety requirements.
Now at the CEGB I was able to build on my expertise in stress analysis and fracture mechanics and apply that to safety-critical components in the nuclear industry. I wasn't quite sure how my career and promotion prospects would develop – they employed a high calibre of people, so there was a strong professional ethos there, which I appreciated and enjoyed. Around the middle of the 1990s I had the opportunity to undertake one particular task which made quite a big difference, because I overturned the current perception of the importance of residual stresses in welded components. And after that I got a name for being an expert in that field. I think there is an element of luck and being at the right place at the right time. I haven't looked back since then.
So I, at that point, started to get involved in research projects at universities. I was overseeing and managing several contractors and at the same time also managing research projects, but it was really only after developing these links with academia and other research organisations that I started to contribute to papers at conferences. I began to think that I might want to move into academia. I saw how one or two other people in industry had actually used the Royal Society Industry Fellowship to move across, and there was a mentor at the University of Manchester who advised me and encouraged me to follow that route, and I see that as really a key enabler to my subsequent academic career – it opened all sorts of doors. That was a stepping stone, really, to moving across.
At British Energy I'd come to really a stop in my career. I'd got to the top of my grade, had been there for ten years or so. And I think companies, or perhaps all managements, tend to take their own staff for granted – they don't always see their merits and capabilities and skills – so there is a benefit in, from time to time, moving institutions. Certainly when I came to academia, my skills and background were greatly valued and recognised. This made a huge difference to my feeling of self-worth. I think for me the job satisfaction was paramount, really, and you need to have that satisfaction for the level of commitment required.
End transcript: Audio 2 Interview with Professor John Bouchard
Audio 2 Interview with Professor John Bouchard
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1.2 The benefits of career development planning

Career development planning is a process that involves taking stock of where you are personally, academically and professionally, deciding where you want to be, and working out the best means of getting there. It may be helpful to think of career development planning as analogous to planning the route for a journey (Figure 2). You need to know your starting point, your end point and the places you wish to visit along the way. As with any journey, you need to work out the most efficient mode of transport given the resources at your disposal. Furthermore, while you are travelling the route, you can't just travel on 'autopilot'; you need to check periodically that you are still on course to reach your destination, and be prepared to overcome any obstacles you meet on the way. This is sometimes referred to as reflection-in-action: put simply, being aware of what you are doing while you're doing it.

Described image
Figure 2 Planning your route

For the moment, just keep hold of the notion that career development, as with PDP in general, is best carried out as a continuous process of recording, reflection, planning, action and monitoring. The following activity will help you with this.

Activity 1

Aim of this activity:

  • to discover the resources available to you as an OU student and to get to grips with the cyclic process of career planning.

Visit the following page of the OU's Careers Advisory Service website. Take 10 minutes or so to look over the content and to watch the short video clips. Then explore some of the links and make a table in your learning log of the services and resources available on the careers website, detailing what each resource provides and how you think it might be useful for your future career development.

By now I hope it is clear that applying the techniques underpinning PDP to your career can help you to get where you want to go. The next activity will help you to explore the benefits of career development planning in more depth.

Activity 2

Aim of this activity:

  • to review your career development experiences.

In your learning log, give up to four examples of previous career development activities you have undertaken. These might include work-related appraisals, discussions you have had with mentors and colleagues, or even just personal planning you have done off your own back. Comment on how useful each activity has been in your career development so far.


You may have struggled with this exercise. Perhaps you don't feel that the activities in which you have previously taken part were of any help to your career at all. But often, when people have negative experiences of PDP it's because it wasn't made clear to them what the benefits are. Maybe the focus appeared to be on keeping the employer happy rather than on the employee's own potential for improvement and fulfilment. Indeed, it is important to note that you are being asked to engage in career development planning for a particular purpose within the context of this course – it doesn't need to fit with your current job or role.

I hope you are beginning to see that for PDP to be a success, the focus must be on you: your abilities, your goals, and how you can achieve what you want to achieve – both as a learner and as an engineer. This is the topic I will turn to now.

1.3 Managing your career development

With a career development plan, you'll be able to be active in pursuing your personal goals rather than being a passive recipient of training and development deemed appropriate by others. After all, you're the one in the best position to know what kind of development you need. Good career planning starts with finding the answers to three basic questions:

  • Where am I now?
  • Where do I want to go?
  • How will I get there?

To help you think about how you might go about answering these questions, I would like you to listen to the first part of an interview with Chi Onwurah, an engineer who became MP for Newcastle Central. Before you listen to the in-depth interview, watch Video 1, which will give you an introduction to Chi and her background through her conversation with Benjamin Zephaniah.

Download this video clip.Video player: Chi Onwurah talks to Benjamin Zephaniah
Skip transcript: Video 1 Chi Onwurah talks to Benjamin Zephaniah

Transcript: Video 1 Chi Onwurah talks to Benjamin Zephaniah

Benjamin Zephaniah
We couldn't live the way we do without engineers, and the city of Newcastle has a proud history of engineering. The person I'm meeting today was inspired to continue this great tradition. Chi Onwurah is an MP, an electrical engineer and a lifelong Newcastle United fan. Her love of engineering started here.
Chi Onwurah
When I was a kid, my mother would take us to the science museum, and I'd see this ship. It was just such a work of beautiful engineering, and the fastest ship in the world at the time it was built, but also powerful and useful. It wasn't beautiful and useless. It was useful, I guess. And it was from Newcastle, you know, and that really did inspire me.
Benjamin Zephaniah
As a kid did you think, 'In the future, I want to go into engineering'? Or did you just like it as a hobby?
Chi Onwurah
I think really early on – maybe 7, 8 or 9 – I wanted to be an engineer or a scientist. Because, you know, there was never any doubt that I was going to have to earn my living. We had no money. And if you're going to earn your living, I wanted to do something that inspired me.
Benjamin Zephaniah
Did you go to university?
Chi Onwurah
Yes, I went to Imperial to study electrical engineering. Whilst I wasn't designing beautiful objects like this, I was learning how to be an engineer. Telecommunications, that was my speciality. I mean, this is something which I think is absolutely gorgeous, still to this day. I mean, you could put that on your mantelpiece, couldn't you?
Benjamin Zephaniah
Give me an example of something that you've done that is working, that's out there now.
Chi Onwurah
Well, it's a bit of a confession, but I actually have kept one of the first circuit boards that I designed myself and had manufactured. And what that did was to manage 32 telephone calls at one time on this piece of A4 circuit. And I'm really proud of that. That was like the Turbinia of telecommunications at the time, so it was all cutting edge.
Benjamin Zephaniah
Why do you think there's not more people from the ethnic minorities and black people involved in science and engineering?
Chi Onwurah
I think it's something to do with the fact that there aren't black and minority ethnic engineers and scientists visible, so you don't get children being inspired. It's something to do also with the fact that, you know, there aren't more black and minority ethnic physics and maths teachers.
Engineering is absolutely everywhere. It's understanding the world about you, how it works, and being able to make a difference.
End transcript: Video 1 Chi Onwurah talks to Benjamin Zephaniah
Video 1 Chi Onwurah talks to Benjamin Zephaniah
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Now listen to Audio 3, which is the first part of the interview with Chi Onwurah.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Interview with Chi Onwurah (part one)
Skip transcript: Audio 3 Interview with Chi Onwurah (part one)

Transcript: Audio 3 Interview with Chi Onwurah (part one)

Chi Onwurah
Well, I think one of the things that anyone studying engineering should be aware of is that it's a great foundation for many different careers. My last job as an electrical engineer was as Head of Telecoms Technology for Ofcom, the communications regulator, and I think my ultimate career ambition would have been to be a Chief Technology Officer, but I didn't make it that far. I took a different direction and moved into politics.
Everyone entering the workforce is always advised to have a career plan, and I think that's really good advice. I found it difficult 'cos I didn't really know where I wanted to end up, but what I did do, and what I always wanted to do, was to look for new challenges and new ways of using my skills, and new opportunities to learn more about the industry. So I started off in hardware engineering, then I moved into software engineering, then I moved into product development, product management, and then operations and project management, so I got a really wide understanding of the industry.
Your CV should really be the story of how you've got to where you are, and why you're the right person for the new job or opportunity that you are looking for. One of the things about always having a CV which is ready to send out is that you need to be constantly assessing where you've got to in your career, also you know what kind of skills you are lacking. So I did a degree in electrical engineering but didn't have enough understanding of the whole telecoms industry, which was one of the reasons why I studied for a Masters in Business Administration in 1998 to 2001. And that was sort of looking backwards on what I had done, which had always been very technically centred, but also looking forward to the sort of skills I wanted if I was going to get more opportunities. So yes, look backwards and forwards (laugh).
I've always kept either a logbook or done bi-weekly or monthly reports, about … either to the person I was working for, or right now I do them for my constituents. And that is a really good way of taking time out of what you're doing to see, you know, to see what you're doing in your sort of daily job, but also to consider how you want that to change and evolve. If you're always coming up against the same obstacles or if you are focusing too much on one area at the expense of other areas, then you can reflect on that while you're doing your monthly reports. It's also very important to have regular reviews with your manager. Every company I've worked for always had some kind of performance-related review, quarterly or annually, and I think that's a key time to assess where you are, how happy you are in what you're doing and what kind of other opportunities would excite you. Because a good manager should always be looking for the opportunities that will excite the person who's working for them.
I started a logbook because I always knew I wanted to be a Chartered Engineer and one of the requirements that they had was that you need a logbook. So it's taken different forms over the years, but it has always been physical rather than electronic because they are … it's still easier to carry around a physical book, especially if you're working in the field. And then on top of that a kind of electronic monthly report, which is usually about one page or two pages, so that's there as a record as well.
End transcript: Audio 3 Interview with Chi Onwurah (part one)
Audio 3 Interview with Chi Onwurah (part one)
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Chi gives some sound advice in this audio:

  • Decide what career path you want to follow.
  • Identify the skills you have, and any deficiencies.
  • Plan a systematic approach to your development.
  • Keep records and a logbook.
  • Have a CV that tells the story of your skills.

Now use the next activity to tackle Chi's first point – that is, to decide on, or at least put to paper some thoughts about, a career path you want to follow. I assume by the fact you are engaging in this course that you want to be an engineer, so a little bit more detail is needed here.

Activity 3

Aim of this activity:

  • to put on 'paper' where you want to be.

In your learning log, make that important statement: where you want to be! Don't worry if you are not fully decided – at the moment you can be quite broad and just state the area of engineering you are interested in. On the other hand, if you are already working in your chosen field or have a lot of previous career experience, you may want to be more specific about your goals. There is no correct answer to this activity, as long as your response is personal to you.

Then comment on why you have chosen that particular area of engineering or specific goal.

1.4 Summary

In this section you've been introduced to the principles and processes behind career development planning, and explored the benefits to be gained from such planning. Hopefully it is now becoming clear why PDP is important to you in today's labour market.

2 Evaluating your abilities ('Where am I now?')

This section will focus on the second point that Chi made in Audio 3: identifying the skills you have now. Evaluating your abilities is concerned with helping you to take stock of your current position by:

  • identifying the range of knowledge, skills and experience you possess
  • exploring your strengths and weaknesses in relation to your current role
  • examining the opportunities and threats facing you at present.

To do this, start by identifying all the sources that you can use – these can be quite varied. For instance, you might consider:

  • your most recent work appraisal
  • academic or professional qualification transcripts
  • assignment feedback
  • client or customer feedback.

A key part of this is collecting evidence from a variety of sources so that you can see how different people or organisations rate your strengths and weaknesses. This can be useful when it comes to recognising either unrealistically high or unnecessarily low estimations of your own abilities. You should also consider sources from outside your professional and academic circles. For instance:

  • any sporting activities you take part in
  • societies or clubs.

This is an example of how to apply a holistic approach to career development (Figure 3).

Described image
Figure 3 Taking a holistic approach?

It's all well and good for you to go away and identify possible sources now, but this won't be much use in a month or so when you have forgotten all the details. So the next activity will start you off on the process of developing a portfolio of evidence – initially regarding where you are now, but there is nothing stopping you from keeping this up to date in the future and outside the confines of this course.

Activity 4

Aim of this activity:

  • to start a record of where you have information and evidence stored for easy future reference.

Table 1 below is an example of some sources of evidence. Give a few examples of sources of evidence you could draw on. It will be useful to update this in the future as your studies and your career progress.

Table 1

Description of information sourceKind of informationLocationUsefulness
Last year's performance appraisalCovers work performance and professional development needsMy personal file at workContains useful information on skills gaps
Most recent CVJobs, education and training, skills, abilities and interestsOn my home computerGood source, but needs updating
Feedback from most recent study assessment (i.e. tutor comments on coursework)Comments on performance and study skillsIn my OU study folderIdentifies some key strengths and weaknesses
Opinions of friends, family and colleaguesComments on my list of strengths and weaknessesInformal checklistVery subjective, but may provide food for thought

2.1 Your skills and competences

You will now have the chance to explore your range of skills and competences with reference to a specific professional engineering standard. However, before you get started on this I would like you to listen to the second part of the interview with Chi Onwurah (Audio 4), in which she discusses what she believes makes a good engineer.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Interview with Chi Onwurah (part two)
Skip transcript: Audio 4 Interview with Chi Onwurah (part two)

Transcript: Audio 4 Interview with Chi Onwurah (part two)

Chi Onwurah
I think you've got to start with the desire to solve problems. And I think, you know, we've talked to or listened to engineers … a lot of them, they're always trying to figure out the way things work as children, so you've got to have that desire and that interest to make things work. I think that's really what engineers do – they make things work. But in addition to that, then, or as part of that, you need a lot of persistence, because things don't work for an awful long time before they actually do work, often. And you do need also a logical kind of mind that rationally goes through the debugging stage, because a lot of engineering in my experience is understanding what the problem is and then looking at all the different types of solutions there might be, constrained by the environment or the budget or the users or whatever. So you do need a logical approach as well.
I think to be a good, or even a great, engineer you don't need to be a fantastic communicator because engineering is about making things work – it's not about talking about making them work. But having said that, what the engineering profession lacks is effective communications. And I … my engineering body is the Institute of Engineering and Technology, the IET, and I do say to them quite regularly – and they say they're changing it – but that we need stronger voices for engineering. Because if people don't understand what we do, then firstly we won't get as many engineers as we need, but also we won't get the sort of funding and the sort of research that we need in order for the UK to be a leading engineering country. And I would hope, and I do understand it's the case, that most engineering degrees or apprenticeships include some kind of module around communications and engaging with society, and science and engineering in society as well.
I think engineers are absolutely fundamental in society, and when people ask me why I went from engineering to politics I say, you know, both engineers and politics are the key drivers of progress. Obviously I love science, but it only actually makes a difference to people's lives when it gets to be engineering, generally. Because, you know, to make an impact on people's lives you need to take the science and adapt it and make it usable or affordable or whatever in a way that people will engage with and interact, and that's what makes it part of the progress in society. So the area that I'm familiar with, telecommunications, a lot of the basic science for that was done decades and decades ago, you know, radio waves in the 20s and silicon chips, all that, but it was bringing it together in a way that people could use and which was affordable – and that was down to engineers. And that is what's responsible for the internet and the huge social changes that the internet's bringing.
Deciding to study engineering was the best decision I ever took, and having that basis and that background has helped me achieve most of, if not all of, my ambitions, both in science and engineering but also as a politician. And so I think that engineering is in good shape, in as much as it's making a great contribution to society, but it needs more champions and it needs more and brighter people taking it up – so I hope The Open University is making a contribution towards that.
End transcript: Audio 4 Interview with Chi Onwurah (part two)
Audio 4 Interview with Chi Onwurah (part two)
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Chi again makes some very useful points, but a lot of them are purely anecdotal. This is often a problem – you know where you want to be, but who do you trust with regard to how you get there? One invaluable source of information is any occupational or professional standard that has been agreed for your intended field. When it comes to engineering, the specification for the educational and professional requirements of UK engineers is laid out in the United Kingdom Standard for Professional Engineering Competence, widely known as UK-SPEC. This standard is the responsibility of the Engineering Council.

Occupational or professional standards such as UK-SPEC are detailed written statements about the level and range of skills and knowledge that you are expected to demonstrate as you carry out your work. They prescribe acceptable levels of performance and, if you work to such standards, you can certainly use them as a benchmark for your skills, knowledge and experience. Benchmarking, in this context, means comparing the skills, knowledge and experience you currently possess with sets of standards that are relevant to your area of work. You can then begin to assess how 'competent' you are (where competence simply refers to your ability to carry out tasks to the required standard).

UK-SPEC was drawn up by engineering employers, educators and professional engineering institutions. It has been in effect since 2004, when it replaced a previous Engineering Council specification called SARTOR (standing for 'Standards and Routes to Registration'). If, at any point in the past, you worked towards registration under SARTOR then an application will now be considered under UK-SPEC, which does not impose any extra requirements on applicants.

The next activity is intended to start you thinking about how your skills and competences compare to those required by UK-SPEC. This is a useful activity even if you don't intend to seek professional membership, or for that matter even if you already have professional membership, because the competences will still be relevant to developing any career in engineering.

Activity 5

Aim of this activity:

  • to examine where you fit within the context of UK-SPEC.

Download a copy of UK-SPEC from the Engineering Council website.

Before you can start benchmarking, you need to decide which of the three grades of professional membership you wish to use for your assessment. If you have already qualified for one grade, you might like to look at a different one. To that end, read the summary statement at the beginning of the description for each grade of membership: Engineering Technician (EngTech), Incorporated Engineer (IEng) and Chartered Engineer (CEng). Then look at the section headed 'Education' near the end of the description for each grade. Select the grade that best reflects the standard towards which you feel you are currently working.

If you are already working in engineering with a fair bit of leadership experience, you may well decide to go for CEng; however, in many cases you will be best off choosing EngTech or IEng.

Once you have chosen an appropriate grade, look at the five 'Competence and Commitment' standards under the grade description (labelled A to E). Try to think about how you might demonstrate that you have achieved each competence or commitment through a specific activity. Consider in particular any areas that you don't yet meet, and think about how this might be addressed in the future. At this stage of your education, don't be surprised if you fall short on a lot of the aspects. Record the results of your benchmarking using the following headings in your learning log.

  • Chosen professional engineering grade
  • My justification for choosing this grade
  • After comparing what I can do with UK-SPEC, are there any key areas that I seem to be falling short in? (Refer to specific 'Competence and Commitment' standards given in the document.)
  • How can I address these gaps in knowledge, skills and experience? (Use the examples given in UK-SPEC for guidance and consider referencing future study you intend to undertake − perhaps consider some OU courses that might be of benefit.)

2.2 What you enjoy doing

Another aspect of finding out about yourself is to try and identify the kinds of things that you enjoy and are good at. One way of approaching this task is to identify and reflect upon your successes at work or outside work by completing a list of positive statements. However, in the spirit of reflective practice and learning from all experience there is also much to be gained from completing a companion list of negative statements.

Activity 6

Aim of this activity:

  • to take stock of what you enjoy and what you don't enjoy.

Complete at least three positives and three negatives from the following statements. Try and include why you feel that way about the particular activity or event. An example might be:

I did well and am proud of my recent attempt at wallpapering. I hadn't attempted it before and was surprised at how well it turned out.

As you can see from this example, you don't need to limit yourself to work-related statements. Try and use a broad spread from across your day-to-day life.

Positive experience statements:

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Negative experience statements:

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For the purpose of evidence collection, take a screen shot of your complete statements and paste it into your learning log.

Don't be disheartened by the negative statements. You may even notice that you've already dealt with some of the experiences, and that reviewing them can be more positive and enjoyable.

Activity 7

Aim of this activity:

  • to reflect on your answers to Activity 6.

Go back over your responses to Activity 6 and analyse your statements in a learning log post. Do you notice any trends in the types of experiences that were positive and those that were negative? What do you think these experiences can tell you about yourself and your abilities?

2.3 Your opportunities and threats

As you have worked through this section on evaluating your abilities, you will have collected a lot of information relating to your strengths and weaknesses and considered the opportunities and threats facing you. You will now see how you can summarise and analyse this information.

Figure 4 shows a matrix designed to help you summarise and analyse your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (often referred to by the acronym SWOT). The basic framework consists of four fields with those names, into which you list any factors that are appropriate to the subject being analysed – in this case your career development.

Described image
Figure 4 SWOT analysis

SWOT analysis can be used for a wide range of applications. However, for the purposes of this course, the SWOT matrix will be used to help you analyse your strengths and weaknesses in relation to any opportunities and threats that may help or hinder your career development. Once you've done that, you can plan to build on your strengths and deal with your weaknesses, which will put you in a better position to take advantage of any opportunities and counter any threats.

To carry out a personal SWOT analysis, you need to complete the matrix in terms of the following.

  • Strengths: What do you do well? What do other people see as your strengths? What are your skills, values and interests?
  • Weaknesses: What areas need development? What should you avoid?
  • Opportunities: What possibilities are open to you? What resources do you have? Who can help you?
  • Threats: What might cause you difficulties? What responsibilities do you have? What might restrict you?

This analysis will help you to focus on the main issues you need to consider when deciding what your long- and short-term goals should be. Explore what you do well, the areas you need to work on, the possibilities that are open to you and the things that might cause difficulties. In particular, you need to be absolutely honest about your weaknesses because you can take steps to develop those areas. It's a good idea to keep things simple at this stage – I've included my own example as Figure 5.

Described image
Figure 5 Example SWOT analysis

Activity 8

Aim of this activity:

  • to conduct a personal SWOT analysis.

Insert a blank grid into your learning log and complete your own SWOT analysis. Once you've used your analysis to identify what is feasible, you can start to prioritise and decide what you want to achieve first. You can then link this to your goals, which we'll cover in the next section.

2.4 Summary

In this section you have sought to identify and benchmark your current skills, knowledge and experience, explored your strengths and weaknesses, and looked at the opportunities and threats you see around you. You are now ready to move confidently into the future!

3 Identifying your career goals ('Where do I want to go and how will I get there?')

In the previous section you spent a lot of time taking stock of your current situation, i.e. where you are now. In this section you'll receive advice and guidance designed to help you identify your future career goals, i.e. where you want to go. You already made a start at answering this question in Activity 3, in which you wrote down where you wanted to get to as an engineer. However, now it's time to broaden this focus to take in how your engineering career relates to other aspects of your life. This will allow you to come up with some more specific career goals, as well as other long- and short-term personal goals that are related in some way to your career.

In order to identify these goals, you have to consider carefully what you want out of life and work – and where the balance between the two lies for you. This kind of judgement is a snapshot that will change as your circumstances change – a fact that highlights the need to revisit and review your personal development plan on a regular basis. Below is an example of a completed wish list that identifies a set of my long- and short-term goals at a particular stage in my life.

What would I like to achieve in the long term?

  • Financial security for my family
  • An interesting career within a stimulating working environment
  • Be a senior manager by 45 or involved in my own business
  • My children happily settled
  • Time to enjoy life.

What would I like to achieve in the short term?

  • A degree
  • An MEng
  • Professional registration
  • Promotion into management.

Even if you have already planned a career path, it is still worth asking yourself these kinds of questions. The next activity will help you to define more clearly what it is that you really want.

Activity 9

Aim of this activity:

  • to clarify in your mind what you really want in the long and short term.

Referring to the example above, complete your own wish list in your learning log that identifies your long- and short-term goals. You may want to take your answer to Activity 3 as a starting point.

3.1 Your values

Your values obviously have an important influence on what it is that you really want out of life and work. Again, your values will change as your circumstances change, so you need to reassess what's important to you on a regular basis.

To me, stating my values feels a little philosophical, but in essence, what I mean by values is those things that are important to you. For example, Coomber et al. set out a list of six values that they feel people should consider when thinking about a change of career (Figure 6):

  1. Benevolence Doing things for others
  2. Conformity Being accepted, doing what's socially correct
  3. Independence Making decisions, getting your own way
  4. Leadership Being in charge, having power and authority
  5. Recognition Being highly regarded and admired, having status, being important
  6. Support Being treated with understanding and consideration

(Coomber et al., 2002)

I don't expect you to relate to all the above values or consider them all to be important. Nor is the list exhaustive, by any means – you might feel that honesty, time to spend with your family, or particular moral or religious beliefs are most important to you, for example. However, the list is a good starting point from which to create your own personal goal statement.

Your mission statement should provide you with a focus around which you can begin to plan your career development goals. Now is a good time to do this, because otherwise these kind of values might be forgotten when you are planning your career and only become apparent once you are fully committed to an avenue. Of course, your values aren't mutually exclusive – although some will probably be more important to you than others at the present time – so you can combine several of them to come up with your statement. And remember, the things that are important to you in your career may not be the same things that you value most outside work.

So what does a mission statement look like? Here are some example statements to get you thinking.

To undertake world-class research in my field and disseminate my research and knowledge in an open and free manner.

To work in the area of engineering while rigorously maintaining my values with regard to environmental sustainability.

To incorporate my love of aviation into my working life.

To work in a flexible institution where I will be able to take time off in the week in exchange for working at the weekend.

To lead a team of people.

To make changes that improve people's lives, even if only a little bit.

Remember, your mission statement doesn't have to consist of a single sentence – you can put together two or three of these kind of statements to construct your overall statement.

Activity 10

Aim of this activity:

  • to propose your personal mission statement.

In a learning log post, write your own personal mission statement. This shouldn't be more than two or three paragraphs. Try to include something you highlighted in Section 2 as being a strength of yours, as well as some of your personal values.

3.2 Identifying career opportunities

Identifying career opportunities that are realistic in terms of what you have to offer, and that will help you to meet your aspirations, is obviously a key aspect of managing your career.

Activity 11

Aim of this activity:

  • to make yourself aware of the facilities for finding career opportunities.

At this point I would like you to go back to the OU's Careers Advisory Service website. Browse through the site, and add some resources for finding career opportunities to the list of useful career resources you created in Activity 1.

3.3 Your career action plans

By this point, you've looked at where you are now and where you want to go. Now you are in a stronger position to develop or update your career development plan, which details how you aim to get there. This will involve organising and summarising much of the information that you have gathered during your work on this course into a set of action plans. Remember that you are being asked to engage in career development planning for a particular purpose within the context of this course – it doesn't need to fit with your current job or role.

Sorting out how you can go about achieving your career and personal goals may appear daunting. However, a good way to approach a large task is to devise an action plan that breaks it down into smaller chunks that are easier to handle – there's an example in Figure 7. If you take the goals you identified in Activity 9, you should be able to produce an action plan for each one. There are four factors to consider when drawing up your action plan:

  1. what you need to do
  2. how you are going to take action
  3. resources that could help you (e.g. finance, information, friends)
  4. when these resources will be available to you.
Described image
Figure 7 Example action plan

Your action plan should also relate to the SWOT analysis you did in Activity 8 and the mission statement you put together in Activity 10. Try to view your action plans as the end product of all the recording, reviewing and reflection you've done throughout the career development process. But remember, in another sense the action plans you produce are simply a link in the chain; they have to be reviewed and, depending on the progress you've made and any changes in your circumstances, the action plans may have to change to accommodate revised aptitudes, interests, goals and values. For the purpose of this course, we have used the generic term of learning log; however, in the future, it doesn't really matter how you record and store the information, evidence and reflection accumulated in the career development planning process – as long as it is orderly and easily accessible. The important thing is to make sure that you go through each stage of the process on a regular basis.

In the final activity of this course, you will develop or update your career development plan.

Activity 12

Aim of this activity:

  • to produce detailed career action plans.

Using the example in Figure 7 as a basis, create an action plan for at least one of the goals you identified in Activity 9.


In this course you've identified your career goals, looked at your values and explored sources of information, advice and guidance for identifying career opportunities. You've then used all this information to create a career development plan.

You should now take your learning log and save your posts into a single file and keep this as the evidence that you have studied and engaged with this course.


Coomber, S., Crainer, S. and Dearlove, D. (2002) The Career Adventurer's Fieldbook: Your Guide to Career Success, Oxford, Capstone Publishing.
Houghton, W. and Maddocks, A. (2005) Engineering Subject Centre Guide: Personal Development Planning for Engineering Students [Online], Loughborough, The Higher Education Academy Engineering Subject Centre. Available at (Accessed 7 January 2014).
QAA (2009) Personal Development Planning: Guidance for Institutional Policy and Practice in Higher Education [Online], Gloucester, The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. Available at (Accessed 7 January 2014).


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