Criteria for Success
A strong portfolio…
- Highlights your most relevant work.
- Includes 3 or 4 diverse projects that cover your technical skills as an engineer.
- Tells a story of you as a capable and experienced candidate for the application.
- Can be quickly parsed. Uses visuals as the primary communication tool, lays content out cleanly, logically and consistently, and has one project per page.
- Includes your name and contact info.
For each project, a strong portfolio…
- Describes the objective of the research/design project, e., your high-level design requirements. Ultimately, this sets a bar that you will use to evaluate how well your design/project worked.
- Provides just enough technical detail to orient the reader to the project.
- Explains your specific technical contribution to the project.
- Describes the results of the design, and evaluates how well it met the initial objective.
- Provides visuals (photographs, renderings, drawings, graphs, …) that illustrate and support your technical work.
Your portfolio should contain one project per page. Each page can follow a structure like this:
Your portfolio complements a text resume with visual information that clarifies technical details of design projects and engages the reader in your work.
As a whole, the portfolio should present a narrative of you as a capable, experienced candidate for the position you’re applying for. Each application you submit should have a portfolio tailored to the needs of the specific role. In an interview, you won’t have time to go over everything, so pick your 3 or 4 most relevant experiences that support the narrative you want to present.
Analyze your audience
Each time you submit a portfolio, you should think about who will be reading it and what they want in an applicant. If mechanical engineers will be evaluating your application, then technical design details will be well-received and understood. But if you’re applying to be the sole mechanical engineer within a startup, your portfolio might need to be revised to provide more background that orients the readers, and just enough technical detail to demonstrate you know what you’re doing.
Similarly, consider the role you’re applying for, and which of your skills are most valuable for them. Format your portfolio to illustrate those skills up front.
It’s also important to consider the context of how your reader will view your portfolio. If you’re sending it in an application packet, more text is ok. But if you’re providing a handout in an in-person interview, consider cutting most of the text – rely on your visuals to catch their eye and lead into conversation. As one former industry exec puts it, “You tell the story, and let the figures validate what you’re saying.”
Finally, consider how quickly your portfolio will need to convey its message in different use cases. Some approximate guidelines:
- In-person: Expect the interviewer to skim each project for something that jumps out at them to start discussion. They may also reference it later when evaluating you further or comparing you to others.
- Submitted online or mailed in: Expect the reader to spend a bit more time going through each page since you’re not there to answer questions.
- Web: Expect a reader to click through your web portfolio skimming text and looking for catchy graphics. Make sure they can easily navigate around your site and projects that are relevant to them!
In all cases, reviewers may look at each project for only 30 seconds to a minute, so keep it concise!
Select and order your projects appropriately
If a reader is only glancing at your portfolio, what would you want to make sure they see? Spend some time deciding which projects will be most compelling and engaging. If there is a project that you’re most proud of, or that looks the best, move it towards the front of your portfolio. Similarly, if you’re applying for a job that wants specific skills, move the most relevant projects to the front.
TIP: Keep a master portfolio with all of your projects, and select different projects to tailor a smaller portfolio for each application or submission.
Select visuals that contextualize and summarize your technical contributions
Depending on the project, use 2-6 visuals to demonstrate the most important parts of the project. Select visuals that support what you want your reader to understand about your technical abilities and design process. For instance, if your system met stringent requirements to support your objective, a plot of some performance metric can help emphasize a successful design. But if you calibrated a piece of equipment with standard methods that don’t highlight your technical skill, that calibration curve is probably not a good choice.
Don’t choose redundant visuals. Make sure that the visuals illustrate different aspects of the project and of your contributions.
To help orient the reader to how your work fits into a larger system, use a mix of system-level and subsystem-specific visuals (schematics, pictures, renderings drawings). As a rule of thumb, motivate your contributions to a subsystem by first showing the whole system.
Declutter and annotate visuals for clarity
- Photographs should be high-quality and staged. Make sure they are well-lit, sharp, and free of clutter.
- When using visuals of complex systems, avoid busy backgrounds or complex foregrounds. Consider cropping or masking parts of the image draw attention to the most important parts.
- If you want to focus attention on a particular subsystem, consider inserting a close-up of that subsystem into a block diagram or schematic of the larger system.
- Consider annotating visuals to draw attention to specific features or concepts that relate to your technical contributions. For instance, if you worked on a specific subsystem, highlight its place within the larger system. If your work involved precision design or high loads, illustrate the critical forces that are relevant.
- Don’t shrink visuals too small. Make sure the key parts are distinguishable when printed.
Describe your design objectives
Answer the questions:
- What are you designing?
- Why does it matter? Who does it help?
- What technical specs or requirements does it need to meet?
- How did/will you evaluate performance?
Since the portfolio is a supporting document with a fairly small amount of text, don’t spend too much text establishing the background or global scope of your project (unless this portfolio will be reviewed by a non-technical audience). Instead, write the requirements/objectives in a way that let you highlight your technical contributions.
Highlight important technical details of your design process
- Answer the questions: What did you actually do to achieve the goals? What was your process?
- Use strong action verbs that describe what you did.
- Strong Verbs: designed, machined, analyzed, compiled, organized
- Weak Verbs: used, did, studied, helped
- For group projects, describe your role within the group with something like the phrase “I was responsible for…”
- For design work, how did you approach the design process? What skills did you use to identify and evaluate tradeoffs? If you were fabricating something, what tools and skills did you use to turn your design into reality? Numbers and technical details can be helpful here when they illustrate your skills and emphasize impressive feats of engineering.
Evaluate the performance of your design
Did it work? Did you win anything for this design? Let the reader know what came of all the work you did. If you realized afterwards that it didn’t work in some way, reflect on what went wrong or what you learned for the next design iteration.
TIP: If you won an award for your work, consider showing a photo of the award to catch the reader’s eye, instead of just mentioning it in text.
Consider creating a web portfolio as well
Many websites now offer templates or services for engineers to create digital portfolios. An online presence can be very helpful when looking for jobs, and supports more multimedia formats than a print portfolio. However, make sure that the information that you provide in a web portfolio is just as selective and clearly organized as you would make it in print. Don’t overwhelm your viewer with too many projects or a complex layout.
At the end of the day, you should still maintain a print-ready portfolio that you can submit with your resume and bring to interviews.