Written by Hannah Edstrom
A friend and I recently attended the 2020 Junior Achievement S.H.E. Leads event as volunteer mentors. The event was aimed at empowering young women interested in STEM, and professional women from all sorts of careers and backgrounds volunteered to share their stories and answer the students’ questions. It was a very positive experience and we were thrilled to be able to participate!
This event was geared towards high school girls interested in STEM. As Khadija and I approached the entrance, there was a line of female professionals (over 200 attended) ready to offer mentorship. Not all were women in STEM, as the hosts wanted to showcase multiple career paths.
The event had been going on all day, and before lunch the students were engaged in workshops on topics such as psychology or robotics. We ate our lunch in the auditorium as a keynote speaker wrapped up, then found our ways to our assigned tables. Khadija was seated with two executive women, and I with a scientist (in a vice president position) and engineer who’ve been in the workforce longer than myself.
Every fifteen minutes, the mentors got up and switched tables. We had four or five rounds of this, and there was your Mentorship Lunch! So the students got to talk to lots of women from many different fields.
The students were given a stack of questions, cards on each table they could choose from, to keep the conversation going. After brief introductions, they consulted them, or had questions of their own they’d prepared to ask.
Networking came up a lot: How do I network? How do I set myself apart while networking? Other questions concerned the nature of your industry: How has your field changed, and where do you see it going in the next five years? Students were also, of course, looking for advice in how to choose a college and what to expect in an interview. Finally, each of the mentors was asked to recount their career trajectories at just about every table we sat at – both women I was with had winding paths rather than straight ascents to the roles they occupy now. That can be super helpful to keep in mind, since if you expect a career containing various types of positions, it may bring you to consider to keep your options open in your undergraduate program of choice.
The most obvious first questions concerning networking is how to do it, and why. Utilize the networks you have access to; your high school and/or college network can help you long after you’ve left school, or enable you to assist others. When meeting professors and professionals, it’s a great idea to research them beforehand – people often remember those who talk about their accomplishments. At the very least, be prepared to ask questions and be engaged with their work as much as your own.
Another aspect of networking, asked by those extra ambitious students: how do I stand out of the crowd? Technical skills are super important, but when networking, you have a clear opportunity to demonstrate your soft skills. In a casual conversation, you can showcase your motivation, your persistence in the face of challenges, your confident independence, your ability to communicate well with others.
Changes in your field, and predictions for the future.
One of the previous big deals in biotechnology was biofuels. It was difficult to make this industry work, and when fuel prices dropped, there was less economic interest in their development.
So where is the rest of biotech headed? Many of the biggest biotech companies are in pharmaceuticals, and that – along with agricultural applications – are pretty steady as a field. Computational biology applications are popular in the start-up world, and employers are increasingly looking for people with computational as well as wet lab skills. Other newer applications in the field include a public interest in food, biodegradable plastics, and natural products.
Pharma and agriculture will always be here. We will always need food and food health! The fancy new ideas? We’ll see what biotech can make for us!
The consensus among the mentors at my table seemed to be: attending a well-known school is great and can totally boost your career (the scientist in a vice president position mentioned that, upon first graduating, she received calls for jobs before applying, simply because of her school’s reputation), but you can get a great education at a less prestigious school. It’s really up to you and what you prioritize.
Another consideration is that smaller colleges can offer more opportunities to connect with professors, whereas in a large one, you may be one of a couple hundred students and not known at all by your professor.
Finally, there is no shame in looking to use your community college to save money. Definitely try to go in with a plan, and check with your college(s) of choice about what’s accepted when you transfer – even if cheaper than a university, you don’t want to waste money on classes that end up untransferable. But student debt is no joke, plus the smaller class sizes can mean a more available professor (meaning it also helps to thoroughly research the professors prior to enrolling in each course).
Interviews are going to be different depending on the job you’re applying to. Personally, my first interview was with a manager who was fairly new to his position, and I could tell he was a little bit nervous interviewing people. Noticing that allowed me to relax, at least a little.
At a job I ended up taking, the interview process meant four half-hour interviews, two by research associates (the position I was interviewing for) and two by scientists (the position occupied by my potential new manager).
When interviewing for an entry-level STEM job, you will be quizzed on technical skills, for sure; it’s an essential element. However, they also care about your motivation, how your goals fit the position, and whether you’re a good interpersonal fit for the team. Also, whether the question is technical or otherwise, they tend to be impressed if you can refer to specific examples.
I had professors who started in industry or forestry before transitioning into the teaching role they occupy today. A couple of my grad professors held multiple positions studying different topics (some related, and some not-so-related to their current field) prior to their professorship. Likewise, there are scientists in industry who started out with a more academic-oriented career, and experts who have worked at multiple companies. I know scientists who started with research, found themselves in a managerial position, and then transitioned into law & policy. Finally, I know of students who started out in their biology or earth science field who, upon graduating or a little bit of work experience, rebranded as a data scientist for new career opportunities.
In other words, career changes are common, and I’ve heard that in biotech, at least, the average time is two years at any one company before voluntarily moving elsewhere. The model of starting and ending a career in one place, working your way up the company ladder, in one role, has not been followed very closely, at least by the experts I’ve chatted with. Many of us have had different goals and in different fields along the way, all connected by the common interest of doing science.
There were other questions on the suggested list. What are some de-stressing tips? What is the most practical daily habit you have?
I’d have to say that in a technical job, having extracurricular activities and hobbies, social or otherwise, is invaluable. Maybe you play sports or hit the gym; maybe you play a musical instrument or write your own songs; maybe you unwind with friends over hiking or game night. Whatever it is, invest in it. Don’t let your busy schedule push it out. They are awesome de-stressors and in the midst of working technical problems, it’s great to relax by exploring creative pursuits, getting some fresh air and exercise, and otherwise engaging in activities that don’t come with a paycheck or final grade. (Case in point: this website.)
And as far as good daily habits go: take the stairs. Take the time to make a healthy breakfast. A good diet and exercise goes a long way in boosting your mood, maintaining a resilient spirit, and coping with challenges that come up at school, work, and your social scene. Not to mention, being healthy is good for your brain, too.
A Supportive Community Event
The JA S.H.E. Leads event was a great way to connect high school students with mentors in various fields. It was an honor to offer some encouragement and support to these ambitious students, and as both Khadija and I were paired up with mentors more experienced than ourselves, we got to sneak in some personal advice, too.
Special thanks to Khadija Ghias, fellow attendee and mentor, and consultant for this post.