Thinking outside of the STEM career box

When I say the word ‘scientist’ what comes to mind? Most likely a lab coat and research right? This is what I thought too as I was growing up, which looking back now was very naïve – but how can you aspire to be something that you don’t see? I will be the first one to admit that I thought being a scientist was a linear path when I started my journey into the world of STEM nearly 9 years ago now at the University of Bath. In this post, I thought I would take a look back at how it was thinking outside of the STEM career box that got me to the place I am today.

To PhD or not to PhD

That really was the question. Back in 2014 when I was about to graduate, I was torn. I had spent one year of my undergraduate degree doing a research placement in industry. It was my first proper experience of doing research outside of the university practicals, and I loved it! I loved the thrill of problem-solving and having the opportunity to learn something new from yet another failed experiment. So, naturally you would assume that I would jump at the chance to do more research in the form of a PhD? And you would be right – but there was something that was holding me back. I had always had this probably ludicrous dream of being a writer. Maybe it was the glamourous looking lifestyle of being able to sit with your laptop anywhere you wanted to be being creative. Whatever the reason – I had zero experience in this so I was never going to get a job in science writing. My decision was to do the PhD and pursue the passion for research that I had, but also take my first step in exploring outside of the linear STEM career path that I believed it to be my setting up this very blog Soph talks science. But this was where it was all about to change.

Exploring outside the PhD box

For the first half of my PhD, I was consumed by the research side of things. It wasn’t until I competed in the 3 Minute Thesis competition half way through my PhD that the tracks were going to switch and my career train was going to head in a completely different direction. Winning a prize in this competition reignited my creative side and allowed me to apply that to my other love of all things STEM. The last two years of my PhD was full with not only everything you need to achieve in order to get your qualification, but a whole heap of experiences, networks, contacts & opportunities that showed me that a STEM career was as far from a linear path as you could get. Sharing science on social media, doing marketing internships, writing articles for other people, creating content for science companies and getting press access to events had made me realise how much I had missed out on growing up with no exposure to STEM. I jumped at every opportunity that came my way that didn’t involve my PhD. I’ll admit that not all of them were my cup of tea, but every single one of them taught me skills that all my lab mates would never have been able to get just doing their PhD, and every single one of them introduced me to yet another person who was a scientist but wasn’t working in a lab doing research. Quite honestly, I was blown away by the possibilities that were available to me in a STEM career. All I had to do now was work out which branch was for me.

From stem cell biologist to science communicator

I don’t regret doing my PhD. Not one bit. In fact, my PhD helps me do my job now. But it is everything that I did outside of my PhD box that made sure I got the job. But getting that job wasn’t so easy. Having just learnt about all these different careers, I still had no real idea which one I might be more suited to in the long term. When I was applying for jobs, I didn’t just apply for science communication jobs like I have now – I tried to become a medical writer, I applied for public engagement jobs, press officer roles and also journal editorial positions. All of which my PhD would help me do, but it was experience I would have gained outside of the lab that I was missing, as well as being the plucky runner up in goodness knows how many interviews.

But nearly six months in and I’m very happy in my new job in science communication! I’m very excited about the potential impact I could have. But I won’t lie to you, I do miss doing research. I do miss being in the lab occasionally and that thrill for discovering something new. It just goes to show that when it comes to your STEM career that there is no right or wrong answer.

What about the future?

Who knows! Right now, I love what I do, but I am a forever student. I love learning and I love educating. I always have these crazy ambitions to write a children’s science book, or to set up my own science communications business, or to start doing communications based research or to explore the world of medical writing again. I’ve even debated switching back to the lab and doing a postdoc. I will inevitably have to settle on one direction to head in if I want to progress anywhere, but I want to keep my options open, especially as I am still so fresh out of my PhD.

What I have been trying to say in my standard round about and rambling way is to make sure that when it comes to your STEM career, always explore outside of the box. That is during school, your undergrad, your PhD and even later. Take any opportunity that gets thrown your way and explore what suits you. Because STEM careers are not linear, but a web of options and direction changes as you progress from the start of your career to the end.

Think outside of your STEM career box as often as you can, network and learn from others in your field and from the furthest away you could possibly imagine. It is those skills, knowledge and experiences that will allow you to be able to mould your STEM career into what you want it to be. STEM Graduates is the UK’s only graduate recruitment agency for, you guessed it, graduates from STEM fields. This is a resource that I wish I had had when I was finishing both my undergrad and PhD – the key points in my career where I was searching for my next step. If you are in a similar position, then head over and take a look at all the ‘biology jobs’ STEM graduates can help you out with right now.

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* This post was sponsored by STEM Graduates, but of course all experiences were my own.

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What does your STEM career look like? Is it different to how you imagined it to be? What advice would you have to others about looking outside of the STEM career box?

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5 thoughts on “Thinking outside of the STEM career box

    1. Glad that you can resonate with my post. I don’t think we ever stop learning so don’t feel held back by that. What stage of your career are you at if you don’t mind me asking? What are you thinking you want to do?

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  1. Really great post, it resonated with me so much! I did an MRes with the intention of going onto a PhD but then changed my mind. After starting my own blog I realised how much I loved communications which I had never considered as a job before. I’ve just started my first science comms job and love it so much! Initially I had the doubts of does this mean that I’ve failed as a scientist because I’m not working toward research/academia which is of course not at all true!

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    1. We as scientists need to let the world know that being a scientist doesn’t just mean working in a research lab, and there is also not one linear path in a STEM career. So thank you for sharing your story and experience on that too. May I ask what made you change your mind in case there is someone reading this that might be feeling similar to you?

      Also – congratulations on the scicomm job. What does your role include? Because I’m also passionate about sharing how scicomm jobs vary too.

      Like

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