What’s your major?
The question is a weighty one for most college students, even profound. Choosing one separates the students who know what they want in life — and are grabbing it without a second thought — from the rest of us.
Education, whether you’re an undergrad, a grad student or on an alternate path, should help you figure out what you want to do. But once you actually come face to face with the workforce, the thing you thought you wanted to do may have fewer opportunities than the thing you never considered, but is right there.
If you’re interested in the STEM industries, a degree in a STEM major can offer the foundation that will help you qualify for a STEM job. Still, that major isn’t necessarily a description of the job you’ll land in at a STEM company.
Here are five things to note about transitioning into the world of STEM:
Remain flexible and open to new opportunities
STEM companies can have everything from wet labs to cubicles for software developers to manufacturing floors, with jobs that can range from scientist to sales.
“Be open to what comes at you,” said Samuel Haddad, an application development engineer. “When I went to grad school, I was going to be a professor. I was going to do research and I was all about that. And then I realized what it really took to be a research professor and that it was all grant writing, it was no longer doing science anymore. … I actually was trying to go be an environmental consultant and then an opportunity opened up at Agilent. And when I got here, I was in field service. Another opportunity opened up — I never said, ‘Man, I really want to be in management.’ An opportunity just opened up.”
Don’t limit yourself based on your degree alone
College students are often expected to make a choice of what area they want to commit to, even if they’re not sure what they want to do in the industry.
“Don’t get pigeonholed,” said Simone Novaes-Card, a product marketing manager. “I’m in marketing right now — I had no marketing background coming into it at all. I just knew the technical parts about the product. And I was open to taking this job because the person who is now [a] boss at that point was my boss. He explained to me, ‘I’m looking to fill out my team with different kinds of people. I want somebody with more technical experience. I want other people who have working experience.’ So don’t be afraid of branching into something that is adjacent to what you do just because you don’t have the skills now.”
Companies provide training for new roles, and having the right soft skills and attitude is important
It might seem strange, but a lot of companies hire people out of college and then train them themselves. Your soft skills will come in handy here, especially in client-facing jobs.
“Technical or hard skills training is offered in any role,” said Danielle Vozzo, an operating manager. “It’s not one specific item on your resume, or what degree you have, or what’s your technical background. It’s really, what can you bring to the table? How can you interact with your peers and with your colleagues?”
Networking and finding mentors can help guide your career trajectory
No matter the industry, networking and mentorship always play an important part if you want to really succeed. Thomas Price, an R&D engineer and technical lead, has been on both sides.
“I came here thinking I was going to work on a robot project,” Price said. “I ended up working on a project, I was one of the mentees, and I had to do fluids. … You adapt and you do what’s required to do your job. You’re not alone, and that’s the key. There are other people around that you can communicate with — when I started here, I was a young person and they were engineers. And now I’m the old person and people come to me all the time.”
Getting an initial job in your field of study helps get your “foot in the door” at a company, opening up more opportunities later
Senior project manager Isaac Lin had a slightly more focused take.
“I appreciate what everybody is saying about being flexible and changing,” Lin said. “But you have to get your foot in the door first. That’s where your degree comes in. Unfortunately, in this day and age with all the resumes when we open up a job position, we’ll get resumes from all over the country. It has to meet the requirements of the job that you’re applying for; if you’re looking for a mechanical engineer or a mechanical engineering position, you may not look for a biological systems person, you may not look for an English major person to fill that role. Now, could they do it with training? Sure, but to get in the door into the company, you need to be able to meet the requirements of that position. But once you’re in, I agree completely, your opportunities are almost endless.”
So, maybe what you major in isn’t everything — but it’s not nothing, either, especially in STEM.
“You should pick a major now that you think you could do for the next four or five years because you need to do that for college,” Lin said. “And at least your first job will probably be in that same field. So it should be something you have an interest in. But once you get that first position, then you can say all bets are off going forward.”
Knowledge is power!
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