By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics, American Public University
November 8, 2020, is National STEM Day. This annual celebration of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) draws attention to this industry and the importance of STEM education.
Start a STEM degree at American Public University.
According to the Pew Research Center, STEM-related careers have grown 79% since 1990, going from 9.7 million jobs to 17.3 million. Pew also reports that those in STEM careers earn a higher salary. Blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented in STEM and with the exception of the medical field, women are underrepresented in STEM fields as well.
In fact, one-third of individuals entering the STEM field end up leaving for a non-STEM related position. In addition, a growing number of positions are left unoccupied for lack of finding qualified candidates or are filled by people who live in other countries.
Why the STEM Field Is a Challenge for Many People
So while many people are passionate about STEM, they have challenges in turning this passion into a career. The Pew Research Center statistics show that the gap between qualified STEM candidates and STEM positions continues to widen.
So why are people not successful in these types of careers? While there is no one answer, my 26 years of experience in STEM has led me to believe the answer lies not in the field, but in people developing the right resources and skills for this field.
Tips for Being Successful in a STEM Career
Here are my thoughts on how to encourage the next generation to be successful in STEM:
1. You are always interviewing, so be ready for the next career. Many people have a career goal that is 10-15 years into the future, but they don’t know how to start planning the journey.
I learned this fact when I interned at a television station. Every day, you could make a tape and send it to someone. But in some cases, people could see you at any time just by turning on the evening news. So the term ‘camera ready’ was synonymous with auditioning for your next career position at any time.
Each conversation, interview, journal article and presentation you give is preparing you for the next position in your career progression. So if you stay ready, you never have to get ready.
2. Culture eats strategy for lunch. If you are like me, you’ll change positions often in the STEM career field as you ascend up the corporate ladder. But in some cases, the career ladder is more like a jungle gym. You’ll make moves that propel you up, down, laterally and even keep you stationary for a period of time.
Navigating the career ladder means you need to understand the culture of the position you are working in. Culture is based on core values, and having similar core values is essential to your mission. It’s more than training and acquiring a skillset.
A skillset is easier to change than core values. So a promotion is about more than a skillset, but also whether or not you can fit into the workplace culture.
3. Be authentic. Oprah Winfrey once said she tried to model herself after her icon, Barbara Walters, only to find out she did a poor job of it. Her epiphany was that she could be the best Oprah in the world, but a very poor Barbara.
So the key is to be the best you that you can be. I have observed several people in my career trying to be what the boss wanted, and I saw people changing their lifestyle preferences just to fit in.
But authenticity is just the opposite. It’s allowing yourself to be open and vulnerable. That in itself is a sign of courage.
4. Remember the philosophy of PIE, which was first introduced by Mondo Frank, stands for Performance, Image and Exposure. PIE was a game changer for me. I was exposed to this philosophy during a leadership course.
How well you do your job has very little to do with how successful you are in your professional career. More precisely, how well you do your prescribed work will account for about 10% of your overall success.
Image is 30%, and exposure is the most critical piece of PIE at 60%. This highlights the need to become a self-marketer, expose your abilities to other people and venture into new experiences.
5. Determine your village. Believe it or not, there’s someone that wants to be you right now. As you are reading this article, I imagine there is someone or some future career position you are aspiring for.
Giving back and receiving are sometimes challenging in the STEM world, since many of the activities are focused on STEM results. However, incorporating a coach, mentor, and circle of colleagues can help you realize your goals, both personally and professionally.
6. Put yourself first. This statement sounds almost hypocritical and egotistical, because there are so many leadership concepts out there that emphasize just the opposite (for example, servant leadership). Putting yourself first means showing up, being present and doing your very best.
It also means paying attention to yourself, your unwavering core values, and your dreams and aspirations. Following these principles will help set the trajectory of your STEM career.
7. Make your pain your passion. Let’s face it — nobody’s perfect. We all have made mistakes in our careers, and I can attest to making some pretty big ones.
However, if you look at those people who are successful in STEM, many have an openness to talk about their career path which at times has included anxiety, jealousy, suspicion and pain. Pain won’t bring purpose but rather your pain can help serve as an example for others. Your pain, when used to mentor and inspire, can become passion and affect others by enriching his/her life.
So the challenging part of any STEM career is that you don’t know what you don’t know. New STEM careers are being created right now, and these conversations about how to generate success are needed to inform the next generation.
Ultimately, STEM boils down to people. I thought that if I worked hard, the promotions would come. And to a certain extent, I was right.
But for many years, I was without guidance and I was missing out on sharpening my non-technical skillset, because no one was there to teach me. I was missing out on mentoring, coaching, and networking that many of my colleagues capitalized on to position themselves, maneuver, and excel in the workforce.
So while I have no regrets with my career path, I want to inspire and encourage others to pursue a career in STEM. I want to make my mess my message, my pain my passion and use past frustrations to fuel future interest in others. That is truly passion.
About the Author
Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is a professor at American Public University and has 20 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.
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