Essential tips for starting your career in STEM

The fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics offer an academic career path that can be both highly demanding and deeply rewarding. Competition is strong, so starting well is key to a successful, sustainable career.

Laying the right foundations is particularly important for women in STEM. Despite progress, gender inequity in these subjects is well documented – and a significant concern. Issues including persistent conscious and unconscious bias and a failure to celebrate pioneering women in STEM heighten the challenges facing female early career researchers.

For that reason, we’ve brought together eight essential tips for starting your career in STEM. Applicable for everyone, several have particular relevance for women academics setting out in this field:

1. Learn to handle feedback

The rigour applied to your work by reviewers is crucial for developing the quality of your research and the way you present it. But it can also sting. Being realistic about tough feedback, finding a way to process it positively and maintain momentum is key. Johns Hopkins University’s Professor Carol Greider describes the day on which she was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2009 for her work on the discovery of telomerase – and a review committee dismissed her grant as ‘not worthy for discussion’. Remember when you receive crushing feedback that you’re likely to be in very good company.

2. Speak up

As an early career researcher you may feel that asking questions or requesting help is a sign of weakness. But being honest, realistic and curious is a far better approach than trying to project the false impression that you’ve got everything covered.

3. Take credit for your work

Fresh ideas, angles and insight are invaluable in STEM. At the start of your career you may sometimes find your input being adopted and presented as someone else’s. However awkward the situation, don’t be tempted to stay quiet and let it pass without comment. In her Harvard Business Review article ‘6 Things Successful Women in STEM Have in Common’, Dr Laura Sherbin explores ways to address this. She quotes the proactive approach used by Dr Velma Deleveaux, a director at Booz Allen Hamilton: “I’m so glad you agree with the idea I introduced earlier. Let me share some additional thoughts.

4. Consider carefully what tasks you take on

If you are a woman in STEM, you may find yourself taking on unrewarding, unrecognised tasks which risk filling your time but delaying your prospects of promotion. Research shows that women are more likely than their male peers to volunteer for a non-promotable task, to be asked to do it, or to agree to do it when no one else will. Over the course of a career, this can seriously hamper your progress. So think carefully about what you agree to take on, and how to prioritise those tasks which will develop your career.

5. Hone your writing skills

Writing is likely to feature more than you might expect over the course of your academic career in STEM. Papers, reports and constant rounds of funding applications require concise and readable prose. Check out our top academic writing tips here. Remember that investing time in reading will further improve the quality and clarity of your writing, while also helping you switch off from the demands of your job.

6. Choose a mentor

Finding someone who’s already navigated the challenges ahead of you can be invaluable. Look for a person who models characteristics that inspire you. A mentor outside your lab or faculty is more likely to be able to bring objectivity and perspective. Read our advice for choosing an academic mentor here.

7. Enter competitions

The preparation will help you refine the way you articulate your research, and success will give your confidence – and your CV – a welcome boost. (You never know, you might even walk away with a prize as prestigious as ‘2019 Winner of Dance Your Ph.D’.)

8. Get connected

Find and join relevant networks, and play an active part. This will help you foster valuable new connections, expose you to new ideas and opportunities, and raise your profile. Here are a few to get you started:

Homeward Bound

Women’s Engineering Society

Sci Sisters

STEM Educators and Researchers

The GLOBE International STEM Network (GSIN)

Further reading:

Nine tips to achieve success in academia from Dr Tom Ellis (Imperial College London), Dr Connie Cepko (Harvard Medical School), and Dr George Church (Harvard Medical School)

UCL Professor Clare Elwell’s Eight tips for women in STEM

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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