Include Relevant Work Experience in Any STEM Education Plan
Newly minted grads are often dismayed to find that even jobs posted as “entry level” can require two or more years of experience. What happened to on-the-job-training? It still exists, but employers seem much more willing to invest in students before, as opposed to after, they graduate. In terms of being competitive post-graduation, relevant work experience has become the ace in the hole and it should be a part of any STEM education plan.
What does relevant work experience look like? Key characteristics are 1. the opportunity to acquire and practice transferable skills and 2. the opportunity to grow a network of career contacts and mentors. Many people take too narrow a view, looking for experiences that mirror where they hope to end up in their careers. For example, an undergraduate student who dreams of becoming an academic one day may assume the only summer or coop jobs worth applying to are research assistantships.
Research experience may be helpful if you are thinking of pursuing graduate studies, but most important is to acquire and practice the skills that are essential to doing and communicating research. In STEM these include the ability to write well, facility with computer programming languages, the ability to analyze data and apply statistics, and the ability to organize and communicate results. Other important skills include the ability to listen to other points of view, to assimilate and summarize information, and to work independently. Working in a lab also requires the ability to work in a team, the ability to follow a protocol and the ability to work safely. All of these skills can be acquired outside of a research institution and several of them can be acquired, to some degree, in a typical summer job even as a high school student. As a bonus, if your career takes you to industry instead of academics (much more likely), these same skills will be equally valuable.
Mentors also come in a variety of packages. A strong letter of recommendation from a professor you have worked for can be very valuable for admission to a graduate program, but professors may not have any contact with industry, where most people end up. Seeking a diversity of experience through summer and coop jobs before you graduate - in research and industry, in small organizations and larger ones – will expose you to different approaches to problem solving, different technologies, different protocols, different constraints, different priorities and, most importantly, a diverse group of people from whom to learn.
A lot of what will make a particular work experience “relevant” is your attitude. Will you recognize an opportunity to learn an important transferable skill, or appreciate the chance to practice one that you have already acquired to some degree? Will you seek opportunities to connect to a diverse network, learning from the knowledge and experience of others further along in their careers? Will you seize an opportunity to acquire a mentor when someone shows an interest in what you bring to the table? It may seem that the cards are stacked against new graduates, but if you have been strategic about acquiring relevant experience before you graduate, you are much more likely to have a winning hand.