Five reasons why a career in STEM can change your family's trajectory

STEM careers span many parts of life: These scientists
at KU Leuven in Belgium help brewers make better beer.
Image copyright: Andy Extance 
by Gaia Cantelli, PhD

Have you ever thought about a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)? You may know that jobs in manufacturing and farming are not predicted to do too well in the coming years. Such change is scary, but it could also be a great opportunity for yourself and for your family. More and more jobs require additional qualifications after high school, so you might be considering going to college, or getting a diploma in something that can help you. This is where thinking about STEM comes into play. Becoming a scientist or a doctor, however, may seem out of your league or too expensive. There are other options that seem more focused on landing you a good job – a job that can help you live a better life than your parents did. A business degree, for example, would scream “employable” from the top line of your resume, right?

Wrong. While in the US business and finance are predicted to open up around 900,000 more jobs by 2022, healthcare jobs are going to create over a million new jobs for nurses and physicians assistants alone. Meanwhile, the same studies showed that there are 1.7 open computing jobs for every unemployed computer science professional, which means that we need more computer scientists! Not only are there going to be many more science and technology jobs in the future, but these jobs are going to be secure and relatively high-paying. They may be your ticket to changing your family’s trajectory altogether.

Working in science is not what TV would have you believe – a bunch of egg-heads nerding out on a university campus. Most STEM professions are normal jobs for normal people. No matter how much time and money you are able to invest in your education, investing in STEM training is a great way to land yourself a bright future. 50% of US STEM jobs are available to those without a four-year degree and can therefore be very efficient and very wise investments, even if your means are limited. In the US, graduates of STEM programs earn on average 10% more than those with similar qualifications in other fields. They also enjoy the security of knowing that their skills are going to be in demand.

Here are a few ideas on how you can start working towards your STEM career right now, no matter where you are in life:

1. If you are in school, make the most of it
Real-life forensic science: Sulaf Assi at Bournemouth
University in the UK researches using portable spectrometers to
detect counterfeit medicines. Image copyright: Andy Extance
It may seem as the most boring and mundane piece of advice: “stay in school, kids!”, but people are being paid to teach you stuff and it’s free in the US and many other countries. It’s is the last time this is ever going to happen in your life. Take advantage of it! As well as teachers who teach math and science, your school most likely will also have a library you can use to study, and probably has someone on staff to help you with planning your next steps. College counsellors and teachers can put you in touch with education professionals who can give you advice on what schools and programs in your area you may want to consider.

2. Be financially responsible
Saving money is going to be essential for you to be able to invest in yourself and gain some STEM skills. Gone are the days when a US community college student could pay tuition throughout the academic year by having a regular job in the summer, no matter what TV pundits tell you! Having a small nest-egg of savings from a full-or part-time job will certainly help you on your way. There are some amazing resources out there to help you budget and save money and you will find that saving for a purpose is actually easier than you thought! Keep in mind that saving money will probably mean sacrificing something you value – like moving out of your parents’ home or eating out and socialising with your friends. Once you actually enrol in a program, look for scholarships and ask your school about all available financial aid options, especially federally funded student loans. If you do need a loan, try to borrow as little as you can and make repaying your loans your top priority once you graduate. The sooner you pay them back the less interest you are going to pay!

3. Learn about science in your own time
Whether or not you’ve had a good experience in school with science and math, there is a world of free opportunities out there for you to learn more, or catch up if you feel you don’t know enough to enrol in further STEM education. The Internet can be an amazing resource, for example check out the Khan Academy if you feel you need an extra boost in math. Importantly, don’t forget your local public library. Libraries are YOUR public service to enjoy, so make the most of them! Read science blogs and websites and allow yourself to get excited about discovery – just because a STEM career is a responsible choice, it doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, too!

4. Try to get some form of first-hand experience
Careers in healthcare have got great prospects
in the US. Image copyright: Andy Extance
There is no better way to know if a certain career path is for you than to spend some time shadowing someone in the field. What’s more, work experience will look great on your resume once you actually start working! Look for internships and shadowing programs in your area, both online and through your school or local community college – there are more opportunities than you think! Don’t be intimidated by the idea of putting yourself out there: people who volunteer to have a young person shadow them are usually excited to help you and were once in your very shoes. If you can’t find any opportunities near you, get creative. Interested in learning more about healthcare professions? Maybe you could volunteer at the local hospital and get to know the nurses there. Want a career in IT? Send an email to the IT support department at your local community college and ask if you can volunteer to help. People who love their jobs are going to be thrilled to help you even if you come through non-traditional channels. Worst case scenario, remember, is that they say no – which is not the end of the world!

5. Tell everyone
Even if it sounds a bit embarrassing and potentially obnoxious, tell everyone you know about your career plans. They may be able to help you in ways you could never have imagined. They may know someone whose cousin is in the field and who might be able to get you some work experience. They might know of a scholarship, or a program that can help you. They might see an ad for a shadowing program, think of you and drop you a text. You never know! They certainly cannot help you if you don’t tell them what you need. Most of all, if you keep the people in your life involved with your plans, they are more likely to understand your life choices and therefore to be supportive. Be open! Having your loved ones be part of the journey is going to make it easier to get there.

Gaia Cantelli is a lecturing fellow at Duke University, studying the mechanisms that regulate cancer cell metastasis to the bone and she regularly blogs over at scienceblog.com

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