Entering a career in STEM

As a former Careers Adviser, doing the research for a book on STEM careers emphasised for me several outstanding features of this immense and fascinating field.

The first of these is the sheer range of jobs. I feature 24 in detail, but even the 70 in the A-Z Index at the end could easily have been doubled. This should encourage young readers not only to believe in the existence of a job they’ll suit admirably, but also appreciate the importance of exploring at least a few before reaching any decisions. How far someone adheres to this may in itself hint at whether they have the systematic approach, eye for detail, and tenacity so often essential in STEM work.

The second is the growing numbers of young women studying STEM subjects and building successful careers in related occupations. That they now outnumber men in starting medical training is especially notable, and the vital contribution they make is reflected in the earnest attempts of major employers to recruit them.

The third is the multiple routes into STEM occupations now on offer, and the recent increase in work-based ones particularly. The fairly recent introduction of higher and degree-level apprenticeships, for instance, now means that financial debt is no longer always a consequence of advanced study, though this should not obscure the fact that the sole route into fields such as medicine, dental surgery and veterinary science remains the academic one, for which fees are charged.

The fourth feature is the speed of developments. STEM occupations are generally those in which the hunger for progress is strongest, and into which vast resources are poured to encourage and achieve it. This can mean pressure on those at the cutting edge, but also presents ever-growing opportunities for progression, or finding a niche for a special interest. The book devotes a chapter to some major employers whose websites show the divisions and subdivisions within which employees of diverse interests and strengths can accomplish work they find satisfying.

The fifth is the inexhaustible sources of information on STEM careers, and the importance of consulting reliable ones. Mainstream news stories, TV and radio series, and excellent one-off  documentaries make it easy for young people to be aware of STEM-related endeavours. One chapter in the book highlights ways to explore these, including events held at local academic institutions, and often run by professional bodies. Two of the most successful have been the open days offered by universities, and the taster events within individual departments. The latter in STEM subjects are increasingly and deservedly popular, making early booking essential to guarantee a place.

Personal accounts, however, often prove most successful in conjuring up the flavour of a job, and the book features eight of these by occupants of STEM posts in different occupations, and representing the three main levels – technician, professional, and managerial. Being the experiences of individuals, they should not be taken as the sole evidence for judging any job, but each includes enough ‘positives’ to invite further exploration.

A chapter is devoted to a dozen skills and qualities especially relevant to a STEM career, with the caution that these are only the most salient, and that others, or a combination of them, may be best for a specific job. Further chapters cover needed or preferred qualifications (from GCSE to PhD), and all the stages of preparation and application, including suggested timetables over a 12-month period, designed to maximise the young person’s chances of advancement into the best possible work, training, or further study.

Finally, it’s worth bearing in mind that many organisations engaged in STEM activities also recruit for staff to act as administrators or in marketing, areas which are unlikely to require STEM qualifications.

Paul Greer’s new book STEM Careers is available now.