National Employability Day – Useful skills and personal qualities for STEM careers

Remember two things: everyone has some personal strengths especially suited to certain jobs or fields of work, and no recruiter can reasonably expect any newcomer to already have the skills they’ll need.  In any real person, skills and personal qualities will have grown together over the years, making it hard to draw a clear line between them, so we might do better to refer to someone’s capacities than use two separate terms.  Individuals normally think of themselves as having natural inclinations or aptitudes, and often gravitate to work which reflects these.  However, being more aware of the main skills and qualities needed in STEM jobs generally, and how these may be strengthened or combined may lead to interest in occupations otherwise overlooked.  Below are a few examples of these, offered as a starting-point; intended to encourage closer self-scrutiny, and exploration of other relevant skills and personal qualities.

Good Observation

In STEM occupations, the smooth running of everyday procedure alone depends on workers having good powers of observation.  In hospital, a small change in a patient’s facial colour or body temperature which goes unremarked may worsen their condition.  The engineer who fails to hear the change in tone within a motor may find it breaking down.  The statistician who omits a figure in a calculation may make an inaccurate forecast.  Don’t think that STEM workers have to be perfect – training, experience and interest all help sharpen observation skills, and where flawlessness is vital, work is double- or triple-checked.

Question: Are you quick to notice certain things, or slow to observe others?  Begin to assess your own observational strengths and weaknesses.


Perhaps only occasionally a glitch in operations will require workers in some STEM fields to accept slow progress or delayed completion, but in others, particularly science specialisms, patience may be needed from the start.  This becomes especially likely when trying to break new ground, which often requires countless experiments or trials.  Team projects, where consensus is not always easy to reach, or programmes of work needing the co-operation of different departments, can test this, too.  Experienced staff usually keep in reserve tasks they can get on with while awaiting resolution elsewhere.  Some keep abreast of developments in their field by reading books or research papers.

Question: Think of something recent which made you impatient.  Can you think of any work situation likely to have a similar effect?

A Systematic Approach

A systematic approach is essential to successfully performing most STEM jobs, and good practice stipulates set routines, as they often help in overcoming everyday problems.  A set routine makes it harder to miss a vital step in programming a computer or diagnosing a complaint.  It also lets staff work faster without mishap when situations demand.  When specialist staff or outside professionals are called in, their task is made easier when standard steps have already been taken.  In science projects, the exact scope of an investigation must be established lest essential data are missed.  Oversights can be calamitous where the information-source is far away or access depends on special permission (e.g. to a nature conservation area for endangered species).  A systematic approach also helps when trying to introduce improvements, since a set order makes it easier to spot the potential for streamlining or even elimination.

Question: Are you keen to establish an order of steps before tackling a task, or do you prefer to decide each one as you progress?

Readiness to work alone

Many STEM jobs are specialisms, so a readiness to work alone can be seen as a positive characteristic.  This trait is most observable within the science and maths divisions (perhaps because so much of technologists’ and engineers’ work is collaborative). Once the object and direction of a scientific or maths-related project has been decided, much of the work (at least initially) can safely be placed in the hands of individuals.IT and related technology makes it much easier than before for people to work physically apart, such as at home, or a different workplace from colleagues, especially where team members live in different towns or even countries.  They can confer by e-mail, telephone, or even face-to-face (via Skype), emphasising that working alone needn’t mean being lonely.Solitude may please some STEM workers, prizing the extra freedom it may give them. However, where regular checks or progress reports must be made, fairly set hours may become the norm, even for them.  Working alone can encourage self-induced pressure, but those doing this often find that a more relaxed approach makes for better relationships, and still gets the job done.

Question: Do you usually accomplish things well on your own, or tend to become restless or distracted?

Interested to learn more about the skills and personal qualities required for STEM jobs? See Dr Paul Greer’s STEM Careers: A student’s Guide to Opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (9781911067603).

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