Fostering career agility in STEM
These four fundamentals are key to success in a rapidly changing field
By Caroline Burgess
The number of disciplines and sub-disciplines in STEM already seems overwhelming and new fields continue to emerge. How can career development practitioners help their STEM clients navigate a diverse and increasingly digital economy? The answer, in my mind, is to focus on the fundamentals.
During 14 years as a mentor or coach to emerging adults pursuing careers in STEM, it has been my observation that career success in STEM depends on having the following:
- A growth mindset
- Valuable transferable skills
- Relevant work experience
- An internal locus of control
Developing a growth mindset
Psychologist Carol Dweck has defined a growth mindset as a belief that your abilities can be developed through hard work and a willingness to iterate in the face of failure – to employ other strategies and try again1. A growth mindset is critical in STEM because of the need to upgrade or acquire new knowledge and skills to keep pace with advances in technology and changes in the economy.
The exercise outlined below is one I use with every client to encourage a growth mindset. It is based on the concept of “flow,” defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly as an activity in which your whole being is involved and you are using your skills to the utmost2.
Write a brief description of three peak experiences that can be taken from any combination of school, work or extra-curricular activities. Each experience must have the following elements:
- It called on all of your skill or expertise (in a particular area)
- You felt challenged but not overwhelmed
- You were so engaged that you were unaware of the passage of time
- You felt a sense of power immediately after the experience, aware that you had met the challenge and, perhaps, even exceeded your own expectations
By tapping into a time when they have successfully tackled a challenge, clients seem more receptive to challenging themselves in other ways – for example, by taking a challenging course, considering a difficult degree program or applying for a job they are not completely qualified for.
Identifying key transferable skills
Valuable transferable skills are essential to agility in a dynamic economy because, unlike specialized knowledge, they can be applied in a variety of sectors; they are also the key to jumping on emerging fields. The most valuable transferable skills in STEM are mathematics, computer science and physics. These also take the most time and practice to master.
My recommendation to clients is to start acquiring valuable transferable skills early and to keep at it. I encourage clients in high school to take as many math and computer science courses as they can, and to take Grade 11 and Grade 12 Physics even if they are not required for admission to the STEM programs they are considering3. I encourage university clients in STEM to take a minimum of one full year of physics as well as advanced math and computer science courses, even if it means extending the length of their degrees; a BSc in biology with a minor in mathematics or computer science is a much more powerful degree than one without.
Tapping into the power of relevant experience
I encourage all of my clients, including those considering graduate or professional school, to acquire a minimum of 16 months of relevant work experience before they complete their undergraduate degrees in STEM – either through a co-operative program, or by incorporating a professional year between their third and fourth academic years4.
Students who have acquired relevant work experience, including industry experience, before they graduate, stand out from their peers with respect to: 1) the valuable transferable skills they have acquired and practiced, including technical and soft skills and 2) the size and diversity of their networks. In addition, these students also develop confidence from tackling challenging problems in work environments that encourage risk-taking and embrace the process of iteration.
Keeping clients in the driver’s seat
I strongly believe in the capability and resourcefulness of my clients, and my interactions with them are designed to foster an internal locus of control. I give clients homework to complete before each meeting to emphasize that they are the ones driving the career development process. To encourage my clients to be intentional, I ask each of them to complete the following exercise:
Construct a personal table of values with four columns and as many rows as you need. Label the columns “Value,” “Value Definition,” “Importance” (score from 1 to 5) and “How Presently Lived” (score from 1 to 5). In this context, a value is defined as something that you want to experience or “live” to some degree.
I let them know that their values are likely to change as they progress in their careers and their lives, but that it is important to understand why, at this stage, they might choose one option over another.
I also ask clients considering post-secondary options to construct a pie chart that gives a percentage weight to each of the following: “opportunity to acquire valuable transferable skills,” “opportunity for relevant work experience” and some combination of their values (adding to 100%). I then ask them to score and rank each of their options accordingly. Again, this exercise reinforces intentionality and an internal locus of control.
Success in STEM demands a commitment to life-long learning. It doesn’t stop at graduation. I often use the visual of a climbing wall to encourage clients in transition to be intentional about next steps. Where do they want to end up? What is attainable from where they are now? For example, a client with a degree in physics is a good candidate for a transition to data science, but an intermediate step might be online courses in Python coding and machine learning. By encouraging a growth mindset and fostering an internal locus of control, I hope to impart on my clients a sense that their future is in their own hands and that it looks very bright.
Caroline Burgess, CCDP, has spent her entire career in STEM. Trained as an engineer, educator and career consultant, she has experience and contacts in industry, research and government. She has been a mentor or coach to emerging adults pursuing careers in STEM since 2004 and can be reached through her website at CarolineBurgess.ca.
- The Atlantic, “How Praise Became a Consolation Prize: Helping children confront challenges requires a more nuanced understanding of the “growth mindset”.” (Dec 16, 2016) https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/12/how-praise-became-a-consolation-prize/510845/
- Csikszentmihaly, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Collins.
- Burgess, Caroline. “To Acquire Valuable Transferable Skills in High School, Avoid the Bin Mentality”. http://www.carolineburgess.ca/to-acquire-valuable-transferable-skills-in-high-school-avoid-the-bin-mentality/
- Burgess, Caroline. “Include Relevant Work Experience in Any STEM Education Plan”. http://www.carolineburgess.ca/include-relevant-work-experience-in-any-stem-education-plan/