Dream Beyond STEM (really!)

dream beyond stemHold on, hold on friends, before you send me hate mail – I know that this sounds totally counterintuitive, but follow my logic on this before you judge me.

Remember last week, we talked about the stereotypical ‘scientist’, ‘engineer’, and ‘mathematician’? I told you that you could succeed even if you don’t meet that stereotype. But – when I was younger, I didn’t necessarily want to fight my way into a ‘geeky’ profession, either. I admit – I’m pretty high on the ‘nerd’ scale, but I didn’t want to confine myself to a (real or perceived) life of pocket protectors, safety glasses, and social awkwardness either.

Because that was basically my perception of technical careers. Maybe you have the same worries when you think about pursuing science and math? You like that material, but you don’t want everyone to label you as a ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ or ‘bookworm’.

What I didn’t know then, but what I know now is that there are really, really neat career options in STEM, and some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet are in STEM careers. Scientists, mathematicians, and engineers as a whole are far more interesting than society gives us credit for.

STEM isn’t necessarily your single defining feature – it is just one part of you as a whole. If you want to build your life around science or math, you can. But you can also have a highly technical career, and be a ‘real’ or ‘normal’ person outside of – and within your career.

Let me tell you about my ‘a-ha!’ moment:

One day in graduate school, my dear and brilliant friend (she has a master’s degree in math!) told me a great story about her seven year old daughter. She asked her daughter what she wanted to be when she grows up. And her daughter – always an original – said, “I want to be a doctor-scientist-princess”.

‘OF COURSE!!!’ I thought (yes – really, yelling at myself in all caps, like in Charlie Brown)

‘THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I WANT TO BE WHEN I GROW UP TOO!!!’ Why pigeon-hole yourself into just fitting into one role? Isn’t that holding yourself back?

This is me - the day I defended my PhD dissertation - tiara and all!

This is me – the day I defended my PhD dissertation – tiara and all!

Instead, pursue what makes you YOU, and what makes you happy. Even if it’s unexpected. Even if other people don’t quite understand it. Think about what will make you happy going to work every day for the rest of your career, and go for it.

Let’s say you love science and engineering and the environment and golf? Why not go for all of those things? What’s holding you back?  You could go into golf course design (my grandparents had a friend who did this), or you could be an engineer for a few years, save up some money, and then put your career on hold to try out a career in professional golf (Mr. SciGuy has a friend actually doing this – right now).

What if you like videogames, and coding, and you also love fashion and design? I bet you could figure out a really cool way to integrate all those things into a career. Or why not pursue a career in game development, and look adorable doing it? Who’s going to tell you no?

Let’s say you like math and you love cars, but you also love the outdoors. The auto industry is dyyying to hire you. Now. They literally can’t hire enough qualified professionals right now. And guess what – many automotive jobs start with 4-6 weeks of paid vacation time a year, on top of flexible hours that would allow you to get out and enjoy nature early in the morning or in the afternoon on a regular basis.  You CAN have more than just a STEM job.

Don’t let other people’s stereotypes of science and engineering make you feel forced to choose between your interest in schoolwork versus the rest of your other interests. You can still maintain your personality while also being a smart (brilliant!) cookie.

Ask anybody who works with me – they’ll all agree that I fit the “doctor-scientist-princess” mold pretty well. It’s perfect – for me.  That little 7 year old’s insight has stuck with me for years, and I’ve added onto it. I’m a doctor-scientist-princess-runner-swimmer-foodie-traveler-wife-mother-sister-daughter-friend-mentor and so much more.

How is it that a 7 year old had the insight to see that you can be more than ‘just’ STEM, when I couldn’t come up with that myself in 26 years?  It was so freeing to me to be able to look at my career as just a part of the person I am instead of defining who I am.

Now, when people get to know me, and ask about my job, I’m proud to tell them what I do (I do love it, after all). If it happens that they’re surprised (more often than not, people are), I smile a little on the inside, happy that I’m doing my part to break people’s stereotypes of what exactly a STEM ‘geek’ is.

So – what about you – what do you aspire to become?  in STEM and outside of STEM?



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