Exclusive: How to Land a Job in STEM, from Women Who Have Done It

Exclusive: How to Land a Job in STEM, from Women Who Have Done It

Exclusive: How to Land a Job in STEM, from Women Who Have Done It

Back in June, we wrote about how STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) have more jobs and higher salaries than other industries – and how, despite this, there are still fewer female STEM majors than male.

Schools, nonprofits and tech companies alike are doing their part to get female students interested in science and technology. But for those that are interested, it’s not always an easy path. Women in STEM face an often deep-rooted gender bias, as well as more tangible effects like lower pay, fewer high-level jobs and opportunities, and less funding and support for their research. In 2010, women accounted for just 22.3 percent of full professorships in STEM fields. And in 2014, they held just 9% of management positions in IT and 14% of senior management positions at Silicon Valley startups.

Despite these odds, however, women are entering the STEM workforce in increasing numbers, and many of them are making a big impact. But before they do, they first have to land a job. To get some advice on how to do that, we asked female STEM professionals and academics:


What advice do you have for new female STEM graduates who are in the process of job hunting and interviewing?

What advice do you have for new female STEM graduates who are in the process of job hunting and interviewing?

Keep your passion in sight. The job hunt and even early years in a new position can feel like a long slog through a swamp of minutia, but remembering why you feel called to your profession can help keep long-term goals in sight. Evidence suggests that females working in STEM careers often connect with their degrees and jobs because they can see how they contribute to solving broader challenges in society. This perspective can not only keep motivation up during the job hunt, but can also help you demonstrate your long-term value to an employer who is looking for new hires to understand the connection between their individual responsibilities and the organization’s mission and performance.

Put as many tools in your tool belt as possible. The job market is tough, so diversifying your skill set can certainly make you marketable for a wider array of positions. But even beyond this direct benefit, seeking out professional development opportunities beyond your formal training also demonstrates an entrepreneurial spirit that will be required to learn new skills, stay on the cutting edge, and advance once in a position. Depending on the field, many professional societies and organizations offer continuing education programs, workshops, conferences, or certifications on topics highly relevant to hiring organizations. Students and young professionals may be eligible to participate for free or at discounted costs.

Prepare to sell yourself to a ‘T.’ A ‘T-shaped’ student is one with both technical depth and application breadth, or the ability to connect their work to broader issues or stakeholder perspectives. Being ‘T-shaped’ also means being able to communicate with both depth and breadth. In STEM fields, students often excel at demonstrating their technical chops, which is an asset when interviewing with a potential technical manager or research advisor. But on the job, you will also be communicating with marketing, line operators, HR, community organizations, legal, you name it. Practice getting your ideas across with clarity to a wide variety of audiences.

Don’t neglect your personal development. It often seems like the job market is ‘all business,’ but a match with a hiring organization can often take root from a personal connection. This connection may be seeded through formal networking avenues, but often comes up serendipitously when networking or interviewing – from a discussion of the most recent book you’ve read, to a shared love of running, or a unique travel experience – by demonstrating your well-rounded background and differentiating yourself from other candidates. Beyond strategic benefit in the job market, though, fostering a fulfilling work-life balance is key for female students and employees looking to have long-term success and professional satisfaction in STEM careers.


What advice do you have for new female STEM graduates who are in the process of job hunting and interviewing?

The advice I’d give would be primarily in the area of attitude. When I was first starting out, I would look to others for confirmation that I was good. This isn’t surprising, as individuals transition from school because they are constantly receiving assessments from someone more experienced (professor/teacher/advisor) on the quality of their output. However, when transitioning to a job, especially during the interview, it is important to internalize that you are good at skills A, B, and C, and that you are good at learning so can easily adapt to skills D, E, F. Some interviewers are judging by their ‘gut’ when they have two equivalent candidates; when a person conveys confidence (instead of seeking affirmation), they are more likely to select that person.

On the job, women have a greater tendency to continue to look for affirmation that they are doing well. It is important to be responsive to feedback, but not needy, to be viewed as competent and confident.

The other bits of advice that I received along the way that have been particularly helpful include, ‘There is a difference between being assertive and being aggressive.’ Being assertive, direct, and fair is rewarded. Your colleagues need to know that you listen, are fair, and make recommendations with the best information possible that is beneficial to the common good of the company/organization.

What advice do you have for new female STEM graduates who are in the process of job hunting and interviewing?

I believe it is essential for women, especially those just starting out, to have relationships with mentors – and not just one, several. This is something I’m extremely passionate about, but finding and nurturing such relationships can be a daunting task.

It is important to remember that insight comes in all shapes and sizes. Don’t seek a mentor just because of a title or posterity – rather, understand what it is you need help with and then look for a person who has experience in that area. For example, one person may be better at helping identify strengths and weaknesses, while another is deft at networking and opening windows of opportunity. Having a wide variety of mentors allows one to successfully extend their circle of experience and carve a career path with confidence.

Lastly, I tell women that when they pick a mentor, they should choose someone that they can give something back to. In my opinion, the most successful mentor relationships have been a two way street. If you can give even more than you receive, it’s a great investment of your time that will be rewarded.

What advice do you have for new female STEM graduates who are in the process of job hunting and interviewing?

Network, network, network! It isn’t enough to apply for a job and hope to be selected for an interview. You must network and let the right person know you applied for the job, or have them help you discern the right job to apply for. Take advantage of opportunities through your university Career Services office to network with employers – these employers are looking to hire graduates from your institution. Connect with university alumni groups in cities you are interested in working. Update your LinkedIn profile, broaden your connections (think outside the box – your parent’s friends, your friend’s parents, neighbors, past employers, faculty members, etc), and see who you can be introduced to at companies you are interested in working for. Join technical professional societies, such as the American Society of Civil Engineers or Society of Women Engineers and attend local meetings.

Do your research. Never set up a time to talk to someone employed at a company or go into an interview without doing your research. Know the company’s core business, clients and customers, and recent projects and new initiatives. Comb through the company’s website and do some Internet searches. Take notes on what you learn in case you don’t meet with them in person for a while. Write down some questions about the company and working there. Know what you like about the company and why you want to work there.

Know your resume and have a few go-to examples. Really know what is on your resume and be able to talk about every bullet point on there in detail, as well as what your role was in each bullet point. Have a few go-to stories, scenarios or examples based on your resume that you can adjust easily to answer interviewer questions – this is particularly helpful if you get a behavioral interview question for which an answer doesn’t come to you readily.

Know your worth. You need to benchmark the average salary for the job and factor in cost of living for the area (the WAGE Project has great online resources for bench-marking). Talk to your university career services office and the department you graduated from to see if they have salary survey information from recent grads that they can share with you.

Don’t be afraid to negotiate. It can be really uncomfortable to even think about negotiating salary or benefits, but it is so important to your future earnings that you start off with a competitive salary. If you have done your salary bench-marking, investigated cost of living, and can map your qualifications to the job and list your added value you will bring to the job, you’ve already done all the hard work. Take the emotion out of negotiating, map out your reasoning for the salary you are asking for, and ask.

Don’t settle for the first thing. It is so exciting to get that first full-time job offer. It is also very scary and hard to turn down a full-time job offer. But if your gut is telling you that the fit isn’t right, listen to your gut.

Don’t be afraid to apply for a job you aren’t 100% qualified for. You don’t need to meet 100% of all the preferred job requirements to apply for a job. Put yourself out there and apply! Sell what you will bring to the job in your cover letter.

Take a financial management seminar. For the first time in your life, you will be making really decent money. You owe it to your future self to save responsibly and pay off any debt. You need to learn what you don’t know about financial management to feel empowered.

Have fun. You worked hard for this! The job search process can be tedious and frustrating, and rejection is inevitably going to be part of the process (don’t take it personally – learn and move on). Don’t let the process wear you down. Keep a positive attitude and have fun!

What advice do you have for new female STEM graduates who are in the process of job hunting and interviewing?

The advice I have for women starting off in STEM and interviewing for jobs is not any different than what I would provide to my male students:

1) Be confident and never underestimate your abilities.

2) Be prepared and dress professionally.

3) Take on challenging positions early on in your career, when you do not have other competing pressures.

In addition, I would suggest that women do the following:

4) Always look out for promotions and seek those opportunities out.

5) Negotiate well so that you get what is due. Women tend to not be very good at asking for what they deserve and end up with lower pay, which can have a cumulative effect in terms of lifetime earnings and achievements.

6) Help other younger women who come along so that they have a smooth start to their career.

7) Be on the lookout for gender discrimination and bring it to the attention of management and HR immediately. Also, do speak out when you see it.

8) Do not quit the workforce and a well-paying job due to family pressures, unless it is something you really want to do.

9) Find a truly supportive partner who will help you be successful on all fronts including your professional and personal life.

10) There is and always will be an ‘old boys’ network in the STEM professions, but unless we build up the numbers of women, especially in the STEM professions that have a small minority of women, there will never be any change. It is not easy, but has to be done because we are giving up good-paying jobs.

What advice do you have for new female STEM graduates who are in the process of job hunting and interviewing?

Being a young female STEM grad is definitely a challenge. Here are a few tips:

1. Always dress appropriately for interviews, and keep an eye out for signs of a fair and balanced workplace. Unfortunately, not every workplace is fair and equal. You don’t want to spend your first job trying to get respect.

2. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. So many woman are discouraged from doing this. Do your best to get multiple job offers, so you’ll have leverage when in talks with companies – and you’ll better understand your market value.

3. Apply for jobs where you don’t meet 100% of the criteria in the job description. So often, women will only apply if they are completely confident in every aspect of the job. But in reality, employers don’t expect you to be able to do everything perfectly. Submit an application, and see where things go! You don’t have to accept a job offer if it doesn’t seem like a fit in the end.

What advice do you have for new female STEM graduates who are in the process of job hunting and interviewing?

If you are interested in a position but don’t meet 100 percent of the listed requirements – apply anyway! You’ve likely been prepared for more than you expect, and reaching out shows initiative and starts the conversation. Emphasize the skills you do have, and your willingness and capacity to learn the rest.

Don’t be afraid to use your network of family, friends, parents, and professors to connect you to mentors, role models, and anyone you can get advice from. If you trust them, trust that they can connect you to the people you should meet.

What advice do you have for new female STEM graduates who are in the process of job hunting and interviewing?

1. Surround yourself with a strong support group. Things are changing, but a lot of the culture is still very male-dominant and very racially homogenous in STEM fields, and sometimes that can be challenging to navigate. Having a support team who cheers for you and encourages you is vital. This includes friends, family, mentors, and peers. Believe in yourself. Be okay asking for support when you need it.

2. Take charge of your own learning and development. Make sure you follow what’s cutting-edge and new in your field, and ask for opportunities for exposure, training, and development via your workplace. This is an investment in both your overall career and your job performance and will pay dividends for both you and your employer. Don’t be shy. You are your best advocate.

3. Engage with the STEM community online via social media. One of the best ways to learn and start giving back from day one of your career is by being active on social media. Follow interesting organizations who are doing advocacy work to attract, celebrate, and retain women’s contributions to STEM fields. Twitter is a terrific place to start. Find your community by following hashtags like #WomenInSTEM and #WomenInTech. You are not alone.

Get noticed by employers. Increasingly, employers are using LinkedIn profiles to source than traditional resume pipelines. This is also more efficient for the applicant. Go to job fairs or meet-ups in your area, in addition to on campus, and go to meet-ups and other events so you are aware of industry trends. Also engage in public forums in the science/technology community your the area of interest.

Think of what will make you stand out. Some common things employers look for: Academic accomplishments and projects, solid technical chops, a love of technology in the chosen field, hunger for learning and problem-solving, and relevant practical and school work and internships. It’s also important to demonstrate ownership and leadership, as well as great communication.

Network. Leverage social media thoughtfully, using various networking opportunities. Publish your work, and engage in talks, panels, and mentorships. Find opportunities to demonstrate leadership and innovation in the community – for example, via hackathon events. Network with other students and candidates, as well as professionals.

Nail the interview. There are plenty of websites with sample questions – research them. Research technology used at the companies you are speaking with. Attend mock interview panels if they’re available. Review online forums, such as Stackoverflow, for sample interview questions. Do your homework about the company and position, as well as the team that you will be working with. Consider the company’s business and mission – employers love big-picture questions. Don’t forget to research the work culture of the place, including the level of freedom and flexibility. Sites like Glassdoor can come in handy.

Special thanks to our contributing experts:

Callie Babbitt, Associate Professor at the Golisano Institute for Sustainability, Rochester Institute of Technology
Adrienne Minerick, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Dean of the College for Engineering, Michigan Technological University
Seeta Hariharan, General Manager and Group Head of Tata Consultancy Services’ Software & Solutions Group
Laura K. Bistrek, Program Manager of the Diversity Engineering Program, University of Dayton
Dr. Beena Sukumaran, Chair of Civil & Environmental Engineering at the Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering, Rowan University
Angela Copeland, Former VP of Digital and eCommerce at First Tennessee Bank and Career Coach at Copeland Coaching
Cristal Glangchai, CEO and Founder of VentureLab
Saadia Muzaffar, Senior Director of Marketing at AudienceView
Shobana Radhakrishnan, Director of Cloud Services, Channel Store and Billing, Roku Inc.

Email | Twitter | LinkedIn Abby Perkins attended Davidson College, where she graduated with a B.A. and Honors in English and wrote for The Davidsonian newspaper. Abby’s work has been featured on Yahoo! Finance and Entrepreneur. As Managing Editor, Abby is a regular contributor to the GoodCall newsroom, covering education and financial aid.

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