How to Prep for a Career in STEM and Beat Out Your Competition


Over the years, I have worked with numerous clients who were interested in STEM careers. Many of them have asked me in various ways, how have I been able to be so successful at securing competitive opportunities in STEM. Establishing a STEM career does not happen by accident; you have to build one through years of preparation. In other words, there is a method to the madness. This post gives you a snapshot of the information that I provide clients based on over fifteen years of experience in the sciences as a student and as a professional.

Mistakenly, most people in STEM majors fall into the trap of prioritizing grades and exams over everything else. The most important competitor you will ever have is the best version of yourself; this is who you need to work toward becoming. The 11 areas mentioned below will help you to become that person. If you are able to effectively incorporate these 11 areas into your education and professional career, nothing will stop you.

Choosing a STEM career requires a commitment as well as an investment. For most people, the investment begins well before college as you take increasingly harder classes in math and science. Your commitment may be the result of a passion for science, technology, engineering or math (i.e., STEM). Or, you may be interested in a life of financial stability, and you have noticed that there is a lot of money in the STEM fields.

As a species, we place great value and funnel many resources in STEM, because of its ability to develop ideas, data and products that will solve real world problems and improve human life. Notably, STEM education and training incorporate hands-on experience, because the purpose of STEM is its eventual use. The need for obtaining hands-on experiences in STEM education creates considerable competition among students. Most STEM opportunities – such as college admissions, scholarships, internships and employment – require submitting applications, and this leads to competition between applicants who are being judged against one another. Although our society says that, when you give 100%, you will succeed, this is not necessarily the case in STEM fields.

Gaining entrance into a STEM career depends on successfully fulfilling a variety of prerequisite expectations. Throughout your STEM education and career, you will come across gatekeepers of your profession. It will be assumed that you have taken specific steps along the way, and their willingness to let you continue on will depend upon how well you have fulfilled their expectations of you. So you need to know what to expect. Knowing the right steps for success is what will make you competitive and will place you on a path toward a career in STEM.

Here are 11 STEM weapons for your career arsenal to help you beat back the naysayers and beat out your competition:

  1. Resumes: If you do not have a resume, you need to create one before you do anything else to further your career. If your resume is not up to date, you need to revise it immediately. You should be updating your resume regularly. You will use your resume in so many ways throughout your education and career, so get it done now.
  2. Professional exposure: Opportunities for hands-on experience are critical in STEM. Compared to an applicant with hands-on experience, you will probably take yourself out of the running if you do not have any. However, whether it is an internship or volunteer work, whether it is paid or unpaid is not as important early on. What is important is that you get direct exposure to STEM careers, because it is expected of you if you are serious about a career in STEM.
  3. Practical skills: Opportunities that develop your capabilities in STEM fields are the best opportunities to seek. Examples: research, lab or hospital work, computer programming, speaking multiple languages, etc. These give you skills and experience that will help you land the next opportunity.
  4. Mentors: STEM fields are structured like an apprenticeship. Find a reputable mentor and maintain the relationship long after your mentor’s tutelage has ended. A good mentor will be your advocate for future opportunities. You may even publish research together under your mentor’s reputation in the field. You will likely have different mentors at different phases in your career; always keep an eye out for who is receptive and supportive to you. Note that your mentor’s expectation is that the relationship is mutually beneficial, so bring your A-game and work hard.
  5. Communication skills: Nothing outshines a person who speaks and writes exceptionally well. Add to that being able to research objectively and study efficiently. Those who have mastered communicating STEM to others are the ones who help shape their field for the future. Take your classes seriously, even outside of your field of study, and use every chance to speak or write as an opportunity to hone your skills.
  6. Collaboration: There is no need to go it alone. STEM fields are designed to be collaborative. Everyone works on a team of one sort or another. Even in your classes, using a study group helps make the workload manageable. Those who try to do it all on their own typically fail or perform below their capabilities, making them less competitive amongst their peers.
  7. Applied statistics: If you are not required to take applied statistics, take it anyway. Statistics is key to interpreting research results, and applied statistics teaches you how to analyze data through practice. Even if you are not interested in a research career, you may still need to know how to interpret and utilize research results, because data is at the heart of propelling STEM fields forward.
  8. Journal articles: Before you are able to secure a great opportunity to gain hands-on experience, you should explore ideas and research in STEM. Reading peer-reviewed journal articles is the best way to learn what you will be expected to do in your field. Regularly reading research articles also helps keep you abreast of the latest developments in STEM, and helps you to create new ideas in your field.
  9. Mental diversity: It is important to diversify your mind and skillset with activities that use different parts of your brain in different ways. Learning an instrument, playing a sport or practicing an art form are examples of activities that will help your mind to become flexible and innovative. They also help to establish discipline, because it takes a lot of practice to do it well. The discipline you develop may positively impact other areas of your life such as studying.
  10. Life balance: The more balanced your life is, the more successful you will become. You may benefit from informal therapy, such as playing sports, spending time with friends, writing in a journal, meditating or listening to music. But, if you are feeling anxious or depressed, for example, you may need a professional to help you attain balance in your life. There is nothing more distracting when you are trying to concentrate or study than thoughts weighing on your mind. Work to clear them out, and do not be afraid to ask for help.
  11. Learning disabilities: The hands-on approach to learning and training in STEM may be helpful for a person who learns better by doing. A person with a learning disability is not necessarily more or less capable of being successful in a STEM career. It depends on the person’s needs and challenges. Moreover, a person’s learning disability or coping skills may lead to beneficial abilities or insights in STEM. For information on receiving accommodations in college, listen to my podcasts on Using Your 504 or IEP Accommodations in College, Part 1 and Part 2.

Helpful Tip: Go to this free online assessment to help you discover the best STEM careers for you →