Ten tips to prepare for a career in science and tech

Researchers share advice on how to overcome a host of potential deal-breakers

Students can do research — in their own school or even at a nearby university — as one way to test their interest and aptitude for science and tech.

Steve Debenport/iStockphoto

Jobs in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — pay well compared to many fields. However, plenty of kids lack the training they need to qualify for such jobs. Some don’t get the foundation to succeed in the high school and college classes they will need. They may even lack an understanding of how to study effectively or how to qualify for low-cost or no-cost help.

Here, researchers offer advice on how they succeeded, against all odds, to find rewarding careers in science and tech. Many had to overcome poverty, family troubles or ignorance about how to prepare. It may just take some extra grit — that stick-to-it attitude.

Science News for Students asked them to offer tips from what they learned. Here’s what they recommend.

1. Ask for help. “Having to swallow your pride and asking other people for help is kind of a lifelong lesson,” says Kelly Chavez. She’s a biomedical scientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “If you don’t think to ask, you’ll never know what a treasure trove of information other people have” and may be happy to provide to you.

2. Develop strong study skills. “We all learn in different says,” notes Laura Martinez. She’s a microbiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Try to understand what works best for you,” she says. And seek out tutoring if you’re still struggling.

350_inline_Omar_Villanueva.png
Courtesy of O. Villanueva
Chemist Omar Villanueva assists a student in the lab at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, where he teaches.

3. Explore your options. Look into different STEM fields, and learn what choices are out there. If college sounds too expensive, do your homework. Find out about financial-aid options. Afterward, “talk to people and get their experiences,” says Ashley McCormack. It worked for this molecular biologist. Today she’s a scientist with a government contractor at the National Institutes of Health in Rockville, Md.

4. Find your cheering section. “Seek help if you feel like nobody supports you at home,” says Omar Villanueva. He’s a chemistry professor at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville. Your cheering section can be friends, a teacher or others, he notes. Everyone needs someone who can be there for them in good times and bad.

5. Seek out mentors. Don’t be shy about asking adults to share insights and guidance as you work toward a STEM career. “Lots of people like giving advice,” says Esteban Burchard. He’s a lung doctor and asthma researcher at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). It’s great if you have role models that look like you. However, he adds, great guidance may also come from people who aren’t like you at all.

6. Take the initiative. Look for chances to work in labs or join research teams. You can gain experience beyond the classroom. You can earn some extra money, too. Some students start this when they’re in high school. Others work (often for pay) in research labs while they’re a college student. “Don’t wait for an opportunity,” says Tracie Delgado. “Create it!” That’s what this microbiologist did. And she now works at Northwest University in Kirkland, Wash.

350_inline_McCormackAtWork.png
Courtesy of A. McCormack
Have you ever dissected a mosquito before?” the job interviewer asked. Molecular biologist Ashley McCormack was willing to try. She ultimately found a job she loves in a research lab at the National Institutes of Health.

7. Accept responsibility. Yes, poverty presents lots of problems, but you always have a choice, says Emmitt Jolly. He’s a molecular biologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. When you make a choice, he says, accept the results and be willing to deal with them.

8. Don’t be afraid of failure. Many things you try won’t work, and some people won’t accept you. That’s not the end of the world. Just dust yourself off and move on, Chavez says. Indeed, most people learn more from failure than from getting something right on the first try. So learn from those mistakes.

9. Be bold. “Don’t shy away from something just because it might be too much work, or you’re uncertain you’ll succeed,” says Abel Chávez. He’s a civil and environmental engineer at Western Colorado University in Gunnison. “Give it a shot,” he says. “See what happens.”

10. Work hard. Diogenes Placencia is a research chemist for the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. If he could go back and tell himself something, it would be this: “Keep your head down, work as hard as you can, and everything is going to be all right.”

And a bonus: Accept yourself for who you are. It’s no fun to not have money. Yet you can celebrate good things about your background. Geoffrey Manley dropped out of high school in Kentucky and worked as an auto mechanic to help support his single mom and younger brother. After talks with a customer who taught at the University of Kentucky, Manley went back to school and eventually became a brain surgeon. He now heads up the neurosurgery departments at UCSF and Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. Today, he values his roots back in Kentucky. “We had our own dialect. We had our own music,” he says. “It’s a very, very special place to be from, and it’s made me what I am now.”

Tracie Delgado speaks at Seattle’s 2017 March for Science, explaining how she succeeded in science despite a failing school system and the problems of poverty. Today, she’s a microbiologist at Northwest University in Kirkland, Wash.
Tracie Delgado

This is part of a Cool Jobs series on the value of diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It has been made possible with generous support from Arconic Foundation.

Kathiann Kowalski reports on all sorts of cutting-edge science. Previously, she practiced law with a large firm. Kathi enjoys hiking, sewing and reading. She also enjoys travel, especially family adventures and beach trips.

More Stories from Science News for Students on Science & Society