Wednesday, August 18, 2010

10 Secrets to a Successful Career in Science

An article by Lynn Jacobs and Jeremy Hyman discusses why so few women remain in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields. They invited blogger Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics to share her views. She came up with 10 suggestions for success. I’ve reproduced them here with my own comments about each one.

1. Join a support group of peers. Whether you are having doubts about a career in science or other problems, belonging to a group who can offer support and advice is probably one of the best ways to cope. Even if you are doing great, having a support group is insurance in the event you ever need help. You can also contribute in such a support group by helping others. Women in Wetlands is one such group, but there are others for various disciplines. Not one for your particular field? Start one!

2. Find a mentor. Another good idea to help you navigate challenges. A mentor can be anyone—male or female, young or old, scientist or not. If you belong to a professional society, push for development of a mentoring program.

3. Get involved in a research project. Getting a first-hand view of what research is all about has a number of benefits: making valuable contacts, getting some experience to list on your resume, and learning whether research is the right choice for you. If you are farther along in your career, arrange for a research visit to another laboratory for a semester, or if that’s not possible, just go for a few days. During such visits, offer to give a seminar or an informal talk.

4. Organize your time. Plan out your studies/work and put your schedule on a calendar—with e-reminders of deadlines. For large projects, break them down into increments and set interim goals to complete them. Scheduling also means figuring out how much time you need to complete each task and factoring this information into prioritizing those activities you can reasonably fit into your life. You will more easily see that it may be necessary to temporarily suspend some personal activity until you can complete a big project, for example. This point is probably one of the best suggestions to avoid feelings of being overwhelmed and stressed out all the time.

5. Don’t be afraid to be assertive. This doesn’t mean being aggressive. It means asking questions until you get a satisfactory answer. If you feel intimidated in class and never ask questions, try speaking up in smaller groups first—then work up to larger gatherings. Being assertive also means asking for help instead of waiting for someone to offer it to you. If you are especially struggling with something, you may need to seek out special (professional) help—from a teacher, mentor, or counselor.

6. Have confidence.  Women particularly have difficulty feeling confident in a situation in which they are in a minority or when everyone else seems to be more adept. The key to gaining confidence is developing skills—communication skills in particular. Assess your weaknesses and develop a program to improve your abilities in those areas. If you have a particular knack for something, develop it to the point of becoming an expert. People will then seek you out for help and advice—a great boost to your overall confidence!

7. Look out for yourself.  Women are natural nurturers and tend to take on other people’s problems and neglect their own. You can’t afford to do this and hope to succeed, especially in early career stages. This does not mean refusing to help fellow students or co-workers, but instead you should ensure that you are in a reciprocal arrangement in which you help each other. There will be plenty of time for nurturing others after you become established in your career (teacher, lab manager, etc.).

8. Avoid taking comments personally. You will eventually meet up with someone who makes unkind or even sexist remarks. These situations are particularly difficult to deal with effectively. See this post on how to counter verbal attacks.

9. Strategize for the future. I can’t overstate the necessity of having a clear plan in place for your career—and one that contains alternative paths in the event something does not work out as planned. In fact, you should anticipate obstacles to your progress and work out a strategy for addressing these inevitable barriers and detours.

10. Enjoy yourself. One of the biggest advantages of a career in science is that you can end up in a job that you enjoy doing and that allows you enormous flexibility in making decisions about your activities on a day-today basis. However, you must really love science, have a keen curiosity, and enjoy the challenge of figuring things out for this to work. You must also love learning and view your studies not as a means to an end (a degree) but as a process of discovery that is exciting and meaningful.

I would add to this list a couple more secrets:

11. Take responsibility. You are responsible for your successes and failures in your career and life. It’s not the fault of your teachers, your advisers, your family, or your fellow students if you fail a course, don’t get that job, or don’t complete your dissertation. You make choices that create the path your career ultimately takes. Think carefully and with an eye to the distant future when making decisions. It is often those early choices that determine long-range outcomes.

12. Find a supportive spouse. Succeeding in any career is exceedingly difficult without someone to share in raising children, doing housework, taking care of you when illness strikes, and a million other things you will face in your personal life. It’s possible to succeed without a “significant other”, but the wear and tear of having to shoulder all the burden has an impact. I was lucky to find someone relatively early in my career who has helped me in numerous ways to succeed in science.

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