A week(ish) ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a professional workshop in South Carolina sponsored by the National Science Foundation- the 2016 Carolinas’ PROGRESS workshop. I had absolutely no idea what I had signed up for until I crossed a little one-way bridge to a small island and rolled up to a cabin 3 hours away from Raleigh, but it was probably the best weekend I’ve had all semester.
First, why is PROGRESS in all caps? It stands for
Promoting Geoscience Research, Education, and Success
I know it seems super niche-specific, like it’s just for tree-huggers who want to go on to grad school concentrating in, well, geoscience (which, according to Wikipedia, is “all-embracing term for the fields of science related to the planet Earth.” You’re welcome.).
But that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Forty girls from various schools across North and South Carolina all received and accepted an email that appeared out of the blue inviting them to an all-expenses-paid weekend retreat to develop themselves as leaders (professionally and personally) and to join a supportive scientific community. All of them are in fields across STEM, from engineering to math to chemistry to environmental science. I had never met any of them but immediately felt at home, like I had found my people. They are some of the most real girls I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know.
We spent the weekend at an island campground, as I mentioned, hearing from successful, professional women about their journey in the sciences and how to make our career goals a reality. We developed our personal tool kits, realized our strengths, discussed how to overcome challenges, networked with mentors, and, of course, got to know each other with good food and good conversation. I even met two of my A.O.E. sorority sisters from another school’s chapter! It was so great to see that our international sisterhood is just as authentic as our little chapter right here at N.C. State.
Who wouldn’t want to spend a weekend getaway here?
Alright, so that introduction was basically a blog post in and of itself, but none of what I say next will have the same backing without a little context! Plus I wanted to share that saying “yes” is what will get you opportunities. You have to take risks, put yourself out there, and great things will come your way. Don’t be afraid to venture into the unknown!
This is part one in a two-part mini-series. Today, I’m talking about all of the things I learned relating to extrospective professional development. On Thursday, look for part two on introspection and how looking within yourself is just as important in helping your career grow.
So, now that I’m already 400 words in, let’s get started!
*Note- I was frantically writing notes all weekend, so see the end of this post for the list of professionals, mentors, and event organizers to whom I credit this lovely bank of newfound knowledge. It’s hard to keep track of exact quotes!
1. Your current major does not equal your job or discipline for the rest of your life.
I actually emailed the workshop organizers before accepting the invitation to this workshop because I wasn’t sure if it would directly relate to my major (civil engineering). This is where I was wrong- who cares if it’s not exactly the typical civil engineering material? My major is so much more than just buildings and bridges and construction sites. Do not prevent yourself from doing something just because it doesn’t have your specific field of study in the title. I was able to take so much away from this workshop even though all of the professionals were in environmental science (or directly related) fields.
It’s extremely important to remember that every experience matters. You can learn something from everything you do and, if you don’t like it, it’s just as important to figure out what you don’t want to do with your life anyway. Your degree doesn’t define you. As an undergrad, yes, you’re learning the basics of what you need to know related to a broad field of study. Your degree and the process of earning it, however, teach you how to attack problems and that’s what is really going to benefit you in whatever career you choose.
So how do you get that dream job?
You have to actively seek out opportunities. A lot of what is out there won’t be listed online, so you really can’t sit behind a screen and expect to land that perfect internship. It’s all in the networking, you have to talk to people. You don’t even have to know someone- you just have to find someone who knows someone else. Ask for connections. Never be afraid to approach someone because people truly want to help you. I’ve found that just by telling people what I’m hoping to achieve career-wise, they almost always have another name of someone else who would be beneficial for me to talk to. This is how you build your network!
You have to put yourself out there and be your own advocate. Focus on your goals and how you want to set yourself apart. Give people a reason to remember your name! You have so much potential, so make sure you’re confident in yourself and your abilities. Sell yourself with confidence- after all, no one is going to want to buy your “product” if you’re on the fence about quality 😉
Think big and stand out!
Remember to focus on your goals because that ambition and drive is what will keep you going when nerves want to take over.
2. Teamwork, Teamwork, Teamwork
Collaboration is vital, especially in STEM. After all, science happens in teams; despite the stereotypes, it is very much a social field. Be an active listener and engage with others. Remember those connections we just talked about? This is a great way to make them!
Don’t just be a consumer of knowledge. As a student, it may seem hard to be a producer since you may not feel like you’re “qualified,” but you absolutely are. Take time to help others as others have helped you. Reach out to your peers, underclassmen, high school seniors, and even elementary school kids. You have so much to share. Everyone has different experiences and has taken different paths. You never know who you will inspire and who you can lift up!
“Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t” – Bill Nye
(I love Bill Nye so much, no shame)
This means that you shouldn’t be hesitant about sharing what you know with anyone, including people older than you. Mentors frequently say that they often feel that they are getting more from their mentees than their mentees are getting from them!
3. The KEY is to Keep Educating Yourself.
Learning, Day 2!
Discovery is everything. Ask interesting questions, build interesting skills. These may not seem to always be the “right” questions or the “right” skills, but there’s always more than one way to achieve your end goal. Don’t worry about the what-ifs until they happen. This kind of thinking will only hold you back from greatness. Along with this, don’t worry about missing opportunities. Pick one fork in the road because once you try that, you can always go back and follow the other. It’s not a one-way path. You have complete freedom over your own map so take all of the detours and re-routing that mean the most to you at the time!
With this comes the understanding that life won’t always go forward on your terms. Failure is important- learn from it. Course correct, get back on track, and you’ll be extremely better off. You can do literally anything for a little bit. You can hold something heavy for a few seconds, or even a few nanoseconds, but the fact is you can hold it for that amount of time.
And channel your inner Lady Antebellum:
“Let your heart sweetheart be your compass when you’re lost
And you should follow it wherever it may go
When it’s all said and done you can walk instead of run
‘Cause no matter what you’ll never be alone”
Yes, I am relating Lady Antebellum to science. It can be done.
4. Push that pedal to the floor.
Our very first panelist/speaker said to always keep your foot on the gas pedal so that when you need to break, you’re already four steps ahead. It’s important to love what you do because your profession is a way of life. Especially in STEM, you may not necessarily get to “clock out” every day, so enjoy the work/life overlap. It is possible. You’re constantly going to be doing things that will be continuously hard, so going all in and never wavering from your dreams will make that hard work worthwhile and hopefully fun if you’re nerdy enough. 😉
5. Take time for you.
Why yes, we were able to fit 40 girls around a small fire.
I know for the past four segments I’ve basically said to focus on your career goals and keep going. Well, you also need to make sure you have time for yourself. Turn your phone off, close your laptop, and walk away from it all. Say yes to going out with a friend even if you feel overwhelmed at work. Say yes to a movie with your sister even if you have a meeting the next day. Say yes to yourself to prepare your favorite dinner. Do something for you every day, something that is fun and relaxing and will help you take a break from work for at least an hour.
You’ve probably been told a lot of this before, but having it repeated to you countless times in a variety of ways by a variety of people may just be enough to really ingrain these actions in your brain. Set yourself up for success because you have so much to offer the world!
~ How do you implement these five strategies in your professional life?
Check out part 2 on the introspective takeaways from this workshop here!
Special thanks to Dr. Sandra Clinton, Dr. Elaine Godfrey, Dr. Emily Fischer, Christ, and the Camp Canaan staff for making this weekend so incredible! Also credit to Dr. Amanda Adams, Dr. Paola Lopez-Duarte, Danielle Merritt, Nitza Santiago, Karin Gleason, Brittany Hamilton, Carolyn Ryan, Dr. Valerie Reynolds, Alea Tuttle, Camaron George, Dr. Patricia Fall, and Dr Heather Simon for being so open, supportive, and encouraging!