Friday, 8 March 2013

Why passion is more important than a piece of paper

Happy International Womens Day 2013 everyone! To celebrate, I'd like to share with you my experience of an inspiring evening last night at the 'Stemettes' panel event. This event has convinced me more than ever that it isn't the pieces of paper stating my degree or doctorate that have built my career. Rather, it is my passion for science which has seen me through - and will continue to do so in the future.

'Do something you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life'

Last night, I was priveliged to sit on an amazing panel of 8 inspiring ladies (and one man) to discuss getting into, staying in and succeeding in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. I was very firmly in the 'S'-for-science category, but there was a very diverse range of panelists

Our stories were all very different. Two panelists started out in India, one in South Africa and I'm from Australia. None of us had taken a direct route into our current careers, and all of us acknowledged that this was a good thing. So the first take-home message was: 'you don't have to know right now exactly what it is you'd like to do in your career. You can change your mind!'

I was struck by how similar our main advice was to the girls in the audience. More often than not,  it was qualities like passion, commitment and determination which were repeatedly offered as the most important things to have to succeed in a career in STEM.

These are words that we often hear applied to sportspeople. There is no doubt that Olympic champions like Mo Farah or Jess Ennis work incredibly hard to achieve their dreams. Yet for some reason we don't hear these words being applied so often to more 'intellectual' careers like those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Why not?

In STEM careers it often appears that 'intellect' is the only requirement. Superficially, they might seem like careers devoid of emotion. But that's not true. Not at all. It was clear that all the panelists loved the work they did and it was this which had allowed them to ignore any barriers and do what it was they wanted. Even if they started out with the 'wrong' qualifications. 

'It's not about the answers you give but the questions you ask'

One thing that repeatedly came up in my conversations with individual students last night was the fact that you don't have to be a genius to do this stuff! It's okay if you struggle to get your head around some of the ideas in science - it is good to challenge yourself. You are learning a way of thinking and problem solving, and in the long run these skills will be more valuable to you than any exam answers.

What's more important is that you're interested, passionate, determined (see how those keywords sneak back in again?) Also, don't be afraid to ask for what you want - whether that's help and advice, a mentor, some specific training or even a new job! You never know what people will do for you until you ask. 

'It's not about what you know but who you know'

In terms of practical advice for careers in STEM, we discussed the importance of having mentors, of figuring out what you'd like to do and achieve and surrounding yourself with people whom you admire. 

The other element of success which most of the panelists agreed on was 'self belief'. This was a bit of a revelation to me. In my experience 'self belief' isn't a concept that my all-male colleagues discuss much. I've probably heard them use words like 'confidence' or 'ego'... but not 'self belief'. It seems odd to admit that I might feel uncomfortable using terminology like 'self belief' around my colleagues, which is why it was really lovely to hear these ladies using it in a really positive way. I'm going to start using that term a bit more, and I hope you will join me.

So to any aspiring women or men out there who are thinking of starting or changing to a career in STEM I leave you with this advice:

Work hard,
find your strengths. 
Don't be afraid to dream big. 
Challenge yourself...
but most of all believe in yourself. 
You CAN do this!