How to find fulfilment and purpose in your STEM career

Having a good job in STEM with progression, money and security sounds great, but why can you still end up feeling unhappy, bored or unmotivated?

When it comes to your career, particularly in STEM because no doubt you’ve been through years of education & experience, it can feel disappointing and frustrating when you finally land what’s considered a great job on paper but within a year you’re pulling your hair out feeling fed up and miserable.

In this article we’ll address one of the hardest career questions – how can you have money & security whilst also having purpose and fulfilment in your STEM career?  

This 10 min read will look at…

  • Why you can end up unhappy or dissatisfied in your STEM job even though you were initially happy (The Pillar Theory)
  • The essential tool for bringing in more fulfilment and purpose into your STEM career
  • How to balance money & security with enjoyment and purpose (and have it all!)
  • The 3 simple and effective actions you need to be taking right now


For a deeper dive listen on the ‘Fearless STEM Careers’ podcast! There’s an audio version of every article where we go into more detail, plus it’s great if you’re on the go! Remember to subscribe in your favourite podcast app so you don’t miss an episode. Also please do rate us and leave a review – it really helps!


Why can you have a great STEM job on paper but still feel unhappy? The Pillar Theory

Everyone’s situation is different and personal to them, so it would be wrong of me to try and solve everything in one article without speaking to you.  However, there’s one theory I’d like to share which has made a huge difference in the lives of myself and many of my coaching clients. 

This theory is the ‘Pillars of Life’ (or similar to the ‘Pyramid of Happiness’).

Now before you click off thinking “woahhh this sounds odd and not my kind of thing” I understand. When I first heard about the ‘Pillars of Life’ my analytical mind kicked in and thought “nope this is rubbish” but a few years on I realised its benefits and I know it can help you too.

What is the Pillar Theory?

Within your life you have needs and for you to feel happy and secure they need to be fulfilled as much as possible. These needs can be separated into different pillars called ‘life pillars’.

Now there’s a ton of books out there on the subject but what I’m doing here is explaining my own interpretation and how I’ve personally used it in my own STEM career.

As a quick summary there’s six life pillars, three of which are usually considered essential, for general survival (I’ll explain more later):

  • Health (essential)
  • Security (essential)
  • Relationships (essential)
  • Freedom & Independence
  • Spirituality & Connection
  • Meaning & Enjoyment

How the Pillar Theory Relates to Your STEM Career (and why you should care!)

If you’ve read this far you may be wondering how these life pillars relate to your STEM career and why it’s important (rather than being mumbo-jumbo nonsense). The main reason is that STEM education and careers usually focus more on the technical side, to the point where happiness, purpose and enjoyment may be side-lined.

Sometimes you may be disappointed because your career path can ends up something like this:  

  • You decide to follow a career in STEM (yey!) and work yourself to the bone to get the right education/training
  • You land your first job with dreams of progressing quickly – woohoo
  • You suddenly face the hard reality that progression in STEM can be SLOW because it requires a ton of technical experience, or the opportunities just aren’t there
  • You spend the next few years working hard to prove yourself and progress but feel that you’re moving at a snail’s pace (whilst your pals in other areas such as finance, marketing and sales may be sailing right past you waving with glee)
  • You get moved around onto different projects that you’re not interested in, or you get minimal support and opportunities, or even worse get treated badly to the point where you consider leaving STEM or just giving up on being happy (because ‘a job is just a job right?’ – wrong!)

Here’s the thing, I’m not here to sugar-coat your situation or make you feel better. I’m here to give you some hard truths and actions to help you make a difference in your STEM career.

So instead of giving up or staying unhappy why not actually do something about your situation? This is what I like to call being fearless in your career, hence the name of my podcast ‘Fearless STEM Careers’! So let’s dive into these life pillars and HOW you can use them to improve your STEM career.


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Life Pillars Explained

Let’s kick things off by digging further into each life pillar…

Pillar 1 – Health

Health is one of the very basic needs – this means sleep, exercise, eating well and feeling good in body and mind. If we use the analogy of a house, health would be the foundations of the building as it underpins everything.  Of course, we can’t be healthy 100% of the time, life always throws curveballs however, looking after yourself as best as you can is key (whilst also leaving room for some fun of course!).

Pillar 2 – Security

Security is about feeling safe, having an income and a home. This pillar is essentially the walls of the house giving it structure and support. It’s worth noting that different people need different levels of security. Some are happy travelling the world with only their backpack and laptop (which is still a form of security), and some prefer a fixed place they can call home. There’s no right or wrong, it’s about what you want from your life.  

Pillar 3 – Relationships

I’m sure you’re already aware that relationships are important. Whether it’s family, friends, a partner or even pets having love in your life and feeling like you’re not alone is part of being human.  As cheesy as it may sound, relationships are like the roof of a house they help you weather the storms.

Pillar 4 – Freedom & Independence

This is about having autonomy in your life so feeling free and liberated. This will be different for everyone, but one example is that you’re not chained to a desk although some people can feel that way. Essentially you’re following YOUR own path, not a path that’s been set by someone else, such as your boss or family. If freedom and independence were part of a house, in my opinion they’d be the windows bringing in the light.

(Side note – you may have responsibilities such as children, pets or other family members which may restrict some of your choices, but it doesn’t have to control them all.)

Pillar 5 – Connection with something bigger / spirituality

Before your analytical mind disregards this pillar, as it did for me originally, you’ll probably be surprised by how much ‘connection’ plays a role in your life. This pillar is simply having the understanding that the world is bigger than you and there’s more to life than just you. 

For some people this can be faith and spirituality for others it’s appreciating nature or simply ‘being in the moment’, i.e., the calm moments in-between all the busy stuff. Essentially it’s gratitude for the world around you and appreciating life. I like to think of this pillar as a garden as it’s where all forms of life grow!

Pillar 6 – Meaning & Enjoyment

This pillar is about having things in your life that bring meaning, purpose, enjoyment and creativity i.e. your life isn’t just ‘eat, sleep, work’. It’s about feeling joy and doing what lights you up. 

This pillar is one of the key reasons I set up my STEM career coaching business because helping people to feel happier in their careers brings me meaning and joy!

For the house analogy I imagine this pillar to be swings in your back garden, or the art on your walls, or the books on your bookshelf. It’s everything that brings more substance and individuality to your life.


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Three essential points you need to be aware of…

1 – The first three pillars, health, security and relationships are the most critical for feeling stable

The first three pillars don’t need to be perfectly fulfilled but they’re a good place to start if you’re feeling ‘off’. Whenever potential clients come to me and they’re in a really bad place I always recommend to start with the basics. Eat well, get sleep, see your loved ones and understand what you need to feel secure. (Plus seek some professional help from a GP or counsellor as looking after your mind is also key)

2 – Having a job can tick off the security pillar

In its basic sense a job is money and security. So, when you first get a job or change jobs, often you’ll feel fulfilled and satisfied because your security needs have been met.

3 – Life is more than just the first three pillars, it’s a balance of ALL six

Here’s the thing, when you have a job you may feel fulfilled because you have security (big tick in the box) BUT things can go downhill quickly if your other pillars aren’t being met. This is why initially you may feel good and happy in a new job, but after a year or two you may end up miserable.  The security pillar is still being met but other pillars such as relationships are not.

Remember you spend a lot of your life working, so if you only fulfil your security pillar you can end up feeling empty, especially if you’re someone who wants to enjoy their career and make a positive impact.

How to use the pillars to feel happy in your STEM career and build more fulfilment

Take time to understand your pillars

Understanding the key pillars and looking at your life holistically is a very simple way to start identifying what might be missing, or why you might be feeling unhappy. Once you have a clearer understanding of what’s missing you can start to take action in fulfilling your pillars.

If you feel you’re unhappy but unsure why and need some help, then my free quiz, ‘Should you quit your STEM job?’ will help. It’s an easy downloadable quiz that takes you through a series of questions to understand what’s missing from your job and get clarity on whether you want to stay or leave.

Spread your time across all six pillars

If you spend your life only focussing on one of the six pillars, you’re bound to feel like something is missing. This is why you often hear stories of people earning tons of money but they’re deeply unhappy. Of course success and progression require sacrifice, but this doesn’t mean completely ignoring all the other pillars. Often burn out and unhappiness comes when one or more of the pillars are forgotten.

Build a career that touches on all six pillars

Aim to build a career that touches on all six pillar so that you have security, work with people you connect with, feel your work has purpose, have time to stay healthy and have autonomy in your day work. Often when you’re unhappy in a job it’s because one (or more) of the pillars are missing. Here’s some examples:

  • You love the work itself but your boss is a micro-manager so you lose your feeling of freedom and independence.
  • You have great relationships with your colleagues but discover you’re working in an industry or for a company you don’t believe in, so your job no longer has meaning or enjoyment. is taken away from you.  (This happened to me when I worked in oil & gas. I loved the work but realised I was unhappy because I wanted to help the planet in a positive way so I moved into the renewable energy industry)

Do this if you can’t find a single job that touches on all six…

Sometimes life throws you curveballs and you have no choice but to stay in a job that isn’t ideal. This is fine if it’s temporary and you know exactly WHY you’re there. In the meantime you can find ways to address the other pillars

e.g. if you don’t like your work can you change departments? If your boss micro-manages can you speak to them about having more autonomy? If you don’t like the work environment can you find ways to improve it? If you miss your colleagues because you work from home can you set up a social?

Instead of allowing the situation to happen and being a bystander try to identify if there’s anything YOU can do about it. This is part of being fearless in your career, it’s using your initiative and making things happen.

If you really can’t change your situation inside work then make the most of your time OUTSIDE of work. When you’re unhappy at work it’s easy to come home and wallow in the negativity. It’s important to give space for your feelings but this doesn’t have to take up all of your spare time. Instead find ways to fulfil the pillars outside of work and try and figure out what you truly want to do.   


Should you quit your STEM job? Take the quiz!

If you’re feeling unhappy or uncertain in your job, and unsure whether you should stay or leave, this quiz will help you get some clarity! Get ready to create a career with purpose, where you feel you belong and make the impact you’ve always dreamt of.


When you can’t fulfil one pillar use the other pillars to compensate

In life there’ll always be challenges and not all your pillars can be fulfilled all the time. This is just a reality of life. This can be challenging but there is a way to ease the difficulties and that’s to lean on the other pillars.

For example, at the time of writing this I’m having some medical issues so my health pillar has been down ,so instead of focussing on the lack in that area I’m focussing more on my other pillars to feel happier during this challenging time.  

Take it one pillar at a time

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the pillars if you feel a lot is missing. It’s down to you to get clear on what pillars are most important and which you want to focus on. My number 1 recommendation though is to take things one pillar at a time. Don’t do everything at once! If you’re struggling to know which one to start with this is what I’d recommend (though it’s not the only way!):

  • Make sure you’re ticking off the health pillar first. Eat and sleep well, and exercise.
  • Surround yourself with people (and pets!) you care about – the relationship pillar.
  • Then start to focus on security, for example getting an income even if it’s not your dream job as a safety net
  • Once you have all of that, then you can start considering how to being more freedom and enjoyment into your life & career

Don’t feel guilty!

One thing I want to mention is guilt. Sometimes when you work through the pillars, guilt can come up because not everyone has access to the essential pillars like health, love and security. You may think “who am I to complain about what I’m lacking when others have it way worse?”.

It’s true there are people worse off and there always will be, but your feelings are valid. You have every right to enjoy your life fully. In fact, enjoying your life fully brings a lot of positivity to the world. When you feel good others will feel good around you.

So in case you need it, I’m giving you full permission here to look at these pillars with an open mind and think about yourself. So don’t go feeling guilty okay! If helping people is important to you then that can be part of your spirituality or meaning pillar. You can think of ways to help those who may not have access to all the pillars, but you still have every right to fulfil all of yours. 

Don’t Believe you have to stay in one area of STEM

You may think that you don’t have many choices outside of what you do now, so feeling fulfilled insn’t an option for you. I want you to know there ARE other options out there. Because you’re in STEM you have transferrable skills that you may not even be aware of. Often clients will come to me when they feel stuck and they end up so surprised when they get offered jobs in completely different roles or industries. It’s hard to imagine it’s even possible when you’ve been doing something for so long.

The truth is that no matter how trapped you feel right now there are options for you, it’s just about identifying them and taking action.

Three quick actions to take right now (or to put in your diary):

If you want to make a difference in your career then taking action is key. Here are three actions you can complete right now (or if you’re busy, make a note in your calendar to come back to them)

  • ACTION 1 – Write down your personal pillars. You can use mine as a starting point or change them to  suit you.
  • ACTION 2 – Next to each pillar write down whether you feel it’s being fully met or not.
  • ACTION 3 – Look at where the gaps are and write down one thing you can do to try and change it.

Now, I’d love to hear from you.

Which pillar are you going to focus on? Let me know in the comments below!

DIVE DEEPER – Do you work within science, tech or engineering and want to feel clear and confident in your career?

Learn about 1-1 coaching with me here

Big Love,

Hayley


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If you’re feeling unhappy or uncertain in your job, and unsure whether you should stay or leave, this quiz will help you get some clarity! Get ready to create a career with purpose, where you feel you belong and make the impact you’ve always dreamt of.

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