Can You Change Specialism In STEM?

When you work in STEM but feel your current role isn’t the right fit you may wonder if you can switch specialism, or if you’ll be stuck in the same area for the rest of your career. 

This week’s Fearless STEM Careers sees my guest Rebekah Devlin, a structural engineer turned carbon analyst, and I explore how you can change specialism in STEM and how to use opportunities such as internal vacancies to help.  

Why It’s Important Your STEM Role Fits You

You may work in a role that’s interesting or where you know it’s good experience but still feel it’s not right or like it’s not clicking. When you’ve gained education and experience in STEM the feeling of being stuck in a particular specialism forever can be exhausting. In fact, you may reach a point where you think of quitting and doing anything else instead.

Any situation where you feel you’re “surviving” work or “putting up with things” can take a toll on you, not just at work but also in your personal life. People may say it’s just a job but when you’re spending forty hours of your week doing something you don’t enjoy the time adds up and eventually you won’t feel like yourself anymore.

Finding a role and specialism that fits you as a person is key for a happy career and life.

How To Know if you’re in the right or wrong STEM role

When you’re on a wrong path it can often feel like you’re constantly swimming upstream – it’s hard, exhausting and there’s constant blockers. Many people in this situation feel like they’re constantly having to force or push things and end up feeling unhappy or unsatisfied in their STEM job.

Whereas when you’re on a right path things tend to flow more easily and seem to ‘fall into place’. Many people in this situation feel they’ve got more energy and bounce back more easily from challenges they face.

As Rebecca puts it when describing how she’s felt since being in a job she enjoys…“I don’t finish work and feel like I need to lie down for two hours!”.

“I don’t finish work and feel like I need to lie down for two hours!”

Rebekah Devlin, Structural Engineer turned Carbon Analyst

How to Shift Your Role & Specialism In STEM6 Steps

STEP 1 – Understand what you dislike about your work – this is an essential step that many people miss out. You need to get crystal clear on what you don’t like (and what you do like), so you can make informed decisions. For example, do you like technical work or project management? Are you happy to travel? Do you want to work on a construction site or in an office? Do you want a large corporate firm or a smaller start-up? It’s all about asking yourself the right questions if you’re feeling unhappy.

STEP 2 – Figure out the specialism or type of job role you want – Getting clear on what you’re looking for is key. For example you may want to change from the defence industry into sustainability, or shift from Safety Engineering into Process Engineering. This is where having a career coach can be very helpful, especially one that specialises in STEM.

STEP 3 – Gain experience (and potentially education) to fill any gaps – If you’re wanting to switch roles, careers or industry in STEM you’ll have gaps in your knowledge and experience so you need to find ways to fill the gaps and showcase your passion in that area. This can include studying, volunteering, doing work experience, attending conferences, or even starting a blog/podcast on the topic. And if you’re worried about wasting your current education and experience if you make a change, don’t! It’s amazing how many transferrable skills you’ll have!

For inspiration listen to this podcast episode where I chat with Rebekah on how she shifted from structural engineering to carbon analysis in sustainability. 

STEP 4 Apply Apply Apply! And don’t forget internal vacancies – internal vacancies are an excellent route for shifting roles because the company already knows you. This means they’re more likely to take a risk on you even if you don’t have the full experience or background. Internal hires are also more cost effective for the company compared to hiring externally, so your company will be more willing to train you on the job. Even if there aren’t any internal vacancies available, make sure to ASK. Always start with the company you work for first, they’re often keen to keep you and will try to accommodate your goals where possible. You can also apply to external companies but remember to avoid the five most common mistakes!

STEP 5 – Have patience – change doesn’t happen straight away, it takes time. You need to accept this and stay patient and persistent. career isn’t always easy, you’ll increase your chances of success. As Fran shared in the podcast episode “As a painter I’m not blissfully paining all the day, it’s more like 70% painting and 30% admin.”  No matter what you do there’ll be hard times and bad days, but the 70% of incredible makes up for it!

QUICK TIP – It can be challenging to stay motivated when you’re ready to leave but haven’t found another job or right path. In fact you may just want to quit. To stay motivated in a job you dislike remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing, even if it’s just to put food on the table or to save for a deposit for a house. 

STEP 6 – Don’t give up, even if you encounter blockers – As you go for interviews you may be told you “don’t have the right experience”. This can be demoralising but don’t give up. It just takes one person to recognise your passion and for them to take a leap of faith. So make sure you keep a strong & healthy mindset so you can continue to thrive!

“At the time of being unhappy in my STEM job I thought I needed it to be fixed immediately, but realistically that’s not how life goes. You need to know that life WILL turn out the way you want it if you keep working towards it. Things just may take longer than you expect but you’ll eventually get there.”

Rebekah Devlin

Final Fearless Careers Thought…

Changing your specialism in STEM starts with one seed of belief. Have courage in yourself and trust that you CAN make a change. You may feel you want to give up or things aren’t possible but stay patient and you WILL get there!

Need more support?

Each week you’ll receive an email from Hayley, full of support, guidance and inspiration for your career. If you’re unhappy in your job, thinking of switching or want to excel further, this email will be a weekly boost to keep you on track. You’ll also be the first to know about any free masterclasses and coaching offers.

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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