When working with high school students on their college admission process, I get a few common questions about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors and careers. “I like my math and science classes; what STEM field should I major in?” or “How can I find out if I really like engineering?” or “I want to go further in my STEM studies; where can I start?” There are literally hundreds of careers that fall under the umbrella of STEM, and sorting out which ones are right for you might seem daunting. The answer may be finding a STEM mentor who can help you explore these questions and help you discover opportunities to further your interests. But where would you look for such an advisor? Here are some of my best tips:
- Look local… really local. A great source of mentors may come right from your very own high school. Are there math or science teachers you have connected with? Or perhaps an advisor for a STEM club like Science Olympiad, math/science leagues, or robotics? These teachers may have a wealth of knowledge that will allow them not only to mentor you personally, but they may also know of opportunities that past students have pursued that may be open to you as well. An additional benefit of this type of mentorship is that your teacher may also be able to write a letter of recommendation for your college applications. The better they know you and your interests, the more compelling a letter they’ll write.
- Search your community. Do you know or can you find someone in your community or family network who has a career that intrigues you? Give them a call to ask if you can shadow them for a day or more. Many professionals are flattered by this request and happy to help.
- Go pro… as in professional organizations. Even if a teacher or community member isn’t able to have you come to their job site, ask them about professional organizations they belong to, like the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), League of Professional System Administrators (LOPSA), American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Institute of Architects (AIA). These groups and countless more often have online lists of mentors willing to help, as well as articles and educational outreach they offer. Whatever STEM field you are interested in, there is likely a professional organization that serves to promote that career and might even allow student membership.
- Cast your net even wider. Think about companies and universities in your area that might be conducting research. I’ve had students try to cold call or mass email hundreds of local researchers to try to find a summer lab internship, but generally this technique leads to little success. After all, these researchers may very well have college students with far more experience vying for those same coveted positions. Like any great job search, a more targeted approach is often better. Pick a few specific companies or universities that are close to you, do your homework about their research, and write a specific cover letter targeting why you could be helpful and why their lab is a match for your interests. Also, be prepared that if you do land a spot in a lab, your initial work will often be simple, repetitive tasks like cleaning the glassware and counting samples. As you prove yourself over time, you may get the opportunity to handle more challenging tasks, but getting your foot in the door is the very first step.
- Use summer programs as a starting point. There are hundreds of STEM summer programs at universities across the country, ranging from short day programs to lengthy residential ones. Oftentimes the contact with professors in these programs is limited to the length of the program, but occasionally a student can make a connection for future mentorship and work with a professor while there. Please note that summer programs can often get fairly expensive and should in no way be seen as a requirement for selective college admissions, but they can at times provide students with exposure to unique experiences for their own enrichment and career exploration.
A fairly common supplemental essay question on college applications is something like, “What are your academic interests and how have you pursued them?” By looking for additional opportunities outside the classroom, you’ll not only learn more about yourself and what you might like (or dislike) about working in STEM, you’ll also have a great answer to that question. With some hard work, initiative, and persistence, you’ll soon be on the path towards your higher education and future career. Good luck!