Sticking to it

Today I’m providing a post that was previously published on enableher.com, a website devoted to all things the working female needs to balance work and personal life, career development, and other issues. Check it out sometime!

The New York Times recently published an article, ‘Why Science Majors Change Their Mind,’ attempting to understand why so many students drop out of a STEM major in college. Quoting from the article:

Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.

What isn’t mentioned in the piece is how today’s students expect speed and instant gratification. I believe it all started with the one-hour photo processing. No more waiting for your photos to be developed within a week; new technology meant all you had to do was drop off the film, go to the mall and in an hour pick up your photos. This has of course developed into instant pictures via digital cameras and instant sharing with family and friends moments after the scene is captured. Only a loss of ‘bars’ on the cell phone can delay transmissions now.

I believe this need for instant everything, combined with traditional STEM courses, which admittedly can be dry, boring and time-consuming, students become disenchanted with STEM as a career.

I also realize this is a complex issue. Inadequate preparation in high school, outdated curriculum unable to keep up with technical advances, teachers ill-prepared or motivated to encourage students are among other reasons for the failure to keep students interested in STEM studies. It’s also apparent that the students are losing sight of the prize: the STEM degree and the rewarding career that awaits them.

STEM studies are hard, they are difficult, they are anti-social in that studying takes up most of time that could be spent with friends or just kicking-back. I still have not-so-pleasant memories of studying inside my dorm room on the sunniest of spring days, during Spring Break, or during the big home football games. I never questioned whether I was missing out. I kept my eye on the prize. I wanted that degree and the career that would follow.

Among the personal rewards I gained from my engineering career, financial stability is at the top of my list. I make more money than most of my other female friends in non-STEM careers. It has afforded me with a very comfortable lifestyle. More importantly, I divorced when my two boys were under three years old. I wasn’t working at the time as my now ex-husband was self-employed, funded in part by my earnings as an engineer. I suddenly found myself going back to work, as I was now responsible for food, shelter and clothing for my boys and me. Within a few months I had secured employment as an engineer and the stress of providing for my children was abated.

My group of friends also changed as I met and bonded with my new peer group: other single mothers. Many of them had no education beyond high school and so were forced to work second and third jobs just to make ends meet. While divorce and single parenthood may not be on your radar right now, know that with a great degree in STEM, financial worries will be taken off your list.

While a lot of engineering is performed at your desk, there are times when a trip to the field to see your work in action is necessary. These are great opportunities to see the world, even if it is just out to a remote oil field or military base. And it’s all at company expense. I’ve also traveled to attend various seminars and classes, I attended a class at Disneyland, and other training was held at corporate headquarters in metropolitan areas. I’ve never been fortunate enough to attend a conference in Las Vegas; it’s still on my wish list, but I’m not hopeful at this point.

One word of caution, though: eating on travel is bad for your waistline. Working in the Houston area for three months equated to a ten-pound weight gain for me, but I ate some really great food during those months.

You also are afforded the opportunity to fly, climb, and enter stuff most people don’t. Engineering has taken me inside a glass lined chemical tank, prior to introduction of chemicals, of course, onto a working oilrig, into a flying aerial refueling plane, into our nation’s air force bombers. There is nothing to be compared with seeing your work in action.

This is just a short list of the ‘prize’ that waits with a STEM degree. I encourage all of you to stick with it, study hard and doors will open for you that you never suspected.

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About stemzandroses

I'm an engineer and writer with a built-in need to share my nearly 40 years of experience working in a male-dominated field with the rest of the world.
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