Returning to STEM
Returning to STEM

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Returning to STEM

1 What is a career?

The term ‘career’ means different things to different people. A career has traditionally been understood as a lifelong identity, and often involved working for the same organisation or in the same professional field. However, in recent years perceptions and the reality of careers have changed, in both academic research and everyday understandings. This means that an organisational career for life doesn’t apply in many sectors; this is also true of STEM based careers – a career is a lifetime narrative that can change over time. For example, many career experts talk about the ‘boundaryless career’ and protean careers. These terms describe a career being led by the individual rather than a conventional pathway, one that may span a number of organisations, job roles and working patterns across a lifetime of working.

Over the course of a lifetime, careers are often interrupted and non-linear, and this is especially true for women with children who are likely to take a career break or have periods of part-time work. There are, of course, other reasons that people have periods out of work, either through choice or otherwise. In fact, the idea of an uninterrupted career is based on a rather old fashioned model which no longer fits most of the workforce. More and more people don’t have one single job, but may instead have what is known as a portfolio career, working on projects for several organisations or individuals; and sometimes combining this with a salaried part-time or full-time job. The world of work is changing and previously held assumptions about careers are no longer appropriate. However, especially in some STEM industries, the traditional model of a career for life is still considered to be the norm, so employers are not always aware of the challenges of coming back after a career break, especially for women.

Now listen to these returners talk about what ‘career’ means to them and note any differences or similarities with your own experiences.

Download this video clip.Video player: return_to_stem_week4vid2_512x256.mp4
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I'm a great advocate of the fact that you don't have a career path. There is no such thing. Gone are the days where you are at the same company for 30, 40, 50 years. And it's nice to stay where you trained, but actually it's knowing that every little part of you adds to you.
I've started doing a lot of talks to secondary school girls now. And I talk about a career quilt. And each of the quilts are a company you worked at, or an interest of yours. So my quilt's got three or four companies on it. I also have my STEM ambassador stuff. I've got my children on it. I've got my interests. I love food. I love travelling. I love people. I love talking to people. All of those make up my career quilt. So it sounds really trite, but it's the way I see it.
And I kind of think some days I need that bit of the quilt more as my safety blanket. And there are times, where you get redundancy, or you're on maternity leave, or whatever. And you actually don't know. And you've got to just shake out that quilt. I'm going to talk like this now. But you shake it out, and have a look, and go what is most important? But it's all there. It's all part of you. And you can't escape any of it. And so, if people say to me five year plan, I kind of look at them. Well, hopefully in something I am still enjoying doing and feeling like I'm giving back to the community.
For me, a career is something you initiate post university and work your way through within a particular industry. I obviously haven't done that. My background is very different. I've been involved in different industries, but all within a project management role. So I think it's a good example perhaps that you don't have to be tied to a particular industry. You can use your skills and the background that you have in different industries to work to benefit anywhere, if you've got the right skill set.
Career conjures up different things to me. Because I think when I started my own career in the ’80s, it was all about a linear step upwards. I think that's changed quite dramatically and certainly in the last decade. Career to me is much more about gaining experience in areas that you're interested in and building on those. And you may go upwards. You might actually go horizontal. But at the end of the day, it's what makes you happy, gives you interest, and actually is satisfying to you.
What career means to me is something I've not necessarily planned. Real life has happened. I am married. I have a family. And that puts other demands on me. I didn't graduate from Strathclyde and then have a career mapped out in front of me. But what I've had is a very rewarding series of jobs I've enjoyed and with groups of people that I have enjoyed working with. So that's what it's meant to me.
I know there's a balance to be met there. I was never career orientated. And as I've said, the planning of it. But I'm very pleased to still be here now as a mechanical engineer, working in mechanical engineering, and being able to balance that with my family.
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