How to capitalize your advanced STEM degree in your career

Because entry-level STEM jobs are aplenty, a lot of bright students become myopic and choose to pursue a job right after finishing their undergraduate degree rather than going for an advanced degree. But often, in a few years, they become disenchanted because of lack of career growth opportunities.

On the other hand, the ones that stick to the university for advanced degrees, especially the ones pursuing doctoral degrees, become increasingly impatient because they feel like during the long years of Ph.D., they remain financially inferior to their peers with less qualification. They also fear being marginalized, because Ph.D. might alienate them from being considered for more generic jobs.

It is a dilemma for sure, but what I learned from my personal experience is that an advanced degree in STEM can never be a baggage. I earned my Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at the University of Maryland, but ended up pursuing patent law as my chosen career. I switched my career path at the ripe old age of thirty-two. Yes, there was a lot of uncertainty in the beginning, but nothing that a solid asset like a doctorate degree and a little bit of self-belief could not cure.

I was a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Maryland, publishing a lot of papers and grooming myself to become a faculty member, when it became increasingly clear to me that I was not ready to shift base from the Washington DC Metro area to follow a job opening, however rewarding the job may appear. I was also pregnant with our first child at that time. And my husband was launching his start-up. So financial and geographical stability became of paramount importance and I started thinking about how I can capitalize my educational qualification to achieve my personal and professional goals.

Fortunately I had some exposure to the patent process as a graduate student, because one of my doctoral research projects was picked up by the University of Maryland’s Technology Commercialization Office for a patent application, and I worked with a patent attorney from a law firm during the prosecution of that patent application. That little exposure and the timely advice from a friend who himself switched his career path to patent law from Chemistry led me to apply to a few law firms in the Washington DC area for the position of Technical/Scientific Advisor. To my surprise, getting the job offer was easier than I thought.

A few nuggets of wisdom that I thought I would share if you are contemplating career switch but harboring doubt about the value of your advanced STEM degree:

  • Your degree is more versatile than you think. People with advanced degrees, especially with doctoral degrees, are not hired only for their subject matter expertise, but for their general ability to think deeply and find a solution.

  • It pays to have friends outside of your technical area. For example, I got the idea of me applying for a patent law job not from another Electrical Engineer, but from a Chemist.

  • Never be shy about asking for samples of application materials that worked for someone else. For example, I had a really long curriculum vita tailored for academic position. I had to cut that into a 2-page resume in order to apply for the law firm jobs. I could not do that without seeing a sample resume from our Chemist friend.

  • Never under-sell yourself during the interviews when you are trying to switch career. For example, patent law requires you to familiarize yourself with a variety of technologies, some of which would have no connection with your doctoral area of research. But you should not express your fear that you will not be able to pick up the required level of expertise to do a competent job. After all, you will not work in a vacuum. You will work with scientists and engineers who will explain the technology to you.

  • Try to appreciate the novelty of your new job rather than what you will be missing from your old job. For me, writing about technology in legal terms rather than doing hands-on research needed some mental adjustment. But once I started appreciating the business side of patents, I felt very motivated thinking that I am providing a vehicle for the technology to reach the market with the added peace of mind to the inventors and the companies that their inventions are protected.

  • Try to appreciate how your new career helps you fulfill your personal goals. By switching to patent law, I earned the stability that I was looking for at the beginning of the new phase of my life as a working parent. That was a huge factor in me falling in love with my new career. With a Ph.D. degree, I clearly had an advantage over other applicants, because the lawyers could use my help in understanding the technology while teaching me the legal part of my job.

  • And finally, it goes without saying, but does not hurt to re-iterate that you should be prepared to pay the dues before you start expecting a meteoric rise in your new career path.

In summary, a career is a journey rather than a job. If you have an open mind and a zeal to discover yourself, then your advanced degree can be a powerful tool to give you the license to try a variety of things out during your journey so that you are not pigeonholed into the boredom of doing the same thing day in and day out.