Preparing for a Career in STEM

Preparing for a Career in STEM

After cybersecurity expert Savannah Bleeker graduated from college, she started her job at Raytheon Technologies and found herself intimidated by how much expertise she was surrounded by in every room.

“You learn technical skills in school, but you don’t necessarily learn job skills,” Savannah says. “You have to learn those on the job.”

Fortunately, she says that her time in Girl Scouts helped her develop a variety of skills, such as embracing activities that pushed her outside her comfort zone and speaking up in teams. Both of these have served her well in the workplace as a cybersecurity technologist, she says.

Here are her tips for people who want to follow in her footsteps by pursuing a career in STEM.

1. While you’re still in school, take initiative with professors.

“In school, the best mentors are your professors,” she says. “I learned a lot from them during office hours. A lot of my peers were intimidated to go to their offices for help. Show that you appreciate your professors’ experience and you’re interested in what they have to say.”

2. Don’t expect the answers to be handed to you in the work world.

“The things that pop up are not things you can’t plan for,” Savannah says. “You have to think on the spot and make quick—but not rash—decisions. In cybersecurity, you need to be able to think from the perspective of a hacker, which isn’t something you learn in school or that comes easily.”

“In school, you’re given assignments, and while there are some opportunities to think creatively—to code a video game, for example—the results of your actions are not the same.”

3. Expect to have to take initiative.

“In a technical environment, it’s fast-paced and you’re not always going to have someone holding your hand,” Savannah explains. “It was eye opening for me because in school there was always someone there whose job it was to help me. In the work world, everyone’s objective is to make the business run efficiently, but not everyone has the intention of developing your career.

4. Get hands-on experience as often as you can.

What you learn in an internship has a different weight than what you learn in school.

“It allows you to think on your feet and make decisions in a stressful environment,” she says. “It allows you to be more innovative because you’re in a real-life situation and you’re able to think more about the impact of your work.”

5. Look for a mentor.

“Go to networking events and put yourself out there because you never know who might help your career,” Savannah says, adding that a lot of workplaces, including Raytheon, have formal mentorship programs.

“When you’re young and you don’t have experience, learning from somebody who has already been in the industry can help you adjust your career path so you make the right decisions,” she adds. “They can also keep you motivated because it takes a lot of holding yourself accountable early in your career to focus on moving forward.”

6. Try not to let intimidation get the better of you.

There were lots of women in Savannah’s college classes. But when she entered the IT-centered workforce, every meeting seemed to be filled with older men, which Savannah initially found intimidating.

“If your coworkers are older than you, you know they have more experience than you,” she says. “And you may feel like whatever you have to say isn’t going to be as smart as what they have to say. You may assume you have questions that everyone else already has the answers to. But that mindset prevents you from being inquisitive. If you keep silent, you miss out on the opportunity to share your perspective.”

7. Take the time to learn how your organization operates.

“I started in governance, risk, and compliance, and I eventually moved to cybersecurity because I took the time to learn how the other departments work at our company,” Savannah says.

8. Take on more ambitious work whenever you can.

Look for rotational programs that let you work in different departments, which may even be based in different parts of the country or world.

“One of our goals is working cross-functionally at Raytheon, because different perspectives can provide innovative solutions,” Savannah explains. “I have been involved in ‘stretch’ projects at work that allowed me to collaborate with other teams to solve problems. Working with people of all different functions gave me a feel for what other people do. They can be a lot of work on top of your regular role, but they expose you to different groups without having to get a new job.”

9. Don’t stick to just one path.

“It’s important to explore different areas early in your career because you don’t know what you might like until you try it,” she says. “Because our world is technologically driven, even non-STEM fields have STEM-related positions. Our world just keeps getting more reliant on technology, so your STEM career really could take you anywhere you want to go.”