Monday, February 28, 2011
What STEM professionals say about their careers: Harry Tennant
A lot of attention is currently being given to encourage more students into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses and careers. I have spent my career in the STEM domain and so have many of my best friends. I asked them, after decades working in STEM fields, what are the best and worst about it? Here are my own thoughts.
Education: BS Information Engineering and Computer Science, MS Computer Science, PhD Computer Science
Career: AI research, research management, technology management, Internet consulting, Internet entreprenuer
Three best things about a STEM career
- My parents predicted I would be an engineer when I was small because I was always building with Lincoln Logs, blocks, TinkerToys, models and Erector sets (LEGOs didn't exist). In addition, I frequently disassembled gadgets around the house and less frequently reassembled them. My parents were right. I still derive great satisfaction knowing that I can make things, especially that I can make things that others find useful. If you have an interest in making things and knowing how they work, STEM is the right place for you.
- My childhood heroes were scientists and inventors who changed the world. At that time I assumed it was always for the good, but later learned that it's more complicated than that. I wanted to be part of the march of history fueled by science and technology. And a big part of that is learning to think like a scientist: What's the evidence? What can be quantified? How can we organize what we know?
- At college graduation there were competing chants between the college of liberal arts and sciences on one side of the Assembly Hall and engineers on the other. One side chanted, "L-A-S L-A-S," but soon shifted to "We're not nerds. We're not nerds." To which the engineering side came back with, "We've got jobs. How about you? We've got jobs. How about you?" Jobs tend to be plentiful for new STEM graduates. However, it's a short-lived advantage. Although the engineers tend to find jobs before the liberal arts students, the LAS students typically find jobs pretty soon. So, it's an advantage to engineers that lasts a few months at most. On the other hand, the engineers may be nerds for the rest of their lives.
You can do no better than spending your career doing what you love to do. While there are practical considerations like finding a way to make some money, you will be more satisfied doing what you love, or at least attempting to do what you love and failing, than selecting a career only for the money. But what if the only things you love to do are watching TV or going to parties? It means you are stuck thinking only of yourself. Spend time thinking what you can do for others that you will love.
Three worst things about a STEM career
- New engineers tend to think that technology is the essence of a new tech business. It may be necessary but it's not sufficient. It's at least as important for engineers to understand business, sales and working with people. That is to say, even if you're an engineer, don't be a nerd for the rest of your life.
- Technical knowledge is fleeting, quickly overtaken by new technical knowledge. If you love the challenge of learning new technology, this is fun. If not, your knowledge may soon become obsolete.
- If you choose a STEM career just because of the out-of-college employment advantage, you're unlikely to be happy in the long term. Technical work is typically mentally challenging. If you thrive on the challenge, you'll love it. If you don't, you'll hate it.
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