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Q&A: more STEM career advice from our National Science Week webinar - feature image, used as a supportive image and isn't important to understand article

In celebration of National Science Week 2021, the NYSF hosted a public webinar that explored the theme, ‘How did I get here? The twists and turns of a STEM career.’

The webinar was hosted by 2016 NYSF alumnus Benjamin Millar and had an excellent lineup of panellists:

  • Australia's Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley AO PSM
  • David Ball, Regional Director Australia New Zealand for Lockheed Martin Space.
  • Dr Sam Moyle, STEM teacher at Brighton Secondary School and the 2019 recipient of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching

Our panellists had some great advice for students in high school and tertiary studies, and for those early in their careers.

We had so many questions from the audience that we could have talked all night! However, to ensure everyone got a good night’s sleep, our guests enthusiastically responded to unanswered questions after the event.

Please enjoy this extended Q&A with our panellists and thank you for your questions.

Ben Millar, Dr Melanie Bagg, Dr Sam Moyle, David Ball, and Professor Cathy Foley AO PSM on a zoom screenshot

From top left to bottom right: Ben Millar, Dr Melanie Bagg, Dr Sam Moyle, David Ball, and Dr Cathy Foley AO PSM during the webinar.

Dr Cathy Foley

Were you concerned about job security when you started pursuing a career in STEM?

Unfortunately, this isn’t unique to STEM! Everyone has some concern about job security when they start pursuing their careers.

When I was looking for permanent roles, I was willing to look far beyond just research.

I looked into working for industry, university, in science communication, and thought of going back to being a school teacher for which I originally trained. By applying far and wide, I gave myself as many chances as possible of getting a good start.

I would advise career starters to do the same – keep your options open and be open-minded about where you might work. There are more ways to have a satisfying career than just the single pathway you might have in mind.

An important opportunity came by my early networks formed by going to industry events (in this case conferences) where I met what was to be my future boss.

How do I find reliable science information?

Whenever you come across a scientific claim, always ask where the information came from. Go all the way back to the source!

Ask yourself: is this original source trusted? Has it been peer-reviewed? And has the research been read in full and properly understood, or just cherry-picked for the results the presenter wanted?

Most scientific discoveries and research are published in journals, where it goes through a very rigorous process of peer review.

Australia’s research agencies and universities are very highly regarded. If you’re just not sure where to look for information on something, look to one of our research agencies as a starting point. 

What would you recommend someone without a clear fixed area of interest to try and do for their future (besides this program)?

Keep your options open, do a general science or engineering degree, do as much maths and data science as you can, and don’t discount the social sciences.

And I recommend reaching out to companies that sound interesting to you – ask if they could take an intern for a week or two.

Real-world experience is a fantastic teacher, and you can learn more about the opportunities available through a few weeks in a workplace than months in the classroom.

It also helps you to build your networks and gain an understanding of real-life experiences of working in STEM fields.

David Ball

What was your experience like in the Airforce?

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Air Force and would highly recommend it. I joined at the age of 18 and completed my engineering degree as an officer cadet before being commissioned and starting my journey as an engineering officer.

I had some wonderful postings over my time in the Air Force and forged many fantastic friendships – many of which endure to this day.

The training that I received and the skills that I learnt from my time in the Air Force are still leveraged in my day-to-day work today.

At Lockheed Martin Space what does the average day for an employee look like? What types of roles would they typically fulfil?

Days at Lockheed Martin can be varied and fast-paced – it all depends on the area you are working in.

We have many different roles at locations across Australia and each location supports different initiatives, projects, and capabilities.

The roles across the organisation include folks involved in aircraft and helicopter support and maintenance, the design and support of high technology systems, and the pursuit of new business for the company.

From a Space Division perspective, I have team members who support the launch operations for new spacecraft – some who are embedded with customers supporting their IT infrastructure for space-based applications, some working on technical design and documentation for new space systems, and others who work in the business development area engaging with customers on new projects.

What is the earning potential like in the engineering industry and especially at Lockheed Martin?

The earning potential in engineering is strong and Australia currently faces a shortage of qualified engineers.

Lockheed Martin is always on the lookout for good engineering talent to support our programs and our pay and benefits are very attractive.

Do you have any advice on going into careers where the industry has predominantly short-term jobs?

If you are looking to work on short-term jobs (not that I am suggesting you do), then it is important to focus and develop an area of particular expertise which is in strong demand.

You will need to differentiate yourself in the market amongst others who are doing the same role. 

Do this through actively networking (face-to-face when we can do that post-COVID, not just through LinkedIn) – get out there and meet people face-to-face and help understand their needs and challenges, then provide them with a solution.

Your reputation, and therefore market-worth, will be dependent on your track record of success.

Dr Sam Moyle

How much importance would you put on high school ATAR scores or high school letter grades when pursuing a STEM career?

Very little. Often people enter tertiary studies and discover that they end up pursuing an alternate pathway anyway.

What your ATAR and grades do is prepare you for tertiary study.

It gives you a focus and a goal in your secondary studies that have a high impact so you are motivated to develop good study habits that will stand you in good stead for the future.

The ATAR also opens doors to your preferred tertiary pathway – that’s not to say the doors are closed to your pathways if you don’t achieve the ATAR you want, it just takes a bit longer to get there using bridging courses or alternate entry pathways.

Ultimately, you don’t have to be smart to be successful, but you have to be tenacious, seek help when you need it, and just keep trying!

In your experience in the classroom, what is the most impactful action in getting girls interested in pursuing STEM careers after school?

There are two vital steps towards motivating girls into STEM pathways. Firstly, relevance.

STEM careers especially in high school are often pigeon-holed to civil or mechanical engineering pursuits but this does not encompass the broad range of STEM pathways.

So, educators need to look to the full range of potential STEM pathways not just bridge building challenges, marshmallow towers, or designing cars.

We need to link home economics, art and design, music, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island cultures, animatronics, visual fx and sustainability, and so on, into our STEM programs to make them truly rich and appealing to all students.

The second step is building communication skills and resilience.

These are necessary anyway for STEM careers but in any sort of workplace, there will be challenges whether they are gender, cultural, or socially based.

Good communication skills and strategies for dealing with setbacks make the difference between overcoming these challenges or succumbing to them.

Dr Foley mentioned Eddie Woo [in the webinar] and it got me thinking: do you have any sort of YouTube/website/platform where you share some of your lessons or teaching? Or alternatively, what are your go-to resources for these?

I’m a massive fan of Eddie Woo!

I do have a YouTube channel – docsamscience – albeit my focus for videos is less content-driven and more focussed on skills development, particularly in regards to writing experiment reports.

There is such a broad range of excellent content videos available through CrashCourse, Bozeman Science, and Amoeba Sisters (to name a few) that the content is already covered with excellent animations and explanations that can be catered to a range of abilities, so for my videos I look at things like structuring an introduction using the hypothesis as a scaffold, or using standard deviations as error bars to address the variation of the replicates.

I also like to put up cool experiments like Elephant’s toothpaste or the Leidenfrost effect to show the students what is possible to do in science beyond the curriculum (or dovetailing in with it)!

My passion project is producing iBooks that I publish on the iBooks store about the cool units I have developed, such as Pokéscience Hunt (think Pokémon Go for science equipment) and Mini Worlds (an interdisciplinary terrarium project).

I think of teaching as a collaborative profession and want to inspire and assist other educators (and students) as much as I can, so I make these resources free and am always happy to chat and collaborate.