Work your way through school
Many of us enter college under the assumption that, for the next four or more years, our sole job is school. Years ago, this might have been the case. Today, however, if you’ve just graduated with your degree, you may find yourself back at square one. With employers requiring several years of experience in addition to education, some of you may wonder how you can compete.
It’s undeniable that obtaining your education is a full-time job requiring more than 40 hours a week. However, focusing your efforts squarely on formal education will do you a disservice in the long run. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ report on the condition of education in 2017, the percentage of young adults who have obtained a bachelor’s or higher degree increased from 29 percent to 36 percent between 2000 and 2016. At the same time, the percentage of Americans 65 and older staying in the workforce continues to increase. This means students are jumping into a workforce that increasingly is overpopulated with people who, at the very least, have the exact same basic knowledge as themselves. The key to ensuring competitiveness in the current job market is the complex act of balancing education with real-world work experience. If they do this effectively, new graduates may find themselves transitioning into their next stage with ease.
When I entered college at Howard University, I knew I wanted to contribute to science. However, how I would achieve this and what mechanisms I would use were up in the air. I started my college career in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics prefreshman program with the main goal of exposing undergraduate STEM majors to a world that was foreign to most of us, namely the research enterprise. Even before my first semester started, I began to see what my options were. We not only were shown the gamut of research being conducted around the U.S. but also were provided with mentorship and professional development for careers inside and outside academia.
Through this program, I visited labs with more resources than my home institution and attended scientific conferences I would not have had the opportunity to experience otherwise. Being around all this cutting-edge science had a profound impact on my outlook. It was easy to become blinded by the possibilities. What big discovery could I make? What lab would I work in? When would I run my own lab? And ultimately, how would I contribute to science? Not once did I think about what I needed to answer these questions.
My aspirations were seemingly endless and, in retrospect, one-dimensional. I thought the only way I could have an impact on research was to become a bench scientist; in my mind, the playing field was wide open, and I just needed to jump in. Both of these notions, I would grow to learn, were far from reality.
Like many of my classmates, I reached out to investigators, inquiring about openings in their labs for the coming summer. I connected with a principal investigator and submitted my resume, assuming things would just fall into place. This, however, led to my first lesson in the workforce. While the investigator was interested in adding me to his lab, there were limited open positions and quite a number of interested applicants. It was clearly going to be a difficult decision.
In the end, I was told that though my GPA was ideal, the slot was going to another student. Why? Because they had more experience.
It might be assumed that, by the end of freshman year, all students are equal in respect to knowledge. This, however, isn’t true. The reality is that many students enter college with some form of work experience, lab or otherwise, and that meant that I effectively began at a deficit.
If I did well in my studies, I thought, internships and jobs would welcome me with open arms. That was the narrative I was sold. Go to college, do well, and you’ll be able to get a good-paying job. Not only was the idea of a simple college-to-job pipeline unrealistic, the part about it being “good” and “paying,” I would soon find out, might not be real either.
If I ever was going to compete with my classmates, let alone the rest of the workforce, I realized that my job was not only to do well in school but also to obtain work experience at the same time. To this end, I began looking for any and all opportunities. Instead of assuming that I should be qualified, I reprogrammed my thinking toward what I needed to do to gain the skills and experience required to be where I wanted to be. This led to spending my first summer as a college student working as a pharmacy technician — a profession a world away from where I thought I should be.
As a pharmacy tech, I learned about policies that help protect patient privacy and the ins and outs of health insurance laws while also picking up medical terminology and gaining some knowledge of disease and drug interactions. Each day, I worked with a pharmacist to ensure that prescriptions were filled efficiently, and I had the opportunity to interact with all walks of life, which reinforced the importance of my job. Though this position lasted only three months, I was able to develop skills that I used to grow professionally.
With the knowledge I gained as a pharmacy tech, I was able to obtain an internship at Children’s National Medical Center within the Pediatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network. This internship helped me get practical lab experience, gain knowledge in the management of multiple research projects and develop skills for working in an office. The internship, however, was unpaid. While the position didn’t compensate me financially, it did compensate me experientially. My goal was to use this opportunity to translate into the next one, and working at CNMC did just that.
Sacrificing for the future
Working at CNMC helped me close the gap and in some cases outpace my classmates with respect to work experience. I knew that the time I put in, while unpaid, would pay off in the long run.
Between interning at CNMC and going to class, I worked as an after-school teacher at a local elementary school and, for a short time, had a job in retail to cover my bills. I used my experience at Children’s to obtain a paid internship at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the National Center for Environmental Research.
At the EPA, I gained a wealth of knowledge on issues in STEM, grant management, diversity and inclusion, and the effect of policies within the federal government on the research landscape. I helped develop grant solicitations and policy documents, and I supported a number of initiatives to help increase diversity in the research enterprise. These experiences would guide my trajectory.
I decided that instead of making incremental contributions to science, likely within a narrow scope, I wanted to develop a career around facilitating the nation’s research and provide an environment for people from all walks of life to pursue careers in STEM.
While at the EPA, I completed my undergraduate degree in biology and transitioned into a master’s program with a concentration in behavioral genetics.
In graduate school, I continued a full-time schedule. I would wake up at 5 a.m. to go to work, leave at midday to attend a class and return to work after my class concluded. I also taught two laboratory sections and conducted my thesis research late in the evenings and on the weekends. As a consequence of my schedule, I missed out on a lot of the extracurricular activities that sometimes accompany the life of a grad student. I barely knew my classmates or lab mate and mostly felt far removed from campus life. This sacrifice, however, was necessary to continue progressing outside the lab. Eventually, I completed my master’s and moved on to work at the National Science Foundation, where I continued to grow my experience in federal science policy, STEM education, and diversity and inclusion.
My accumulated work experiences, in addition to my education, have made it possible for me to be in my current position as the science policy analyst at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. My goal continues to be to work on policies that positively impact science and contribute to a diverse STEM workforce, and I hope to continue to make strides to move these issues forward.
When I began college, I was naive not only about the workforce but also about what it would take to reach my career aspirations. My collected experiences have built on each other and have permitted me to gain skills relevant for different industries, as well as allowing me to be considered competitive enough to rival my peers. Balancing my education and career has not always been easy, but effectively accomplishing that balance has paid off in the long run.
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René Fuanta, a second-year assistant professor at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, tries to support his students through a semester of unexpected challenges.