What I Wish I Knew As An Online STEM Major

This is a guest article by Hannah Edstrom.

When I decided that I wanted to be a ‘scientist’ when I grew up, I had very little knowledge of what it would take to get there.

Sure, I loved every science class I could get my hands on in high school. Sure, I pushed myself to go places in math. I even went for that Introduction to Computer Science high school course, wondering why on earth everyone was talking about how the ability to draw red lines and blue dots with Java would be so impactful for my future.

A career in science will certainly depend on a healthy dose of STEM classes. But no one ever told me how to apply for grad school, network, or gain the kind of experience employers are looking for. I had no idea certain soft skills that would make you more marketable in the sciences (lucky for me, they tend to be just the sort of soft skills you pick up in an online college program).

Now that I work in the biotech industry, I can look back nostalgically on student life. If you want to work in a lab one day, keep reading! If you are interested in the Unbound degree program but are unsure if it’s compatible with your STEM aspirations, this post is also for you.

What They’ll Be Looking For

The whole point of a degree is to prepare for a job, right? So what exactly will recruiters and employers be looking for when you apply to their Research Associate positions?

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They want lab experience. (Can you do rote lab work?) They want research experience. (Can you troubleshoot when an experiment goes wrong?) They want evidence of an independent thinker, a creative problem solver, and a reliable protocol follower.

We can talk about acing the interview another day, but for now, let’s focus on how you can get those things while being Unbound.

Networking is Essential

Whether you end up applying for a job or grad school after your undergraduate degree, you will want to go the extra mile in building a professional network during college.

Use your professor’s office hours (yes, even online professors host them) and chat about their career path as well as your aspirations.

Connect with your alumni network and see who’s working in your professional field. Don’t be afraid to reach out; people are generally flattered if you ask them for advice or if you just ask about what a typical day on the job looks like.

Attend student career fairs and reach out to grad students in programs you’re interested in. If you want to go the grad school route, you’ll have to talk to the professor before applying; most scientific graduate programs require a professor to “sponsor” you or advocate for you through the application process.

. . . So Is Lab Experience

Testing out and online courses are amazing, but when it comes to experimentation, it’s hard to beat hands-on learning.

To solve this, I ended up enrolling in my local community college for lab-classes only. I definitely met my fair share of students who had gotten lost in a community college vortex—trapped for years, endlessly taking classes, and not sure how to get out. But don’t worry, that won’t be you — you have your Unbound advisor, have done most of the classes you can take at a community college anyway, and are just stopping by for some lab experience.

Another great option is to apply for internships. Being Unbound makes this feasible at all times of the year! Unpaid internships are definitely worth it; after all, you are not just gaining experience, but likely a letter of recommendation as well as a lab to apply to if you pursue the grad school route. At the very least, the professor (or professional) of your internship will be able to connect you with other experts in the field (and hopefully throw in a good word for you!).

Being Unbound Will Set You Apart

You are Unbound. You study independently and take college-level exams for credit. You enrolled in a bunch of 6-week courses. You’ve taken online classes where — no offense to all those super interactive professors — you’ve simply had to teach yourself most of the material.

In industry, we are looking for individuals who can handle a fast-paced environment, learn quickly on the job, and think on their feet.

In grad school, they look for students who can independently handle research project design, experimentation, and a thesis.

As an Unbound student, you’re used to going the extra mile with communication and networking. You reach out and connect with like-minded students and maintain community. Many of your online classes require an incredible amount of writing. You also know the risks of a lack of clarity in online relationships — professional, academic, or otherwise.

In industry, we value resourceful individuals who are comfortable identifying and reaching out to others for collaborating on big projects.

In grad school and industry, communicating well will impress your boss and set you up for interpersonal success.

Being Unbound meant I had to constantly master challenging new skills — and quickly. I use that skill every day on the job. It has been instrumental to my success and positive standing before my managers.

You can succeed in STEM as an Unbound student! Seek out networking and lab opportunities as you go, and really lean in to the Unbound way of college. If you do, you will build a well-rounded and highly marketable skill set.

Hannah is a 2017 Unbound alumna, biotech start-up research associate, and currently quarantined swing/salsa/ballroom dancer. She majored in Natural Sciences and Mathematics, went straight into an Ocean Science master’s program, and currently hikes the California coastline, writes at Bio by the Bay, entertains four needy pets, and prepares for a second round of grad school.

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