Advice for New Grads on a Career in STEM

As a kid, I always loved solving math problems and playing on computers. But never did I think back then I’d pursue a career as a software engineer.

It probably would have taken me longer to find my career path had I not considered the military as an option. For that, I owe a debt of gratitude to my aunt, a Naval Academy grad and a commissioned Marine who spoke so highly of her military service that it made me also curious to see if the military could be an attractive avenue for me to pursue. After graduating from the Coast Guard Academy, I launched a five-year mission that not only fulfilled my desire to serve our nation, but also honed my technical skills.

When I decommissioned, I had served as the only female commanding officer (CO) for two years, where I did everything from commandeering an 87-foot cutter, to providing environmental clean-up support after several hurricanes in the Texas Gulf Coast, to interdicting drug movements in the Caribbean.

For far too many girls, this realization is still elusive. There’s a global dearth of women represented in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. According to 2023’s Global Gender Gap Report, women comprise only 29 percent of the STEM workforce in 146 nations evaluated. These stats become even more grim when considering the women who pursue STEM leadership positions. Currently, women represent roughly 12 percent of all C-suite roles – leaving organizations, governments, educational institutions, and the scientific and technology sectors with a sizable challenge to overcome.

How do we change these statistics?

For young female graduates who excel in math and science, here are 3 pieces of advice on how to successfully make your mark in a STEM career field:

  1. Find a mentor. For me that was my aunt, who retired from military service four years ago and who is now working as a government contractor. I think her encouragement and the things she was able to achieve really inspired me and helped me realize I could take a similar path to success.
  2. Hone your technical skills. But also realize there are many different avenues. Pursue what you actually get excited about. This is important because if you’re excited about it, you’re going to do a better job. For me, that was becoming a developer. I really enjoy doing the front-end work, finding a design, and completing it. I like it because it combines a need – providing a product to people that enhances their lives – and there’s creativity involved as well. People tend to view programming as “black and white” and kind of boring. But it’s not!
  3. Fight imposter syndrome. Make sure your voice is heard because it’s easy to get lost. I’ve certainly been down this lonely road as the only female CO for two years. To be honest, imposter syndrome is something I still grapple with from time to time. But I find that when I arm myself with as much information as possible, when I know something and I’m able to back up the fact in my head, whatever my reasoning is, I’m able to say I do know what I need to know so I absolutely deserve to be here!

And one more thing. To any young person, especially girls, curious about a career in the military, my advice is this: Go for it! I’d be a much different person today if not for the life-changing experiences I had serving our nation.

Kathleen Neubig works as a software developer for Accenture Federal Services and recently earned a master’s degree in engineering from Virginia Tech, with an emphasis on computer science.

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