ISO: your STEM career change stories
January 20, 2020 4:16 PM   Subscribe

In the coming months, I will make the much-needed leap out of my current, dead-end career path to a completely new one in the sciences. I'm not the only one...right?

Like it says on the label: I'm looking for any and all stories from folks who made the transition into STEM careers after doing something else first.

I am antsy, second-guessing myself, and have a bazillion questions, but they boil down to these four:

-How did you find your path?
-When did you decide to make the jump?
-How did you pull it off? (Financially, logistically, etc)
-Did it take forever to see the light at the end of the tunnel? (Interpret that however you want)

Bonus points for experiences from WOC, and/or from folks who did this past their 30s...because I feel very, very lonely and strange during this already terrifying process.
posted by otenba to Work & Money (5 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Hello, this was me:
(I was...thirty-six or so at the time? But I was also already on like my third career, so switching tracks came a bit easy by then.)

You can do this! I promise you can! It is...transformative, to get out of a dead-end career in a (in my case) openly toxic and unwelcoming sector. Being paid fair wages is wild.

I'll give short answers to your questions here, but please don't hesitate to drop me a MeMail if you're curious. FTR, I'm female-presenting and genderqueer (though not out at work), white, and as I said, I made the transition in my mid-thirties.

- I had done data analysis-like stuff while temping and in other careers, and I knew I really liked being able to take a pile of data and find the story in it. I'm very good at small, repetitive tasks, so I immediately meshed with things like data-cleaning. Basically, I knew I had a knack for programming and enjoyed it, and I was good in other things that I thought would come up in data analysis, like pattern-finding, mathematics, interpretation, and designing visualizations. I am very good at self-directed learning.

- After three years of trying to find a job in the museum sector, and being increasingly disillusioned with...everything. I'll spare you the rant, but if you're really curious, I will happily bitch over MeMail (to anyone!). Basically, I saw that getting a job with fair wages that would advance my career and last beyond 12-18 months was virtually impossible, and I was running out of money, hope, and patience.

- Generational wealth, to be frank. My parents were kind enough to support me while I took three months off of work to blast through an online bootcamp. (It would be possible to do this while working, though might of course take longer.) I could probably have lived off of credit cards for the same span of time if I didn't have parental help. Logistics were pretty easy; I lived alone and had no family to support, and could dedicate myself wholly to learning the basics. It did help that I chose a particularly fast, inexpensive route and went into a job where it's still acceptable to have no real formal schooling.

- No. After the extended hell of the museum sector, everything moved so fast! I was applying for 10+ jobs a day and getting immediate callbacks, especially with start-ups. I got my first job about six weeks after I started applying. I want to make very clear that I think this is something that's unique to data analysis and probably programming in general and it definitely helped that I mostly applied to start-ups but just...the efficiency was breathtaking.

Seriously, please don't hesitate to drop me a line, even if you just want encouragement, or someone to rant to, or anything. I believe in you. I'm not doing the job that I thought was my bliss, but I'm so glad I made the switch. It was so much less painful than staying in a hopeless, toxic place.
posted by kalimac at 4:41 PM on January 20, 2020 [9 favorites]

Granted this was almost 20 years ago...but I moved from finance to biotech by temping.
posted by gryphonlover at 5:26 PM on January 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Coding bootcamp grad with a STEM background prior to that. I was 32 when I switched.

-How did you find your path?
I wanted out of my previous industry because I felt my opportunities were limited and I didn't feel very interested in what I was doing, so I just kept my eyes open.

-When did you decide to make the jump?
I finally worked up the nerve to try a bootcamp after reading enough success stories to realize that I probably wasn't going to be throwing away thousands of dollars for nothing. What really helped was finding a bootcamp that didn't charge tuition until you secured employment.

-How did you pull it off? (Financially, logistically, etc)
I'm thankful to be able to say I had a lot of savings built up from my previous engineering job. Everything flowed from that. I was able to support myself through the bootcamp and the job search, though I spent quite a bit and would have probably found a cheaper living situation or asked for help if I could do it over. This was NYC in late 2016.

-Did it take forever to see the light at the end of the tunnel? (Interpret that however you want)
No, my job search lasted around 6 weeks. Like said above, things move fast in the startup world. You have to be persistent and really urge yourself to keep your head up. My many talented classmates also found work successfully, and most of them had had no prior STEM classwork.

I'll fully advocate for the bootcamp path if that's something you're considering. Had nothing but a great experience with my school (App Academy).
posted by Team of Scientists at 9:17 PM on January 20, 2020

I made the leap from digital marketing to UX/UI research and design last year at 31! Feel free to MeMail me if you like, but here are my answers to your questions:

How did you find your path?
It was VERY roundabout. I knew I was growing bored with marketing (which I ended up in kind of by accident anyway), so when I got hit with a "go to library school" epiphany around 2015, I followed that lead. Kept my day job, completed my MSLIS online over two years, graduated in 2018 and realized the job market for librarians is...not so good. But I'd taken a couple of UX-adjacent courses in grad school and ended up really enjoying them. I figured I had a shot of pivoting into UX if I could package my education and past experience the right way. It worked!

When did you decide to make the jump?
I knew when I started grad school that I wanted out of marketing, but the benefits at my job were REALLY good and included some tuition reimbursement, so I'd committed to stay until after I graduated. I ended up putting in my two weeks' notice for that job around 10 months after I got my degree.

How did you pull it off?
I made a deal with myself: if I couldn't finance my master's without taking out private loans, I wouldn't do it. But between keeping my day job, tuition discount/reimbursements, a small scholarship, and some lower-interest government loans, I was able to manage. After I graduated, I spent a couple of months looking for library jobs to no avail, then spent a month or two writing case studies and updating my portfolio website and resume to be more UX-oriented. I started searching for UX jobs in late April of last year, had some interviews in May, got a job offer in June and started my current job in July.

Did it take forever to see the light at the end of the tunnel?
Trying to juggle two graduate-level classes per quarter (eight per year) while working a full-time job that I wasn't enjoying very much and occasionally carving out time to see my friends, family and boyfriend was SO HARD. Especially around halfway through; I was so burnt out but still had so far to go. Honestly, if the path you're contemplating doesn't require a master's degree, DO NOT DO IT. It's expensive and exhausting and there's no guarantee it'll pay off. But I REALLY wanted that degree and REALLY wanted out of marketing, so I slogged through it.

For my UX job search, I was very fortunate to be able to find something so good so quickly. I knew going into the search that it might be tough to break into the field as a newbie, so I tried not to get discouraged when I didn't hear back about a job application or had a phone interview that didn't go anywhere, but it was really hard and I definitely wallowed in despair a couple of times. I also worked with a recruiter for the first time, which was different and stressful to me, but is apparently more common in tech/science fields. They were talking about all of these openings for year-long positions with no benefits and I just remember thinking, "I would rather stay in a career I don't like and have good benefits than throw all that away for a contract position, even if it is in the right field." Fortunately I didn't have to! New job is full-time permanent and has been great so far. :)
posted by helloimjennsco at 7:37 AM on January 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Not a WOC, but transitioned from menial jobs to a STEM career, almost (got as far as grad school pursuing a PhD, but grad school broke me).

I went back to school to be a physical therapist and got interested in biochemistry through an anatomy class. I started with classes at a community college and moved on to a state college where I finished my STEM degree and worked in a research lab as an undergrad for two years. After I graduated I worked as a lab tech for about 1.5 years, then went on to grad school. The research experience helped a LOT for grad school, to the point I'd say it's a requirement if you're going that route.
posted by Anonymous at 3:03 PM on January 21, 2020

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