Advice to STEM students: Seek to work ‘with people you respect on projects you admire’

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Alumni lead a panel on interviewing skills at "STEM Careers: Formulae and Solutions for Success."

When searching for a job after graduation, “do a little homework,” alumna and Yale trustee Annette Thomas advised students at “STEM Careers: Formulae and Solutions for Success,” held on campus on Oct. 15.

“Don’t be swayed by ‘I had a nice interview; the package looks okay; I’ll give it a go,’” said Thomas ‘93 Ph.D., noting that it’s important to ensure that the culture and values of the organization you’d be joining “resonate” with your own. “Because I can tell you one thing: If you are not happy where you are — and happiness comes from working with people you respect on projects that you admire — if you are not happy in what you do, it does not matter how much you get paid, it does not matter how grand your title is, or how big your office is, or the view from that that office. You will not be happy, and you will not stay, and you will not thrive.”

Thomas was among the alumni who shared their advice on pursuing a career in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) with current Yale students during the day-long program, part of the Association for Yale Alumni’s Careers, Life, and Yale series. The event included sessions devoted to issues ranging from mock interviews to networking, public speaking, time management, and gender issues in STEM, as well as panels focused on careers in biotech and the biological sciences, computer science, engineering, and the physical sciences.

In a Q&A with Katherine Miller ’05, a patent expert in the Boston office of Cooley LLP, Thomas described her own career trajectory. Trained as a cell biologist, she decided while still at Yale that she did not want to go into research. Two of her reasons — that she didn’t think she’d be good at supervising a staff or overseeing large amounts of money — were really based in her own inexperience at that stage of her life, she noted, as she did become proficient in those areas later in her career.

Her other reasons for eschewing a career in research had to do with her inherent nature, she said. “I knew that I was an intensely curious person — which is a polite way of saying that I didn’t like to focus on any one thing too long. … I also wanted to have as wide an impact as possible.” These traits led her to a career in scientific publishing that took her from a post as associate editor for the journal Nature to managing director of Nature Publishing Group to chief executive of its parent company, MacMillan Publishers Ltd. Most recently, she served as chief scientific officer of Springer Nature.

Keynote speaker Annette Thomas (center) chats with J. Weili Cheng ’77, director of the Association of Yale Alumni, and Rahul Prasad ’87 Ph.D., chair of the AYA Board of Governors.

Thomas’ scientific education served her well throughout her career, she said. “Being in STEM gives you an incredible suite of skills from which to build upon. You have to be very analytical. You have to make hypotheses; you have to test them. You have to be honest with yourself about what the results are. Then you decide what your next steps are. … That type of approach — at least in the business I have been in — has turned out to be enormously helpful. … There is a lot of [relying on] gut-feel, and intuition, and imagination. But ultimately when you run a business, part of what you have to deliver is the numbers.”

Thomas encouraged the students to be active in seeking out mentors throughout their careers. “You’d be surprised about how many people would be completely flattered that you asked them to be a mentor,” she said, noting that both the mentor and mentee can benefit from the relationship. “When you look for mentors, look for people who are really generous and very confident in themselves because only when you have those two attributes do you get a good relationship,” she advised.

“One of the attributes of great mentors is they give you the sense of support when you need it, but actually … after a period of time, they’re just standing on the sidelines cheering you on,” she said.

Even if their employer doesn’t have a formal mentoring program, Thomas told the students, the people they work with “should always want you to look at least one level up. No one should be trying to keep you in your box.”

Once you have a job, you should continue to reflect on how it is — or is not — contributing to your own development. “If it isn’t right, move on,” she advised.

“No one who has the good fortune to be at Yale should ever be doing just ‘a job,’” she said. “That’s not why we’re here. … We’re here to do something that, in its own little way, changes the world. I’m not being clichéd. I honestly believe that.”

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