Congratulations on choosing to study a STEM discipline.
You’ve given yourself a terrific advantage: there is abundant evidence that STEM graduates find employment faster than their non-STEM counterparts, and that, once they’ve established a career, they earn, a more competitive salary.
However, those aren’t the only reasons to feel proud of your decision. In fact, a key benefit of studying a STEM degree are transferable skills. While you may be inclined to overlook their value, these skills are highly sought after and greatly diversify the professional choices you can make as a graduate.
For example, even if a mechanical engineering graduate decides not to pursue a career in that field, they still possess mathematical reasoning skills, teamwork experience, programming know-how, and so on. As such, they could reasonably consider pursuing an alternative career in finance, information technology, public service, or various other areas. Graduates of less specific STEM degrees–such as mathematics and physics–often find themselves in a similar position.
With this in mind, it’s helpful, as you navigate the options available to you as a STEM graduate, to distinguish between specialist and generalist roles.
Specialist roles require you to have developed certain technical or professional skills while working towards the completion of a specific degree.
Often, such degrees must be authorised by a trusted accrediting body, which reviews curricula and course outcomes to ensure that graduates will meet entry-level professional requirements. For example, Engineers Australia is the national accrediting body responsible for evaluating Australian engineering degrees.
Examples of specialist roles include:
Generalist roles require you to possess skills that, though often developed to a high level within STEM degrees, are not exclusive to STEM areas. Such skills include mathematical reasoning, problem-solving, research, communication, methodical analysis and programming.
Examples of generalist roles include:
Ideally, by the time you’ve completed your degree, you’ll have a good sense of whether or not you’d like to pursue a specialist career or a more general alternative. Maybe you loved the things you studied and found your internship meaningful or exciting. Maybe you thought your degree was a total drag. Or maybe it was a bit of both, leaving you feeling uncertain as to which career you should pursue now that you’ve graduated.
Unfortunately, there’s no quick way to decide between the specialist and generalist paths. However, the tips below can help you consider your choices in a way that makes it more likely you’ll arrive at a satisfying decision:
In considering this choice it can be helpful to focus on the consequences of choosing to be a generalist instead of a specialist.
The ‘sunk cost fallacy’ describes our all-too-human tendency to avoid ‘wasting’ investments we’ve already made, even if committing to them will lead to future losses. Try to avoid it when asking yourself candid questions.
It’s all too easy to forget about the diversity of experiences available within specialised professions, or the possibility of integrating specialist skills into a general role. So don’t get caught up making an unnecessary choice. Instead, where appropriate, ask: why not both?
Start with a list of all the obvious career choices before you – then force yourself to make it bigger. Make sure you haven’t excluded something that could offer excitement, fulfilment, or excellent pay. Then, once you’ve identified all your options, narrow them back down to create a shortlist:
Don’t ignore any niggling unanswered questions. Write them down and then commit some time to research the possible answers – you might be surprised about how it influences the decision you make.
It’s often said that you should trust your intuition, and this is true enough – but that doesn’t mean you should trust your intuition alone. Instead, test your assumptions by accruing more knowledge and experience.
If you’re truly stumped, it can be helpful to remember that the majority of people do change their careers; that switching professions, while occasionally difficult, is not impossible; and that you’re only choosing your current job, and not necessarily the job you’ll have for the rest of your life.
So aim to make the best decision based on what you know, even if it’s imperfect or leaves you still feeling a little uncertain. New information will help you make more informed choices in the future about whether your career requires a minor course correction or a completely new approach.
Let’s take a look at information technology in the accounting and advisory industry.
GradAustralia surveyed employers in the accounting and advisory industry. Results show 56% of the roles on offer to information technology graduates are specialist or technical in nature, while 44% is a generalist.
Amelia Carbonie is an example of a specialist. Amelia is a Salesforce developer at Deloitte. As a developer, her role is very technical, utilising the specialist skills she developed in her Bachelor of Information Systems degree.
Inge Budihardjo is an associate (financial services, assurance) at EY. her role primarily leverages a wide range of non-technical skills including critical thinking, business acumen, and management skills.