Why I Left My STEM Career

This post originally ran on The Billfold in September 2017 - I was very fortunate to pitch this piece to them! The Billfold has since shut down but I wanted to share this piece for those who didn’t see it the first time. Enjoy!



 
Photo by  Rodolfo Clix  from  Pexels

Photo by Rodolfo Clix from Pexels

 

Growing up, I was fascinated by science. In the eighth grade, I decided I wanted to be an engineer, and devoted the next seven years of my life to that dream. I started college at the University of Minnesota as an engineering major, but when I got into my first engineering course, I realized that I hated it! Turns out, I don’t really give a damn about how much is coming out of the reactor at time t. I wanted to know what was in the reactor and what reaction was taking place.

I’d spent the previous summer interning in a R&D lab, where I thoroughly enjoyed my days in the lab. Now I understood that, though I’d devoted many years to becoming a chemical engineer, I had a much stronger affinity to chemistry. After that revelation, I changed my major and focused specifically on polymer chemistry. The next two years of college were more suited to my interests, and I spent time interning in labs and doing an independent study in a research lab.

By the time I graduated from college, I had three internships under my belt. I’d learned a ton, including the fact that I absolutely hated working in a pharmaceutical research lab. This was an absolute bummer, as I’d spent years dreaming of one day becoming a pharmaceutical researcher. Turns out, it was more suited for a Type-A personality, which I am not. My internships also taught me that if I really wanted to work in corporate R&D one day, I’d need to get an advanced degree; otherwise I’d be relegated to the role of “technician” for my entire career. So instead of looking for a job senior year, I took the GRE and applied to graduate schools. I got into my dream school: Georgia Tech.

In the physical sciences, you apply straight into a PhD program, and I started mine just three months after I graduated from undergrad. I was an okay college student, so I was in no way prepared for how rigorous a PhD program at a top-ranked school would be. Frankly, it took all the fun and joy out of chemistry. I loved my classmates and I found my research interesting, but I hated how my professors went out of their way to make us feel small and stupid. My health started to suffer and I knew I needed a different environment. So, after I passed my candidacy exam, I decided to graduate with a Masters in Chemistry. Leading up to graduation, I started job hunting, and I found a job as a polymer chemist for Lockheed Martin.

My first “real” job as a chemist was an eye-opening experience; looking back, it was the perfect opportunity for me. I was hired into a lab where there hadn’t been a new hire in ten years; I was also the only woman and person of color in the lab group. In short, I worked with all old white guys who were getting ready to retire, with the expectation that they’d pass their knowledge onto me.

My labmate had worked in that same lab more years than I’d been alive, but surprisingly we got along great. He was a great mentor and taught me a great deal about corporate life, materials chemistry, and how to grow my career. He and my manager both gave me lots of opportunities to grow my skills beyond the lab, such as allowing me to be the project manager for a major laboratory renovation. At Lockheed I ran a materials lab, doing lots of testing on various materials to answer questions like “why didn’t my two-part epoxy cure?”

My job was fun, I had a great schedule, and I was paid handsomely for my work. But I hated where I lived. Orlando is not a fun town, especially for a young Black professional. So, after a few years in Florida, I started job hunting.

My job hunt led me back to the Twin Cities, where I took a job at a GE Water manufacturing facility. I was hired to run the analytical chemistry lab, but I was woefully unprepared for what that actually meant. I went from a pretty laid-back, low-stress environment to a very demanding, high-stress role that left me feeling like I was constantly underwater. I was truly challenged in that role, and working in a new industry taught me a great deal. GE is well-known as a Six Sigma company, and I learned Six Sigma methodology and completed projects before I’d even gone through the formal classes. GE also sent me, along with my lab group, to project management training.

I’ve noticed an interesting trend amongst all of my college friends: those of us who have STEM degrees all ended up transitioning to non-STEM roles at some point in our careers. For me, after six years in the lab, I was beginning to feel burnt out. I wasn’t eager to simply change companies or disciplines; I knew I needed a non-lab role. While I explored opportunities within GE, I got a phone call out of the blue from a Target recruiter. She explained that they were looking for people with technical backgrounds for data analyst roles, and asked if I’d be interested. I figured I’d give it a shot and see what came of it. After multiple interviews, they made me an offer and I accepted.

I started my non-lab career as a Senior Supply Chain Analyst, working on various projects for the distribution centers. My entire team was made up of former engineers & scientists, and we brought statistical and analytical rigor to our roles, which was a relatively new capability to Target. I spent two years as a supply chain analyst, including fifteen months working on Target Canada, before I moved onto a Senior Business Partner role in Store Operations. Essentially I am a process owner/project manager/analyst working on a variety of projects that impacted operations within the stores.

When people hear about my background as a lab chemist, they always ask me how I ended up in my current role at Target. I tell them that it was a combination of luck and building my skill set. While I was a laboratory chemist, I accumulated a bunch of other transferrable skills. But I also got lucky and was recruited by a company that understood the value of a person’s skills over the subject matter of their degree. My project management and Six Sigma training have come in handy, and so has my experience writing lab reports, solving client problems and troubleshooting issues.

A STEM degree teaches you how to think critically and solve problems logically—both valuable skills in any job. My time at Target has added other skills to my toolbox, like SQL and supply chain methodologies. Almost every day I rely on a skill that I learned in my “previous life” as a chemist, but I apply it in a different way.

Addendum: since this post was originally published, I’ve changed roles within Target but I’m still a senior data analyst, just in a new business unit. I continue to enjoy my work at Target and growing my skillset.