What I Learned This Summer About STEM Success

Author name
Jennifer Agor, Assistant Director, Duke Career Center

I spent a lot of time this summer speaking to people working in STEM industries about what makes them successful in their jobs, skills and technical abilities they value and other pieces of the industry which they thought would be valuable for students to consider as they move through their collegiate years.  While I did gain a lot of insight into individual jobs, I overwhelmingly got advice which is meaningful across industry, level and experience. Following are some of the important things I learned.


What skills and expertise do you feel you use regularly to perform at your job?  Hard and soft skills? 

  • Strong, proactive communication skills.  (Side note: EVERYONE mentioned communication skills—the ability to read, write, speak and present, knowing when to communicate up and down the ladder, asking questions, etc.  Communication is the #1 most sought after skill in any field at any level.)
  • Attention to detail while not getting stuck in the weeds and being able to still think big picture. 
  • Typing!!!!!!  I have said for decades that one of the best skills I ever learned was simply how to type fast (took a typing class in high school).  Let's face it, we all spend a lot of time in front of computers writing emails, reports, etc.
  • Self-starting - this is the concept that you are motivated enough at all times to keep yourself busy even if the workload is small, which can even mean asking other colleagues if they need help on their projects.
  • Curiosity—never stop asking questions.  (Side note #2: Overwhelmingly, everyone who worked with interns said that they should be constantly asking questions—it either shows interest and the desire to learn or it shows you have the ability to recognize when to ask for help!)
  • Accountability—take responsibility for your work and your mistakes.  If you screw up, and you will, then own it, make up for it, then move on.


What activities or training/education would you recommend to current undergraduates to prepare themselves for a role similar to yours

  • Go to as many trainings, seminars, additional paid educational courses that you can.
  • Find out areas that your co-workers use and if you're not trained on them, buy books and self-train; answers are out there if you have a baseline to know the question.
  • Project Management
  • Analytics-- can you look at data or summary of data and distill the key points and communicate them to management. Being comfortable with data analysis is really important.
  • I wish I had done better as an undergrad to take a look up and out more frequently and seeing what is available on campus from a general knowledge standpoint.  Go hear really fascinating people speak and hear about research.  Even if you don’t know about it or have any experience, it can really open your eyes. Having that broader context of how you fit into the community, how does your work affect other people?  Are you really passionate about this or might you take a step sideways to find something you might be more fitted to do?


What role has networking played in your career?

  • Networking plays a big role.  My role at X was referred by a friend from undergrad.  I don’t know that without that I would have gotten in to that opportunity. I don’t think I would be in my current role if I had not gone to business school.   
  • Networking played a role in the growth of my career.  Every new job I had was one that I was recruited for as a result of networking.  Going to trade conferences and putting a face out there is imperative to progress a career. Often, I’ve gotten job offers from people just knowing them through conferences and professional interaction and having them know my reputation and the work I do, without ever having to apply to a job.
  • When I came out of undergrad, I didn’t really see or understand the importance of networking, but now as I’m further into my career, it’s absolutely necessary.  It’s the only way to get a job.
  • I found my job here through the girlfriend of my research faculty in college.  Especially when you’re introverted, it can be really hard—look at teachers, your PI, friends, faculty, friends of friends.

All of the people I spoke to said basically all of these things.  Network as much as you can, learn to communicate across all levels with clarity and efficiency, get technical and take advantage of any and all opportunities to learn about your intended career.