The number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields is growing steadily, but unfortunately, men still outnumber women by a significant factor. Data from Pew indicates that women only make up 14% of engineering professionals, 25% of computer science professionals, and 39% of physical sciences professionals. This is a shame, because these fields represent the jobs of the future.
There are plenty of reasons for these disparities: for one, girls and young women are often discouraged from pursuing STEM degrees because these fields are often seen as “men’s subjects.” Stereotypes about STEM careers can also dissuade many women (and men) from pursuing a career in these fields. If you think that pursuing a STEM career means you’ll spend your life trapped in a lab, wearing a white coat and staring into a microscope, it’s time to think again.
Contemporary STEM careers go far beyond the traditional stereotypes that come to mind for most people when they imagine working in the fields of science, technology, engineering, or math. In fact, some of the most fascinating and most innovative jobs today require a STEM background. If you’re ready to step off the beaten track and forge your own career path, consider one of these jobs.
Jobs that focus on building a sustainable global economy are among the most important of all. Bioengineers work to accomplish this goal by leveraging the power of living organisms to convert waste into renewable energy. Bioenergy plants or facilities, often designed and operated by bio- and environmental engineers, take in waste that has been diverted from the landfill and heat it to produce gas, which then powers an electricity-producing combustion engine. Bioenergy provides a good use for the tons and tons of municipal waste—262 million in 2015—that the US produces every year.
They may work across a wide range of scientific disciplines and industries, but nanotechnology experts all have the same thing in common: they think small. Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating materials at the molecular or atomic level. The discipline has an almost endless array of applications, from creating fabrics with stain-resistant weaves to developing personalized drug therapies that target life-threatening illnesses. For an idea of how important nanotechnology is likely to be in the future, consider this figure: by 2020, the value of products that incorporate nanotechnology is projected to reach as much as $1 trillion.
The next time you sip one of your favorite sodas or bite into a tasty granola bar, take a moment to appreciate the STEM-educated professional who created the flavors you’re enjoying. Known as flavor technologists, these scientists draw on high-level chemistry and biology to develop the natural and artificial flavors that tempt consumers’ taste buds and keep them wanting more. Although much of the actual work of synthesizing flavors does happen in a lab, flavor technologists also conduct a good deal of fieldwork, studying herbs, extracts, and other raw flavor ingredients in their natural habitats.
If you can’t decide whether you’d rather be Indiana Jones or Jacques Cousteau, you might want to consider a career as an underwater archaeologist. Working for government agencies, universities, research institutions, and private sector companies, underwater archaeologists are responsible for uncovering those historical treasures that lie at the bottom of lakes, rivers, and oceans. It’s hard to say which aspect of the job offers a bigger thrill: exploring ancient shipwrecks and other priceless finds, or getting to use high-tech equipment like side-scan sonars and magnetometers.
Space agency biostatistician.
Astronauts who go on space missions run all kinds of risks, including the risk that space travel could cause as-yet unknown damage to their bodies and health over the long term. To learn as much as possible about the effects of space travel on the human body, NASA and other agencies employ biostatisticians to study how low- and no-gravity environments impact human physiology, and to identify and develop strategies to protect astronauts from harm on long-haul missions.
The name might seem like a contradiction in terms, but in fact, ethical hackers are officially certified professionals performing a very important service. These computer scientists and programmers are hired by major organizations like government agencies, hospitals, financial institutions, and big corporations to identify—and fix—weak spots in their cybersecurity systems. As an ethical hacker, you’ll work to find clever ways to gain access to some of the most sensitive information in the world, without any of the risk of winding up behind bars.
Music streaming machine learning engineer.
Working as a machine learning engineer for a music streaming company like Spotify, Pandora, or Apple Music is the perfect way to combine technical aptitude with a love of music. These companies rely on massive data sets and hugely complex algorithms to identify exactly which song a listener will want to hear next. If you’ve got strong data engineering skills and an interest in putting together the perfect playlist, this role could be for you.
Not just the subject of over-the-top Hollywood movies like Twister, storm trackers belong to a real branch of meteorology that studies weather phenomena such as tornados and thunderstorms. While there may be some field work involved, there isn’t too much risk that you’ll be swept up by a raging whirlwind, as much of the job involves studying scientific data on extreme weather from the comfort and safety of an office.
Which will you choose?
When it comes to the diversity and variety of STEM careers, these jobs are just the tip of the iceberg. Isn’t it time for us all to hang up those lab coats and rethink what working in STEM looks like?