How to land your first STEM role | Top Universities
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How to land your first STEM role

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Laura Lightfinch

Updated May 15, 2024
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STEM graduates working in engineering

Thinking about how to find your first job after your STEM degree? TopUniversities.com spoke to two top-ranked universities, ETH Zurich and the University of Melbourne, to find out how you can prepare to land that first STEM role and kick-start your career.  

“Firstly, congratulations on choosing a career in STEM. The world needs talented and passionate people to help solve current and emerging challenges in a rapidly changing global environment,” said Professor Mark Cassidy, dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the University of Melbourne.  

What skills are STEM employers looking for? 

Whether you’ve chosen to study a degree in an area of science, technology, engineering or mathematics, there are key skills all employers are looking for in a strong graduate.  

Christine Kaiser, head of the careers centre at ETH Zurich, said: “Students often think that employers are primarily looking for technical skills. However, many hiring companies also seek social and personal skills which are just as important as technical skills.” 

Professor Cassidy added: “Graduate recruiters need students to communicate technical skills clearly and at a high level, focusing on your ability to work in a team with a mix of technical and non-technical members. When you’re meeting with your more technical prospective employers, they’ll need to you to really focus on what you have learnt, and where and how you’ve applied it – for example through a capstone project.” 

Universities like ETH Zurich (ranked seventh in the QS World University Rankings 2024) and the University of Melbourne (ranked 14th) are increasingly aware of the soft skills employers are looking for in STEM graduates – including strong communication, self-reflection, critical thinking and project management – and work to foster these skills as an essential part of students’ training. 

How to prepare for your first STEM role 

As you progress through your degree and start thinking about where to start your career, there are a few helpful steps you can take to help you cut through the competition and find a role that sets you on the right path for a successful future.  

Reflect on yourself 

“Ask yourself what your values are, where your interests lie and what are your transferable skills,” said Kaiser. “Reflecting on yourself and taking the time to understand your personal and career goals is important.

"Reflecting on your personal values, interests, and goals when considering your first career step after completing your studies is essential for finding a career that aligns with who you are and what you want to achieve in the first phase of your career. It can lead to greater job satisfaction, increased motivation, and a higher likelihood of long-term success and happiness in your chosen path.

"For example, understanding your core values helps ensure that your first career choice aligns with what matters most to you. When your values and the company's or industry's values are in harmony, you're more likely to find fulfilment and satisfaction in your work. On the other hand, being in a job that conflicts with your values can lead to disengagement and a sense of dissatisfaction. Your values will change over time – and being aware of them and how they are changing will help you keep true alignment between yourself and your job."

Professor Cassidy said: “From the moment you embark on your STEM education, you will have the opportunity to try lots of different fields and really focus on what you enjoy. Follow the instinct that tells you which industries or practices you’re drawn to and the people that inspire you. We’re trained to be analytical, but learning to trust yourself is powerful.” 

Professor Moira O’Bryan, dean of the Faculy of Science at the University of Melbourne added: “Confidence can be a big challenge for new graduates but with your new skills and knowledge, you can contribute to a better world. Reflect on the practical elements of your STEM degree and what you’ve learned from those.” 

Explore the job market 

A great way to understand what roles might be available when you graduate is to start exploring the job market early.  

“By visiting careers fairs and events, exploring graduate opportunities via the careers centre and exploring career profiles on LinkedIn, you’ll gain a clearer view of the types of roles available,” said Kaiser.  

“By reading job descriptions and looking at the career journeys of professionals in your field of interest, you’ll start to understand what direction you might want to go in and how careers often don’t take a linear path.” 

Take on development opportunities 

At ETH Zürich, students are offered various ways to experiment, test out concepts and acquire essential skills during their studies. One example that provides an opportunity to put theory into practice is the Student Project House, where students can explore and discuss their ideas and try to bring them to life in a pressure-free environment. 

Beyond the curriculum, students can engage in extra-curricular development opportunities like online courses, student competitions or engaging in STEM student societies. “These extra-curricular activities, or even recent summer jobs, can serve to showcase your transferable skills even if they are not directly linked to your technical major,” said Kaiser.  

Professor O’Bryan said: “Taking subjects from outside of your area of major, including in the social sciences, will promote cross-disciplinary knowledge and build communication skills and can be a perfect complement to your STEM studies. At the University of Melbourne, we’re particularly interested in training flexible, curious graduates who have the core competencies of STEM, but the confidence to thrive within industry sectors that are yet to be conceived.” 

Apply for positions 

According to Professor O’Bryan, “a well-prepared CV is essential. What did you study and what experience do you have? Prior work experience relevant to the position you are seeking is a positive whether it be an internship, a part-time job or volunteering. Evidence of the ability to work as part of a team or collective is also an advantage. This could include being a member of a sporting team, a student club or orchestra.” 

When reviewing student CVs, staff at the ETH Zurich career centre find that students strive to include everything they did during their academic career in one or two pages.  

Kaiser said: “It’s more effective to only include the relevant projects, like those that could provide value to the job you’re applying for. Then, you have more space to show what you learned from those projects.” 

Professor Cassidy added: “I think sometimes graduates can trip over themselves trying to find perfection in their first role out of university. There is no right or wrong direction, only things that you can learn about yourself – what you like, what you need from an employer and what the right fit is for you.” 

How can your university support you? 

University career centres can provide invaluable support to students throughout your degree, from CV support to interview preparation and skills workshops. The career centre at ETH Zurich calls this ‘career literacy’ and helps student to make informed career decisions and to decide on the best course of action for their career goals.  

“We offer various services and events to support students with self-reflection and the skills to explore the job market,” said Kaiser. “ETH student associations also host job fairs with different career events with local and global companies, allowing students to network with potential employers.”  

Professor Cassidy added: “I can’t stress enough the importance of linking in with your university’s student enrichment or experience teams who are there to help you with your CV, interview skills and wellbeing. Use all the help and resources available to you. Your family, friends, mentors, your tutors and lecturers can all help you and proofread your CV and cover letters.” 

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