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Articles > June, 03, 2010

Three STEM Graduates Share Their Job Hunting Experiences

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We asked our panellists about their experience of graduating with STEM degrees. Chantelle Booth can’t get the STEM job she so desires; Peter Shin won’t be getting a STEM job now that he works in finance and Emma Fegan has finally got the STEM job she wanted after overcoming many obstacles. What’s been your experience?

We’re told that Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) graduates are vital to the health of the UK economy. The CBI now warns there is a grave under-supply of good STEM graduates. Yet three and a half years after qualifying, just 49% of STEM graduates are still working in STEM occupations. A recent Opinionpanel survey showed that of the 40% of university applicants who could have pursued a STEM degree nearly two fifths abandon it. If the demand really is there, why the lack of supply? It seems paradoxical. What’s going on?

Image of Chantelle Booth‘Can’t get that STEM job’ – Chantelle Booth, Forensic Science degree, The University of Central Lancashire, graduated 2009

It’s been claimed that there’s a lack of good STEM graduates. Having graduated last August with a 2.1 in Forensic Science I am yet to find a job even vaguely related to science. I am not naïve and I did not expect to walk into a career as a forensic scientist. I planned to gain some experience by working in a laboratory before moving onto greater things. I thought that the wide variety of subjects I had covered in my degree would at least give me a few choices.

So I began searching for a job, visiting all the websites that claimed to have hundreds of graduate training schemes available. I soon found that if I wanted to begin a scheme in management or business then the claim was true; there was an abundance of jobs. But when I searched for jobs in the scientific sector I discovered that a huge number were in sales roles; hardly what I was hoping for (whilst working part-time at a retailer I found that selling was not my forte).


I took to trawling through all the employment websites I could find, buying the local newspaper every week and bothering anyone who I thought might be able to help me. I applied for over 30 positions, very few of which, in fact, none of which listed a degree as an essential requirement. I was applying for positions as a laboratory technician which I believed I was more than qualified for. Time after time, employers didn’t even respond to my application. It became increasingly difficult for me to fill in application forms or write personal statements. I was trying to emphasise all of my skills but began to believe that I didn’t have any, or that they weren’t good enough.


After being encouraged to complete a degree and being told that studying a science-based subject was my ticket to any career, I was understandably, a little bit annoyed. I had spent a lot of time, money and effort passing a three year course, only to find that it was next to useless when trying to find any kind of science based employment.

Of course, I have only had experience as a science graduate. I am not sure if new technology, engineering and mathematics graduates have had the same difficulties. But it would not be a surprise to me if they had.


Please, comment and let me know your experience. I cross my fingers in the hope that others in STEM get their money’s worth out of their degrees and find a role related to what they have studied.

Image of Peter Shin‘Won’t get that STEM job’ – Peter Shin, Computer Science, University College London, graduated 2009; currently pursuing a career in Finance

Life is good for STEM graduates. The skills that we learn give us many options; which is why I chose to leave STEM and instead pursue a career in finance.


I believe that there are three key reasons why STEM graduates tend not to pursue STEM careers. First, sometimes the prospect of a STEM career just doesn’t appeal by the time you graduate. Despite my love of technology I, and many of my friends, don’t want to work in that field. In particular, I feel disillusioned by the amount of outsourcing that takes place in the sector. It makes me and many of my friends think that the industry is in decline.


Second, contrary to the government message, I just don’t think that the demand is really there for all the talented STEM graduates produced each year. This is made worse by the number of specialised degrees in STEM. How many aeronautical engineering graduate jobs are there, compared to the number of graduates each year? Not that many according to my friends. Certainly in my field of computer science, whilst there are jobs in IT/programming, there are not that many graduate careers in computer science. This matters because getting a position on a dedicated graduate scheme is very different to simply getting a job after graduating. A graduate programme trains, builds and supports graduates over several years, giving graduates the best opportunity to excel. That level of support and training does not exist in most graduate jobs which don’t offer training schemes.


Finally, STEM graduates appeal to many industries – not just ones involved in science, technology, engineering and maths. That includes industries that recruit large number of graduates on dedicated graduate schemes. And that is how I came to choose a career in finance. Finance is well suited to STEM graduates due to its quantitative nature. Given this, it is not surprising that more than 25% of graduates from my engineering faculty ended up in this industry.

Life is good for STEM graduates. The skills that we learn give us many career options, which is a huge benefit in the current economic climate. I certainly am glad that I studied what I did, where I did, especially considering the increasing number of silly university courses that are around. Put it this way, would life be better if I was a media studies graduate? Somehow, I think not.

Image of Emma Fegan‘Got that STEM job: A tale of hope and hoodies!’ – Emma Fegan, Earth Science, Cardiff University, graduated 2009; currently pursuing a career in Environmental Science

I graduated from Cardiff University with a 2:1 integrated Masters in Earth Science. After the obligatory few weeks of partying lots and sleeping little, I bade a teary farewell to the lovely Welsh capital, moved back home and crammed 4 years worth of junk into one small room already filled with 22 years worth of junk – for a few months, or so I thought.

This will probably all sound very familiar to graduates, so I’ll stick with the abridged version: in trying to get a job, I experienced a veritable carpet-bomb of applications all going unacknowledged, the odd rejection email and gradually the lofty ambitions and high standards crumbling until any…job…will…do!

Eventually, like many of my peers, I was reduced to trawling drinking establishments. I even enquired about jobs sometimes… I don’t know about inns, but there was certainly no room for me behind the bars last summer. Surely this was the time to give up, sign on and huddle down for the long cold season of parental disapproval.

Did anyone else get this? ‘Yes, I have no job – yes, I occasionally sleep, eat and exercise instead of writing another cover letter – yes, actually, I am trying…Parental Units, I am going to use my ‘economic crisis’ card once more!’ Just me?

A month in and I would take any job within the realms of decency to get some cash and, incidentally, to make the nagging stop. So I did it – I signed on as a paper-delivery girl. To cater for the empire-building of my local newsagents, I drove around nearby villages at stupid o’clock, delivering papers, wearing out my clutch and avoiding the accusing eyes of the shop-owners upon whose territory I was encroaching.


After my first 3 weeks I had the route mastered, I’d grown out of panicking when I couldn’t remember whether I had put a Guardian through a Daily Mail reader’s door by mistake and earned – well, a pittance. Then I was invited to cover the 6-10am shift in the newsagent’s itself for 7 days which, apart from the opportunity for more hours, I welcomed this with overwhelming indifference.


One Saturday, I made the risky decision to wear a Uni hoody, resplendent with ‘Cardiff University Earth Science’ on the front and a hilarious geological pun on the back (I have two of these cerebral fashion wonders; one says ‘Don’t take schist for granite’, and the other ‘mistress of subduction’ – cue obligatory snigger from the geology cohort, otherwise we WILL think that you don’t understand!). As intended, the hoody established my status as a graduate, but when you get judgement for under-achieving from the Walkers delivery man you know you’re trailblazing your very own losing streak.

However during the week it picked up a bit. I decided to stick with the hoody, I got to chat to customers, I got chatted up by customers and was told that I ‘sound like I like horses’ (better than looking like I just got kicked in the face by a horse, I suppose sir?). And I did have to shame-facedly explain that actually, with the till down again, I had better use the calculator to make sure I get the change correct – no, they don’t teach us anything at school these days, not even simple subtraction. All the while taking deep breaths and visualising something calming (like my degree certificate)… But in all fairness, I can actually say that – early mornings notwithstanding – it was almost fun.

As it happens, a number of commuters stop by the shop every morning to pick up supplies on their way to work. One of these gainfully employed people works in the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s Environment Section at Culham Science Centre. For those not familiar with the Authority, it is a world-leading research body experimenting with nuclear fusion to produce a self-sustaining ‘green’ energy source. Culham is home to the fusion reactors JET (Joint European Torus) and MAST (Mega-Amp Spherical Tokamak) and a quite unbelievable number of other acronyms.

By further good luck, for just that single fortnight they were looking for candidates suitable to apply for the 16 month contract position of ‘Assistant Environment Officer’, and there I was, proudly wearing my Earth Science hoody. I was pointed in the direction of the vacancy notice, re-crafted my C.V. again, did well in the interview (apparently) and the rest is history…

…Except that even that huge piece of jammy fortuity isn’t quite it. Actually, after 2 months the Environment Officer that I was assisting quit (and I try not to make the mental leap to connect the two). This left me filling in for 6 months, learning whilst doing and working hard to get a good reputation with my colleagues – if I was to be out of a job come Christmas then I would suck as much work experience out of it as possible! Finally, my Glorious Leaders took pity, and put me through an interview with a panel of 3, a psychometric ability test and a security check (presumably to make sure I didn’t have a history of snaffling, with nefarious intent, radioactive materials). Now, 8 months after accepting heavy defeat along with my pile of morning newspapers I am now permanently employed as the Environment Officer for Culham.


Of course, not everyone is going to be as obscenely lucky as I have been, and I know many deserving fellow-graduates who are still struggling to find a ‘proper’ job. For every graduate unemployed or slaving away in a less than ideal job, as well as the (probably slightly apprehensive) almost-graduates of 2010, I guess the take-home message is that all hope is not lost. Yes, I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, but it does go to show that if you just get out there, there is no telling what that dead-end job could lead to.

And, students: always buy a Uni hoody! Wear it wherever you can. Those things are portable self-advertisements – mine definitely paid for itself in the end.

Are you on a or considering a STEM degree? Have you recently graduated with a STEM degree? What has been your experience? Please join the debate by contributing your comments below.

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  1. Kevin Breslin

    Graduate in Applied Mathematics and Physics AND Electronic Engineering at MSci and MPhil level, and I can’t find a job which requires one iota of the skills required in either. I’ve applied to Seagate but I cannot give them “Structured and Relevant” experience from a placement in social research and a part time job as a CAD opperator, and enduring unemployment.

    Engineers and Research oppertunities seem to have been hit hardest. Finance, ICT and other analytical non-science courses seem only to blow smoke.

    Why bother applying for jobs, when there aren’t jobs worth competing for and most employers and recruitment agencies lack an organised recruitment and retraining strategy.

  2. Ashia

    An interesting read. I read somewhere that Psychology was listed under the STEM category. I can understand the job hunting, and eventually giving up to just get any job that will provide a bit of pocket money. I’m currently doing voluntary work in the hope that it will lead me to a paid job.

  3. B

    Im not entirely sure how much skills you gain even from a STEM BSc degree from a university of London campus (at least the lesser known ones). Im a physics queen mary graduate and to be frank I dont feel like I should be able to call myself a physics graduate. And no I did not avoid the difficult subjects. Anyhow, I identify with Emma’s experience, and as Mjo commented above, if your flexible and open to unexpected opportunities – there is always something to be had. Don’t be to snobbish about your first or even second job; work hard, communicate well stay open minded and be patient, and you never know where life will take you. In any event don’t despair – life is a roller-coaster!

  4. Waj

    Well done Emma Fegan. You are really lucky and I am sure you are very hard working woman and you never give up. I like your article as it is quite interesting and reminded me the days when I graduated and started looking for jobs well before passing my exams and as you said “the odd rejection email and gradually the lofty ambitions and high standards crumbling until any…job…will…do!” I was working part-time in tesco and I never lose hope. I couldn’t find my dream job or Graduate job but as an IT graduate I finally got a job in IT service desk after 3 months of passing my exams and now I am on my way to pursue my career as I have directions and opened doors and hope I shall achieve my goals in life. Good luck to all the Graduates!

  5. Mjo

    I am surprised to find such negativity in people looking for STEM jobs. I know that going from having a wonderful student life, with all the benefits of a good social life and the academic challenge to being unemployed is a horrible experience. I also know that since the recession the number of jobs listed on job search engines has fallen dramatically. But I would still say that there where many jobs out there if you are willing to be flexible. It may involve (as it did with me) moving to a new city, or taking a lesser role than you had hoped, but there are things out there to be had. Culham Science centre is a big hub, along with Harwell and Milton Park in Oxford for STEM jobs. Likewise there are many jobs to be had in the North and North East. I am particularly surprised by the forensic scientist! Most of the jobs I see for scientists are analytical roles, which would appear perfect for a Forensic Scientist. I would however agree with Peter Shin, doing a STEM course gives you the best skills set out there, from problem solving to team work we’ve got it all.

  6. Tim Coveney

    I am still looking for my STEM job and I can only agree that the supposed demand just isn’t there. As a Masters graduate in Physics I was expecting to find plenty of options for further study or employment. Lack of funding put pay to the former so on I went to begin the hunt for the latter. Graduate schemes, direct and speculative applications, all have turned up blank, with many (Indeed nearly all) companies not even bothering with a rejection letter or e-mail. What is very sad is the ammount being spent on encouraging students into STEM subjects at university. I’m sure we all saw the adverts showing how studying physics would get you into wind farm building projects and the like. I wrote to my MP about this asking why the money could not be spent on providing jobs to the current “lost generation” of graduates. The response boiled down to “You’d be better off moving to Germany.” One of the things that makes this process of job seeking hard is the difficulty with getting feedback from employers. I have worked with mentoring schemes, careers advisors, job centres and friends who work in recruitment to improve my CV and the quality of application form writing but without feedback from science recruiters I have no way of telling whether any of it does any good. I know many people are in similar situations and I wish the best of luck to you all. The worst thing is that we now have a whole new year’s worth of new graduates to compete with. Dig in everyone, I suspect this will be a long haul.