A day in the life of a STEM career

A day in the life

If you’re considering a career in STEM, but want to find out more about the highlights and challenges of daily work, read on.

Meet three Australians working and studying in STEM, and learn about what a day in the life looks like for them:

Cameron Cuthbert, Insight Analytics Consultant at PwC Australia

Dr Muireann Irish, Senior Research Fellow and Cognitive Neuroscientist at UNSW Australia

Samantha Khoury, Ph.D Candidate Engineering at the University of Technology, Sydney

Amy Jo Vassallo, PhD Candidate studying dance epidemiology at The University of Sydney

What does a day in the life look like for you?

Muireann: I typically start work at 8am, once I drop my son to daycare. My day can be quite varied but it usually involves meeting with students, analysing data, running neuroimaging analyses, writing papers, or preparing talks. Often I will have meetings via skype with my international collaborators. I finish work no later than 4.30pm every day and then collect my son. In contrast with a lot of academics, I rarely work in the evening or on the weekend.

Samantha: My working day commences in the wee hours of the morning and concludes before the sun casts a long shadow on the sundial. I admit they are not entirely conventional working hours but in the morning the mind is clear and uncluttered and the noise and interruptions are non-existent. A good Colombian coffee from “Knight’s Coffee & Tea Co”, a short stroll away from me, adds an azure-like clarity to the morning hours which I treasure.

My Ph.D responsibilities are planned in advance. The complex ones are planned a week in advance and the simple ones days in advance; a goal-setting attitude I learned early in life. Specifically speaking my days can be classified as “clinical testing days” and those “composing my Ph.D dissertation days.” True to its nature clinical testing lasts for months at a time and is imperative in my schedule.

My “do it now” tasks (whether it be clinical experiments or writing) are completed by 11am, just in time for a coffee top-up. You need a straight head whilst analysing and formatting the masses of data generated throughout the morning.

As statistical analysis is churning away, I break to meet with my boss for a “consult and concur” on what requires further exploration. I plan experiments to address those questions and “statistic variations” to run the following morning. This streamlined approach allows me to troubleshoot whilst maintaining a high level of productivity.

Even though it is a form of brain-chaos when different ideas and actions take a life of their own, satisfaction always ensues after a job well done.

Cameron: A typical day involves helping solve client problems by using simulation or statistical modelling methods. This includes the development of the approach, the technical implementation of the solution, and the interpretation of the results.

We work in close collaboration with our clients (and often other teams within the company) throughout the project. Another of my key responsibilities concerns identifying and proposing other opportunities where our team can provide value to our clients through advanced analytics techniques.

Amy: I’m naturally a night person so my days tend to get going a bit later than most. One of the luxuries of doing a PhD is relative control over your own time! When I arrive at uni work starts (coffee and muesli in hand) by checking my emails and calendar for the day. That’s followed, typically, by a lot of sitting in front of a computer!

My morning activities are usually the quicker to-dos like replying to emails, project management or participant recruitment. I save the more brain-intensive tasks like writing or data analysis for the afternoon and evening, when I personally have the greatest focus. I always finish my day by writing notes (in an old school notebook), and blocking out my schedule for tomorrow. The train home is usually Twitter time, which helps me stay up to date with what’s going on in my broader research field.

What are some of the highlights of your day?

Muireann: For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of being a scientist is contributing new knowledge to the discipline. I still get excited when I see a new pattern in my data or watch a prediction unfold during testing. I love to think of new ways to uncover how the brain supports memory and imagination, and feel in a privileged position to be able to work in this field.

Samantha: Rather simple:

· Time in the lab – freedom to listen to what at times can be either a loud dialogue or a whisper of both brain hemispheres. Analyse, methodical trouble-shooting, improvise or innovate, gather results, rinse and repeat.

· Discovery and imagining promising uses for observed outcomes.

· Mornings and alone time for structured introspection; not navel-gazing.

· Perpetual “creation, upkeep and destruction” discussions with the boss.

· Tête-à-tête with a particular far-afield/non-science acquaintance for an alter perspective.

Cameron: The most exciting part of my job is working on real-world problems with my clients, using statistical and simulation modelling techniques in new and innovative ways. Explaining the power, value, and insights generated by these approaches to clients is the most satisfying aspect of my role.

Amy: The ‘aha!’ moments when I master a new skill or learn something new are definitely a highlight of my day. These moments also prompt me to think about what’s next – how can I get this information out there, or how can knowledge in this field move forward to reduce pain and injury?  Careers in research allow for that forward planning and big-picture thinking, which are another highlight for me.

What are some of the challenges you face each day?

Muireann: Most researchers will agree that the grant writing system is the most challenging aspect of being a scientist. We generally spend the early months of the year writing grant applications and then must wait until the end of the year to know our fate. The success rates are extremely low and this can often lead to disappointment and frustration. But, it is also very exciting to think of new ways to potentially test your hypotheses, and on those rare occasions of success, all the previous disappointments are forgotten!

Cameron: The most significant and difficult challenge I face is making the methodologies and results of analyses easily digestible to an audience who may not have a technical background.

On a day-to-day basis, most of my challenges concern the technical implementation or understanding of the techniques I am applying. This can range from writing a complex piece of Java code to understanding the statistical implications of a particular result.

Samantha: Challenges are unpredictable and thanks to chaos theory, no challenge is the same. I try to grab the bull by the horn and deal with each problem until I find the “hidden variables”.

My boss plays a big role here too in helping me appreciate the difference between the real obstacles and the opportunities disguised as obstacles. Seeing the difference is an art that I’m learning fast. You don’t need to be a renaissance man or woman to know that scientific “obstacles” are a pleasure to deal with.

The “real” obstacles (read opportunities) are usually the “political” ones where reaching out to fellow humans is a prerequisite for a successful outcome. This can be tricky.

Take scientific funding, for example. Despite the incredible benefits scientific achievements bestowed on humanity, a strong case to fund science will need to be made every time to persuade institutions, governments or venture capitalists to invest in pure or experimental science.

So these obstacles have and will always be with us, lingering from our “research days” to our “business days.” In a way it’s Darwin’s revenge, not natural selection per se but artificial selection at its best where preparedness and opportunity take precedence, leaving the “unmerited” ideas on the historical footnotes.

It’s a tough world but with the right attitude and affirmative teamwork, a scientific “Cambrian” explosion is just around the corner!

Amy: I think one of the most difficult parts of a PhD is maintaining motivation and enthusiasm to consistently work on the same project for 3-4 years. That’s been a new and unique challenge for me.

There’s also an awful lot of waiting in academia, for example waiting to hear the outcome of publications or grant applications that you submitted months ago. I’m not the most naturally patient person, so this can cause some frustration at times.

Thankfully though, I work in a research group that encourages setting small achievable milestones and celebrating the little wins along the way of a PhD, and that certainly helps to overcome these challenges.

Click here to read more about a day in the life of Muireann, Cameron, Samantha and Amy, and to meet other people working in STEM.

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