SWE FY16 President Colleen Layman says you don’t have to know what you are going to do for the rest of your life.
This article was first published in the July 2016 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine.
By Sara Austin
As president of the Society of Women Engineers, Colleen Layman often mentors young women who are questioning if they belong in STEM. Her advice?
“You don’t have to know what you are going to do for the rest of your life. I’m 40-something, and I’m still not sure,” says Layman, who is vice president of HDR, an architectural, engineering, and consulting firm.
She grew up in northeast Pennsylvania, where her dad worked in a coal mine and few people in her town had gone to college. When a nun at her Catholic school suggested engineering, she hardly knew what that meant.
“I told her I wanted to use what I know to help people,” Layman recalls. “She said, ‘That’s what engineers do.”
Layman set out to study electrical engineering but struggled. She was working restaurant jobs to cover tuition, away from home for the first time, and earning the worst grades of her life.
“I ended up dropping out of school,” she says, “I was demoralized and completely depressed. The town I grew up in had just opened a coal-fired power plant, and my dad helped me get a job there. I thought, this is it, I’ll work her for the rest of my life.”
But slowly, as she leaned into the work, her confidence returned. The men at the plant trained and encouraged her, and soon, she was back in night school.
“What felt like a failure turned out to be one of the best things I could have ever done because I got hands-on experience,” she says. “Look toward the future, but do the best job you can do in the position you have right now.”
What are your ideal working conditions?
Chris Guillebeau compiled a quiz to help you find out – head to BornForThisBook.com.
In any job, you can improve on what Guillebeau calls soft skills – writing, public speaking, negotiating, getting comfortable with technology – which are important, but not always emphasized in school.
Improve your follow-through skills by writing things down in a meeting, not walking away until you know the next steps, and setting deadlines.
“Be that person that makes things happen,” Guillebeau says. “Being a reliable person will help you stand out in a very competitive environment.”
At the end of each day, review what you did.
“Ask yourself, What gave me energy?” suggests Guillebeau. “Think about those things that bring you joy and energy, and try to do more of those things, with whatever autonomy you have.”
If your chose field turns out to be an energy-suck, you can always change lanes. Guillebeau abandoned an accounting major when his marks fell short.
“Young women feel so much pressure to be perfect. I think they feel it more than men do,” Layman says. “Have a plan for where you want to go, but the plan is not everything. If you get into something and it’s not what you thought it would be, that’s okay.”