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Decoding Your STEM Career Journey: Navigating Work-Life Phases

Gunjan Goswami shares about three career phases that many engineers experience and how to thrive in each one.
women engineers at a variety of career stages

Women encounter unique challenges in their pursuit of STEM careers. Stereotypes surrounding women’s abilities often emerge early, casting doubt on their confidence in mathematical and technical skills. Research from the American Association for University Women reveals that there is still an association of STEM disciplines with men, leading to negative opinions about women in “masculine” careers. In the STEM workforce, men continue to outnumber women, constituting about two-thirds (65%) in 2021, while women make up about one-third (35%).

Good news! If you are reading this article, you have overcome these stereotypes and established a career in the engineering field or are working toward your degree in engineering. Your career is going to be a dynamic journey characterized by evolution, growth, and transformation. At a high level, following these three distinct phases will shape not only your careers, but also overall fulfillment. Join me as we explore strategies for success across these phases.

Phase 1: Foundation Building in an Entry-Level Job

This initial phase marks the entry into the professional realm. Here, you’ll navigate the thrill of starting anew, search for your identity, and develop essential skills. It establishes the groundwork for a career, playing a crucial role in skill development, experience gathering, networking, and laying the foundation for future endeavors.

While this stage might not perfectly align with your passions, it remains crucial in molding your professional path. As women continue to be underrepresented in STEM leadership positions, finding role models in the field becomes challenging for girls and young women. This lack of representation can lead to imposter syndrome and discourage women from pursuing careers in STEM.

Nevertheless, it is crucial not to let this discouragement sway you from your path. In light of these challenges, here are a few strategies to navigate this phase:

  • Research, Plan, and Build Skills: Explore various roles and industries to understand your interests and strengths. Develop a strategic plan for moving forward and invest in education and training to build a strong foundation. That technical certification/degree will add credibility to your profile.
  • Network and Seek Guidance: Connect with individuals in fields of interest. Read about people who inspire you. Ask for guidance. I have personally experienced that people are willing to guide you if you ask. So seek advice from someone senior who has transitioned from early jobs to roles aligned with their passions.
  • Manage Pressure and Uncertainty: Embrace uncertainty, take small steps, and stay focused on long-term goals. Adaptability is key, and being open to unexpected opportunities can be beneficial.

Phase 2: Career Development and Growth

The second phase witnesses the consolidation of expertise, the pursuit of career advancement, and the establishment of a professional legacy. By now, you have gained experience, advanced in your career and might have a team reporting to you. This phase goes beyond mere job security; it’s about personal fulfillment.

Challenges in this phase could involve navigating workplace politics, striving for advancement, and seeking opportunities for growth. You might find yourself thinking, “Am I on the right career track?” This self doubt arises due to various reasons, but the two foremost reasons are unclear promotion paths and a gender pay gap. Many of us bring our unconscious bias to the workplace. These biases sometimes result in promoting individuals that think/look like us.

Since there are not many women in STEM leadership roles, women find themselves getting less promoted. Similarly men are historically paid more in STEM careers. You might see the gender pay gap when people start reporting to you. Organizations quickly address them when challenged; but if they go unnoticed, they are not addressed. Here are few strategies to navigate this phase:

  • Leadership Development: Look for opportunities to take leadership responsibilities and engage in challenging assignments that push your capabilities. Build your leadership skills through training and practical experience well in advance of when you might require them in your professional role. This proactive investment will prove beneficial, ensuring that when an opportunity arises, like a promotion or a new position, you’ll be well-equipped to make the most of it. For gaining leadership experience, consider volunteering with industry-related nonprofit organizations, and taking on leadership roles within associations such as SWE, ASCE, ASME, or IEEE.
  • Mentorship: Cultivate significant connections with mentors and sponsors who can actively support your professional progress. These mentors play a crucial role in offering valuable guidance when you are faced with career decisions. It is essential to seek out mentors and sponsors within your workplace, as research indicates that individuals who receive sponsorship from mentors — whether male or female — within the organization tend to advance more rapidly into leadership positions.
  • Self-Advocacy: Self-advocacy, particularly expressing oneself assertively, plays a crucial role in the path to leadership. Participate actively in meetings, exude confidence, and leverage your voice to articulate your ideas effectively. Be proactive in articulating the specific role you desire. Demonstrate initiative by addressing challenges beyond the scope of your assigned responsibilities. Expand your professional network beyond your immediate colleagues. If your current job isn’t a good fit, consider exploring new opportunities rather than enduring dissatisfaction.

Phase 3: Mastery and Leadership, Seeking Purpose

The third phase ushers in reflections on legacy, the desire for meaningful contributions, and the quest for work-life balance. By this stage, you will have accumulated extensive experience and expertise and landed yourself in leadership roles — you might even be exploring entrepreneurship. Challenges might include staying relevant in a rapidly changing landscape, managing complex responsibilities and embracing innovation.

In STEM fields, women leaders often report experiencing microaggressions and biases related to their competence and merit. They say that as a women leader, they need to provide more evidence of their competence than their male colleagues. Here are few strategies to navigate this phase:

  • Mentorship & Legacy Building: Clearly define the legacy you aim to establish within your industry or field. Actively pursue projects and opportunities that align with and enhance your envisioned legacy. Share your knowledge and experiences by mentoring younger professionals. Maintain engagement in professional organizations and industry events, providing insights on panels, contributing to discussions and actively supporting initiatives that foster diversity. Explore the possibility of initiating mentorship programs for STEM careers within your organization or industry.
  • Succession Planning, Knowledge Sharing & Challenge Stereotypes: Actively engage in discussions related to succession planning to guarantee a varied selection of candidates for leadership roles. Champion the inclusion of well-qualified women in leadership positions. Document your knowledge and experiences to establish an enduring legacy of information. Consider writing articles, delivering talks or contributing to publications to share your expertise in STEM. Persist in challenging gender stereotypes by highlighting your proficiency and leadership. Contribute insights on navigating challenges unique to women.
  • Cultivate Work-Life Balance & Plan for Retirement: Prioritize personal well-being and work-life balance, explore flexible work arrangements, and actively engage in activities that bring joy and relaxation outside of work. Plan for retirement, ensuring financial preparedness. Ensure that your accomplishments and contributions are recognized and celebrated by colleagues and the organization. Consider organizing or participating in events that recognize the contributions of women in STEM.

In summary, navigating these phases demands adaptability, resilience and strategic planning. By following these insights, individuals can ensure a fulfilling and purpose-driven career journey, embracing each phase with a strategic mindset.


  • Gunjan Goswami

    Gunjan Goswami is an active SWE member and advocate for women in engineering.  With over 15 years of experience in program management, she specializes in driving innovation and excellence within the autonomous systems and robotics fields.