A solid education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is often considered a dream for inquisitive minds fascinated by hands-on learning and real-world applications. STEM-related subjects prepare individuals to lead with critical thinking and innovation, while providing a variety of skill sets and career options — a valuable currency in a world that relies heavily on technology.
That said, it comes as no surprise that STEM skills are in extremely high demand and short supply. According to SHRM, employers will need to fill a reported 3.5 million STEM job openings in the market by 2025 to stay ahead of customer demands. That figure represents a sizeable challenge: for prospective talent, securing the complex skills that the market needs — and for businesses, finding and (most importantly) winning over the best of that talent.
But first things first: How do you know if a STEM career is for you?
To mark this year’s STEM Day, we asked several up-and-coming Synopsys R&D engineers about their motivations, experiences, role models, and biggest myths about a career in STEM. Their responses highlight the fact that there is no single path to a STEM career.
For some people, interest in the more technical side of life takes root early. “I always wanted to be a scientist while growing up,” says Chang Yang. Growing up with parents who taught computers and mathematics provided a fertile ground for his interests to develop.
“I believe that computation, or computational power, is the thing that matters most in today’s world. Everything depends on it, and semiconductors are central to high-performance computation.” — Chang Yang, Sr. R&D Engineer, Synopsys EDA Group
On the other hand, Giulia Meuli had childhood dreams of becoming a ballet dancer or a pilot. At school, she enjoyed science and math much more than humanities subjects such as history and literature.
“Time went by amazingly fast when I solved math problems at home,” she says. Years later, she went on to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering.
By contrast, Eleonora Testa preferred history, literature, and classics growing up. It was only at the end of her high school days that the study of quantum physics and astrophysics drew her into pursuing a STEM career.
Within STEM, semiconductors and EDA hold unique appeal as the center of technological progress. “The semiconductor industry is particularly exciting because it is at the heart of every technological object, from the most ordinary to the most sophisticated,” agrees Meuli. “Its advancement has an effect that is immediately evident and within the reach of many. It is also an enabling technology for development for most, if not all, scientific fields.”
For Testa, the fact that the semiconductor industry itself is inherently in a constant state of evolution makes it uniquely challenging and stimulating. She opted to work at Synopsys as the leading force in EDA and logic synthesis, which was the focus of her doctoral studies.
As part of the Synopsys team, Yang feels he is contributing to the industry’s progress. Meuli adds: “I find the complexity of the problems that EDA tools can solve mind-blowing. I was amazed at how much electronic design relied on EDA tools as closed boxes or one-button solutions. I wanted to be among the few who understand how they really work.”
This sense of excitement and connection to human progress is at odds with the image that many people have of the STEM field. Meuli says a common misconception is that a STEM career equals “cold, mechanical work embedded in restrictive boundaries where there is no room for creativity.”
Testa says she also finds that people often mistakenly perceive it as an uncreative area.
“In my opinion, working in a STEM field is full of new problems and challenges that require creative solutions and ideas on a regular basis.” — Eleonora Testa, Sr. R&D Engineer, Synopsys EDA Group
Additionally, when it comes to the people in these roles, some perceive engineers to be aggressive and obsessively hard charging. “Not everyone is like Elon Musk,” Yang notes, although he lists his company’s namesake, Nikola Tesla, as an inspiration. He adds that the intense level of competition within the semiconductor field means that only the strongest can survive.
Of course, working in such an advanced industry is no walk in the park and does require a high degree of self-motivation. Unlike many fields where on-the-job training takes precedence over academic study, building solid foundational knowledge and skills before embarking on a STEM career is essential and challenging, Yang says.
At the same time, it is wise to expect to feel some sense of culture shock when making the leap from academia to the commercial sphere. In moving from being a Ph.D. student to an employee, Testa says, “I had to adjust and modify my priorities, focus, and time management.”
“Take every opportunity to gain practical experience at different companies, groups, and fields to really get a clear idea of your preferences and potential.” — Giulia Meuli, Sr. R&D Engineer, Synopsys EDA Group
Another challenge is simply identifying your specialization.
“The hardest part of starting my career was navigating my way through the various STEM fields to figure out what I was most passionate about in both theory and practice, and what kind of work I was best suited for,” recalls Meuli. “This path was trial and error and took a lot of time and energy.”
Whatever the discipline, STEM professionals are largely team players. “Nobody can acquire all the knowledge required to finish a task,” says Yang. “You must be very cooperative, help others, and be willing to receive help to get things done. This means that communication and connections are very important.”
Meuli’s biggest learning has been the fundamental nature of project planning to any innovation efforts. “It is never a waste of time to plan and analyze a project in terms of its different aspects and implications before starting the development phase,” she reflects.
A career in STEM requires vision, grit, and courage. For prospective industry joiners, the advice is to roll up your sleeves (and keep them rolled up); seek out broad first-hand experience before committing to anything; and be prepared to change course.
“It’s a competitive world, especially in EDA,” Yang says. “If a company is not leading, not delivering the best in the field, then it’s very hard to survive. That’s why engineers in this area must always innovate and work hard.”
But there is nothing wrong with backtracking and starting again, says Testa. “Don’t be afraid to try something and find it to be the wrong choice,” she offers. “I firmly believe in changing and re-inventing yourself in order to find the right path. STEM studies may be challenging, but this should not stop you from pursuing them.”
To help foster the world’s next generation of technologists and innovators, Synopsys is actively collaborating with universities through the Synopsys Academic & Research Alliances (SARA) initiative, which offers a variety of academic programs to support academic and research institutions.
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