Welcome to #STEMSupport, a bi-monthly article that will tackle common questions and issues others may face within STEM. Today’s article will cover making the move from the humanities to the sciences and how to make the transition easier.
Prior to my current life in the lab studying animal bones and isotopes, I had no idea how to operate a microscope. Someone who couldn’t remember what an electron was. Someone who would never even stick her foot into a lab, let alone work in one.
I was a humanities student.
And yet, despite my lack of scientific background and my general hesitation about relearning chemistry, mathematics, and biology…or anything that had to do with numbers and periodic tables. I ended up jumping headfirst into STEM with a Masters in archaeological sciences.
So, how did that happen? What caused a change of heart?
Well, I realized that I wanted to apply things that I learned from my humanities background in a practical way, which ultimately led me to (rather bravely) face the dreaded sciences again.
It was a very difficult transition. But, it was also incredibly worth it.
Let me preface this by saying that I am not trying to argue that the STEM fields are more valuable than the humanities – I’m a firm believer in interdisciplinary studies and think our STEM research could learn a lot from humanities studies and vice versa! But I also recognize that many people, myself included, find themselves straddling between the two fields and sometimes it can be a jarring and terrifying experience to move from one to the other.
So, for those of you in that predicament, here are my top 4 tips for a smooth transition:
- Don’t be afraid of being a beginner! The first day of my MSc programme was terrifying…I hadn’t taken a science class in about five years, and don’t even ask me about the last time I did math without a calculator! Fortunately for me, my programme had a module for introducing people back into the sciences – even then, I still struggled a bit when I first started. In that case – don’t be afraid of asking questions! Lecturers will understand if you lack some of the background knowledge for whatever science field you end up in. I’ve had some great lecturers provide me with extra materials and resources to help catch me up to speed with chemistry during my MSc, which became a great help when it came time to do lab work for my dissertation.
- The Internet is your friend. Another source of support came from the Internet, surprisingly enough. I managed to create a collection of free, online courses and resources to supplement my studies – and since it’s online, you can learn from the privacy of your own home, judgment free! You would be surprised how useful even a kids’ online game about the skeletal system is for someone who is sorely lacking in the anatomy knowledge department.
- Be open-minded – you’ll be surprised what catches your interest! I will admit that I have definitely been guilty of pre-judging subjects prior to even learning about them just because they “sound boring” or look too difficult. This, of course, is the least helpful thing to do, especially if it’s a subject you’ve never studied before. Keep an open mind and put in the effort – you’d be surprised what sort of subjects that may have seemed boring before might be your favorite later on! For example, I have had bad experiences in high school chemistry so you can imagine how much I did not want to learn it again for my MSc…turns out, using chemistry for isotopic analysis is actually something I enjoy!
- Use your previous background. One of the biggest advantages you have is your humanities background, so put it to good use! As a scientist, I’ve realized that my original training in classical archaeology has really trained my eye for detail, which helps when it comes to analyzing animal bones. My background in anthropology has also provided many theoretical lenses for me to use in interpreting data, which means I can provide a different perspective when it comes to formulating interpretations and conclusions from assemblages.
Moving from one discipline to another is always a scary move, especially if you’re moving from the humanities to STEM! But if you play to your strengths, acknowledge your weaknesses, and keep an open mind, it can also be an extremely worthwhile move as well! Good luck!
Thanks for reading! If you have suggestions for topics you would like #STEMSupport to cover in the future, feel free to contact me on Twitter @ArchaeologyFitz. I also write at Animal Archaeology Blog.
About the Author
Alex Fitzpatrick is a zooarchaeologist and PhD student. She is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, where she is researching animal remains from caves off the coast of Scotland. She is the current social media manager for the science website http://crastina.se/ (they own I Am Sci Comm twitter account). I Am Sci Comm account has over 14,000 followers. Check out her post, How to Breathe During Your Studies: Mental Health and Academia.