Landing a STEM job with non-STEM credentials: Guest Post by Conor Walsh


A Note from Katie: I met Conor when we were both Mitchell Scholars studying in Ireland. His enthusiasm and energy are clear in this guest post, but what I'm most excited about in sharing part of his story here is that he has done something that might be in the future for many college grads: he found a job he loves in a field completely different from what he studied. That doesn't mean his studies were wasted or that he has regrets, but rather that the skills and knowledge gained in a college degree might be nicely transferred to other, seemingly-unrelated career paths. He has since moved on form the job described here, to take another STEM-related job back in his beloved Ireland. I hope you enjoy Conor's post as much as I did!


Conor Walsh Ireland

I graduated from college in 2012 with a degree in linguistics. Harvard’s program is mostly focused on the theoretical aspects of the field (applied linguistics is a thing too, ya nerds), and I was initially drawn to syntactic theory and the intricacies of Irish language morphosyntax (it’s wild, y’all! This stuff will keep you up at night). Over time, I found myself getting into Irish language policy which turned into an honors thesis which led to a Mitchell Scholarship to study the Irish language and applied sociolinguistics in Galway. I thoroughly loved every minute of it. As a young student, being challenged by caring professors to dive into the weird, wonderful, and less popular parts of academia was a deeply rewarding experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  But, by the end of the summer of 2013, with my degree wrapping up and no obvious next steps, I decided I needed to get a job. Like, a real one. I was unsure on pursuing further study, and I felt I needed a change of pace. So, I packed my bags and headed for Boston, my hometown.

I never expected a job to just appear or anything. No jobbie trees for the linguistics majors with a love of Irish language policy and more than a passing interest in medieval bardic poetry. However, after a few weeks of applying to jobs with no luck, I started to feel that gnawing desperation when you wake up and wonder if you’re in some sort of crazy depressing time warp where you actually never went to college and learned nothing of value during the last five years. Yeah, that feeling. Some of you might know what I’m talking about. Others of you, just wait. It seemed like all my friends from college were either working amazing jobs or toiling in grad school or working at less than amazing jobs that would clearly get them to more than amazing jobs or the chance to toil in grad school, all of which sounded infinitely better than being unemployed and waking up in your childhood bed and eating ice cream from the carton for the third day straight.

So, I’ll admit I may have had one or two of those moments of wondering why I never learned anything “practical” in school. Didn’t do computer science. My math requirement was a class called “The Magic of Numbers.” My science requirement featured wonderful “tree walks” but little computation. I easily found myself collapsing into those fears that the blogosphere loves to perpetuate about basically anyone under 30 who doesn’t have a STEM background: aimless, sedentary millennial bobos wasting their parents’ hard-earned money with no chance of ever taking part in the new knowledge economy. I could practically see the hand-wringing and pearl-clutching.

So, what happened? Like a lot of folks, I spent a few months looking for a job and decided that maybe going into something tech-related was a good idea. I spent some time getting a handle on basic HTML and CSS by using the countless free resources out there on the interwebs, and I was lucky to find a job opening at Echo & Co., a digital strategy firm in Boston, as a project assistant. When I interviewed for the job, the folks at Echo & Co., experienced web developers and technical project managers themselves, weren’t too worried about my (non-) technical background. Instead, they asked me to describe experiences leading teams and organizations. They asked me for writing samples and to describe ideas and phenomena that I was passionate about. They didn’t ask me why I majored in linguistics instead of chemistry.

You see, the thing our parents and pundits often forget is that STEM-related fields and industries are large, complicated ecosystems where a wide variety of skills are necessary. There are roles for everyone from all kinds of backgrounds. I quickly developed an understanding of the web development process once I started managing digital campaigns and development projects. In a lot of ways, this understanding of the process is enough. It’s probably not in the cards for me to become a full stack developer, but having a handle on the processes that go into tech, especially web services, and being tech-savvy is, for most of us, enough to be effective in a job as part of the STEM ecosystem. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take that introductory CS course, or that “The Magic of Numbers” is a better choice than multivariable calculus. But, if I’ve learned anything from my experience, it’s that there are all kinds of roles for folks interested in STEM but who don’t have a formal STEM background. It might take some imagination and maybe some extra learning, but the sooner we recognize the strengths we have, the sooner we can market those strengths and (creatively) find jobs in fields and industries we might never have otherwise imagined.

Please leave any questions, thoughts, and reactions in the comments section below! If you liked this post, you might also enjoy "Unconventional Twentysomethings," "Imagined 'Plan B' Futures," and "Why I Don't Like Career Statistics."