Undergraduate STEM Majors: Here’s What You Should Be Doing During The Pandemic While Taking Online Courses

It’s been months since the pandemic chaos started and we would expect ourselves to be used to it by now and have our perfect daily routines down. Yet the restlessness, stress, and the feeling of being overwhelmed just seem to linger. There is no doubt that this year has been quite a ride — pandemic, political turmoil on another level, movements and protests, natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, derechos, the list goes on and on. And certainly online courses starting this fall have not helped with the situation at all.

This is especially a stressful time for STEM majors when every minute counts and unprecedented times like this can make you feel like you’re falling behind.

But hey don’t worry. There are still things that you can do to be sure you’re progressing forward.

Even though you may not be able to do in person volunteer work or join a research lab due to covid-19 precautions, there are still things that you can do right now to best prepare yourself for when those opportunities arise again, whether it’s outstanding grades, better recommendation letters, career building, etc.

So if you are a STEM major, here are 6 things you can do right now outside of online courses to better prepare you for your STEM journey:

1. Research up on your field of interest

Yes, online courses suck. So does not being able to attend or join organizations, nor being able to go on late night hang outs with your friends. As much as the world seems against you, acknowledge the extra time that you have to yourself to think about what you want to do post graduate. Everyone has to spend time to think about that at some point during college, hopefully before they graduate. So while you’re not getting pulled by social events left and right, why not spend this time to deep dive into your field of interest? Some questions that you can dive into:

  • What do I want to do post graduate? More school? Work?
  • If I’m dead set on medical school, what medical schools are out there? What is medical school like? What is residency like? What courses should I take during college to help me better prepare for it?
  • If I were to go to school, what kind of programs are out there? What makes those programs unique? What programs would I be interested in? What do those programs require (GRE/MCAT/PCAT/specific backgrounds, etc.)?
  • If I don’t know what I want to do after I graduate, what are my options? What kind of careers are available in my field? Do I want to stay in my field? Do I want to do something else? What skill sets can I gain now to make me a better job applicant?

2. Reach out to people who are more experienced and knowledgeable about what you want to do

When most people are stuck in their homes, there’s no better time than now to connect with people online. Through the internet, you can come across a lot of interesting information and programs and research labs, and there will usually be some sort of contact information attached to it. Several reasons why you should connect with people online:

  • Now that zoom has become a big thing, it’s easier now to reach out and connect with people more than you can over email, but less hassle than seeing each other in person
  • Researching online can online get you so far. Perhaps you want to go to medical school, and you’ve done your research on MCAT, medical school, residency, etc. But a list of statistics on websites can’t tell you if it’s truly the right fit for you. Talk to a medical professional online, and hear personal stories. Why did that person go into medicine? When did they realize that medicine is the right fit for them? Is there anything that they regret? Do they have any advice?
  • If you’re seeking research opportunities, email professors, post docs, or graduate students in research labs you are interested in, and tell them you want to learn more, or tell them you want to join and see if there’s anything that you could do outside of the lab (read the lab’s publications, data analysis, etc.).

3. Attend “office hours” or ask your professor for out of class time for questions

This one is sort of related to the previous one. Though in the internet world and social media, it has gotten much easier to find a stranger and connect. But don’t forget that colleges and universities offer so many resources, including people. And during the pandemic, you don’t have to walk all the way across campus to be stuck in a small room with your professor in person right now. Professor will only be across the screen, which is less intimidating, as I’ve avoided going to countless office hours for the sole reason that I was afraid of the professor. Couple perks about having “office hours” online:

  • As mentioned above, it’s less intimidating compared to in person
  • Rather than being in a small office either full of people, or people waiting outside for you to finish, your call with the professor will be solely you and the professor’s time with no interruption. Any questions you have, course or non-course related, you are in power of the time
  • If you are looking for letters of recommendation, your proactivity and one-on-one engagement will surely make you an impressionable candidate
  • You probably will have less competitors since most people would avoid forced one-on-one with professors where you can’t stare away from the screen… But if you can get over that, more powers to you

Surely it’s not the most comfortable thing to do but remember: you get out what you put in. The more you are proactive in utilizing your campus resources, the more opportunities will come to you.

4. Make a Linkedin account

If you haven’t already, this is a great time to make a Linkedin account. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Linkedin is a social network with its main purpose being professional network and career building. Basically, it’s Facebook or Instagram but you see posts about professional-related stuff rather than family vacation photos, and I think it’s completely fine to treat it that way. Even if you’re not looking for an internship nor a job currently, it’s a great platform to adjust your lens to post-graduate self. Here are some reasons why Linkedin is great:

  • You can see posts by companies, which can help give you an idea what kind of culture the company has
  • You can see career advisors post hiring tips and advices, or graduate/medical school admissions committee members post admission tips and advices
  • You can see friends are doing in a professional setting. This was my main motive when I first created my Linkedin account during college, since it gave me that extra push to try harder when I saw what my peers were achieving
  • If you build your Linkedin page now, it’ll come in handy when the opportunity for your account to shine comes, whether someone is thinking about hiring you or admitting you to graduate school
  • It can make you feel like you’ve taken an active step towards the real world and honestly, it’s true!

One personal note: It’s very easy to make a direct comparison with someone on Linkedin, but don’t forget that a good career building process can differ across different professions. For example, I remember I was a bit taken back when I saw a friend in business and had about 5, 6 internships on linkedin and I thought, “Wow, she’s achieved so much and during that time I’ve only been working at one research lab”. Perhaps a load of internship opportunities is good for business, however, if you’re hopping around 5, 6 research labs, people in science tend to question your job quality and your inability to pursue a research project.

5. Learn how to read research papers, regardless of if you’re going to go into research in your future or not

Regardless if you are taking any courses that require you to read papers, or if you wish or don’t wish to go into research, to be able to read research papers is a very useful skill. Here are some reasons why:

  • Research papers are filled with terms and concepts that you may not be familiar with. This allows to act as a gateway to the field of interest
  • If you are somewhat familiar with terms and concepts from for example a course, research papers are a great way to see the application of course materials.
  • Research papers are structured in ways that experiments are carried out and follow the authors’ thought processes to achieve the outcome. So if you wish to join a research lab whether it’s for career or pursuit of education or resume purposes, research papers can serve as a great resource for understanding the field of research before being hands on.
  • Research teaches you how to think systematically and how STEM problems are approached and solved. This skill will be useful regardless of what field you are in and wish to be in the future.

Reading and analyzing research papers will not come overnight. If you aren’t too familiar, check out my post How to read Neuroscience research papers effectively. The most important thing is that it takes patience and practice. So why not start practicing now?

6. Expand your horizon by watching TED talks or attending webinars

Lastly, utilize the endless amount of resources for knowledge online. Whether it’s related to your major, your passion, modern day must-knows like basic politics and what’s going on around the world, self development, health and wellness, entrepreneur mindset, minimalism, productivity, anything! Whatever you wish to learn a bit more, you can probably find free online webinars or breakdowns that can be way easier to understand than college lectures without paying college tuition for it. Some examples:

  • Khan Academy
  • TED talks
  • Masterclass
  • Skillshare
  • NPR
  • Any podcasts
  • Any webinar offered by a company or organization
  • Literally anything!

Even if you can online allocate about 15–30 minutes a day, the daily dose of information adds up. Maybe you are majoring in mechanical engineering but were always interested in space? Then go on NASA’s page to watch webinars and clips! Watch space education videos. Take a masterclass by Chris Hadfield. Maybe you understand basic astrophysics by watching videos everyday that you feel comfortable taking a course in college next semester or quarter. Maybe your daily pursuit gives you an opportunity to do an internship at NASA or SpaceX or Ames Research Center, you never know!

2020 has definitely been quite a roller coaster, and online courses are never easy. What’s mentioned above may seem like a lot but remember, you would be busier if you are in school right now, joining a research lab, joining numerous clubs and organizations, volunteering, while trying to make time for your friends. So why not take this opportunity to really dig in and ask yourself, “What would make my time in college worth?”, “What can I do now that I can thank myself for in the future?”, “Who do I want to be?” as you will have to before graduating anyway. You don’t have to do everything mentioned above, but if you could take even just one thing and cultivate it as your own so that you can feel like you were able to take that big step forward and feel a bit more confident in your future, that’s all I can ask for. Good luck!

25 year old neuroscientist who experienced the transition from a biotech start up to an acquired company sharing her career & self development journey