Do what you love and make it worthwhile

What is your passion? For me, it’s music. I played piano since I was 5 and played in an orchestra since middle school. When I got to college, I thought I should focus on my studies and didn’t touch my violin for a few months. But that didn’t last for long. I realized that playing music was a lifelong habit that I didn’t want to give up. The only problem was that there wasn’t a place for someone like me, a STEM major, to play music for fun.

Creating your own opportunities

The music school’s orchestra accepted all majors, but demanded over six hours of rehearsal per week and played difficult pieces that required extensive practice. I didn’t have time or energy for that with a full-time course load including labs.

My initial solution was starting a string quartet with some friends in my dorm. We met once a week to play.  After a month, we weren’t satisfied. Someone was always absent and sometimes we couldn’t find a place to practice. There was no structure or end goal. I wanted to be a part of something bigger, like a full orchestra. I envisioned performing swooping symphonies for a large audience.

Instead of waiting for an opportunity, I created my own opportunity. I knew that plenty of college students participated in high school band or orchestra, and many of them probably missed it. There had to be others like me, who were pursuing a non-music major, but wanted to continue playing. I decided my mission would be to gather them and create the Non-music Major Orchestra (NMO).

If you can identify a need in your own community, university, or online, don’t afraid to be start your own thing. Many people might have thought, “How great it would be if XYZ existed?” but no one was bold enough to create it. You can be the one to bring it to life, and many people will be thankful for it.

If you can identify a need in your own community, university, or online, don’t afraid to be start your own thing.

Making it worthwhile

I didn’t realize how much work was needed to maintain the organization. It was almost like running a small business. While I served as president, I learned many hard lessons and developed leadership skills. I led a team of 11 officers, recruited over 200 members within a two-year period, and attracted over 500 people to attend our concerts. I encountered many situations that required critical thinking, problem solving, and project management. Though it wasn’t my intent, I developed skills that were highly valued in many STEM professions.

Photo by NMO conductor, Pablo Fernandez.

When I started applying for jobs, I wanted to show that NMO was more than a hobby. I listed NMO under “Leadership Experience.” I strategically incorporated in every part of the interview process by using relevant examples to answer questions. Since I was involved in every process, from its creation to daily operations, I accumulated many examples. I compiled a list of possible interview questions and sorted them by category. For industrial positions, for example, most questions skewed towards behavioral, competency, and situational questions.

If you lack “real world” work experiences, but have plenty of undergraduate or academic experience, like I did, you can still apply those situations to interview questions. Think of times when you created a positive impact or influenced a decision. Then work on phrasing them in different ways to apply them to each of the different categories, and record somewhere. I like to use Google Docs because I can always refer to it on my phone before an interview if I need to.

I suggest taking time to reflect on what you’ve learned and skills you’ve gained. One way to do this is to update your resume every semester if you are still in school, or after a work experience if you are no longer in school. Another method is writing a short reflection about your struggles and accomplishments. I got into the habit of doing these two things after every semester for scholarship and research fellowship applications. It challenged me to reflect on my motivations and think about how I would apply the skills that I gained to future opportunities.

Owning it

Lastly, be proud of what you’ve accomplished and own it. I was always excited to talk about NMO in my interviews because I enjoyed every part of it. It’s obvious to your potential employer how involved and dedicated you were based on your enthusiasm. It pays off more than padding a resume with unfulfilling extracurricular activities.

Doing what you love doesn’t mean that it will always be ideal, because it will be hard at times. We can create meaningful change and influence our communities much more when we do what we love. We should not feel limited by our passion or work. Whether it’s playing swooping symphonies or preparing synthesis reactions, we can hone our professional skills and show future employers our potential and capabilities.

Read more from Brittany Trinh at brittanytrinh.com.

Brittany Trinh
Brittany Trinh

Brittany graduated from the University of Houston in 2018 and currently works as an industrial chemist in polymer R&D. She's also the branding manager for Her STEM Story. She writes about working as young professional in industrial chemistry on her blog (brittanytrinh.com). She likes to play piano and go on food adventures.

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