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J.R.R. Tolkien’s observation that “not all who wander are lost” may have been about hobbits in an imaginary world thousands of years ago, but it should also be the credo of modern professionals navigating today’s real-world careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

At NJBIA’s recent Women Business Leaders Forum, panelists discussing “Women in STEM” pointed out that career paths sometimes follow circuitous routes. The most rewarding outcomes occur for those who keep learning and are willing to diverge from their preplanned course to explore new possibilities.

Professor Darshan Desai, chair of the Business Data Science Department at Berkeley College, said she has mentored both men and women in their careers, but finds that women are more likely to lock themselves into a predetermined career path, saying they want to “love what they do.”

“There is nothing wrong with doing what you love to do, but what you love to do is a static thing,” Desai warned. “And that means ‘I know what I love to do, and I don’t know anything else,’ and that closes many other opportunities.”

Sheri Horwitz, senior vice president of IT at the global software and services company  Synchronoss Technologies Inc., said it’s important to understand STEM encompasses more than engineers working at Apple or Google. Technology changes rapidly, affects all industries, and demands that people keep learning so that their skills are continuously evolving.

“Our careers are never a straight path,” Horwitz said. “I have a degree in marketing and television management and (now) I run IT at a technology firm. You have to be open to possibilities because doors will open along the way and then you have to walk straight through them.”

Merna Cirillo, senior manager for Contract Strategy and Analytics at Bristol Myers Squibb, said good career advice for anyone, but especially in STEM, is to keep learning so that you excel at what you do.

“Hustle, read a lot more than just what your job description is asking you to do, and gain that knowledge because that builds confidence,” Cirillo said. “Along with that, build your network because that’s so important. You could be the best at your job, but if you don’t have a network of people around you, it could steer you in the wrong direction.”

To watch the entire discussion, which was moderated by Carina Pologruto, chief innovation officer at MarketSmith Inc., go here.