For career-minded students, few fields offer better job prospects than science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known collectively as STEM.
“STEM is about innovating and changing the world,” says Juan Gilbert, professor and chair of the department of computer and information sciences and engineering at the University of Florida. “You have the opportunity to have a good income, a good standard of living and to have an impact on society and the world. It’s an easy sell.”
“STEM fields continue to be in high demand, leading to strong, positive outcomes,” says Wendy Winter-Searcy, director of the STEM Career Center. Colorado School of Mines.
STEM disciplines span many academic departments, meaning a wide range of specializations available to students. Below are some examples of STEM programs available in many colleges.
List of STEM majors
- Earth Science
- Health Sciences
- Computer science
These individual disciplines contain numerous branches of study leading to various career paths.
For example, a large domain such as biology is divided into many subfields, including marine biology, molecular biology, biochemistry, ecology and many more. Likewise, the domain of engineering includes specialties that give students the opportunity to explore aeronautics, chemistry, electronics and other disciplines.
As technology advances, new fields such as data science have emerged, preparing students for in-demand jobs.
“STEM majors have changed dramatically over the past two decades – both in the variety of what is available, in the way we teach, and in the way students learn to use technology,” says Bob Kolvoord, professor and dean of the College of Integrated Science and Science. Engineering at James Madison University in Virginia.
JMU, for example, has developed an integrated science and technology major that, according to Kolvoord, “provides students with a strong core of STEM knowledge and then applies it to key technology areas” like biotechnology, energy, environment and modern manufacturing.
“More and more schools are seeing strong student interest in more applied programs,” he wrote in an email.
STEM majors are interdisciplinary
With so many options, it can be difficult to choose a STEM major. But as STEM expands into many fields, experts say students won’t be limited in their professional pursuits.
For example, careers in public health draw on skills from all STEM disciplines. “I tell my students that it’s great that you want to make a difference in the lives of people charged with public health, but remember that you can’t do it without math and statistics,” says Jagdish Khubchandani, professor of public health at New Mexico State University. “It’s a basic skill. Unless you know how to measure a problem, how do you solve it?”
Even though a STEM degree is inherently focused on math and science, Kolvoord says the humanities cannot be ignored. For example, he cites the important ethical and philosophical considerations that arise when designing self-driving cars. Engineers must consider how artificial intelligence will make instant decisions involving matters of life and death. This type of judgment must be informed by the humanities and cannot be left to engineering concepts alone, he says.
It will also be imperative that healthcare professionals master artificial intelligence, says Khubchandani.
“Healthcare will have greater interface with technology, AI and e-management,” he says. “Our generation of healthcare graduates still does not receive much training and may lack skills and experiences by the time they enter the market.”
High school teachers are working to educate their STEM-oriented students for the interdisciplinary world they hope to enter, says Shannon Hughes, college counselor and STEM department chair at Signature school in Evansville, Indiana.
“With COVID, the focus is on research, so students today are more interested in STEM than ever, I think,” she says.
In fact, medical school applications increased by almost 18% for the 2021-22 school year, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges. That number was due to “historic increases among underrepresented minorities,” according to the AAMC. Although the overall number of applications declined somewhat for the 2022-23 school year and returned closer to pre-pandemic levels, it remained relatively high compared to historical numbers.
Students Who Should Consider STEM Degrees
Students need to consider many factors when deciding whether a STEM degree is the right path, but Khubchandani says it helps to have a natural curiosity in a particular field. An interest in analytical writing and critical evaluation is also a strong indicator that a STEM field might be a good fit, he says.
Kolvoord says that ideally a student should have strong analytical and problem-solving skills and be interested in how the world works, how technology works and how it can develop and affect life, health and human well-being. It also emphasizes strong math skills.
High school students seeking a STEM education in college should keep their grades up, Winter-Searcy says. She also recommends that students participate in outside activities to develop direction and communication skills.
Although students may have a head start on a STEM degree in high school, experts suggest they explore their options before moving toward a college major.
“The best thing to do would be to take basic courses in the different disciplines, introductory courses and see what suits them, what interests them intellectually,” says Kolvoord.
Once an initial interest is developed, experts suggest students enroll in upper secondary courses to see if the material and courses are truly suitable.
“We’re just making sure our students have the foundation they need to be successful in the STEM fields they want to go into,” Hughes says. “There’s nothing worse than taking your first science class in college and feeling like yourself. this is not enough.”
Although it can be difficult to predict industry cycles, STEM professionals say they have reason to believe that current students’ job prospects will continue to increase over the next decade. The fields of computer science and data science are booming, experts say, and cut across many industries.
Graduate programs, like MBAs, are focus more on STEM to keep pace with growing market trends, experts say. For example, the Fowler College of Business at San Diego State University in California, launched the James Silberrad Brown Center for Artificial Intelligence in 2023. Dan Moshavi, dean of Fowler, says it will allow the school to prepare students “for jobs that may not currently exist.”
More B-schools will likely incorporate a STEM approach in the coming years, especially as the use of AI grows. And MBA experts say they’ve seen increased interest in specializations such as data analysis and technology product management.
If a four-year or graduate degree isn’t feasible for some STEM-minded students, an associate’s degree can still lead to a well-paying job. Many of the highest paying jobs for associate degree holders work in STEM-related fields and pay between $60,000 and $130,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“There’s no end in sight,” Gilbert says. “There are a lot of opportunities and, again, it cuts across so many different sectors. It’s a skill set that can easily transfer to different sectors.”
With a multitude of options available, experts urge students to think through their decisions to find the right major.
“I think parents and students should think critically about the return on investment,” Winter-Searcy says.
There’s also much more to consider than money, Khubchandani says. Some fields require many years of additional schooling, while others may require long hours away from loved ones.
“You have to see how to maintain a balance in life, be healthy and happy,” he says. “That’s an important factor. Think about how much time you want to spend in school, what your family’s priorities are, how much money you want to make, and then start plotting the path backwards.”