For career-minded students, few fields offer better job prospects than science, technology, engineering and math, known collectively as STEM.
With strong industry growth predicted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and high-paying STEM majors topping the chart in the National Association of Colleges and Employers Winter 2019 Salary Survey, career options are abundant and wages are promising for graduates.
“The STEM fields, in general, are a strong area to be in for good outcomes,” says Wendy Winter-Searcy, associate director of career center advising and professional development at Colorado School of Mines.
STEM disciplines span many academic departments. For students, this means a wide range of available majors. Listed below are a few examples of STEM programs available at many colleges.
STEM Majors List
— Computer science
— Earth sciences
— Health sciences
— Information technology
Contained within these individual disciplines are numerous branches of study leading to various career paths.
For example, a broad field such as biology splinters off into many different subfields. Specializations include marine and aquatic biology as well as the study of insects, reptiles and more.
Similarly, the field of engineering also branches out, allowing students the chance to explore aeronautics, chemistry, electronics and other disciplines within the field. Fields such as data science have emerged in recent years, creating new jobs to keep pace with industry demand.
“STEM majors have changed dramatically in the last two decades — both the variety of what’s available, the way that we teach and the way students learn the use of technology,” says Bob Kolvoord, a professor and dean of the College of Integrated Science and Engineering at James Madison University in Virginia.
With so many options on the table, it may be difficult for a student to decide on a STEM major. But with STEM extending across numerous fields, experts say that students won’t be limited in their professional pursuits and should expect to collaborate with their peers.
“STEM is actually a team sport,” says Colin Terry, interim director for the career center and associate dean of students at Colorado School of Mines. “Students are surprised when they find out how much they’ll work with students from other disciplines.”
Kolvoord believes that the “walls between disciplines” have come down for STEM majors, opening up new opportunities.
“I think that’s driven folks to say maybe we need to look at providing an education that allows people to not be in disciplinary boxes but to be able to see a broader world that’s involved,” Kolvoord says.
While a STEM degree is inherently focused on math and science, Kolvoord says the humanities cannot be dispelled. For example, he cites the important ethical and philosophical considerations that arise when designing self-driving cars. Engineers must take into account how artificial intelligence can make instant decisions that involve matters of life and death if an autonomous vehicle crashes into pedestrians. The answer, he says, must be informed by the humanities and can’t be left to engineering concepts alone.
Students Who Should Consider STEM Degrees
Kolvoord says that, ideally, a student should possess strong analytical and problem-solving skills and be interested in how the world functions, how technology works and how it can develop and affect human life, health and well-being. He also emphasizes strong math skills.
Winter-Searcy says high school students seeking a STEM education in college should keep their grades up. She also recommends that students participate in outside activities to develop leadership and communication skills, and that they gauge their own interests.
While students can get a head start on a STEM degree in high school, experts suggest they explore their options before settling on a major.
“The best thing to do would be to take some basic classes in the different disciplines, some introductory classes and see what suits them, what appeals to them intellectually,” Kolvoord says.
Terry says that core classes, research opportunities and advising will help students better understand their options for a STEM degree. “There are going to be degrees that students think they know about, or they have never even heard of, that they’ll be able to learn about … and hopefully pursue,” he says.
Terry highlights the metallurgical and materials engineering major at Colorado School of Mines as a program that many students are unfamiliar with before arriving on campus, but one that is in high demand by employers with promising wages upon graduation.
[Read: Find the Best College for Your Major.]
As colleges work to meet the needs of employers, some experts say more must be done on the K-12 level to attract students to STEM careers. Michelle Sanchez, senior professor of practice and director of the Center for K-12 STEM Education at Tulane University in Louisiana, aims to encourage more students to consider STEM fields by introducing them to these concepts early.
“When you ask a middle school student, for example, what do they want to be when they grow up, they don’t think about all the possibilities there are in STEM,” Sanchez says, noting this is especially true for students with lower socioeconomic status. She encourages students to get involved with STEM by exploring the opportunities available through their schools, participating in science fairs and seeking out programs that allow them to sample STEM at the college level.
While it can be difficult to predict industry cycles, James Saulsbury, associate director of recruiting and employer relations at Colorado School of Mines says some fields seem to be expanding more than others. Fields that experts pointed to as soaring are computer science and data science, both of which intersect with many industries.
Still, filling every job across all fields is a tricky formula. “The demand is never going to be completely consistent across majors and across industries,” Saulsbury says.
With a wealth 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.
Kolvoord encourages students to seek out the degree program and fit that best suits them: “Go visit schools in session — universities and colleges are different places when the students aren’t there. You really can’t get to get to know a place unless you’re there when students are there. Talk to the students, see what’s going on, see the facilities and see the place in action.”
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Correction 01/30/19: A previous version of this article misstated Michelle Sanchez’s title.