Determine Whether a STEM Major Is the Right Choice

Many prospective college students are drawn to programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly referred to as STEM — fields that have the potential for a high salary and continued growth.

The umbrella term of STEM covers many four-year degrees with a heavy focus on math and science, from discrete mathematics to geological sciences to biomedical engineering. These degree programs can be rewarding in the end, but can also be rigorous and competitive.

Here are some ways to decide if a STEM degree is right for you.

What Is Earning a STEM Degree Like?

A college usually offers engineering degrees through its department or school of engineering, while other STEM majors like mathematics or computer science often are in arts and sciences.

Jennifer Stephan, dean of academic advising and undergraduate studies for the School of Engineering at Tufts University in Massachusetts, says students should consider a degree’s nonmajor requirements, often dictated by which school offers the degree. Engineering degrees often have more math and science requirements, while computer science or biology might require humanities or foreign language courses.

“For STEM degrees within a school of engineering, you might only — if at all — take one non-STEM course a semester,” Stephan says. “That’s a huge distinction.”

[Read: Picking the Degrees and Majors of the Future: What to Know.]

And while workload varies by degree, STEM programs tend to be demanding and, as the acronym implies, heavy on math and science.

Karen Panetta, dean of graduate education at the Tufts School of Engineering, says students can expect to face failure. “Sometimes students have a disastrous first semester, and I say, ‘Congratulations, you’re a true engineer.’ You better be used to failing, because we fail often. We fail frequently, because we learn from our failures.”

Benefits of a STEM Degree

STEM careers can be a draw for college students aiming for a high return on their investment. Engineering and computer science generally are among the top-paying STEM degrees, notes Raheem Beyah, dean of the College of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“You’ll find folks graduating with an undergraduate degree at 21 years old making between $85,000 and $135,000,” Beyah says. “And as you continue to put in more time, you can raise it and end up doing extremely well over the course of your career.”

[Related:College Majors With the Best Return on Investment]

As more industries integrate and rely on technology, STEM graduates are in increasingly hot demand from a wider range of employers, Beyah says.

“You used to think, ‘Here’s this really technical company that I’m going to go work for,’ like Cisco or Intel, as an engineer. But now it’s every company: It’s Home Depot, it’s BLACK+DECKER, it’s car companies.”

In 2021, U.S. workers in STEM occupations made more than twice the annual median income of non-STEM earners — $95,420 compared to $40,120, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The job growth rate for STEM employment is projected to be more than double the non-STEM job growth rate from 2021 to 2031, 10.8% compared to 4.9%, per bureau predictions.

How to Know if STEM Is the Right Fit

Students less comfortable in science and math may have more difficulty working through course requirements in STEM programs.

Experts say STEM students should be able to think critically about situations and develop solutions to solve problems. They urge prospective college students to consider their interests and passions when looking at possible degree paths and seeking out STEM careers that align.

“People assume that it’s all about math and science,” Panetta says. “I try to say, ‘No, it’s really about what you like and then mapping or connecting how those passions can be utilized and enhanced.'”

Albert P. Pisano, dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California San Diego, recommends students connect their subject of interest to the skills that field requires and to the effects their work will produce.

“Why did I choose mechanical engineering? Well, my father and grandfather, my uncles, they’re all construction workers,” he says.

“It’s a hard business. My dad’s body was worn out by the time he was 62. I saw this, and I got attracted to mechanical engineering because my first thought was that I wanted to build a better machine that the workers could use without endangering themselves.”

Stephan recommends students research different STEM degrees and what careers they can make from them, to help connect their passions with their skills.

“There are so many STEM majors that students may not be exposed to in high school that could be a great match for those students,” she says.

Experts also advise that prospective students talk to STEM professionals and educators and academic advisers about their fields to see how their skills and interests might fit.

Kelly Espino, who recently graduated from the Samueli School of Engineering at the University of California–Los Angeles with a degree in civil and environmental engineering, said she had passions for math and architecture in high school but wasn’t sure how to find a major that fit.

“What it took was a prior student of my calculus teacher coming back to speak to our class,” she says. “He mentioned that he was studying civil engineering, specifically structural, but he explained it as the math of architecture — I was like, ‘I’m sold.'”

[Read: AP Math Classes: How to Compare and Choose]

Experts say many students face pressure to pursue a STEM degree to make a good return on their educational investment. But while a lofty engineering salary may attract many students, Stephan cautions against pursuing a STEM degree just for the paycheck.

“I’ve advised so many college students over the years that really weren’t a good match for STEM, but felt that they should be doing it for one reason or another,” she says. “It’s very important to identify what the student likes, what the student is good at, and what the student can be compensated for.”

Beyah says STEM graduates should be ready to maintain a learning mindset throughout their career.

“One would hope that folks in STEM, specifically in engineering, have this continuous curiosity and desire to learn. And technology changes, so no matter where you go, you’re going to have to learn because that technology is going to shift,” he says.

How to Find the Right STEM Program

Prospective STEM students looking into schools and programs that fit their interests should be aware that some schools require students to commit to their major upon admission, experts say.

“Whether it be Carnegie Mellon for computer science or Johns Hopkins for biomedical engineering, that’s the program you’re admitted to at the time of admission,” Stephan says.

These programs can be a great fit for students who have a solid understanding of what they want to pursue. But other schools, like Tufts or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offer more flexibility for students to test out different STEM specializations.

“We don’t admit by major, and we have what I call ‘very low walls’ between schools,” says Stephan at Tufts. “Students can internally transfer between schools … and there is curricular, structural flexibility to allow them to learn what they want to study and change their mind.”

Experts also recommend students look through elective courses offered as well as specific courses required for degree programs, and check if any faculty are conducting research that interests them.

Pisano encourages students to ask themselves several questions when finding the right fit, whether it’s a STEM field or something else.

“Are they going to teach you the fundamentals? Are you going to be in a place that allows you to practice what you learn? And are you in a place that reinforces your desire to implement this?”

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