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What Is a STEM Degree (And Why You Might Want to Earn One)

By Emily Wong

Emily Wong is a writer at Scholarships360. She’s worked as a social media manager and a content writer at several different startups, where she covered various topics including business, tech, job recruitment, and education. Emily grew up and went to school in the Chicago suburbs, where she studied economics and journalism at Northwestern University.

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Edited by Maria Geiger

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Updated: April 9th, 2024
What Is a STEM Degree (And Why You Might Want to Earn One)

Throughout the process of choosing a major, you may hear the term “STEM degree” thrown around a lot. If you aren’t familiar with that phrase, STEM refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The popularity of STEM majors has grown in recent years, especially as they’ve been shown to overshadow other industries in job availability and starting salaries.

However, there’s a lot more to STEM degrees than just the job prospects. Let’s talk about what you need to know before pursuing a major in STEM.

Why should you pursue a STEM degree?

Many students enroll in STEM majors because of their reputation for being lucrative. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, engineering majors in the class of 2020 were projected to make $69,188 on average, compared to $50,467 for humanities majors. On top of that, the demand for STEM graduates typically outweighs the supply, making it relatively easy to find a job after college.

Another good reason to study to pursue a STEM degree is the opportunity to make an impact. While you can certainly make a difference in the world through any career path, STEM jobs can be especially influential. Many engineering majors go on to invent new products or design public buildings. On the other hand, if your dream is to become the next Bill Gates, it’ll probably benefit you to study software development or computer engineering.

Studying science can also equip you to go on to perform critical research and make interesting discoveries. Additionally, if you’re interested in becoming a doctor, you’ll probably want to look into science-related majors. Although STEM degrees are definitely not required for medical school, many future doctors find it useful to study fields like biology, anatomy or chemistry.

See also: Top biology scholarships

Popular STEM programs to choose from

The areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics encompass many majors. In fact, students may not realize that STEM appeals to them until they explore the available options.

Science is potentially the largest, most diverse branch of STEM. In addition to medical fields, it also includes more research-heavy areas of study. If you’re interested in pursuing a science major, you can check out:

  • Astronomy
  • Biochemistry
  • Environmental Science
  • Food and Nutrition
  • Marine Biology
  • Natural Resources Conservation
  • Nursing
  • Microbiology
  • Physics
  • Veterinary Medicine
  • Zoology

Technology, on the other hand, is more of an emerging sector. While there are not nearly as many majors within technology, they may appeal to a more diverse audience. Some of the more common areas of study include:

  • Computer Science
  • Digital Marketing Communication
  • Data Management Technology
  • Information Science

If you’re not familiar with the field, it can be difficult to tell the difference between various engineering majors. However, there are a lot to choose from, including:

  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Chemical Engineering
  • Civil Engineering
  • Computer Engineering
  • Electrical Engineering
  • Industrial Engineering
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Nuclear Engineering

Mathematics plays a crucial role in all areas of STEM. In fact, most STEM majors must fulfill a few basic math requirements in order to earn their degrees. Still, those who want to pursue math as a focus can study majors including:

  • Applied Mathematics
  • Business/Management Quantitative Methods
  • Mathematics Education
  • Statistics

It’s important to keep in mind that not every college will offer the same programs. If you’re set on a particular major, you’ll want to factor that into your decision of what institution to attend. However, if your school doesn’t offer the major you’re interested in, talk to your counselor. They may be able to direct you toward a second major, minor or certificate that provides you with the same education.

Related: What is the average starting salary out of college (by major)

How to succeed in a STEM program

Unfortunately, despite its initial popularity, STEM majors can sometimes have a high attrition rate. That is, many students who enroll in STEM programs will end up transferring down the line.

Of course, switching majors is by no means the end of the world. For example, discovering that your passion lies elsewhere is a great reason to change your area of study. However, if you decide to switch programs because of a difficult course load, you may end up regretting it in the long run. Let’s talk about steps you can take to try to stick with your major.

Enroll in a summer program

Many prospective STEM students try to get a head start by taking classes in the summers before college. Not only can they offer a great introduction to the programs you’re considering, but they can also boost your college applications. You can typically find STEM courses at private and public schools alike, from Stanford University to Texas Tech.

While some may charge upwards of $5000, others are completely free or even offer a stipend. They can also range anywhere from a few days to the entire summer. Therefore, it’s important to do your research to figure out which program best suits your needs and circumstances.

See also: Top STEM Scholarships 

Do your research beforehand

If you’re anywhere in-between the college application and decision stages, it’s time to dive deeper into the curriculums at each institution. If there’s a program you’re interested in, talk to current majors about their experiences. During campus tours, make sure to check out the STEM facilities, and ask about any related extracurriculars. You may even be able to sit in on a lecture during your visit.

Find a mentor

Because of the demand for STEM students, many colleges run programs to pair underclassmen with older students for mentoring. Building a relationship with an experienced student can have so many benefits. Not only can they help you in the initial transition, but you can often continue to rely on them for helpful advice.

If your school doesn’t have a formal mentoring program, you can also find a mentor by checking out STEM-related student organizations and asking upperclassmen to grab coffee. Many will make time to help first-year students, even if they’re typically busy.

Final thoughts

Studying a STEM major in college can be a great decision for many students. Not only can it unlock lucrative opportunities, but it can also enable you to make an impact. However, it’s important to do your research to figure out if a STEM degree is the right choice for you. Good luck, and make sure you apply for all the scholarships you qualify for while you are eligible! 

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