Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs open the door to many different careers, including opportunities in engineering, science, and research. STEM professionals can explore diverse fields like aeronautics and biochemistry. Some STEM students also apply their technical knowledge in law, politics, and education.
Read on to learn more about STEM careers and potential educational pathways.
Educational Paths in STEM
There are dozens of STEM disciplines and professional fields recruiting students with strong math and science skills. The following section covers some of the most common STEM programs. Most of these fields offer opportunities for greater specialization, particularly for students in graduate programs.
Astronomy majors learn about the universe by studying physics and chemistry as they relate to celestial objects. Students often take courses in calculus, astrophysics, astronomical techniques, and mechanics. Some astronomy majors become college faculty members, while others work at federal laboratories. About 10% of astronomy majors work in private industry, such as in the aerospace sector.
Biology majors ask questions about how the living world works and evolves. They often study evolution, nanobiology, biophysics, and applied bioinformatics. Beyond jobs in academia and education, biologists are essential to the advancement of medical science, biotechnology, and the pharmaceuticals. Biology graduates can pursue careers as water quality specialists, geneticists, and doctors.
Chemistry students take a variety of classes in organic, inorganic, and physical chemistry. They also study physics, mathematics, and statistics. These students develop essential skills related to creative problem-solving, data analysis, and communication.
As most universities offer both bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry, learners have many opportunities to pursue careers in academia and technical fields. Beyond academia, chemistry majors can find work as analytical chemists, pharmacologists, and toxicologists.
- Computer Science
Technological progress in recent decades has increased the need for talented computer science majors. These learners may study topics like artificial intelligence, robotics, and video game programming. Core courses include computer organization and systems, principles of computer systems, and data structures and algorithms. Graduates can pursue careers as programmers, infosec professionals, and web developers.
- Electrical Engineering
Electrical engineering students take introductory courses in mathematics, calculus, and sustainable engineering. Advanced coursework covers electromagnetic waves and materials, integrated circuit engineering, and digital signal processing. With these skills, electrical engineering majors create electrical systems and devices that improve the human experience, shaping everything from iPads and GPS navigation hardware to hydro, wind, and solar power generation systems.
Core courses in geology cover physics, chemistry, and mathematics, as well as petrology, tectonics, and stratigraphy. In advanced courses, students learn more about the planet's surface environments, physical processes like earthquakes and plate movements, and paleontology. Graduates can find work in urban planning, mining and resource extraction, and primary education.
- Information Technology
Information technology majors study advanced math, including discrete math and calculus, along with interactive design, web application development, and organizational communication. Graduates can find work as network and database administrators, application system designers, or multimedia specialists.
Mathematics is a bridge between the physical world, the internal world, and the abstract spaces in between. Mathematics majors study algebra, geometry, and topology, as well as applied mathematical fields like fluid dynamics. Graduates can pursue careers in research, teaching, investment banking, and strategic consulting.
- Mechanical Engineering
Mechanical engineering students take basic science classes in chemistry and physics before launching into major courses like mechanical systems, thermal science, differential and integral calculus, and experimental physics. Mechanical engineers are interested in both functionality and aesthetics.
Physics students focus on the most basic elements of scientific inquiry, learning how to effectively solve complex problems in areas like classical mechanics, optics, electromagnetism, and quantum mechanics. Employing advanced mathematical reasoning and laboratory skills, physicists may solve problems related to issues like climate change, commercial space travel, and food safety.
Career Paths in STEM
Each STEM field offers many different specializations. For example, students interested in science can pursue programs in biology and chemistry, while aspiring engineers can explore fields like electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.
Each specialization offers unique challenges and areas of expertise, which can help students determine their career path. Students interested in theoretical physics, for example, may be better served focusing on mathematics rather than engineering.
Read on to learn more about several STEM fields.
Aeronautics professionals can work in aviation, aerospace, and astronautics as engineers or technicians. Professionals can explore aircraft design and piloting, and many conduct their own research. Entry-level careers in this field typically require a bachelor's degree.
Biologists study living organisms like plants and animals, focusing on aspects of anatomy, physiology, and morphology. Many biologists work for pharmaceutical companies, researching and creating new drugs. Most biology professionals need a bachelor's or master's degree.
Biotechnology explores biological processes to address industry demands. For example, biotechnologists may create antibiotics or hormones. Many professionals in this field become research scientists or work in the pharmaceutical industry. Biotechnologists need at least a bachelor's degree.
Chemists explore the properties of matter and how matter interacts with different substances. These professionals can find work as chemical engineers, pharmacologists, forensic scientists, or hazardous waste chemists. Most professionals in this field need a bachelor's or master's degree.
Civil engineering deals with built environments, such as roads and bridges. These professionals typically need a bachelor's degree for entry-level positions. Students can pursue careers as structural engineers, design engineers, engineering managers, or geotechnical engineers.
The discipline of computer science studies computers and their systems. Professionals in this field pursue careers as data scientists, web developers, systems analysts, and network architects. Computer scientists typically need a bachelor's or master's degree.
Electrical engineering explores technical concepts like circuitry and power manipulation. Most professionals need at least a bachelor's degree for an entry-level career. Electrical engineering graduates can pursue careers as electricians or computer hardware engineers.
Environmental science blends biology, chemistry, and meteorology to study the environment and how humans interact with it. Professionals typically need a bachelor's degree and can pursue careers as environmental engineers or environmental scientists.
Industrial engineering studies complex processes, systems, and organizations. Professionals in this field can pursue careers as health and safety engineers or logisticians. Most professionals need at least a bachelor's degree for entry-level positions.
Information systems professionals store, collect, and distribute information. Most professionals in this field need at least a bachelor's degree. They can find work as database administrators, information systems managers, or IT consultants.
Some math professionals, such as professors, only deal with high-level theories. Others use mathematics more practically, pursuing financial analyst or economist roles. Most professionals need a bachelor's or master's degree.
Mechanical engineering studies objects and systems in motion. Professionals in this field can work as mechanics, maintenance engineers, or technicians. Most professionals need at least a bachelor's degree for entry-level positions.
STEM Career Outlook
The outlook for careers with a STEM degree differs depending on each worker's education and location. Readers should always research specific careers to learn more about their job outlook and potential salary.
For example, life, physical, and social sciences professionals can expect to earn median annual salaries that range from $41,230 for agricultural and food science technicians to $122,220 for physicists and astronomers. Additionally, median annual salaries for computer and information technology professions range from $54,760 for computer support specialists to $122,840 for computer and information research scientists.
Note that lower-paying jobs tend to only require an associate degree, whereas more lucrative opportunities often require a graduate degree.
How to Start a Career in STEM
Careers in STEM demand different levels of education depending on the specific job. For example, aerospace engineering and operations technicians usually only need an associate degree. Meanwhile, many careers in medical science require a doctorate.
The vast majority of STEM careers require some kind of postsecondary degree. Readers interested in pursuing a career in STEM should strongly consider applying to a college with a STEM program in their target field.
While advanced degrees cost time and money, they also give students the training and knowledge they need to find jobs in the workforce. A college degree opens the door to many entry-level positions, and it can also lead to promotions.
The following sections detail the different degree options available for STEM students, from an associate degree to a doctoral degree. Each degree level offers a different path for students interested in careers in STEM.
Most colleges offer associate programs in person, online, or through a hybrid delivery method. A typical associate degree requires about 60 credits. Full-time students can complete their degrees in two years.
An associate program teaches the fundamentals of STEM, including introductory topics in mathematics and science. Some examples of associate-level STEM courses include the following:
- Calculus and analytic geometry
- Inorganic chemistry
- Cellular biology
- General physics
- Engineering physics: waves, heat, and light
Graduates with an associate degree can often transfer into a four-year program if they wish to continue their studies. Many colleges accept all credits earned in an accredited associate program; these can be applied toward a bachelor's degree, significantly shortening the program's length.
Associate programs may also prepare graduates for assistant or technician positions within engineering or architectural firms and manufacturing companies, including the following:
A bachelor's degree usually requires about 120 credits. Colleges offer in-person and online program options that full-time students can complete in about four years. Students who transfer into a bachelor's program with a completed associate degree can often complete their degrees in about two years.
Bachelor's programs offer a higher level of specialization than associate tracks, allowing students to pursue majors and minors in a specific STEM field. Bachelor's programs typically require both breadth and depth courses, providing a well-rounded education. Sample courses that students may encounter while earning a STEM bachelor's degree include the following:
- Polymer chemistry
- Statistical analysis for natural science
- Medical writing
- Differential equations
- Applied linear algebra
Most graduate programs in STEM require a bachelor's degree for admission. Students who want to eventually earn a master's, doctorate, or medical degree should first earn a bachelor's degree.
Bachelor's degrees prepare graduates for entry-level positions in engineering firms, pharmaceutical companies, and research facilities. Some common careers in STEM include the following:
Master's degrees typically take about two years to complete. Most programs require 30-60 credits, depending on the major. Applicants almost always need a bachelor's degree in the same subject or a closely related field to apply, although some schools may offer five-year programs where students earn both a bachelor's and a master's.
Master's programs move beyond fundamental courses, covering more technical and advanced aspects of STEM subjects. Master's tracks may also offer highly specialized credentials, such as a master's in flight test engineering or a master's in hydrology and water management.
Some STEM master's programs cover these fields:
- Construction, energy, and sustainable infrastructure
- Geotechnical engineering
- Quantum mechanics
- Observational astrophysics
- Advanced neuroanatomy
Earning a master's degree can prepare students to pursue a doctorate or other professional degree. Readers considering a doctoral degree should research whether their prospective programs require a master's degree from applicants.
Graduates can also pursue managerial positions and jobs that require advanced technical expertise, such as scientific research and lead engineering positions.
Below are a few examples of STEM careers that individuals may qualify for with a master's degree:
Doctoral degrees are the highest degree that students can pursue. These degrees usually require 4-6 years to complete and include approximately 90-120 credits.
Doctoral candidates must complete an extensive, original research project and write a dissertation. Most candidates work under the supervision of a faculty advisor while conducting their research. Students only graduate after they successfully defend their work to a panel of professors at the university.
Students enrolled in a doctoral program take advanced, highly specialized classes in their particular area of STEM, discussing issues at the highest intellectual level. Some examples of doctoral classes in a STEM field include the following:
- Responsible conduct, rigor, and reproducibility in research
- Medical scholars research
- Problems in aero/astro
- Topology and geography of manifolds
- Numerical methods in chemical engineering
These programs prepare students to work in the highest levels of research, academia, and management. Professionals with a doctorate also tend to qualify for lucrative positions.
Some potential careers in STEM that doctoral degree-holders can pursue include the following:
Certifications and/or Licensure
Many STEM professionals need licensure and/or certification to perform their duties or advance their careers. Licensure typically comes from a federal, state, or local government agency. Most licenses require candidates to pass a test, and professionals must renew their licenses every few years.
Civil engineers may need to earn licensure depending on their state of residence. Similarly, health and safety engineers need licensure from their state board if they decide to pursue a professional engineering license, which prepares them for managerial roles.
Certification may also require a test and/or continuing education classes. However, certification typically comes from a professional organization. These organizations usually require professionals to renew their certification every few years. Chemists, for example, can earn certification through the American Institute of Chemists.
Professionals seeking to change careers or move into a senior position in a current career should consider returning to college to earn another degree. Professionals with graduate degrees often make more than workers with only a bachelor's degree, and they may be more likely to qualify for managerial positions.
Many colleges also offer certificate programs as a continuing education option. Students can usually complete a certificate program in a year or less. These programs offer highly focused curricula in emerging technologies and help professionals stay up to date on current theories and trends.
Professionals can also take individual classes to earn continuing education units (CEUs). CEUs differ in length, ranging from a few hours to several weeks, depending on the intensity and subject matter of the course. Professionals can also find free online classes offered by colleges.
STEM professionals should also consider joining a professional organization in their field. Many of these organizations welcome both students and professionals as members, and they often provide certification and continuing education opportunities.
Professional organizations host online resources, such as workshops and scholarly publications for STEM professionals. They also afford members the chance to network with their peers, help solve industry problems, and search job boards for new career opportunities.
Readers can explore professional organizations such as the Association for Women in Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Society for Engineering Education.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What are the best STEM careers?
There are many high-paying, in-demand STEM careers. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that industrial engineers will experience 10% job growth between 2019 and 2029. During that same period, the BLS projects 31% job growth for information security analysts.
- How do I start a career in STEM?
Almost all STEM careers require a postsecondary degree. However, many well-paying technician positions, such as aerospace engineering and operations technicians, only require an associate degree. Readers can begin their career journey by researching potential STEM programs.
- What are the highest-paying jobs in STEM?
The BLS reported a median annual salary of $137,720 for petroleum engineers in 2019. However, a worker's salary potential depends on their location, education, and experience.
- Is a STEM degree worth it?
As many entry-level careers in STEM require a postsecondary education, readers should strongly consider earning a college degree. Prospective students should research STEM programs to find one that fits with their career goals. They should also seek out financial aid opportunities.
For more information about choosing the right college, follow this link.