What Nobody Told You About Being a STEM Major
If you're majoring in a STEM field, that means your degree program falls under the umbrella of science, technology, engineering or mathematics. While you can’t major in STEM itself, programs in this category include ones that emphasize research, innovation or the development of new technologies. These include majors in engineering, mathematics, computer science or the natural sciences, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS PDF Source).
Professionals working in STEM occupations statistically experience lower rates of unemployment and earn higher salaries than their non-STEM counterparts, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. Workers who majored in a STEM field typically earned higher salaries than those who did not: on average, $101,100 vs. $87,600, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey. About half of all STEM jobs filled in 2019 were in computer occupations, and another 29% were in engineering, the survey reports.
Earning a STEM degree doesn’t only boost your earnings potential and position you for success in a technical field; it offers you transferable skills that are attractive to hiring managers across all sectors. A U.S Census Bureau survey revealed that 62% of STEM majors in 2019 were employed in non-STEM fields such as business, the social sciences or communications.
What is a Good STEM Major?
STEM majors appeal to people with diverse interests and backgrounds—even if they don’t intend to enter a highly technical field. That’s because STEM courses often include experiential learning opportunities, labs and projects, according to Jonathan Kamyck, associate dean of cyber security programs at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). Kamyck said you can benefit from assignments that allow you to explore, reflect and apply your problem-solving skills to real-world projects.
For example, Kamyck’s students learn ethical hacking techniques to compete in a competition called the National Cyber League. Regardless of how they fare in the tournament, he said, students get to practice with authentic technologies, reflect on what they’ve learned and leave with resume-building experience.
It’s not surprising that one of the most popular STEM majors is a computer science degree. Due to big data and cloud computing growth, demand for workers with strong technology skills continues to grow. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment in all computer and information technology jobs is expected to grow 13% through 2030—faster than average for all occupations. The median annual salary for professionals working in these occupations in 2020 was $91,250—more than double the median salary for all occupations.
Even if you aren’t interest in computer science, other STEM majors offer ample opportunities and competitive salaries for new graduates. For example, year after year, engineering jobs command the highest average starting salaries and the lowest unemployment rates, according to a Bankrate study. According to BLS, environmental engineers earned a median annual salary of $92,120 in 2020.
Where Can I Find a STEM Major List?
You might be surprised to learn what bachelor’s degree programs fall under the STEM umbrella. Listed below is a list of popular undergraduate degree programs that you might not have considered. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) offers a complete list of STEM-designated majors recognized by the Department of Education (DHS PDF Source).
- Cyber Security Degree – Ransomware and other intruders not only hold an organization’s network hostage, but they can cost companies millions of dollars. Learn how to respond to cyber threats, assess risk and apply security techniques by taking courses that address network security, application security and incident response and investigation. When pursuing a degree, you may have the opportunity to work with common operating systems and software like OpenVAS and Snort to evaluate network security, learn programming languages like Python or Java, and use simulation tools like Cisco Packet Tracer and GNS3 to practice configuring and securing realistic computing networks. Learn more about what a cyber security degree is.
- Data Analytics Degree – As the volume of data continues to explode, organizations look to professionals who can collect, manage and develop insights from it. A data analytics degree online combines facets of business, information technology, and mathematics and teaches you how to use data mining, simulation and optimization. You may be exposed to tools like Python, SQL, Tableau and R – key for scripting, data manipulation, visualization and statistical analysis. Learn more about what data analytics is.
- Environmental Science Degree – Climate change and global warming continue to spark concerns worldwide. Environmental scientists safeguard our planet and study air quality, clean energy and water quality. They analyze environmental issues related to everything from climate change to overpopulation to biodiversity. When pursuing an environmental science degree, you could build a strong foundation in both the natural and physical sciences through coursework and hands-on experience. Learn more about what environmental science is.
- Game Programming and Development Degree – Industries across all sectors are using game development tools and technologies to educate employees and test safety. If virtual reality and creating games and simulations in 2D and 3D excite you, a degree in this field might be the right fit. You may have the opportunity to study game genres and platforms, interface design, game theory and game development production. You'll also learn how to create experiences within virtual game environments.
- Geoscience Degree – Much more than the study of rocks and volcanoes, geosciences look at the processes that form and shape Earth's surface, natural resources, and how water and ecosystems are interconnected, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. If you pursue a geoscience degree, you may analyze data and use the latest technology to study all aspects of the earth and present your findings. Learn more about what geoscience is.
- Information Technology Degree – Technology is integral to smooth business operations, and it’s critical to put the right solutions in place to ensure security and continuity. Information management focuses less on software development and instead concentrates on information management, programming, networking and web systems. When earning an IT degree, you may have the option to concentrate in areas such as business management, project management and data analytics in addition to cyber security and software development. Learn more about what information technology is.
- Mathematics Degree – Solving today’s complex business problems requires professionals who can apply mathematical reasoning and problem-solving skills. As a result, employment in math occupations is projected to grow 28% from 2020 to 2030, much faster than average, according to BLS. If you pursue a mathamatics degree, you could get broad exposure to the key branches of mathematics. You can also learn industry-standard programming languages like Python, Matlab and R to become more competitive in the job market. Learn more about what a math degree is.
Are STEM Majors Hard?
STEM majors can be challenging, but their rigor shouldn’t stop you from pursuing one. Expect to take a variety of foundational science, math and computer courses. In your program, you’ll be asked to apply critical thinking, data analysis and complex problem-solving skills to a variety of projects and experiments.
If you are juggling work, family or other commitments, you may decide to complete your STEM degree at a slower pace. Choosing a university that offers flexibility and recognizes the prior knowledge you’ve obtained on the job can make getting your degree easier. If you already hold IT certifications, you may be eligible to receive credits that you can apply toward your program.
SNHU allows you the option to carry over all 60 of your associate degree credits toward a bachelor’s degree, giving you a head start on your program. With more programs available online, you may still be able to work full-time while you pursue your STEM degree. Studying from home also might make it easier for you to dedicate the time you need to your classes.
You might also consider taking one step at a time when it comes to completing your STEM degree. Earning an associate degree in computer science, for example, can open up job opportunities right away and can take less than two years to complete. Web developers can often obtain employment with associate degrees, and command a median salary of more than $77,000 per year, according to BLS.
Many universities incorporate high-demand credentials into their coursework, further preparing you for entry into your field of choice. For example, computer science undergraduates at SNHU learn programs such as C++, Java Script and Python – programming languages that are used to develop software, applications and websites. When you graduate from the program, you should be able to show prospective employers a portfolio of your work, demonstrating your ability to apply your knowledge to real-world challenges.
Why Should I Pursue an Advanced STEM Degree?
If you already hold a bachelor’s degree in a non-STEM field, you may wish to earn a second bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree to improve your job prospects. Career changers and career advancers often leverage master's degrees to earn promotions or move from individual contributor roles to leadership roles, said Kamyck.
As part of your master's in cyber security program, for example, you can learn how to develop enterprise-wide security strategies on behalf of your organization, he said.
A master’s degree in a STEM field can also provide new insights into programs, research techniques and analyses that can help you create efficiencies and add business value to your current job. Regardless of your ultimate career goals, a graduate degree in a STEM field can set you apart from the competition.
What Jobs Can I Get with a STEM Major?
With a STEM degree, you’ll be prepared to enter a variety of exciting roles, depending on your major. Here are a few careers you might pursue with a bachelor’s degree, broken down by major.
What you can do with a computer science degree may include roles working alongside:
- Full-stack developers—develop and troubleshoot the front end and back end of an application. Front-end developers focus on user engagement, experience and interface, and back-end developers concentrate on the functionality of the site or application between the database and the browser. As a full-stack developer, you must be knowledgeable about both. According to estimates from Payscale, the average full-stack web developer earned an annual salary of $79,000 as of 2021.
- Mobile app developers—design applications for mobile devices and make sure they work properly. The most important critical skill you need to become an app developer is the ability to code. As of 2021, they earn a median annual salary of $73,000, according to PayScale.
- Web developers—build and maintain websites. They develop, create, and test websites or interface layouts, functions and navigation for maximum usability. They earned a median annual salary of $77,200 in 2020, according to BLS. Through 2030, this job is supposed to grow 13%, much faster than average.
- Computer programmer/software developers—write and test code that allows computer applications and software programs to function properly. In 2020, they earned a median annual salary of $89,190, according to BLS.
Some types of cyber security roles may include:
- Information security analysts—plan and execute security measures aimed to protect an organization’s computer networks and systems. In 2020, they earned a median annual salary of $103,590. The job is expected to grow 33% through 2030, much faster than the average, BLS reports.
- Cyber security analysts—focus on safeguarding information and network security and earn a median annual salary of $76,569 as of 2021, according to Payscale, with top earners making upwards of $100,000.
- IT auditors—analyze a company’s network infrastructure and regularly conduct risk assessments and test for compliance. They earn a median annual salary of about $70,000 according to data published as of 2021, according to Payscale.
Some careers data analysts can pursue include working with:
- Database administrators and architects—design or organize systems that store and secure data. They earned a median annual salary of $98,860 in 2020, according to BLS.
- Operations research analysts—solve business, healthcare or logistics problems by gathering and analyzing data gleaned from computer databases, sales histories and customer feedback. In 2020, they earned a median annual salary of $86,200, BLS reports.
Education in environmental science could pair well with these roles:
- Conservation scientists and foresters—study the land quality of forests, parks, rangelands and other natural resources. They earned a median annual salary of $64,010 in 2020, according to BLS.
- Environmental scientists and specialists—apply what they’ve learned in the natural sciences to protect the environment. They may clean up polluted areas, develop policies or work with companies to reduce waste. They earned a median annual salary of $73,230 in 2020, according to BLS.
Game Programming and Development
If video games interest you, a degree in game programming and development could help you work alongside:
- Game developers—work on teams to write code for video game software. They bring video games to life on computers and gaming consoles. The median annual salary for this job as of 2021 is $84,000, according to Payscale.
- Game artists—focus on the design aspect of game development by creating virtual game worlds or designing the characters that appear in games. The median annual salary for this role as of 2021 is $57,000, according to Payscale, with experienced artists earning more than $70,000.
Some geoscience job titles include:
- Environmental protection technicians—work in the field as consultants for various projects from construction to clean-up efforts. They also work in test labs or for the government, according to the BLS. In 2020, technicians earned a median annual salary of $46,850, BLS reported. The role is expected to grow 11% through 2030, which is faster than average.
- Geophysical data technicians—draw upon their data analysis skills to better understand the earth to help locate and evaluate natural resources. They often help discover valuable resources, such as coal and oil. Professionals in this field earned a median salary of about $50,630 in 2020, BLS reports.
There are many types of IT careers, including:
- Computer and information systems managers—plan, coordinate and oversee all computer-related activities in an organization. They earned a median annual salary of $151,150 in 2020, according to BLS. Job growth in this role is expected to be 11% through 2030, much faster than average.
With a math degree, you can consider careers, such as:
- Actuaries—apply mathematics, statistics and financial theory to assess financial risk. This profession is in particularly high demand in the insurance industry, with some specializing in health insurance, life insurance and property and casualty insurance, but may also extend to the public sector. According to BLS, job prospects for actuaries are set to soar 24% through 2030, far faster than the national average. The median annual salary for actuaries was $111,030 in 2020.
- Mathematicians and Statisticians—analyze data and apply computational techniques to solve problems. In this role, you are often required to have a master’s degree. Individuals in these roles earned a median annual salary of $93,230 in 2020, according to BLS. The job is expected to grow 33% through 2030, much faster than average.
Do you know everything there is to becoming a STEM major? While you might not have decided which program is right for you, you can choose from many options that will allow you to explore the latest topics and apply your knowledge. No matter what STEM major you ultimately pick, the skills you’ll learn will prepare you to solve tomorrow's challenges.
Krysten Godfrey Maddocks '11 is a writer and marketing/communication professional. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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