STEM Majors: How to Choose the Right Degree

Discover the degree options and career possibilities in STEM fields

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STEM refers to a broad group of academic subjects focused on the sciences, technological fields, engineering disciplines, and mathematics. In higher education, you'll find hundreds if not thousands of options for studying a STEM discipline.

Degree possibilities include certificate programs, two-year associate degrees, four-year bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, and doctoral degrees. Career possibilities range from technicians to actual rocket scientists, and employment opportunities are likewise diverse: government agencies, large corporations, non-profits, self-employed entrepreneurs, Silicon Valley start-ups, educational institutions, and more.

Science Majors and Degrees

Students who study the sciences will typically earn bachelor of science (BS), master's, or doctoral degrees. You may also find colleges that offer bachelor of arts (BA) degrees in the sciences. A BS will be the more rigorous degree when it comes to coverage of math and science, while a BA degree will often have more breadth in the social sciences and humanities. You'll see BA degrees in the sciences at liberal arts colleges more frequently than at larger research universities.

A survey of colleges and universities will reveal hundreds of different options for the sciences, but most fall within a handful of categories:

Biological Sciences

Biology is one of the most popular undergraduate majors, and biology is often the major of choice for students who want to go on to medical school, dental school, or veterinary school. Biology students learn about living organisms at the chemical and cellular levels up through the study of entire ecosystems. Career options are equally broad and include areas such as pharmaceuticals, environmental protection, agriculture, health care, and forensics.

Chemistry

Students in biology, geology, and most engineering fields will need to study chemistry, for it is the science that underpins everything having to do with materials and matter. Undergrads will typically study both organic and solid state chemistry, and they can go on to careers in areas such as sustainable energy, medicine, nanotechnology, and manufacturing.

Environmental Science

Environmental science is a growth field as our planet comes under threats from pollution, global warming, mass extinctions, and limited resources. It is an interdisciplinary academic field, and students will typically take classes in math, biology, chemistry, geology, ecology, and other academic areas. Environmental science is an excellent choice for students who are interested in applying their analytical skills to large scale problems affecting our world.

Geological Sciences

Geology students study the earth (and sometimes other planetary bodies), and they will often have a specific track such as geology, geophysics, or geochemistry. Courses can include topics such as mineralogy, petrology, and geophysics. The most lucrative jobs in the geological sciences are often related to energy, both fossil fuel and geothermal. Geology students might work for gas or mining companies, civil engineering firms, national parks, or educational institutions.

Physics

Physics students study matter and energy, and courses will focus on topics such as electromagnetic radiation, magnetism, sound, mechanics, and electricity. Astronomy is a branch of physics. Mechanical engineering, nuclear engineering, aerospace engineering, electrical engineering, and many other STEM fields are grounded in physics. Physicists work with lasers, wave tanks, and nuclear reactors, and careers span educational institutions, the military, the energy sector, the computer industry, and much more.

Technology Majors and Degrees

"Technology" is the broadest and arguably most confusing STEM category. Engineers, after all, use and study technology, as do many math and science majors. That said, within educational settings, the term is typically applied to anything related to mechanical, electrical, or computer systems. Technology programs can be two-year, four-year, or certificate programs.

There's a lot of demand for technology majors, and many companies have a difficult time finding employees with the precise technical skills they need. Some of the most popular technology fields are listed below.

Computer Science

A major in computer science can be part of a two-year, four-year or graduate degree. Coursework is likely to include a lot of math, programming, database management, and computer languages. Good computer scientists enjoy solving problems, and they need to be both logical and creative. The field demands patience for debugging programs and finding solutions to complex problems. Computer scientists work in a wide range of industries outside the realm of technology. Hospitals, financial institutions, and the military all rely on computer scientists.

Information Technology

Information technology is related to computer science, as both fields require students to learn about computer systems and develop programming skills. Information technology, however, tends to be more directly linked to business applications. A college graduate with an IT degree will help keep operating systems running, support and train colleagues who need to use computer systems, and develop new tools for business needs. IT specialists develop, test, and maintain the computer tools and networks needed to keep a business running. Depending on the college, you'll find everything from two-year to doctoral degrees in IT.

Web Design and Development

Web design is another field related to computer science. Degrees are typically completed at the associate or baccalaureate level. Four-year degrees will often have a much more robust systems and programming foundation than two-year degrees. With that greater skill set come greater job opportunities. Web design majors will take classes in HTML and CSS, Javascript, Flash, graphic design, and advertising. Additional work with SQL, PHP, and database management is also common. Nearly all businesses today need web designers, and graduates will also have wide-ranging freelance and self-employment opportunities.

Health Technologies

Many community colleges and regional public universities offer two-year technology degrees related to health. Popular fields include radiologic technology, health information technology, and medical laboratory technology. These degrees can lead to immediate employment within the healthcare system, but be aware that the highly specialized nature of the fields can limit job mobility and career advancement opportunities.

Engineering Majors and Degrees

Engineering and technology overlap considerably, but true engineering degrees tend to be rigorous four-year degrees (and graduate degrees) with coursework that spans a range of science, engineering, math, and laboratory classes. You'll also find that four-year graduation rates for engineering programs tend to be lower than for many other majors because of the demands of the coursework and because many programs encourage or require students to get hands-on experience through internships, co-ops, or other work experiences.

Like technology and the sciences, there are hundreds of different engineering programs offered across the country, but most draw upon a handful of core subject areas:

Aerospace Engineering

Within university academic programs, this field is often combined with aeronautical and astronomical engineering. Along with a strong math and physics foundation, students can expect coursework in fluid dynamics, astrodynamics/aerodynamics, propulsion, structural analysis, and advanced materials. The major is an excellent choice if your dream is to be an engineer working for NASA, Boeing, the Air Force, SpaceX, or similar companies and organizations.

Chemical Engineering

Students in chemical engineering will take classes in math, chemistry, physics, engineering, and biology. Careers in chemical engineering span a wide range of businesses including de-salination plants, microbreweries, and companies working to develop sustainable fuels.

Civil Engineering

Civil engineers tend to work on big projects such as roads, bridges, rail systems, dams, parks, and even the design of entire communities. A civil engineering degree can take different forms with different foci, but students can expect to take courses in computer modeling, mathematics, mechanics, and systems.

Electrical Engineering

From your computer to your television to the World Wide Web, we all rely on products and technologies that electrical engineers have had a hand in developing. As a major, your coursework will have a significant grounding in physics. Electromagnetism, circuits, communication and control systems, and computer science will all be part of the curriculum.

Materials Engineering

Materials science and engineering majors often focus on a specific sub-discipline such as plastics, electrical materials, metals, ceramics, or biomaterials. Coursework will include physics and a lot of advanced chemistry. Materials scientists are needed in diverse industries, so professions span everything from computer manufacture to automotive industries to the military.

Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineering is one of the older and most popular engineering fields. Along with lots of math and physics, students take courses in mechanics, dynamics, fluids, and design. Nanoengineering and robotics often fall under the umbrella of mechanical engineering, and both are growth fields.

Other Engineering Degrees

There are many other engineering fields, many of which are interdisciplinary majors that combine an engineering and science curriculum. Popular fields include biomedical engineering, environmental engineering, and petroleum engineering.

Math Majors and Degrees

Math may seem like a single discipline, but it isn't quite that simple. Math majors have several degree options, usually at the baccalaureate or graduate level:

Mathematics

A bachelors degree in mathematics will include coursework in subjects such as multi-variable calculus, differential equations, statistics, as well as various courses related to algebra and geometry. Strength in mathematics can lead to a wide range of careers in areas such as education, economics, financial planning, and cryptography.

Applied Mathematics

Students who major in applied mathematics will take basic courses such as calculus, statistics, and differential equations, but they will also take coursework that connects mathematics to specialized applications within science, social science, or engineering fields. An applied mathematics major might take coursework in the biological sciences, chemistry, economics, political science, mechanical engineering, or physics. Different colleges will have different collaborations between mathematics and other academic fields, so be sure to do your research before choosing a school.

Statistics

Nearly all math majors will take at least some coursework in statistics, but some colleges offer degree programs devoted to the field. Statistics majors will take core courses in calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, and, of course, statistics. They are also likely to take more specialized courses on topics such as survey sampling, data science, experiment design, game theory, business, big data, or computing. On the job front, statistics is a growth field with many opportunities in business, finance, and technology professions.

Women and STEM

Historically, STEM fields have been dominated by men, but the climate has begun to change. In addition to increasing numbers of female STEM majors, women seeking to study STEM will find excellent support networks once they arrive on campus. Organizations such as the Women in Engineering Proactive Network provides a support network to help female engineering students graduate, and Million Women Mentors works to mentor women in STEM fields through high school, college, and their careers. Many colleges also have chapters of SWE, the Society of Women Engineers, a group that advocates for the inclusion and success of women in engineering and technology fields.

Best Schools for Studying STEM

Any recommendation of where you should study a STEM field will depend on your specific interests, career goals, academic credentials, and personal preferences. What type of degree do you want? Can you go anywhere in the country, or are you geographically limited? Do you have to balance your education with a job? For some, an online program, local community college, or regional state university might be the best option.

For full-time, four-year degree programs in STEM fields, however, a few schools frequently top the national rankings:

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, Massachusetts): MIT is always at or near the top of rankings of the best engineering schools, and it has even been at the top of rankings of the best universities in the world. It's location near downtown Boston, Harvard University, and Boston University is an added bonus.
  • California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, California): Caltech often vies with MIT for the top spot on rankings of the nation's best engineering schools. The school is a research powerhouse with it's 3 to 1 student-faculty ratio and impressive faculty. Students will have plenty of opportunities to work in the lab with graduate students and faculty members.
  • Cornell University (Ithaca, New York): When it comes to STEM fields, Cornell is arguably the strongest of all of the eight Ivy League schools. The university has an entire quadrangle dedicated to engineering, and over 1,500 students graduate from undergraduate STEM fields every year. Added bonuses include one of the nation's best college towns and beautiful views of Lake Cayuga.
  • Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, Georgia): As a public university option, Georgia Tech is hard to beat for STEM majors. Each year, the university graduates over 2,300 students in engineering programs alone. Undergraduates will find plenty of co-op, internship, and research opportunities. Plus, Georgia Tech students can enjoy the energy and excitement that comes from attending an NCAA Division I university.
  • Stanford University (Stanford, California): With its 5 percent acceptance rate and international reputation, Stanford competes with MIT and the Ivies for the top of the rankings. Stanford is a comprehensive university with wide-ranging strengths, but engineering fields, biological sciences, and computer science are particularly strong.

These five schools represent just a few of the best places to major in a STEM fields. The United States has many excellent engineering schools. And if you're looking for a smaller school with a largely undergraduate focus, you'll want to check out some of the excellent undergraduate engineering colleges, too. These schools all have strengths in science, math, and technology fields as well as engineering.