What is a STEM Degree?

Picking your major is a question that all college students have to face. It has some significant implications because your major will affect the kinds of jobs you can get and the salary you will make. There is a lot more that goes into your job market and job search, but your major is one of the biggest factors. In this post, we'll talk about one of the most influential groups of majors: the STEM major.

What is STEM?

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Math. More generally, it is a grouping of majors that have a heavy emphasis on quantitative skills and programming experience. Coming out of a STEM degree, you should have a very solid understanding of practical math and computing, which opens up doors in many high-paying fields.

There are multiple sections within each of the pillars of STEM. For example, each branch of engineering has its job market, knowledge, and skill set. The same goes for science. Technology includes both computing theory and hands-on programming work across different classes and majors. There are various fields of math and statistics with varying applicability to real-world problems.


STEM has the reputation of being an excellent set of choices for the job-market benefits. Quantitative skills are in high demand across many domains of business as well as in their own right. That means STEM grads tend to have many potential choices due to how many employers value math and programming ability.

Also, STEM coursework tends to be intellectually challenging. That is a good sign for employers because it shows that you are capable of both the hard work and the deep thinking that are necessary to succeed in STEM classes. Even if you do not stay within STEM for your job, the degree can still benefit you.

What Compares to STEM?

Regarding other majors that have high job market prospects, it's important to draw a line between the undergrad degree alone and grad school. Graduate degrees have very different job markets, and part of that is because the academic world tends to pay less than the business world. There are many doctoral researchers in each leg of STEM, but they have chosen to sacrifice some salary to continue doing research. You should only choose this path if you truly enjoy research work in your field.

In the undergrad degree market, finance tends to provide the best economic opportunity. However, it is important to note that while economics as a field tends to pay highly and hire many people, you do not necessarily need an economics degree to get a job there. Many finance employers are looking for STEM-style skills, so you can use a STEM degree to get your foot in the door.

Management Consulting uses more people skills and also pays well, although it is just as competitive as finance- which is to say quite competitive. There is also a growing need for international and globally-oriented jobs, like supply chain logistics. These demand a knack for details and coordination. In general, the business-oriented majors like marketing and accounting can be useful for job placement depending on exactly where you go to school. These sometimes draw on math but more commonly require skills like networking, negotiation, communication, and prediction.

What Kind of Jobs Can I get with STEM?

STEM jobs, outside of academia, vary based on your field. Science grads can look for jobs in their type of science, but finance is happy to hire science majors with math skills to help them value transactions and model assets. Tech works the same way: lots of opportunities in Silicon Valley with the banks in NYC waiting in the background for any prospect who decides to go for the money. Engineering grads work in companies that need their specialization.

Math is probably the most interesting. Aside from the frequent finance opportunities, there is also a set of different jobs like actuary and statistician. Most of these jobs require at least a little stats, but probability and statistics is a standard course sequence in math departments. That ties into another big field for STEM: health care, where research-hungry pharma companies are eager to snatch up math and computer-savvy grads.

Are there STEM Downsides?

As word of the demand for STEM majors spreads, the supply increases, and that will lead to overcrowding. It is already difficult for science majors to find jobs in their area of science, especially for those who go on to get masters and PhDs.

STEM is also difficult. There is a real risk that you might sign up for the major, only to later learn that you can't make it through the courses. This happens because you can never be sure what your limits in math are until you reach them. Even if you pass all your classes, you might have a lower GPA than if you got an easier major, and employers will notice.

Considering STEM as a Major

Possibly the easiest way to think about STEM is to push aside the grouping altogether and think about each major individually. In reality, tech and engineering have better job prospects than math and science. However, tech is in the midst of a boom that might turn out to be nothing more than a bubble, and Engineering has a reputation for being on the dull and corporate side.

In addition to that, there is much more fluidity in the value of a major than there used to be. Employers are more interested in skills and knowledge than the name of your major, and your school pedigree matters too. That means you should think of your major as a choice to pursue a particular skillset, and recognize that some or most of that skillset might be present in other majors too.

If you are genuinely interested in some part of STEM, then you should be excited to learn, but keep in the back of your mind the prospect that you may need to work in finance or health care as a backup plan. That will pay you reasonably well but might not be what got you into the field. On the other hand, if you are trying to get into STEM purely for the job prospects, then face the fact that you might have trouble maintaining interest in the day to day work, as well as the possibility that the job you were expecting might not be there when you graduate.

The final decision is yours, but you should balance practicality with passion. Don't select STEM just because you think it will get you a good job, but also don't choose it without thinking about the job market at all. While STEM has a lot of promise, things can change quickly in the years you are in school.