Getting the most out of a STEM education

Jobs in the STEM categories – science, technology, engineering, and math – are not only in high demand, but also feature higher pay than average jobs. How can you make the most out of your STEM education, deciding on the right major and job field? Let’s look at potential earning power, projected job growth, and where and how you can get the best education.


Growth and pay

Before we look at how to get a good education, let’s look at a few practical reasons why you should want to choose a STEM field for your career. A few reasons may be obvious. A simple interest in a science field, a love of technology, a flair for engineering and building, or skills in math. Only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in a STEM career. Yet, projected growth in these fields ranges from 16 percent to a whopping 62 percent by 2020. For comparison, the average expected growth in all occupations is about 14 percent.

On top of growth potential, STEM fields have high earning potential. Architecture and engineering careers, for example, earn a median salary of $50,000 within three years of graduating from college. Computers, statistics, and mathematics majors are not far behind, at $43,000 per year. Social science majors, for comparison, make about $33,000 per year.

The STEM Coalition found that a software developer in May 2013 had a median wage of $92,660, with 218,500 job openings between 2012 and 2022, with projected employment in 2022 of nearly 753,000. Typical entry-level jobs required a Bachelor’s degree. Why so many openings? Studies show that companies are turning to business intelligence when making decisions. This means analyzing data – with 30 percent of mid-sized businesses in 2014 reporting that business analytics were a top priority.

Architectural and engineering managers, meanwhile, had a median wage of more than $128,000, with 60,600 job openings between 2012 and 2022, and projected employment of about 207,000 people. A manager position, however, typically require about 5 years of experience. Mathematicians are nestled in-between the two, with a median salary of $102,440. The field has low employment numbers – only 4,300 projected by 2022. Unlike the other positions, it typically requires a Master’s degree.


Choosing a university

Now that you know the why, let’s focus on the how – specifically choosing a university. TIME reported in April of 2016 that where you obtain a degree from matters. STEM graduates of Alverno College in Milwaukee reported annual salaries of $34,600, compared to Oklahoma Panhandle State University graduates earning $40,300 within fives years of earning a degree – $10,000 below the national median.

Meanwhile, at Bloomfield College in New Jersey, a four-year private liberal arts college, graduates were earning $69,300 after five years. But, only 32 percent of Bloomfield students graduate within six years.

A degree from a prestigious school, however, will not guarantee a higher salary. Graduates from both Brigham Young and San Diego State universities reported not receiving a significant pay boost.

However, there are definitely schools that will give you a better education. Forbes collected a list of the 21 best STEM colleges of 2016. Topping the list is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is also the No. 5 university in the nation. MIT is joined on the list by the likes of the US Naval Academy, Cornell, the US Air Force Academy, Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, California Polytechnic University San Luis Obispo, University of Portland, and more.


Paying for your STEM degree

With these often prestigious universities on the list, the main question then becomes how you will pay for your education. Thankfully, with a recent push for education in the STEM fields, this may not be as hard as you think.

First, you can try to find grants meant for STEM students – here’s a list by state. Many universities – especially those with high tuition – also offer grants or scholarships. This list provides links to national STEM-related scholarships and internship opportunities, while Florida Polytechnic university provides more opportunities.

Contact your potential university’s financial aid advisors to explore your options. It’s also possible to take a few courses from Ivy League schools online for free to supplement your learning. These likely won’t give you college credit but can either expand your knowledge or give you a chance to preview the program you might be going into.


Post-degree paths

Your journey does not end with graduating with a Bachelor’s degree. In some cases, a career in a STEM field will be better served if you have a Master’s degree. Or, if you intend to be on the managerial side, you may consider a Master’s in Business Administration. Those with a Bachelor’s in STEM fields make up about 20 percent of MBA graduates nationwide. At Harvard, that number jumps to 38 percent for the class of 2018. MIT boasts a similar number.

If, however, you would prefer a Master’s degree closer to your original area of study, you can search graduate programs here. Universities will often offer incentives to continue on with a graduate degree, such as scholarships or grants, on top of STEM-specific financial aid. If you instead take a route that leads to a job offer, you may find your employer willing to pay part or whole of a graduate degree, as well, to further improve employees’ skills.

STEM fields will see a surge in growth and already provide excellent salaries just a few years out of college. While your choice of college will matter, it likely won’t matter as much as you think. To get into the college of your choice, you can explore grants and scholarships meant just for STEM students. Inquire with your university’s financial aid advisers, as they are trained to help. You can continue your education with a graduate degree, often with financial help from the university or your employer. With all this knowledge, you can pick a field and get the degree you want, making the most of your STEM education.


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