What Is a STEM Degree?


STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These four categories encompass a wide range of fields that play a vital role in the economy—fields consistently at the forefront of innovation and discovery.

Sounds pretty awesome, right? Hopefully you know by now, earning a STEM degree is no easy task—that’s why everyone is always saying we need more people who have them. But if you enjoy the never-ending supply of problems you can solve with science, technology, engineering, and math, a STEM degree is for you.

You might wonder why these four massive subjects are lumped together often enough to have their own shared acronym. People have been using the acronym STEM for more than 20 years, and before that, they were referred to as METS (big change, I know). If you’ve had much experience in any of these subjects though, you’re probably well aware—there’s a lot of overlap.

You can’t really be an expert in one of these subjects without having a solid grasp of at least one of the others. And they all play an important role in society’s pursuit of knowledge, reliance on data, and ability to innovate.

What does a STEM degree help you do?

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics courses teach you the foundational methodologies to solve complex real-world problems, conduct research with academic integrity, predict outcomes based on facts, to accurately analyze and interpret data, and more.

The STEM courses you take in college prepare you to address the constantly evolving challenges faced by businesses, government agencies, and other institutions using the most current methods, formulas, and expertise.

In a sense, each subject has its own language, and each field within that subject has its own dialect. The broadest STEM degrees teach you to speak the basic language fluently, and more specific degrees help you master a particular dialect. OK, maybe that’s the English major in me coming out. I like metaphors, OK?

The point is, a STEM degree is both highly specialized and highly adaptable. If you already have a pretty good idea what kind of job you want, or at least what STEM field you’d like to get into, you can probably find a degree program that fits that. But even if you don’t have something in mind already, a STEM degree teaches you the importance of precision and gives you proven methods to solve problems.

Even if you don’t go into what you might naturally think of as a “STEM-related field,” your academic background will be a breath of fresh air in industries where people play fast and loose with the facts.

Are you more likely to get a job with a STEM degree?

You’ve probably heard that STEM professionals are in high demand. A few years ago, Rodney Adkins (then vice president of IBM) said, “to advance our economy and our society we need to create the next great technology innovations, not just consume them. That’s why there is such urgency for the U.S. to develop a stronger workforce of experts in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).”

In 2012, former President Obama even called for 1 million additional STEM graduates.

But I’m just going to say it right now: you should pursue a STEM degree because you love the subject, not because you believe it’s the shortest path to a high-paying job.

While it seems people are always saying we need more STEM-related professionals, numerous articles in recent years have suggested that the STEM job market may not be as inviting as some suggest. STEM jobs are highly competitive, and many of the candidates for those jobs are often over-qualified.

Michael Teitelbaum, senior research associate of the Labor and Worklife program at Harvard, said in 2014, “[The National Science Foundation, the National Bureau of Economic Research, the RAND Foundation, the Urban Institute, and others] have concluded that U.S. higher education produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are S&E job openings—the only disagreement is whether it is 100 percent or 200 percent more.”

While the industry is growing, the pool of qualified candidates appears to be growing even faster.

“The U.S. S&E workforce—which includes such occupations as chemists, mathematicians, economists, and engineers—has grown faster over time than the workforce overall and now represents over 4% of all U.S. jobs,” the National Science Board says.

Society absolutely needs people with a strong background in these fields. But perhaps because of STEM’s importance, we push far more brilliant young people into these degrees than there are available jobs.

What kinds of jobs can you get with a STEM degree?

Speaking of those in the science and engineering fields, the National Science Board says, “Businesses are by far the largest employer. Educational institutions, particularly 4-year institutions, are the largest employer of those with doctorates.”

It’s probably fair to say that people with doctorates in STEM fields are likely to be interested in research or teaching. Since many educational institutions fund relatively open-ended research for PhD’s who are willing to teach, it makes sense that they would choose to work in education rather than the business sector, where they may have less freedom to choose what they research, and how long they have to complete it.

But while only 4% of the total workforce includes science and engineering-related positions, the National Science Board also says, “many others with S&E training are employed in and apply their S&E expertise in occupations not formally classified as S&E jobs. This suggests that the application of S&E knowledge and skills is widespread across the U.S. economy and not just limited to jobs classified as S&E.”

When the Obama administration called for 1 million more STEM graduates, the Department of Labor identified 14 industries they “projected to add substantial numbers of new jobs to the economy or affect the growth of other industries or are being transformed by technology and innovation requiring new sets of skills for workers.”

Here’s what they are:

  • Advanced manufacturing
  • Automotive
  • Construction
  • Financial services
  • Geospatial technology
  • Homeland security
  • Information technology
  • Transportation
  • Aerospace
  • Biotechnology
  • Energy
  • Healthcare
  • Hospitality
  • Retail

Now let’s look at some of the types of jobs in each STEM field. (We’re only going to look at a couple common ones in each area so we don’t get too carried away.)

Science jobs you can get with a bachelor’s degree

Science is obviously an incredibly broad subject—it’s an umbrella for many, many different fields—and your job prospects are going to change dramatically depending on the specific kind of science you want to study. But here are just a couple of the jobs someone with a bachelor’s degree in a scientific field may qualify for:

Research technician

“The research technician is the workhorse of the lab,” Princeton Review says. “They set up, operate, and maintain the lab equipment. They test, monitor, and keep detailed logs of the experiments. Most of the work is not glamorous, and can at times be mundane. More experienced technicians maintain complex computer equipment, interpret data, develop conclusions, and devise solutions to problems under the direction of the scientist in charge. There are almost as many different types of research technicians as there are industries.”

With a bachelor’s degree in a scientific field, you’ll have the experience and expertise to be a trusted member of a lab team and make reliable contributions to research.

Research scientist

Research scientists in any field propose, conduct, present, and report on their research. Sometimes this research represents a brand-new study to answer a specific question within an industry, or to validate or disprove prevailing beliefs. Other times, this research is confirming or denying someone else’s findings (this is far less glorious, but much more common).

This job may involve fieldwork, carrying out experiments, analyzing data, advising junior researchers and technicians, and more.

Technology jobs you can get with a bachelor’s degree

Common bachelor’s degrees in the tech industry include computer science, software engineering, information technology, and management information systems. These degrees are often highly specialized, making graduates prime candidates for specific positions across a wide range of industries. Here are just a couple of the more common jobs you can get with a tech degree.

Software engineer

How we define “software” has changed quite a bit as computers have become smaller, and the information they utilize has become accessible in new ways. A software engineer could work on cloud-based technology, browser-based programs, mobile apps, and more. They design, develop, and maintain software of all kinds.

Computer support specialist

If a medium-sized organization uses computers, they probably either have their own IT department, or they have an IT consulting firm they turn to regularly. The bigger the company, or the greater their dependence on computers, the higher the chances are that they have their own IT department. A computer support specialist is one of (if not the) most popular entry-level IT positions.

Computer support specialists maintain, update, evaluate, and troubleshoot the networks organizations depend on to get things done.

Engineering jobs you can get with a bachelor’s degree

There are many kinds of engineering, and as with many STEM fields, there’s a lot of overlap with science, technology, and math. Some common types of engineering degrees include mechanical engineering, civil engineering, and electrical engineering.

Entry-level engineer

An entry-level job as an engineer is often less glamorous than people imagine. Depending on the industry, you might do some on-site fieldwork or get a little hands-on experience, but more often than not, you’ll be behind a desk. At a naval base not far from where I live, several mechanical engineering friends have gone on to design parts that no longer exist to repair older vessels. Another friend helps design custom vehicles for highly specialized industries: like plumbing, SWAT, ambulances, and mobile clinics.

Math jobs you can get with a bachelor’s degree

Getting a bachelor’s in mathematics doesn’t prepare you for a particular industry the way other STEM degrees do, but most of those other degrees require a firm foundation in math, and many industries need people with a strong grasp of advanced mathematics. Data-driven organizations depend on people who have the mathematics background to accurately collect, analyze, and interpret that data.

Most schools will simply offer a degree in mathematics, rather than a specific kind of math. Some, however, offer bachelor’s degrees in statistics or applied math, or concentrations in economics, computer science, or actuarial science.


According to Duke University, “The proliferation of statistics in everything ranging from business to government has induced many organizations to seek math majors for employment. Statisticians use surveys (e.g. opinion polls) to predict the patterns of behavior of large groups based on relatively small samples. They ask questions such as how can we be sure that what we predict from our small sample is true of the population being sampled? Probability theory provides the theoretical foundation for statistics.”

Most actuaries work for insurance companies, calculating risks a company could incur and determining premium costs based on the likelihood of those risks occurring.

STEM students shouldn’t neglect liberal arts

Dr. Loretta Jackson-Hayes, a chemistry professor, has advocated for more STEM students to get a strong background in the humanities—to help them connect their academic field to its broader implications for society as a whole, ultimately making them more employable in a wider range of roles that utilize their strengths.

Cornell University president David Skorton shares this sentiment, claiming, “many of us never received the education in the humanities or social sciences that would allow us to explain to nonscientists what we do and why it is important.”

Women in STEM

It’s pretty common knowledge that men outnumber women in STEM-related fields, though some have argued that based on recent statistics from the National Science Foundation, the gender-gap is overblown. The largest discrepancy is in computer science and engineering.

Despite the fact that there seems to be an insignificant difference in how men and women perform on tests in STEM subjects, barriers exist for women that don’t exist for men. They shouldn’t, but they do, and suggesting that they don’t will only serve to perpetuate them. In the article linked above, Dr. Denise Cummins suggests that the difference comes more from our assumptions about men, women, and STEM fields than it does from the facts.

Differences in test scores clearly do not account for the imbalanced ratio of men to women in STEM fields—tthere doesn’t seem to be an inherent difference in aptitude between men and women. Psychologists and sociologists have extensively studied the STEM gender gap, and it’s worth exploring more for anyone looking to enter a STEM-related field.

Should you get a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of science?

Some STEM fields will offer both a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of science. You’re most likely to run into this situation in majors like psychology or computer science. If you’ve already chosen a field of study and a school, you probably want to favor a BS over a BA, but it’s really not a deal breaker. If you’re concerned about the differences, you can see the pros and cons of a BS vs. a BA here.

Good luck in your studies. If there’s anything else you wish we’d explained about a STEM degree, let us know in the comments.

Ryan Nelson
Ryan has a B.A. in English Literature from Western Washington University. If he could rewind and go to college all over again, he'd do it a little differently. For now, he's living vicariously through people like you by helping you find the best online schools for your field.

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