What is STEM?

Olga Knezevic
Olga Knezevic

Olga is an in-house editor and writer at Degreechoices.com. She has previous experience as a higher education instructional designer and a university librarian. Olga is passionate about well-crafted sentences, Wikipedia rabbit holes, and the Oxford comma.

What is STEM?

    STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math – a group of academic disciplines and occupational fields.

    Why students should choose STEM

    • STEM education and occupations help us solve the challenges we face in our organizations, communities, and world, making them critical for ongoing problem-solving and innovation
    • STEM careers are growing at a rapid pace and nearly all STEM occupations require post-secondary education
    • There are currently more jobs in these disciplines than there are qualified candidates, leaving a shortage

    An example of STEM in action

    To better understand how STEM disciplines collaborate to solve problems, consider this example. In a critical access hospital in a small community, 7 patients have been diagnosed with new daily persistent headache (NDPH), a rare headache disorder, in the last 30 days. Prior to that, only 1 patient had been diagnosed with the condition in a 12-month period.

    Scientists develop a hypothesis about what may be causing the increase in the prevalence of NDPH. In this case, they may hypothesize that all patients were exposed to the same substance or pathogen in the 12 months preceding their diagnosis.

    Those in the mathematics sector might collect data on the patients involved (and perhaps the patients who aren’t impacted) so programmers in the technology sector can make that data meaningful and identify the factors that most likely contributed. In this case, they may determine that 6 out of 7 patients were diagnosed with a viral rash sometime in the last 4 months. From this data, they conclude that there is a probable cause-effect relationship between exposure to the virus and development of NDPH.

    Engineers, then, develop solutions. In this case, they might brainstorm engineering solutions to mitigate the risk of further exposure to the public.

    Are STEM fields really in demand?

    STEM fields really are in demand, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These careers are expected to grow over twice as fast as all other occupations combined in the 2019-2029 decade (8% vs 3.7%).

    Job outlook for STEM fields

    Among STEM jobs, the majority of new jobs created in the same decade are predicted to be computer occupations. In fact, computer occupations comprise over 5 million of the total 10.7 million STEM jobs projected in 2029.

    Other fields that are projected to have positive job growth include:

    • engineering
    • STEM-related management
    • mathematical science occupations
    • STEM-related postsecondary teachers
    • physical scientist

    Continued growth is expected in the digital economy, attributed to the popularity of smart devices, the internet of things, the rising need for data security as the economy moves increasingly online, and the general escalation of computer use across all industries. Most recently, healthcare has moved toward an online delivery format in light of COVID19.


    STEM degrees are in high demand, with job outlook growing twice as fast as all other occupations on average and computer occupations growing the quickest within STEM disciplines.

    Income for STEM fields

    It’s also important to know that STEM fields are lucrative. In fact, while the median pay for all non-STEM occupations is just $40,020, the median pay for STEM occupations is over twice that at $89,780.

    Careers in the field of STEM

    To emphasize the degree to which STEM graduates are both highly sought after and in relatively short supply, consider that the Department of Homeland Security offers foreign STEM students a 24-month visa extension for “optional practical training”, or the ability to work in a STEM-relevant field in the US on a student visa.

    »Read: Why the UK’s HPI visa program is a hot mess


    Science majors, particularly biology, fulfill many requirements for pre-med students and are thus popular for those pursuing careers in medicine or healthcare. Some common non-healthcare careers in science include:

    • Chemists – Chemists and material scientists work in offices and laboratories, studying substances at a molecular level. Chemists need a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and earn a median salary of $80,680 per year. The job outlook for chemists is as fast as average.
    • Environmental science and protection technicians – Environmental science and protection technicians work in the field or in labs, monitoring the environment for contaminants and pollutants. They typically hold an associate’s degree and earn an average of $22.53 per hour or $46,850 per year. Job growth is faster than average for these positions.
    • Physicists – Physicists study how energy and matter interact and typically hold a doctorate or other professional degree. Job growth is as fast as average and median pay for physicists is $128,950 per year.

    Technology degrees prepare students for success in a wide variety of technical fields like programming, computer science, information technology, and more. A few careers supported by a technology degree include:

    • Computer and information systems managers – Computer and information systems managers design, direct, and oversee an organization’s computer-related activities. A bachelor’s degree is required and pay is lucrative at a median annual salary of $151,150 per year. Growth is faster than average.
    • Information security analysts – Information security analysts are responsible for keeping an organization or agency’s computer networks secure. These professionals earn an average of $103,590 and usually need a bachelor’s degree to gain entry into the field. Growth is much faster than average.
    • Computer network architects – Computer network architects are responsible for the design of data networks, including Intranets, LANs, and WANs. In most cases, a bachelor’s degree is required. Growth is slower than average, and the median annual salary is competitive at $116,780.


    Engineers design solutions to complex problems. There are over 40 types of engineering degrees that fall into 4 main categories: mechanical, civil, chemical, and electrical. A few engineering careers are listed here:

    • Chemical engineers – Chemical engineers solve problems that involve drugs, food, fuel, and other products. Entering this career requires a bachelor’s degree. Chemical engineers earn a median salary of $108,540 per year. Growth is average.
    • Mechanical engineers – Mechanical engineers solve problems using mechanical devices and earn an average salary of $90,160 per year. A bachelor’s degree is required, and growth is as fast as average for this field.
    • Civil engineering technologists and technicians – Civil engineering technologists and technicians assist civil engineers in their work, which involves planning, designing, and building infrastructures. They earn a median wage of $26 per hour and usually need an associate’s degree. Growth is slower than average.


    Students who pursue a degree in a mathematics field work with numbers and data in a variety of fields. Common careers supported by a degree in mathematics include:

    • Actuaries – Actuaries use math to analyze risk and uncertainty in the economy. Actuaries earn a median salary of $111,030. Most have a bachelor’s degree, and growth in this field is much faster than average.
    • Mathematicians – Mathematicians typically hold a master’s degree and earn a median salary of $110,860 per year. They expand the existing knowledge of math by developing and applying new principles. Growth is much faster than average.
    • Statisticians – Statisticians collect, analyze, and interpret data to enable data-driven decision-making within agencies and organizations. They earn an annual median wage of $92,270 and job growth is much faster than average.

    What is STEM?

    The academic and occupational fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

    The importance of higher education for STEM careers

    Postsecondary education is critical for a successful career in science, technology, engineering, and math. While 27.7% of all occupations require no formal education at all and another 36% of all occupations require only a high school diploma or equivalent, the same doesn’t hold true for STEM careers.

    For entry-level STEM jobs, the statistics are different:

    • 0% require no formal education
    • 0.6% require a high school diploma or equivalent
    • 6.8% require some college, no degree
    • 14% require an associate’s degree
    • 73.2% require a bachelor’s degree
    • 0.4% require a master’s degree
    • 5.0% require a doctoral or professional degree

    Unfortunately, that leaves us with millions of STEM jobs that are projected to be vacant in the very near future, primarily due to education gaps (and more specifically, education gaps for underrepresented groups like black students and women). For example, 80% of high school graduates aren’t prepared for college-level coursework in STEM majors and only 1 in 3 U.S. women say they felt they were encouraged to pursue a career in a STEM field.


    Higher education is required for nearly all STEM careers, so pursuing postsecondary education is necessary to build a career in these disciplines in most cases.

    Improving access and diversity in STEM

    Today, both women and people of color are underrepresented in STEM careers. Not only does this contribute to the shortage of qualified candidates for positions in these fields, but it also contributes to the large issue of wage equality— recognizing that salaries are higher on average in STEM careers than all other careers. The following statistics are revealing:

    • nearly three-quarters of middle schoolers share an interest in STEM careers, but less than half a percent of them end up pursuing them in college
    • women have reported that only 33% were encouraged to pursue a career in a STEM field
    • only 18% of computer science undergraduates are women
    • although they comprise 50% of the college-educated workforce, yet women make up 27% of the STEM workforce
    • 4 in 10 Black students who are pursing a STEM major change their major before graduating, and despite making up 11% of the workforce, Black workers comprise only 9% of the STEM workforce
    • similarly, Hispanic workers comprise 16% of the total workforce but only 7% of all STEM workers

    The STEM Caucus is working to bridge the gap by giving women and underrepresented minorities a voice in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

    Frequently asked questions about STEM

    Yes, those working in STEM careers earn over twice as much as those working in all other occupations on average.

    Although math and science are at the core of nursing, nursing isn’t typically considered a STEM career.

    Psychology is considered a STEM major, primarily because of its roots in science and technology.

    Every student must decide for themselves, but STEM degrees often lead to lucrative and rewarding careers with positive job outlooks.

    STEM careers are set to grow twice as fast as all other occupations in the next 10 years, leading to finding a job with a degree in a STEM field considering easier than with a degree in many other disciplines. However, not all STEM fields have a positive career outlook, so it’s important to do your research.

    No, STEM jobs are growing quickly, paying well, and making a difference.

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