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STEM Careers

Michael McCarthy

Written By: Michael McCarthy

Published: 8/3/2022

Careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are crucial to helping the U.S. maintain a competitive edge in the global economy. This is why experts worry about American STEM education falling behind that of other countries, and why the federal government created a series of five-year strategies for increasing access to degrees in these disciplines. You can keep reading to learn details about different STEM careers, including commentary from practitioners in the field.

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What Is a STEM Career?

STEM is a far-ranging category consisting of four components, so many careers fall under this broad umbrella. The acronym dates back to a 2001 report on federal science education policy and has become widely used in the two decades since.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) counts 100 occupations as STEM related, including jobs as diverse as computer network architect, electrical engineer, and physicist. The BLS projects that more than 11,000,000 people will be working a STEM job by 2030, fueled by a 10.5% growth rate in new jobs.

Below, we describe example jobs that fall into one of the four STEM fields, along with some hybrids that blur the boundaries between focus areas.

Science Careers

Science jobs can make use of biology, chemistry, physics, geology, or any other discipline. Science majors work in fields as diverse as research and development, forensic analysis, epidemiology, and education. One especially popular major is environmental science: Students of this major often have diverse job prospects once they graduate, including potential to work as foresters, compliance officers, and environmental scientist consultants.

Technology Careers

Students with a knack for technology might embark on a variety of careers, including as network administrators, cybersecurity analysts, software engineers, and computer programmers. For example, earning a bachelor's in software engineering will prepare you to become a software engineer, where the median annual salary is over two times that of the median salary for all occupations.

Engineering Careers

Engineers build and maintain the technology and processes that keep the world running. These professionals tend to specialize in a particular type of engineering, such as aerospace, chemical, civil, electrical, or mechanical.

Engineering occupations typically pay relatively high wages, especially given that most of them only require an undergraduate degree. For example, data from the analytics company Emsi Burning Glass shows that in the past 12 months, 94% of online job posts for mechanical engineers asked for a bachelor's degree, as did 93% of ads for aerospace engineers.

Mathematics Careers

A number of stable, potentially high-paying occupations answer the math student's lament, "When will I need to use this in real life?" Possible roles include actuary, data scientist, statistician, and operations research analyst, all of which use sophisticated knowledge of mathematics and probability to help make employers more effective and efficient.

Engineering occupations typically pay relatively high wages, especially given that most of them only require an undergraduate degree. For example, data from the analytics company Emsi Burning Glass shows that in the past 12 months, 94% of online job posts for mechanical engineers asked for a bachelor's degree, as did 93% of ads for aerospace engineers.

Hybrid STEM Careers

The BLS's estimate of STEM jobs is probably low, because it doesn't necessarily count the many positions that blend elements of STEM with other disciplines. For example, Isabella Schmitt is the director of regulatory affairs at Proxima Clinical Research, where she helps inventors and scientists meet the federal government's regulatory requirements. The BLS would most likely classify this role as a business occupation, but her degree in chemistry and biology gives her a firm foundation for her work, which involves "creativity, science, technology, writing, argument, team building, teaching, and public speaking."

In addition, many careers blend two or more STEM elements together. For example, all engineering roles require solid understanding of math, and many of them use physics or chemistry in some form — after all, a civil engineer couldn't build a bridge without understanding the loads it can carry and the stresses those loads create on the structure.

Are STEM Careers in Demand?

The BLS expects STEM occupations to grow by 10.5% as a whole through 2030, which is higher than the 8% average rate for all jobs combined. With 100 careers in the category, some will naturally grow faster than others. We've listed the five most in-demand individual STEM jobs below, followed by consideration of each subgroup in the acronym.

Occupation Name Growth Rate Through 2030 Why It's Expanding So Fast
Statistician 35% Today's software tools make it easy for companies and government agencies to collect massive amounts of data, but they need statisticians to find relevant patterns and present them to leaders.
Information security analyst 33% Businesses and governments are increasingly networked and online, which creates potential security gaps requiring cybersecurity experts to patch.
Data scientist 31% These professionals also benefit from the Big Data phenomenon because employers are hungry for information about their customers, clients, sales figures, and so on. Data scientists create tools to gather and parse that information.
Epidemiologist 30% The huge changes wrought by COVID-19 has driven the need for more scientists who can identify disease patterns before they spiral out of control. Although 30% is considered very rapid growth, it amounts to only 2,300 projected new epidemiologists by 2030.
Actuary 24% Like most other jobs on this list, actuaries are data analysts. The increased availability and granularity of health and personal data will require more of them to perform analysis for insurance providers.

Demand for Science Careers

The BLS expects an 8% growth rate for science jobs in the 2020-2030 period, which is a bit lower than the rate for STEM careers as a whole. This could be because the barriers to entry are often higher for natural science than for engineering or technology, which typically call for a bachelor's degree at the entry level. However, medical scientists can expect 17% growth in new jobs in the near future.

It's worth noting that the BLS includes social science occupations in these growth figures, but these usually aren't considered STEM roles.

Demand for Technology Careers

Computer-related occupations will probably remain a relatively fast-growing job category in the coming decade. Demand for software developers and software engineers is projected to increase by 26% between 2021-2031. The BLS expects technological innovation to drive 13% job growth in the tech careers as a whole, though some jobs are experiencing slowdown. Notably, computer programming may take a hit from corporate outsourcing to coding talent in other countries.

Demand for Engineering Careers

The BLS expects the engineering field to add new jobs at a 6% rate through 2030, a bit slower than average for all U.S. occupations. But the BLS includes architecture in this category, and it might be the case that tepid growth in architecture roles is bringing the overall rate down slightly.

Industrial engineers have the quickest growth rate at 14%. However, industrial engineering technologists aren't keeping pace; the BLS claims that increased automation is leading to a slowdown in job creation.

Demand for Math Careers

According to the BLS, a talent for numbers may serve you well in the coming decade. The BLS projects a dizzying 28% growth rate for this category. But it's notable that this only covers three occupations, and many mathematics majors find work in technology, education, and management roles.

What Are the Benefits of a STEM Career?

The most obvious benefit is that, as a whole, STEM careers are growing faster than average and tend to pay wages well above the U.S. median salary of $45,760. The demand for qualified STEM employees is unlikely to slow anytime soon — indeed, many experts think that the U.S. government and industry aren't doing enough to encourage STEM education.



STEM careers are growing faster than average and tend to pay wages well above the U.S. median salary of $45,760.

STEM work often directly improves people's lives, which can give STEM professionals a sense of fulfillment. For example, Markus Maibaum takes pride in the engineering work he did on electric cars and wind turbines in Germany: "Every research project I did was good for the environment. This was a big driver." And Jason Borgardt, a senior manufacturer and process engineer, enjoys his job at a medical manufacturer because "it gets injured people the care they need through new designs and products that help improve their quality of life."

In addition, STEM is about more than just crunching numbers. Harry Gallagher says that in his work as an actuary and chief technology officer, "I enjoy the challenge of solving complex problems and the satisfaction of finding creative solutions." Indeed, the explosion of technological innovation in recent decades proves that creativity is not the exclusive domain of the humanities.

What Are the Drawbacks of a STEM Career?

Professionals of all kinds can face challenges in their careers. In a category as broad as STEM, some of these apply to certain groups or occupations more often than others. However, any of the following drawbacks can potentially affect STEM workers in any field.

Long hours and pressure from above

Competition is stiff in tech, industry, and business, which can filter down throughout an organization. Borgardt says, "There is pressure to get parts to market ASAP to meet new demand and compete."

Many tech workers are familiar with the "crunch" phenomenon of managers expecting extra hours before a project deadline or product launch, especially in video game development. This can lead to unhealthy work-life balance even in non-crunch periods. One 2019 report found that many new professionals leave STEM positions soon after becoming new parents.

Lack of career advancement

Some STEM employers are relatively flat organizations without much room to advance unless you want to manage people. This isn't always the case, but it can cause careers to stall. Maibaum says, "Often the only way to get promoted in a STEM field is to work way more hours and have people under you. My father worked at a STEM job and experienced burnout because of that, and I did not want to end up there."

One related problem is the specter of skills becoming obsolete in fast-moving STEM fields. This possibility requires people in a range of roles to constantly update their STEM skills sets to keep current.

Occasional feelings of isolation

Many people in technology seem to enjoy the increased emphasis on remote work, but some in this and other STEM fields prefer more face time. For example, Sonja Jones worked as an actuary for a little more than a year before deciding that it wasn't for her: "I wanted more interaction with people than sitting behind a computer all day, so I went into sales engineering in information technology."

A large diversity problem

Diversity has been a major issue in STEM for decades. White men are overrepresented in these occupations, while Black and Latinx employees are underrepresented relative to their share of the U.S. workforce. Policy makers worry that this could hinder U.S. competitiveness down the line.

By some accounts, women hold half of all STEM jobs. But this is largely thanks to their overrepresentation in health care, which organizations such as the BLS don't classify as STEM related. More telling are numbers like the demographic breakdown of engineering, which is only 15% women. In addition, an overwhelming majority of women in STEM have reported serious problems with their employer's culture, which can have a chilling effect on students considering these careers.

What Are the Requirements for a STEM Career?

No single set of requirements covers all STEM careers. You typically need a college degree to enter any of these fields, but different majors may help you secure different jobs. Certain occupations might also have further barriers to entry.

Below, we detail some general principles about education, certification, and licensure. Be sure to research the requirements for your chosen field if you're unsure of the career path.

Education

Most STEM employers require candidates to have a bachelor's degree, but you may get hired with an associate degree if you have some work experience. Some fields may not feature any further educational requirements — for example, engineers, software and IT professionals, and actuaries often advance far into their careers with only a bachelor's degree.

You have a wealth of choices when it comes to college degrees. Asking yourself the following questions may help guide your educational decisions:

How narrow do I want my focus to be?

You need to decide whether to pursue a broad major, such as computer science, or a narrower one, such as cybersecurity. Broader majors might allow you to land jobs in related fields over the course of your career because they emphasize transferable knowledge and skills, such as data literacy and problem-solving, rather than hyper-specific subject matter. However, employers might prefer applicants who focused their studies on the job they're hiring for.

Do I need a graduate degree?

If your career requires an advanced degree, you might want to choose a major that can help prepare you for a doctoral or master's degree. For example, if you want to become a computer and information systems manager, you'll likely benefit from a master's degree in a computer and information technology field, such as software engineering. This can give you a solid foundation in the discipline and signal to graduate admissions officers that you're serious about this field.

Does this degree program offer experiential learning opportunities?

Field experiences such as internships, laboratory work, and research assistantships may equip you with helpful skills and knowledge. They also look good on job applications and provide you with useful stories to tell hiring managers during interviews.

Certification and Licensure

Certification is a credential bestowed by a professional group attesting to your competence, whereas licensure is a legal right to practice your profession, usually granted by your state. Some STEM jobs require you to earn certification or licensure, but many don't.

In fields where certification isn't required, it may be optional if you want a potential boost in the job market. Other fields don't even have optional certifications to pursue — as with everything in STEM, options vary widely by profession.

How to Advance a STEM Career

In a general sense, advancing in STEM is no different from advancing in any profession. You may improve your chances of promotion and salary increases If you perform your job well, volunteer for extra tasks, and generally make a good impression and contribute to your team. Of course, nothing is absolute — for example, many STEM fields are rife with systemic barriers that impede people from underrepresented backgrounds.

Optional certifications may provide another way to advance in your career. A number of fields feature credentials that you can add to your resume to set yourself apart. For example, cybersecurity professionals have a choice of opportunities, including (ISC)2's Entry-Level Cybersecurity Certification.

Continuing Education

Continuing education (CE) typically refers to courses or seminars you undertake for professional development but that aren't part of a degree program. Many professional groups offer CE opportunities for their members. If you complete a CE program, be sure to tell your manager so they understand your dedication to developing yourself outside of normal working hours.


Jobs that call for licensure typically require a set amount of continuing education hours each year before you can renew your license in a particular state.

FAQS About STEM Careers

Why Are STEM Careers Important?


STEM fields can make a tangible, positive difference in people's lives. Biologists develop life-saving vaccines, mathematicians and statisticians calculate the effects of climate change on vulnerable animal populations, and software developers work with electronics engineers to create robotics technology to help people with disabilities.

What Is the Most Fun STEM Career?


The answer depends on you as an individual. For example, you may love manipulating numerical data but loathe the memory of performing chemistry experiments in high school.

Overall, some research suggests that STEM occupations number among the most satisfying careers, and a sense of fun or excitement can be one important factor in job satisfaction.

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