A degree in STEM opens up a world of possibilities. It’s important to go into some detail about what those opportunities are. I know that, for much of my own experience, the after-graduation job hunt was a bit of a mystery. Only academia was really obvious as an option in the sciences — at least, that was my experience as a biological sciences student.
It's also important to understand that shifts can occur in your career, even long after graduating college. In my case, training in the ocean sciences prepared me for a job in molecular biology. Even if you graduate with a degree in one specialization, you have built up a general scientific knowledge that you can use to move into new fields you didn't notice before but now find fascinating. My own chats with professors, scientists in industry and environmental law experts have shown me that many professional scientists took winding paths before reaching where they are today.
For that reason, both hard skills (sterile technique, data analysis, familiarity with standard lab equipment) and soft skills (problem solving, consulting literature, communication/presentation) are important to build into your degree. Another bit of advice I received was: don’t specialize too soon in your major or, at least, incorporate general science and math courses as much as possible. That foundation of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics (with calculus), calculus, statistics and linear algebra is applicable to many fields and specializations within the sciences. If you add coding to that, so much the better — even biology is moving increasingly toward computational methods and that means that familiarity with programming is a universally valuable skill within the sciences.
In other words: don't stick to biology because you're afraid of math or hide in physics because you don't like writing or public speaking. I strongly encourage you to develop your strengths, but push your weaknesses; a well-rounded STEM worker is sure to have a wealth of career options from which to choose.
Some of these career options to consider are:
The most obvious choice, for many STEM subjects, is research within academia. After an undergraduate degree, you can pursue degrees at a master's or doctoral level. From there, you can move into another field or continue in academia. The next step after a PhD is to study within a postdoctorate and, from there, you can pursue a role as a professor.
Once you have reached tenure, you are your own boss. The professor is an independent researcher, and, if you can secure the funding, you will continue with published papers and students of your own, eager to study in your lab under your advisement.
Oil and gas. Energy. Pharmaceuticals. Agriculturals. The food industry. Materials & chemicals. All this and more are explored within industry, and chemistry/chemical engineering are your traditional fields to solve its problems. In the modern world, biotechnology is also increasingly explored as an option for developing products in these fields.
Becoming a doctor or nurse is no easy accomplishment, but the work — whether you end up specializing in pediatrics, surgery, oncology or something else — is both urgently needed and rewarding. There is also the option to go into medical research, studying the development of new tools and treatments for patients.
As a side note, this is one I personally know little about and hope to bring others in on. If not experts, they will be students who have pursued this opportunity more than myself.
As industries and investors navigate in an increasingly technological world, there is a rising need for businessmen and women with an expertise on the vocabulary, methodology and current trends in science. Tech company market analysts, entrepreneurs, sales reps and executives all benefit from having a background in science, and many STEM workers use this to their advantage when taking their degree into the business world.
Law and Policy
Law and policy is another direction to take your STEM background. You can use it as a legal consultant for a company in the tech industry, or you can use it at an organization that works to protect environmental and human health (governmental or otherwise). This field works very closely with data, scientific literature and communications and, if you’re in industry, patent law is a big deal as well.
Of course, my take on these subjects will be slanted toward the biological sciences — it’s the subject of which I have the most personal knowledge. That said, nothing can take the place of actually talking to professionals in the fields you are considering. If you have the opportunity to discuss career options with professionals in any field, take it. You won’t be disappointed.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in March 2020 and has been updated for accuracy.
Written by Hannah Edstrom, BA '17