Majoring in a STEM Discipline

There has been a lot of talk in the popular media about the benefits of getting a college degree, given the time and cost involved.  One school of thought that contends college should not be about training for a job, but about creating an educated citizen.  Others want to see a tangible payback for the 4 or more years of education and the associated costs.  From data I have seen, in-state tuition costs at public universities have increased on average nearly 300% over the past 20 years, whereas the consumer price index is up about 56%.  So it’s no surprise that both parents and students want to understand the potential return on their investment in a college education.

I have spent the past 25 years of my career as a faculty member in the discipline of mechanical engineering.  Mechanical engineering departments nationwide are currently growing at an astonishing rate.  The same may be said for computer science programs.  In my view this is, in part, a consequence of students desire to choose a major for which graduates are in high demand.  Mechanical engineering and computer science are part of a larger group of disciplines that fall under the banner of STEM majors.

STEM majors are clearly not for everyone, but if you (or your son/daughter) have a reasonable aptitude in mathematics and love problem solving, they may be a good choice.

Jobs Data

A frequent question from new students and parents involves earnings potential of STEM majors.  In general, the earnings potential is high, particularly compared with most other disciplines.  There are a number of sources of salary data as a Google search will quickly reveal.  One nice source is the data available from the Hamilton Project.  They have sorted data for over 80 majors from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.  The results are presented using an interactive feature that allows a user to enter up to 4 majors and plot median annual earnings over a career, and the present (2014) value of lifetime earnings.  The figure below is a screen shot of the interactive feature and shows median annual earnings for mechanical and electrical engineering majors (upper curves) along with earnings for those holding a college degree, and those holding a high school diploma.  The data is for Bachelor of Science degrees only.  The site does allow for the inclusion of graduate degrees if desired.


However, salary data does not tell the whole story.  An article was published in the January 2015 issue of the ASEE Prism magazine titled “Checkered Careers” which reveals some surprising facts.  For instance, more than 40% of those with a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering work outside the field, and that as many as 25% of new graduates consider careers outside of engineering.  Pay and promotion are cited as the most important reasons for leaving the field.  This is not necessarily a negative but likely indicates the analytical and problem solving skills of engineers are advantageous in many professions.  The result is that engineers are recruited into other career paths including finance, medicine, and law.


Choosing a School

US News & World Report publishes annual rankings of university engineering programs.  The list is headed by such well known schools as MIT, Stanford, and Cal Tech in the private sector, and Purdue, Michigan, and Texas A&M in the public sector.  The question is, do you need to attend one of the top 50 ranked engineering schools, or is the local state university going to get the job done?

There are a number of considerations I would recommend when choosing a school.  If you have the grades and can afford the costs, it would be hard to say that attending a highly ranked school was a mistake.  But what about the majority of students with, say a 3.3 high school GPA and a 25 on their ACT?  These students can certainly succeed in a STEM major, but won’t likely be accepted into a top tier school.  So how do you decide which school to attend?  First, I would avoid lower tier private schools with high tuition costs.  I just think there are better options for the cost.  Then, you need to do some legwork.  That doesn’t mean looking at the US News rankings.  I have filled out reputation surveys for mechanical engineering programs from US News in the past, and I can say with some confidence that the national reputation component of the ranking, once you are out of the top 25 or so, means little.

In fact, if you consider what the schools actually teach, being a top 25 school may mean little.  Nearly all employers want students who have received a solid core in their education.  How well are the top name universities doing in this regard?  Periodically, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni publishes survey results that evaluate general education requirements at our nations colleges and universities. Results from the 2016-17 survey are startling.  For instance, Harvard received a grade of D.  Stanford and Yale each received C’s.  Johns Hopkins University received an F.  A couple of their key finding are “rhetoric is not reality” and “reputation isn’t everything.”

If rankings published in popular magazines are not particularly valuable, then how might one go about choosing a school?  First, you should ask yourself, am I more comfortable at a school with 30,000 students and division one football and basketball teams, or am I more at home in an environment with a couple thousand students?  Then, I would look at what your state university has to offer.  Most states have excellent STEM programs at a number of their schools, not just the flagship university.  Tuition will likely be much lower than out-of-state tuition at other state universities, and the education will likely be similar. If you can narrow you choice to half a dozen schools or so based on size and location, then it’s time to look into the details.  If you are interested in engineering, the American Society of Engineering Education’s database of online profiles is a good place to start.  There you can find information on admissions requirements, test scores, degrees offered, enrollments by class, expenses and financial aid, areas of expertise, and much more.  For the engineering students, you want to make sure your degree program is ABET accredited.  As stated on the ABET website:

We accredit college and university programs in the disciplines of applied science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology at the associate, bachelor, and master degree levels.  With ABET accreditation, students, employers, and the society we serve can be confident that a program meets the quality standards that produce graduates prepared to enter a global workforce.

If you’re still undecided, I would make a call to the department chair at the school that looks most promising.  Particularly at the smaller schools, most will be more than willing to entertain a visit from a prospective student and perhaps set up a tour of facilities with one of the department’s senior level or graduate students.  You can get an excellent idea of the quality of the program by talking with current students.

Extra-Curricular Activities are Crucial

Equally important as what school you attend is what you do while you are there.  For STEM majors, one might think that the most important quality employers look for in a new hire is technical competence.  Surveys, and my own experiences dealing with an industrial advisory board, indicate that’s not true.  The most important qualities are communication skills and the ability to work with others.  This is where students from smaller or less well known schools may shine as opportunities to enhance and demonstrate these skills abound.  One of the best means is to join the student section of your technical society club early on and volunteer for leadership positions.  There will undoubtedly be more than one club available.  For instance, in the engineering disciplines most universities will have more than one technical society club which are primarily for their own majors, but also clubs with more open membership such as the National Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers, Society of Women Engineers, Engineers Without Borders, National Society of Black Engineers, National Honor Society, Engineering Student Council, and the list goes on.  Join one or two and take an active leadership role.  This will help your resume stand out in the eyes of recruiters.  In addition, engineering students would do well to take electives in areas such as business, writing, and public speaking.

Beyond activities within the school, many more exist over the summer months that you should take advantage of.  Internship and research opportunities abound for those willing to look.  If you are attending a smaller school without a strong research emphasis by faculty, academic year research opportunities may difficult to come by.  The National Science Foundation realizes this and funds a summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.  Most of the sites have as part of their mandate to recruit students from programs with limited research opportunities.  The REU program has proven transformational for many students, opening up a side of STEM completely distinct from the classroom experiences.  For many, it is a pathway to graduate school.  Also, don’t overlook internship and co-op opportunities.  Internships generally take place over the summer, whereas a co-op is a more formal relation that usually takes place over multiple semesters as a student works toward their degree.  Your school’s equivalent of a career services office should keep a list of available internships and co-op opportunities.

This post has turned out longer than expected, but I hope I have given students and parents some ideas to consider when looking at prospective STEM programs.  Graduates can look forward to excellent employment prospects right out of school, with many options for different career paths in the following years.

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