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A Helpful Guide to Choosing Your STEM Field and Major

With so many STEM majors and subfields, it's hard to decide what to study in college. This breakdown of the options will help you find what's best for you.

Most college majors are relatively simple to choose from. Do you want to go into business? Get a Business degree. Do you want to go into a medical field? Study any of the health sciences science. Do you want to be a lawyer? Pick any major under the sun because you'll have to go to law school anyway. However, our scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians do not have the luxury of such simple career plans. If you say you want to be an engineer, your counselor will essentially come back with: "Do you mean Biomedical, Electrical, Aerospace, Mechanical, Materials, Systems, Operations, Computer, Biological, Chemical, Civil, Environmental, Design, Electronics, or Nuclear Engineering?"

The great thing about any of these Engineering fields is that graduates are often employable with only a bachelor's degree. The drawback is they're extremely specialized, leaving clueless high school students fumbling to decide which kind of engineer they want to be with no experience. And that's only engineering! What about someone who is torn between being a scientist, mathematician, engineer, or technologist? Let's slow down, and we'll help you explore the options and discern for yourself what major would be the best fit for you, in the form of a choose-your-own story.

Choose your path: Scientist, engineer, technologist, or mathematician

Let's start with a little activity to get the process going. For the following questions, give yourself a rating of 1–10:

  • Do you like working with ideas (1) or things (10)?
  • Would you rather discover (1) or invent (10)?
  • How do you feel about math (1 being you love it, 10 being you detest it)?
  • Would you rather think (1) or build (10)?

Now tally up your scores to see what field might be a good fit:

  • 4–12: Mathematician: Mathematicians work with a lot of theory and target very few practical applications. Even applied mathematics often centers around proofs. This of course does not rule out mathematics as practical, but if you are a very theoretically geared person, mathematics is a good fit.
  • 13–21: Scientist: Science is generally theoretical also but is often at least about the "real world" and less about the ideas of mathematics. Scientists look less for practical applications than an understanding of their field and adding new knowledge.
  • 22–31: Engineer: Engineers aim to design and invent. They solve problems to real-world applications.
  • 32–40: Technologist: Technologists are the nitty-gritty builders. They work practically and design things hands-on.

Now let's take a closer look at these four major categories so you can learn more about the careers and specializations within. Keep your number in mind to pay extra attention to that field, but also stay open to the possibility of all four careers.

Related: What Makes a Great STEM Student? 5 Ways to Become One

Mathematicians

These people spend their lives working on proofs (pure math), problem-solving (applied math), or some mixture of the two. They are most often found in academia as professors, in technical fields or finance, or as teachers. In fact, they can fit into many careers with their skill sets. Even better, there are not infinitely many ways to branch off like in engineering. Between the two major subgroups of pure and applied math, there are not many other distinctions, and most universities don't even have separate majors for the two anyway. The bigger choice is whether you want to go to grad school for a PhD, a master’s degree, or some other technical grad program. Having only a bachelor’s degree will make it hard to find a job. To sum this up, a Mathematics bachelor’s will give you the gift of specializing later, when you understand the field and job market better. With a master’s, mathematicians are paid handsomely, getting starting salaries near six figures and among the best paid on the list. They are employed in many fields, from academia and government agencies to laboratories and the private sector.

Scientists

There are many specialties for scientists. In fact, they probably have the worst set-up for undergraduates to make an easy job of choosing their best field because specialties range from things like hydrology to volcanology to ichthyology to paleontology. How is a student supposed to choose their specialty if a school doesn't offer a program in that specific field? Physics, biology, and chemistry are the most common and well-known disciplines in science and are all popular majors to pursue before specializing in something more specific. Other careers are hard to track and pursue for scientists generally. If you wanted to enter a geological field like volcanology, you would pursue a major in Geology, but Geology is becoming less popular. If you want to study fish (ichthyology), you can study biology or marine science. These undergraduate fields can lead to a plethora of jobs in wildlife sanctuaries, labs, primary and secondary education, and more. 

Young scientists often will need to pursue master's or PhDs for research positions or academia jobs, which are constant but extremely hard to get. But once you get there, you usually make good money. However, if you study something like mycology (fungi), don't expect to make the kind of money that a physicist does, according to The Guardian. Some sciences are simply more lucrative than others, and the most lucrative science careers make a comfortable six figures while other fields struggle. National laboratories hire many physicists and materials scientists. 

Related: 5 Liberal Arts Minors That Go Surprisingly Well With Science Majors

Engineers

Engineering majors often make the most money off of only a bachelor's degree because they are trained with hard skills that are crucial to a lot of fields. Job experience is much more important than schooling for engineers, and yet they are known for having some of the toughest majors at the bachelor's level. Engineering students move into their specialization relatively quickly. And by that, I mean you're expected to choose your concentration within your first or second year of college, without any job experience. Here are a few different engineering specialties you could choose from: 

Civil engineering

Civil engineers most often work for the government and design large-scale infrastructure like bridges, roads, and airports. They build things that are heavy and long-lasting. The government paychecks aren't much compared to more industrial majors, but the benefits and job security are unrivaled. Fields related to civil engineering could include mining, geo technology, and environmental work. 

Mechanical engineering

Mechanical engineers design systems of physical objects. In fact, any inanimate object that moves was probably designed with the help of a mechanical engineer. It is a broad and versatile discipline, and that is somewhat unheard of in the realm of engineering majors. As a mechanical engineer, you may work in design, the aerospace sector, biomechanics, or automobiles.

Chemical engineering

Chemists mix small amounts of chemicals and see how they react; chemical engineers mix large amounts of chemicals and hope they don't destroy anything. They are often paid very well but are not expecting much job growth. This is good for someone who doesn't mind unbelievable amounts of complexity. Use search terms like "materials science" and "biomolecular" when doing research for jobs as a chemical engineer. 

Electrical engineering

Another versatile major, Electrical Engineering involves designing energy systems that vary from power plants to computer chips. No matter where they go, electrical engineers are often paid very well. On top of being versatile, this major is also very math intensive and gives good hard skills for many different careers. You might go into working with computers and you might start wiring home for lighting—the possibilities are endless! 

Technologists

Technicians and technologists are the most hands-on applied group of professionals in STEM. They are categorized as the builders, implementers, and field engineers of the world. Their foundation is not built on math but experience. The pay goes along roughly with the scales for each engineering subgroup, though technologists will likely make less money. Technologists often only need associate degrees, though a bachelor's would look more appealing to many employers, so it's worthwhile to pursue. For every engineering type, there is a technologist; whatever field you would choose as an engineer would be the field you choose as a technologist.  There's a big market for them, and they probably are the most likely of the STEM fields that would easily help you get a job close to home. 

Related: What Kind of Engineering Do You Want to Major In?

Still don’t know what career path you should take? That's good—you shouldn't make important life decisions after reading just one article. Use resources like the Bureau of Labor Statistics to get a feel for pay scales and job markets, and read more blogs to get a feel for the day-to-day lives of STEM majors and people working in the field. And remember, if you choose a major and realize it's not for you, changing it is always an option too. 

Explore more with an insider take on what you can expect in a college program! Check out our article An Inside Look at College Labs: What STEM Classes Are Really Like.

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