Originally Posted: May 16, 2017
Last Updated: May 27, 2020
Most college majors are relatively simple to choose. Do you want to go into business? Get a Business degree. Do you want to go into a medical field? Study some sort of life science. Do you want to be a lawyer? Pick any major under the sun.
However, our future 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 probably reply like this:
"Interesting. Do you want to major in Biomedical, Electrical, Aerospace, Mechanical, Materials, Systems, Operations, Computer, Biological, Chemical, Civil, Environmental, Design, Electronics, or Nuclear Engineering?"
After that, your response will vary from crying to declaring a Business major.
The great thing about Engineering majors is that they are often employable with only a bachelor's degree. The drawback is that they are extremely specialized, leaving clueless high school graduates fumbling to decide which kind of engineer they want to be before they have any experience.
And that is only engineering! What about someone who is torn between being a scientist, mathematician, or engineer? Then they read about the cool things that technologists can do, and they have successfully narrowed down their major to "STEM."
That’s all right, though. I will show you how to discern for yourself what major would be the best fit for you, in the form of a choose-your-own story.
Scientist, engineer, technologist, or mathematician?
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 much do you NOT like math (1 meaning you love it, 10 meaning you detest it)?
- Would you rather think (1) or build (10)?
Now tally up your scores:
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.
I will now break up the four major categories so you can learn more about the careers and specializations within. Keep your number in mind, but also stay open to the possibility of all four careers.
Related: Find colleges with STEM majors
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 their master’s, mathematicians are paid handsomely, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They get starting salaries near six figures and are among the best paid on the list. A study even found that mathematicians were the happiest of all professions. They are employed in many fields, from academia and government agencies to laboratories and the private sector.
This is where things start getting crazy. There are many specialties for scientists. In fact, they probably have the worst set-up for undergraduates to maximize the probability of choosing their best field. Specialties range from hydrology to volcanology to ichthyology to paleontology.
When is a student supposed to choose their specialty? In a somewhat gradual way, probably as an undergraduate. If one wanted to enter a geological field like volcanology, they will most likely need a major relating to geology. If they want to study fish (ichthyology), they should study biology or the like. If they want a more mathematical science, physics is actually pretty broad. Physics majors can transition well to other sciences too. Physics, biology, and chemistry are the most common and well-known disciplines in science and are all popular majors before specializing.
Careers are hard to track for scientists generally. Geology is becoming less popular, life sciences are becoming more popular, and physics normally stays the same. Academia jobs are constant but extremely hard to get. National laboratories hire many physicists and materials scientists. Industry may or may not want any given major, depending on how much money they can get out of it; the best major for an industry career is probably chemistry.
Young scientists most often need PhDs for research positions, but once they get there, they usually make good money. However, if you study mycology (fungi), don't expect to make the kind of money that a physicist does, according to The Guardian. The most lucrative science careers make a comfortable six figures, but other fields will struggle.
Engineering majors often make the most money with only a bachelor's degree. They are designed for technical businesses. 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.
Engineers specialize relatively quickly. And by that, I mean they are expected to choose their ultra-specific major within their first or second year of college, without any job experience. Here are a few different specialties spelled out (with info from typesofengineeringdegrees.org).
Related fields: Mining, Geotechnical, Environmental
Civil engineers most often work for the government and design large-scale infrastructure like bridges, roads, and airports. They build the heavy and the long lasting. Their government paychecks are tiny compared to more industrial majors, but their benefits and job security are unrivaled.
Related fields: Aerospace, Biomechanical, Design, Automobile
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 something unheard of in the realm of engineering majors.
Related fields: Materials, Biomolecular
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.
Related fields: Electronics, Computer
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.
Related fields: Systems, Operations, Finance
These are the fringe fields of engineering. They often lead to management or finance careers. They aren't as technical as the traditional engineering fields and are arguably not a part of STEM. They are paid as well as Business majors. If you want "Engineering" in your title but don't want to be in a technical field, get one of these degrees.
Technicians and technologists are the most applied group in STEM. They are categorized as the builders, implementers, and field engineers of the world. Their foundation is not built on math, but instead experience. They are often found assisting engineers, and therefore there is a decent job market for them.
Pay goes along with engineering scales for each subgroup, though technologists make notably less money. Technologists often only need associate degrees, though a bachelor's would look appetizing to many employers.
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. They tend to be found only in industry. Despite that, there is a big market for them, and they probably are the most likely of STEM fields where you could get a job close to home. You can read more about engineering vs. engineering technology here on abet.org.
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 Bureau of Labor statistics to get a feel for pay scales and job markets, and read blogs to get a feel for STEM majors' day-to-day lives. And of course, read CollegeXpress articles written by students, experts, and the occasional student posing to be an expert, like me!