STEM Careers: 2021 Guide to Career Paths, Options & Salary

STEM Careers: 2021 Guide to Career Paths, Options & Salary
Imed Bouchrika by Imed Bouchrika
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Recent research by the Institution of Engineers and Technologists (2020) found that the COVID-19 response from healthcare workers and engineers prompted 63% of 10- to 18-year-olds to consider a career in medicine and 52% of children to consider a career in engineering. From vaccine development to monitoring community transmissions, the pandemic illuminated the different science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers and the crucial role they play in our everyday lives.

STEM teaches disciplined inquiry and transferable skills. Aside from the solid mathematical and scientific skills of STEM majors, the different disciplines under STEM develop critical thinking, analytical skills, communication, adaptability, collaboration, and social responsibility. STEM majors play an important role in almost every industry—aerospace engineers, food scientists, research analysts, and cybersecurity experts. In the United States, the education sector has a special focus on STEM literacy, with the aim of developing a strong STEM workforce.

STEM occupations are projected to grow 76% faster than non-STEM jobs (BLS, 2021). For those who want to explore the STEM career pathway, the fastest route is through a two-year associate degree. Depending on what type of job you want to pursue, you may also take the four-year bachelor’s degree, which could pave the way for jobs in engineering, IT and cybersecurity, mathematics and data analysis, or applied physics. Master’s and doctoral programs could lead to more specialized STEM roles, such as those of an epidemiologist, biochemist, medical scientist, or chief statistician.

This guide will identify possible careers in STEM fields such as manufacturing, agriculture, aerospace and defense, clean energy, healthcare, and information technology. Based on your career goals in STEM, this guide will help you to identify the most crucial skills needed to become an exceptional STEM professional, and the job roles that you may take in various industries.

STEM Careers Table of Contents

  1. Why pursue a career in STEM?
  2. STEM Career Outlook
  3. Required Skills for STEM Professionals
  4. How to Start Your Career in STEM
  5. How can I advance my career in STEM?
  6. Alternative Career Options for STEM Professionals

Why pursue a career in STEM?

STEM supports 67% of U.S. jobs, 69% of the country’s GDP, and generates $2.3 trillion in annual federal tax revenue (AAAS, 2020). STEM majors’ solid foundation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics gives them the unique opportunity of pursuing multiple career paths. The objective behind the integration of STEM disciplines is to train students to be capable of transferring learning from one discrete field to another and in doing so, solve the problem at hand.

STEM professionals apply their knowledge in solving real-world problems as they are trained to use the principles of math and science in formulating solutions. As technological innovations become increasingly important in the 21st century, STEM professionals are positioned to take on leadership roles in major technological transitions in the coming decades.

A 2017 study by the BLS reported that 93 out of 100 STEM occupations had wages above the national average, with petroleum engineers, architectural engineers, computer engineers, and physicists on top of the list as the highest wage earners. Also, the average entry-level STEM salary outpaces other fields.

Specializations in STEM are continually evolving with new discoveries in the life and physical sciences, and also with the latest technological developments. This makes the field of STEM a consistently growing field that will create more jobs in the coming decades.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

STEM Career Outlook

Since the turn of the century, the U.S. economy has seen a significant increase in the prevalence of STEM employment. STEM jobs are important to the economy because of their significantly higher wages, which contribute to the overall economy. The median salary for STEM occupations was $98,340 in 2020, with computer and information systems managers earning an average of $161,70 per year (Duffin,2021).

The U.S. economy lost over 20 million jobs at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but STEM jobs had lower rates of unemployment. Typically, over 70% of STEM jobs require a bachelor’s degree, and these jobs have fared better than others (Pischke and Guerdan, 2020). Most STEM-related jobs are also better equipped to transition toward remote working environments.

The manufacturing industry market, where most engineers are employed, is projected to grow by 10.8% in 2021 (IBISWorld, 2021). The chemical industry will also be on the rebound, which is expected to expand by 0.5% in 2021 and 3.4% in 2022 (ACC, 2021). While it has experienced the worst drop in earnings at 68% in 2020, the aerospace and defense industry is preparing for an upturn with an expected 11% growth in 2021.

Indeed, while the pandemic has affected almost every industry, STEM-fueled industries are quick to recover because of their indispensable role in various industries and markets. The information technology industry is on pace to become a five trillion market in 2021 with a projected compound annual growth rate of 5% through 2024 (CompTIA, 2021).

RoleSalaryDemand
Heavy Equipment Technician$53,37011%
Computer Support Technician$55,5709%
Airplane Assemblers$60,45711%
Logistician$76,27030%
Information Security Analyst$103,59033%
Wildlife Biologist$66,3505%
Statistician$93,29033%
Analytics Manager$97,91914%
Scientific Research Engineering Manager$174,71015%
Cloud Solutions Architect$126,4235%

Required Skills for STEM Professionals

STEM professionals find solutions to problems by applying their core knowledge of mathematics and science. They practice disciplined inquiry and follow a process when formulating solutions. In the course of solving a problem, STEM professionals find the most efficient way to use technology. They inquire, they compute, they apply scientific principles to ensure the delivery of equitable solutions. STEM skills are guiding, enabling, and facilitating skills, a combination of hard and soft skills that do not exist in isolation.

Essential Skills for STEM Professionals

Inquiry-Based Problem Solving

STEM professionals are disciplined in their inquiry, and questions are always anchored on mathematical and scientific principles. Their solid background in STEM disciplines enables them to critically and creatively approach problems and to find solutions that are technologically sound.

Analytical Reasoning

Given a set of information, STEM professionals are trained to discern and identify patterns, be it quantitative or qualitative data. In looking for patterns STEM professionals are able to establish relationships and generate input to the ongoing inquiry.

Scientific Computing

The STEM professional has a set of tools, techniques, and theories that are used to generate mathematical models to solve problems in science and engineering. STEM professionals know how to do simulations using numbers.

General Skills

Communication

Communication is a crucial skill in collaboration. To be able to convey ideas clearly, STEM professionals should be proficient in both verbal and written communication. Part of a STEM career is doing presentations to both large and small audiences, thus, the STEM professional should be confident in presenting concepts and ideas, and in answering inquiries scientifically.

Proactive

The STEM professional is proactive in offering solutions to problems. In dealing with difficult situations, the STEM professional knows how to dissect a situation and address each factor that contributes to the problem. This proactive approach enables the STEM professional to think of innovative solutions.

Leadership

Trained to conduct disciplined research, the STEM professional should be able to lead a team. STEM-related projects require significant motivation and the STEM professional as a group leader should be able to motivate the team.

Source: Computing Technology Industry Association

How to Start Your Career in STEM

One-third of U.S. workers are direct STEM professionals, of which 59% do not hold a bachelor’s degree (AAAS, 2020). These STEM workers are either associate degree holders or have earned technical certificates. Associate programs lead to assistant or technician positions. The two-year associate degree can be a ticket to engineering roles, such as industrial engineering technician or surveyor and mapping technician.

Compared to the associate track, the four-year bachelor’s degree offers a higher level of specialization. biomedical engineers, actuaries, and food scientists typically have bachelor’s degrees. A bachelor’s degree is also required to pursue graduate studies.

What can I do with an Associate’s Degree in STEM?

Heavy Equipment Technician

The heavy equipment technician is also known as the mechanic that performs regular inspection, maintenance, and repair of vehicles and machinery used in transportation, farming, construction, and other industries.

Median salary: $53,370

Tool and Die Makers

The tool and die maker is tasked to prepare and operate different mechanically-controlled and computer-controlled machine tools with the objective of producing instruments, metal parts, and tools that meet the specifications provided.

Median salary: $54,760

Computer Support Technician

The computer support technician assists organizations in their utilization of computers in operations. Providing technical assistance is the main role of the computer support technician.

Median salary: $55,570

Airplane Assemblers

The airplane assembler is a specialized metal worker that knows the different types of alloys used in aircraft assembly. Aside from working with sub-assemblies and smaller components, the aircraft assembler is also involved in the construction of exterior parts of the aircraft.

Median salary: 60,457

What can I do with a Bachelor’s Degree in STEM?

Zoologists

Zoologists study the characteristics of animals and the impact that humans have on wildlife and natural habitats. While the Zoologist studies animals both in the lab or in their natural habitat, the Wildlife biologist works only with the animal’s natural habitat.

Median salary: $66,350

Logistician

The logistician is responsible for the management of the organization’s supply chain. The main task of the logistician is to manage the life cycle of a product, from the acquisition of materials to allocation, up to the process of delivery.

Median salary: $76,270

Information Security Analyst

As the number of cyberattacks continues to rise each day, the Information security analyst is employed by organizations to plan and carry out security measures to protect internal as well as external networks.

Median salary: $103,590

Aircraft Maintenance Engineer

The aircraft maintenance engineer assists in the repair, maintenance, rebuilding, and servicing of aircraft.  Aircraft maintenance engineers are also involved in overhaul works and replacements.

Median salary: $70,539

STEM professionals without bachelor's degree (U.S.)

Can you get a STEM job with just a certificate?

While there is a general perception that most STEM workers are college graduates, Pew Research found that the number of STEM workers without a bachelor’s degree is higher than those with a graduate degree (Fry et al., 2021). Most entry-level roles in STEM-related industries such as technicians, assemblers, technical support, and web developers require certificates that are focused on a particular job. These career-oriented programs provide essential training to students as well as immediate employment. Most employers in different industries employ graduates of certificate programs because they are assured that the candidates have had adequate training in relation to the job.

How can I advance my career in STEM?

Postgraduate programs in STEM require a bachelor’s degree. Some roles in STEM, such as physicists, astronomers, epidemiologists, and neuroscientists require a doctoral degree or Ph.D. Some STEM professions, such as those in the information technology industry, typically do not require graduate studies for career advancement.

Professional doctorate programs in STEM are field-specific, and almost all STEM Ph.D.s are awarded in health-related fields, such as doctor of medicine (MD), doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO), doctor of dental surgery (DDS) and doctor of physical therapy (DPT).

What can I do with a Master’s in STEM?

Computer and Information Research Scientist

The computer and information research scientist uses new and existing technology in formulating solutions for complex problems in computing as applied in medicine, science, business, and other fields.

Median salary: $126,830

Statistician

The statistician identifies the specific set of data required for a set of questions or problems, and designs experiments, surveys, or opinion polls to collect data. The statistician also works with the mathematician in applying mathematical theories and techniques to solve practical problems in the sciences, engineering, business, and other fields.

Median salary: $93,290

Analytics Manager

The analytics manager leads the formulation of strategies for the effective collection and analysis of data and the application of analytics in the context of different industries. The analytics manager communicates insights to executives, who make data-driven decisions for the organization.

Median salary: $97,919

Software Engineering Manager

The software engineering manager leads a team of software engineers in developing new software and providing updates and maintenance on software products.

Median salary: $141,385

What kind of job can I get with a Doctorate in STEM?

Scientific Research Engineering Manager

The scientific research engineering manager leads research and development projects to come up with new products, processes, and designs. This role also checks the technical accuracy of all product and design specifications.

Median salary: $174,710

Physicists

The physicist is often involved in industries that design and develop materials and equipment. As the expert in fundamental properties and laws that govern space, time, energy, and matter, the physicist may perform experiments in determining the appropriateness of materials to be used in products.

Median salary: $129,250

Astronomers

The astronomer plays a significant role in scientific and technological development. In using ground- and space-based equipment, astronomers facilitate the placement and monitor the operations of satellites for communication and for the global positioning system. Astronomers also study planets, stars, distant galaxies, other celestial bodies, black holes, and neuron stars.

Median salary: $119,730

Cloud Solutions Architect

The cloud solutions architect is responsible for the overall development and design of cloud-based platforms. In organizations, the cloud solutions architect implements and oversees cloud computing strategy.

Median salary: $126,423

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Which certification is best for STEM?

Certificate programs require applicants to hold a minimum of bachelor’s degree, but graduate students and mid-career professionals that hold a master’s or doctorate degree may also apply. Certificate programs intend to provide depth and breadth in content knowledge and update practitioners with the most current research and practices in the specific STEM area. Having a certification validates one’s skill set and demonstrates professional development. The list below details some of the certificate programs in select STEM areas.

  • Graduate Certificate in Computational Intelligence
  • Graduate Certificate in Life Sciences Management
  • Graduate Certificate in Computational Discovery and Engineering
  • Graduate Certificate in Biomanufacturing
  • Advance Mathematics Graduate Certificate
  • Mathematical Foundation of Cryptography Certificate

Upskilling and reskilling are crucial for the STEM professional. A study by Deming and Noray (2020) entitled “Earning Dynamics, Changing Job Skills, and STEM Careers,” found that STEM careers have the highest rates of task change or one of the highest-changing professional occupations due to the rise and decline of specific technologies. Among the professions, STEM-related job skill requirements changed significantly from 2009-2019. According to the authors, “Applied majors such as computer science, engineering, and business teach vintage-specific skills that become less valuable as new skills are introduced to the workplace over time.” Published by the Quarterly Journal of Economics, this study also explains the ‘STEM shortage’ phenomenon as directly related to technological change.

share of STEM professionals in the U.S.

Alternative Career Options for STEM Professionals

With their scientific and mathematical skills, STEM professionals have a wide range of options career-wise. Almost every industry needs the skills of a STEM professional, and different job options are available across industries.

What else can a STEM Professional Do?

Biotech Sales Representative – since Biotechnology is employed in different industries, companies that offer these services need sales representatives. STEM majors may work as biotech sales representatives as this is a highly technical field that requires someone with STEM education. Some salespeople in biotech even have Ph.D.s, making it one of the most common alternative careers for scientists.

Sound Engineer – for STEM majors that are into music production, the role of a sound engineer is a ticket to the film or music industry. Sound engineers may work in a range of industries, such as live performance, film, television, advertising, and other projects that require audio recordings.

Science Journalist – STEM majors with strong writing skills may opt to take on the role of science journalist for specialized publications that focus on the different STEM disciplines. The Science journalist may also work for newspapers, magazines, and websites as a freelancer or staff writer.

Medical Illustrator – this role requires a solid understanding of life sciences and it uses both science and art to produce photographs, videos, and images for use in promoting scientific knowledge to the public. The medical illustrator simplifies complex information while at the same time ensuring its accuracy.

Source: The Census Bureau

The Career Path that Adapts to the Knowledge Economy

It has been emphasized time and again that STEM is a key contributor to national competitiveness and economic progress. For this reason, STEM careers are valued, as reflected in the median salary of STEM-related jobs. While STEM jobs permeate almost every industry, the challenge for STEM professionals, especially for those who are in the field of applied STEM, such as engineering and computer science, is that job skill requirements change fast, thus the need to pursue continuous professional development.

But the combination of soft and hard skills that every STEM professional possesses will never change. As an ever-evolving field, jobs in various sectors of STEM will continue to be invented and reinvented, and the same goes for the STEM professional. Consider one of the STEM career paths today and evolve with this growing field.

 

References:

  1. American Association for the Advancement of Science (2020), STEM and the American Workforce, https://www.fticonsulting.com/insights/reports/stem-american-workforce
  2. American Chemical Council (2021), Mid-Year Outlook: U.S. Chemical Industry Rebounds as Global Recovery Continues, https://www.americanchemistry.com/chemistry-in-america/news-trends/press-release/2021/mid-year-outlook-u.s.-chemical-industry-rebounds-as-global-recovery-continues
  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021), Occupational Outlook Handbook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/
  4. Computing Technology Industry Association (2020), IT Industry Outlook 2020, https://www.comptia.org/content/research/it-industry-outlook-2020
  5. Deming, D.J. and Noray, K.L. (2020), Earnings Dynamics, Changing Job Skills, and STEM Careers, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjaa021 
  6. Duffin, E. (2021), Highest paying STEM occupations by occupational field U.S. 2020, https://www.statista.com/statistics/829163/employment-figures-for-stem-occupations-in-the-us-by-occupation/
  7. Fry, R., Kennedy, B. and Funk, C. (2021), STEM Jobs See Uneven Progress in Increasing Gender, Racial and Ethnic Diversity, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2021/04/01/stem-jobs-see-uneven-progress-in-increasing-gender-racial-and-ethnic-diversity/
  8. IBISWorld (2021), Manufacturing in the US – Market Size 2005–2027, https://www.ibisworld.com/industry-statistics/market-size/manufacturing-united-states/
  9. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (2020), How COVID-19 is making STEM cool for careers, https://www.theiet.org/media/press-releases/press-releases-2020/press-releases-2020-july-september/29-july-2020-how-covid-19-is-making-stem-cool-for-careers/

 

 

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