What to expect when you’re expecting a STEM Major

As the summer wears on and incoming freshmen become excitedly nervous as they contemplate college this fall, many of them have initially declared they want to major in one of the ‘sciences’—physics, chemistry or biology.  However, that definition of ‘science’ and the majors associated with it is a little outdated and has been packaged under a broader umbrella called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).  I like that broader description.  It works well.

Regrettably, the number of students graduating in STEM majors lags the number of available jobs/opportunities for those graduates in these career areas.  However, there’s no shortage of students interested in STEM majors as they enter college—the problem comes from the number who change from a STEM major to something else (it is almost unheard of for someone to transfer INTO a STEM major from something outside that broad umbrella).

So why the disconnect?  Some of that disconnect ‘stems’ from the lack of understanding of what these disciplines entail.  There really is a culture shock—outside of the adjustment/shock of just attending college—when a student signs up for a STEM major.

Step-by-step STEM Guide

To better give students a quasi-realistic introduction into those expectations from the start, keep reading.  Far better to know what’s expected of you before you begin.  You might even decide that this type of major really isn’t your cup of tea.  This could save you a semester or an entire year of frustration as you struggled to come to grips with the fact this may not be the best major for you—and for many freshmen, this struggle/frustration often represents the first time they’ve ever had to ‘quit’ or ‘fail’ something.  In truth, it’s neither, but try telling that to someone who’s 18–19 years old.

To change majors admits defeat (in the mind of 18–19 year olds); the difficulty in acknowledging that unnecessarily burdens many students to continue in their chosen major, hoping their situation will get better.

It rarely does.

You then find yourself a year into school with credits in classes you hated that won’t ever transfer into a major that seems more interesting. Furthermore, you posted a sub-par GPA, so any academic scholarship you had during your freshman year is gone.  You now pay nearly full-freight, take on additional student loans to augment the additional tuition costs (also adding to your burgeoning debt) with the wreckage of the first year requiring you to either go for four more years or take tons of summer classes to make up the difference.  Way too many students elect to just cut bait here.

So let’s take a look at some of the expectations associated with each of these disciplines.  This isn’t a comprehensive expectations list.  This represents real expectations when you walk in the door at college.  And PLEASE don’t let this dissuade you!

Science:

Laser focus in your major almost from day one.  A typical schedule for an incoming first year student will look something like this—the intro into your major course (often doubling up here since chemistry is normally required for many disciplines other than chemistry), a math course, a ‘seminar’ course or some ‘welcome to the college (how to use the internet, Word, Excel or PowerPoint)’ course, an English writing course (or just some gen ed class).

So where’s the chance to broaden your horizons/expand your mind or find something else that interests you?  Virtually non-existent.

And those science classes all come with labs (and their lab fees).  What if you came to college without a proficiency in math or writing, as way too many students do?  Remedial classes.  These classes will only count as ‘electives’ if/when you graduate.  Good to know your ability to choose a course that interests you just for the sake of pure learning is made for you on day one by someone who doesn’t know you—and that course is basically Algebra 2, Pre-Calculus or Comp for Dummies.  Nice.

Engineering:

Take the laser focus of a science major and amplify it.  Many science majors can take 15–16 hours per semester and graduate on time without running into too many scheduling problems.  Engineering majors seem to have a baseline of 18 hour semesters—all of which are planned out before they arrive—they often graduate with over 140 credit hours.  Don’t have Calculus in your HS background?  Need a remedial English writing class?  Now you’re at 150…and counting.  You’ll push the credit overload threshold every semester you’re in college.  And the lab fees you’ll pay could build a beer pong cathedral for the ages—one you’ll never see the inside of because of your academic responsibilities.

Mathematics: 

Same type of story as for Engineering, but with a more normal credit load.  But think about this first…just because you were “good at math” in high school and you tested into Pre-Calc or perhaps even Calc I…that doesn’t mean it translates well to a Mathematics major.  In truth, it takes a very special type of mind to ‘think math’.  The cut and dry concepts learned in trig, algebra, pre-calc and even calculus appeal to a LOT of students, myself included when I went to college.  There is one right answer, here’s the formula to get there…solve the problem, here’s the right answer.  Black and white.  Nothing subjective.

Once you get above Differential Equations (diffy-q), a lot of problems begin with ‘Imagine a … ‘.  The abstract thinking needed for math of that type was not the way my brain functioned (short of LSD or some other mind-altering drug).  This was where I politely asked the conductor of the “Math Train” to let me off at the next station—to a physics degree (which ultimately resulted in a Chemistry degree).  I was not alone at this stop.

Technology:

Here, the caveat comes from the sheer number of careers that associated with a ‘technology degree’ and overwhelms many incoming freshmen and many of these combine a science degree with technology.  See a list of ‘technology careers’ here; its amazingly long.  So many of the caveats associate with science/engineering degrees apply here too.

In short, don’t let this brief synopsis scare you away from a career in STEM; that’s not the point.  The point is to give you a good idea of what you have in store when you take that first stem into a larger world.  Being better informed allows you the chance at greater success.

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