With the rise of tech giants, the allure of getting a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) degree to gain entry into one of those prestigious firms has never been stronger. Tales of 24-hour staff canteens catered by the finest chefs, nap pods, flexible vacation days, and gorgeous offices have led many students to conclude that STEM is the way to go, leading to relevant STEM degrees from US universities becoming increasingly coveted. With nervous chatter about this field flying around, in my years as an admissions consultant, I have noticed the many misconceptions that have arisen. In this article, I wish to debunk the three most common myths about STEM majors.
Myth #1: STEM majors do not need to have a strong liberal arts education i.e. I only need to be good in the sciences/math
An excellent idea not articulated well is still just a bad idea; it’s useless because no one understands it. Similarly, a genius engineering design botched by bad leadership and execution will reduce it to failure. Remember, Steve Wozniak needed Steve Jobs. In this day and age, you need to aim to be BOTH the Wozniak and the Jobs to succeed.
Most colleges, including the most technical ones like MIT, have general education requirements. This is because schools know that there are skills beyond the technical that everyone needs to excel in the real world. This is why there’s been a growing emphasis on a liberal arts education. The purpose of a liberal arts education is to promote learning across a variety of subjects, from the natural and social sciences to the arts and humanities. Its outcome includes the mastery of useful skills such as communication, critical thinking, and research. By pushing students to touch upon areas they have never been exposed to, it pushes them to think beyond the confines of their intended major, developing their creativity and empathy.
Imagine a world where everything is functional but lacks the human touch. Imagine having useful software and programs that only trained specialists can operate. In 2011, two Japanese engineers, Brothers Nobuo and Yutaka Kondo combined their knowledge in aerospace engineering and their passion for cycling to create a pair of bicycle wheels that could reach speeds up to 300 km/h, close to the top speed of Japan’s bullet train1Clenfield, J., 2020. Bloomberg – Are You A Robot?. [online] Bloomberg.com. Available at: <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-03-18/japanese-engineers-reinvent-the-wheel> [Accessed 21 July 2020]. It was an example of engineering perfection. But the company managed only to sell 30 pairs of these wheels in four years. They were shocked, even at $7900 USD a pair, that just must still be an enticing item! Imagine – the speed of a bullet train! But if you stop and think, it really does make sense that the product failed at retail. Everyone on that team was so focused on perfecting the tech that they had forgotten: who would have enough of a death wish to ride their bicycles at 300 km/h? Perhaps the tech would have been better applied elsewhere.
To build a better future for the human race, scientists and engineers must be creative to seek tailored solutions and be able to empathize with the needs of the people they serve.
So, a strong liberal arts education is necessary for the success of any STEM major. Today, in nearly every top science and engineering school in the US, the study of humanities is always a part of the graduation requirements.
Myth #2: STEM is all about working alone inside a lab i.e. it’s alright that I am a loner in high school
Hollywood movies love to depict scientists and researchers as loners with crazy hair and bad fashion sense, working alone inside laboratories or rooms without windows. Or that most tech geniuses are loners with no social skills. And that society accommodates for such idiosyncratic habits and social attitudes to reap the benefits of that person’s skill. This is so far from reality.
The truth is, more often than not, scientific discoveries, research, and engineering projects involve a team of individuals with various backgrounds and strengths to contribute to the mission. You have to be able to work with others. Tech projects are often complex with countless moving parts and tend to be interdisciplinary in nature. You cannot be good at everything and no matter how smart you may be, you will need the expertise of someone else at one point or another. A quick search on the web has informed me that the average size of a research team is about six to seven people. Thus, we need to acknowledge the diversity of team members.
Published on May 18, 2020, in MIT Sloan Management Review, the article “Build a Diverse Team to Solve the AI Riddle”2Byrum, J., 2020. Build A Diverse Team To Solve The AI Riddle. [online] MIT Sloan Management Review. Available at: <https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/build-a-diverse-team-to-solve-the-ai-riddle/> [Accessed 21 July 2020]. highlights the urgency for AI developers to assemble teams with diverse backgrounds, emphasizing the importance of including non-STEM majors.
If you plan to major in STEM, you must be prepared to communicate and work closely with people from different continents, and with different social, religious, and academic backgrounds. In your college application, it isn’t enough for you to show off your solo endeavours but also showcase your teamwork abilities to show that you understand what it means to work in a team and why it is important.
Myth #3: STEM degrees guarantee high salaried jobs
Many parents and students our counselors have spoken to believe that having a degree in STEM would automatically secure a higher salary job and a better career in general. This warrants an eye roll from me, a person who also holds a STEM degree. Unfortunately, this is no longer true at all. The process of applying to jobs after your degree looks more and more like the college application process. There are companies that require more than four (!) rounds of tests and interviews before you are hired. If you want a high paying job at a prestigious firm, you have to fight for it. The advantage of having a STEM degree from a good college simply means you have a foot in the door and that your application will warrant a full read, but everything that comes after is up to you. For example, the coding you learn in your computer science degree is simply not enough for you to work full time as a coder at a tech firm. You must learn and gain proficiency in multiple coding languages. A STEM degree simply does not guarantee an easy career path.
You must be prepared for lifelong learning. According to PayScale.com, a website that publishes and compares the salaries of graduates from different schools and majors in the US, STEM majors generally have an advantage in getting higher pay jobs during the first five to ten years after the undergraduate degree. However, a research article from Harvard Graduate School of Education reveals that such an advantage is not long-lasting. After the first ten years of their careers, people from other majors will catch up3Tatter, G., 2020. College Major Myths. [online] Available at: <https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/18/11/college-major-myths> [Accessed 21 July 2020]. . In fact, due to the fast-changing nature of STEM subjects, “success in STEM fields requires continuing education, post-college.”
Our advice is that you should build your career on what you are interested in because in the long run, your success will be limited unless you have the momentum and passion to continuously learn and improve yourself in the field. You must understand the STEM field is constantly in flux, and they want people that can keep up with the changes.
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By Ally Ip, Director of Research