Part I: Debunking the Three Most Common Myths about STEM Majors
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.
Part II: The Top 5 Unconventional STEM schools in the US
If you are quirky, hands-on, hate sitting inside a lecture hall, enjoy humanities, and love working in teams and solving real-life issues, here is a list of top unconventional STEM schools in the US for you to consider.
1. Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, IN
SAT Range: 1260-1450
ACT Range: 27-32
For over 20 consecutive years, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (RHIT) has been consistently ranked #1 among “Best Undergraduate Engineering Program – Doctorate Not Offered” colleges in the US4 En.wikipedia.org. 2020. Rose–Hulman Institute Of Technology. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose%E2%80%93Hulman_Institute_of_Technology> [Accessed 13 August 2020].. During the periods of the two world wars, the school, known as Rose Poly then, was instrumental in educating and training engineers and technicians to service in the war effort.
Despite its top school ranking and the fact that its graduate salaries consistently higher than those from most Ivy League schools5PayScale. 2020. Best Universities And Colleges | Payscale. [online] Available at: <https://www.payscale.com/college-salary-report/bachelors> [Accessed 13 August 2020]., Rose-Hulman is not as well-known to overseas students as its competitors, such as the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC) and Purdue University. This is probably due to its small size and location.
Being a small school with a student population of just above 2,000, students are taught directly by their professors (not teaching assistants or graduate students!) and have access to labs and research normally unavailable to the graduate students in other STEM institutions.
Teamwork is a must inside the classroom and in sports, so it’s no surprise that Greek Life is huge on campus. Furthermore, boasting of well-rounded students, humanities and social sciences courses are part of the graduation requirements.
If you are a female student, you’re in luck! This school’s male-to-female student ratio in the school year of 2019-2020 was a whopping 75:25. So, your chances of receiving a scholarship to attend Rose-Hulman to balance out the boys are quite very high!
2. Worcester Polytechnic Institute, MA
SAT Range: 1280-1440
ACT Range: 28-32
Founded in 1865, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is one of the three oldest engineering and technology-focused universities in the US. In 2007, it was the first major engineering school to go test-optional for their undergraduate admissions.
Located in Worcester, MA, about a 90-minute drive from Boston, WPI has long been a popular recruiting place for large companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Dell, Amazon, and etc. Similar to Rose-Hulman, the average salary of its graduates is also consistently higher than that of most graduates from the Ivy League schools6 PayScale. 2020. Best Universities And Colleges | Payscale. [online] Available at: <https://www.payscale.com/college-salary-report/bachelors> [Accessed 13 August 2020]..
It is impossible to talk about WPI without mentioning its groundbreaking approach to education, known as the WPI Plan. With the WPI Plan, students take only three courses at a time during each intensive 7-week term. The academic year is made up of four such terms during the academic year and two more during the optional summer period, allowing students to try a wide variety of courses. Furthermore, to encourage students to try and take risks with courses, WPI offers only A, B, and C grades. If a student fails, the course will disappear on the record.
Almost all courses on campus are taught through projects, and the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) gives students the opportunity to work on projects that deal directly with real-life issues through sponsors from across the US and around the world.
Last but not least, the Humanities & Arts Requirement (HUA) includes classes in Philosophy, Arts, Music, and Theatre, making WPI a rare engineering school with a surprisingly large emphasis on the performance arts on campus.
3. The Cooper Union, NY
SAT Range: 1310-1550
ACT Range: 28-34
Conveniently located in New York City, NY, The Cooper Union has long been known as one of the hardest schools to get admitted to in the US7Cbsnews.com. 2020. Hardest Colleges To Get Into. [online] Available at: <https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/hardest-colleges-to-get-into/22/> [Accessed 13 August 2020]. Until 2013, if you are one of the ~200 freshmen enrolled in this school, you get to attend tuition-free. Today, every student still receives a half-tuition scholarship automatically and if there is any demonstrated need, the financial aid office will try to get you covered.
The Cooper Union is made up of three schools, the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, the School of Art, and the Albert Nerken School of Engineering. Each school admits its students independently. The engineering school is the largest among the three with around 550 students, while the total population of the student body is around 850.
Due to the small size of the college, the number of STEM offerings is few, with only five engineering degree-programs in Chemical, Civil, Electrical, Mechanical, and General Engineering, together with three B.S. programs in Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics. However, all STEM students in Cooper Union have direct access to their professors, which often lead to incredible opportunities for undergraduate research that often result in published papers and patents.
Cooper’s curriculum is highly rigorous. All engineers must take a number of required courses in the humanities and social sciences that take up about one-fifth of their total coursework. The gender diversity is something Cooper is trying to improve, with 65:35 male-female student ratio in 2019.
4. Harvey Mudd College, CA
SAT Range: 1530-1570
ACT Range: 33-35
If anyone thinks MIT and Caltech students are quirky, please go visit the Harvey Mudd campus to see what real quirkiness is.
Harvey Mudd brands itself as the unique liberal arts college that is also one of the “premier engineering, science, and mathematics colleges in the US”8Harvey Mudd College. 2020. About Harvey Mudd College | Harvey Mudd College. [online] Available at: <https://www.hmc.edu/about-hmc/> [Accessed 13 August 2020].. Their students are painters, poets, singers, dancers, sculptors, musicians, as well as engineers, scientists, and mathematicians.
A small school with just over 800 students, Harvey Mudd offers only ten majors, specifically, Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Engineering, Mathematics, Physics, Mathematical and Computational Biology, Joint Major in Chemistry and Biology, Joint Major in Computer Science and Mathematics, and Joint Major in Mathematics and Physics.
As a liberal arts college, every student is to complete the rigorous Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Arts (HSA) Requirements with at least one concentration in areas, such as American Studies, Linguistics, and Writing and Rhetoric, just to mention a few. Though the HSA Requirements may sound like a lot of work outside students’ intended STEM majors, innovative classes such as “Bicycle Revolution” in Political Studies, “Poe Goes South” in Literature, “Animal Media Studies” in Media Studies, and “Ghosts and the Machines” in Religious Studies keep students on their toes and very much entertained. Among all the STEM schools listed in this article, Harvey Mudd is the most expensive to attend, with an annual budget of $76,947 in 2019-20209Collegecalc.org. 2020. Tuition, Net Price And Cost To Go Harvey Mudd College. [online] Available at: <https://www.collegecalc.org/colleges/california/harvey-mudd-college/#:~:text=Total%20Costs,is%20no%20in%2Dstate%20discount.> [Accessed 13 August 2020]. Yet, this investment also boasts great return as Mudd boasts of the highest graduate salaries in the US, beating MIT, Caltech, Stanford, and all the Ivy League schools10 PayScale. 2020. Best Universities And Colleges | Payscale. [online] Available at: <https://www.payscale.com/college-salary-report/bachelors> [Accessed 13 August 2020].. The Clinic Program, which encourages collaboration between different companies and the students, allows juniors and seniors to work in teams to solve real-world technical problems for the sponsors, giving students an edge in finding the right careers before graduating.
5. Olin College of Engineering, MA
SAT Range: 1550-1570
ACT Range: 33-35
Founded in 1997 and having only admitted its first full class of 75 students in 2002, Olin is the youngest top STEM school in the US. Like The Cooper Union, every admitted student in Olin receives a half-tuition scholarship automatically with additional financial aid provided if necessary.
Located next to Babson College, the No. 1 Entrepreneurship School in the US11En.wikipedia.org. 2020. Babson College. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babson_College> [Accessed 13 August 2020]., the goal of Olin is said to produce “Elon Musk-style graduates who are not only technically competent but who can come up with innovative ideas and products”12 Collegecountdown.com. 2020. College Countdown | College Countdown. [online] Available at: <https://www.collegecountdown.com/index.php?option=com_egdfiske&view=detail§ion=*-category&id=212&Itemid=> [Accessed 13 August 2020]..
Today, with just over 300 students on campus, the school offers only three majors – Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and allows for a self-designed major in Engineering.
Olin places an emphasis on applicants that can show teamwork and character. All freshmen must participate in a weeklong orientation program that involves Outward Bound style team-building exercises, meals with the faculty, and finishes with a trip to Boston. Learning is done through projects which encourages students to work in small groups to build different things to solve specific problems. Students may also take exams on their own schedule without proctors.
Olin’s admissions process is unique. It uses its own unique application forms with emphasis on the applicant’s creativity and personal character. It invites candidates who have passed their first round of review to come to the campus for a “candidates’ weekend”. During the weekend, each candidate will participate in group projects and go through an interview with a team of professors, staff, students, and alumni. The average alumni starting salary between 2017-2019 is $88,551 USD, making it slightly lower than Harvey Mudd’s number in the same category, but higher than the statistics from MIT, Caltech, Stanford, and all Ivy League schools13 PayScale. 2020. Best Universities And Colleges | Payscale. [online] Available at: <https://www.payscale.com/college-salary-report/bachelors> [Accessed 13 August 2020]..
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By Ally Ip, Director of Research