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What are STEM fields?

Read our guide to what STEM subjects are, why they are so valued and the career & visa possibilities in these fields.

overseas STEM student

Industries of Science and Technology may be booming globally, but the amount of graduates able to meet employment demands remains low. Highly sought-after in America, the UK and Australia, graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields possess transferrable critical skills that are extremely desirable across a number of sectors. So, what exactly is a STEM education, and why is there such strong demand for skills in this field?

Read our breakdown of what STEM is all about, graduate career prospects and why you should consider it as study programme...


What are STEM fields?

STEM refers to the study fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Instead of being taught as separate, discrete subjects, all four areas are merged into a singular teaching curriculum that focuses on interdisciplinary, practical skills with ‘real-world’ application. This is especially advantageous for those graduating with a related qualification when it comes to finding that first job. In Australia, the UK and the US there has been a notable decline in enrolments in STEM courses, despite the multitude of advantageous career paths available to graduates in these courses.


Why study a STEM course?

STEM education is in high demand and teaches employees specific skills applicable to technical roles, as well as fostering a range of generic skills that are transferrable across a range of disciplines. This versatility and broad knowledge set makes graduates highly employable, and is set to mark growth in STEM and related sectors worldwide. The potential for employment in STEM areas are virtually boundless: fields of science and technology are constantly evolving, so it’s likely your STEM job didn’t even exist a few years ago.


STEM career prospects around the world

Nine out of ten UK organisations employ STEM graduates. Numerate, analytical and critical skills are transferrable across a number of industries, and may lead to specialisations in fields including Mechanical Engineering, Computer Technology and Programming, PhysicsFood Science and Software Publishing. Many jobs in finance and business sectors also seek STEM graduates for their logical problem-solving skills and high-level, applied analytic capability.

The UK economy is set to experience more growth in technology and science sectors across the next four years. According to the Centre for Business and Economic Research, one in every four new jobs in the UK until 2017 will be created in these fields. This roughly works out as 140,000 new jobs in STEM fields, making STEM jobs accountable for 7.1% of total jobs across the entire nation.

America will similarly see the creation of 2.1 million new STEM jobs between 2010 and 2020, mainly in fields of Computer and Mathematical Science, Engineering, Architecture and Social Science. Current STEM graduates are best represented in areas of professional and business services (21%). It is predicted that there are will be 4.2 million jobs in Computer and Mathematical Science by 2018, 1.5 million of which are yet to be created. Similarly, Engineering fields are expected to generate about 522,000 job openings by 2018.

In Australia, roughly half of all professional skill shortages have been identified as in STEM areas such as engineering.  Amongst STEM-qualified professionals, the employment rate is currently 81%. The amount of STEM employees grew by 14% from 2006-2011 compared to an average of 9% in other fields. Employment areas with highest degrees of growth were Design, Engineering, and Information Computer Technology.


Global demand and the current state of STEM

The UK government has recently created a STEM agenda that seeks to address the nation’s growing demand for scientists, engineers and technologists. The initiative will target schools and universities, attempting not only to inspire students into studying these fields but also to ensure that graduate skills and knowledge are of a working standard. Approximately 72% of all businesses in the UK rely on the STEM skills of its employees, whilst 58% of all new jobs in the coming years will be STEM related.

Australia too has expressed a shortage of STEM skills, calling attention to the lack of qualified teachers in these fields. Only one in eight school STEM students were found to be working in a STEM-based job by their mid-twenties. Whilst the amount of students studying STEM is in decline, the proportion of STEM students moving into a career in a relevant field has remained steady and consistent. Interestingly, it was found that an additional 16% of non-STEM school students were working in a STEM field by their mid-twenties, but two-thirds of those studying STEM at a post-school level do not continue on to employment in the sector. Above all, those who work in STEM fields earn over AUD 100 (US$ 90.55) per week than those in non-STEM jobs. National talks are currently underway in developing a national STEM curriculum strategy.

The US has similar issues. At university level, better teaching methods are hoped to increase retention in STEM study programmes, and educate 30,000 more engineers in four years. From 2000- 2010, the amount of STEM jobs rose by 7.9%, a growth three times higher than those in non-STEM sectors (2.6%). It was found that in 2010, approximately one in every 18 employees was working in a STEM field. 


Visa opportunities in the US

The US is one of the most desirable locations for international graduates wishing to find employment and change their life. International students on an F-1 student visa who have completed a STEM Bachelors degree programme or higher may apply to complete Optional Practical Training (OPT) in the US. OPT is up to a year of temporary employment in your field of study for each degree level you complete. For example, a student may complete a year of OPT during their Bachelors study, and an additional year at Masters level. Students can undertake OPT either before (pre-completion OPT) or after (post-completion OPT) the completion of their study programme.

Students undertaking post-completion OPT and who receive job offers may apply for a STEM extension, enabling them to accept the offer and work in the US for an additional 17 months. Students must apply for this extension directly with their host institution. For example, New York University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology both have comprehensive sections on their websites that explain the application process.


Watch the video below as Taro, an international graduate in America explains post-study visa and OPT options for those studying abroad in the US:

Watch more clips from our Google Hangout with Taro

Read our guide to applying for a US student visa

Read our guide to post-study work visa options in the US



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About Author

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Monica Karpinski received her BA (Media and Communications) and Diploma in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne, Australia. An art and culture aficionado, in her spare time Monica enjoys film, reading and writing about art.

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