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Study abroad : Subject Guides

Insights: What is STEM ?

Take a look at our comprehensive guide to STEM subjects and associated fields. Get to grips with what's available and what the career prospects are like.

Study a STEM degree

What are STEM fields?

You’ve undoubtedly heard and seen the acronym STEM in the context of university subjects and careers. Perhaps it seems like an amorphous term encompassing a wide disparate range of subjects and qualifications that you aren’t quite sure about. Maybe you’ve heard that graduate outcomes for STEM students are particularly positive but aren’t sure what this entails or why. We’ve taken a comprehensive look at the field and what’s on offer for you.


What is STEM?

The term STEM is used to reference fields and subjects in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. One of the key developments in recent years has been the integration of these disciplines into a holistic curriculum that aims to offer students an interdisciplinary education that is skills-based and industry-focused.


Where, in the past, subjects may have been taught individually the pace of technological development and innovation necessitates a complementary understanding of such disciplines.  So, while you may enrol for a BSc engineering or a physics degree you will learn in an environment in which knowledge from a multitude of disciplines is incorporated into your course of study.


There continues to be a high demand for graduates with STEM skills in numerous sectors and a deficit in the number of graduates. One of the primary drivers for the employability of STEM graduates is the transferability of skills and their practical application.


In addition, a requirement for technical expertise and highly specialised skills stand STEM graduates in good stead when it comes to employment.  The scope for such knowledge continues to grow with the increasing developments and breakthroughs in various sectors. In fact, many jobs in STEM fields have only been recently developed and designed.


What are STEM degrees?

It’s important to remember that STEM is an umbrella term that covers all subjects that fall under that broad terminology. This can be everything from chemistry and aerospace engineering to architecture and computer science. The commonality is the emphasis placed on the development of analytical, technical and problem-solving skills allied to precision as well as attention to detail.


In certain cases, qualifications are applicable in a variety of fields and it’s not unusual to find an engineer working for an investment firm or a computer scientist working in medical research.  Some of the more common STEM degrees and courses that you may be familiar with are bachelor of science degrees in fields ranging from biology to physics, bachelor of technology degrees, bachelor of engineering degrees and the most prominent of all, bachelor of medicine.


One of the significant features of STEM courses and the associated curriculum is the emphasis placed on practical learning and knowledge. This involves the implementation and testing of theory in a real-world setting, with scenarios and experiments. This can take the form of everything from laboratory testing of engineering elements to medical diagnostics. The aim is to ensure that when you encounter similar situations or challenges in a professional environment you are well versed with the necessary knowledge.


What are STEM careers like?

The demand for STEM graduates has continued to grow and develop over the last decade. There has also been an increase in the number of students pursuing STEM qualifications, including a 13 per cent increase in computer science students and a 12.2 per cent increase in students studying biological science degrees since 2013.


However, despite this growth many organisations and businesses have reported that they struggle to recruit appropriately skilled candidates for certain roles, meaning that studying a specialised STEM subject could significantly improve your career prospects. It is currently estimated that there are close to 200,000 unfilled positions in the UK alone, indicative of the existing skills gap. With the continued growth in STEM-related jobs, it has been calculated that one in every four positions in the UK will require a STEM skillset.




Remember that STEM skills are not only in demand in what is traditionally thought of as STEM fields such as medicine and engineering. Interestingly STEM degrees and qualifications prove to be desirable in non-STEM occupations and fields. The finance, business, education and government sectors are also areas that offer career options and value the skills of STEM graduates. 


In fact, research has shown that earnings in non-STEM fields remain higher for those with STEM skills than those who had completed other degrees at university. In addition, as many as 50 per cent of STEM graduates are not working in a STEM-related field. This is particularly true of engineering graduates of whom almost a quarter take up positions in business, management and finance positions.


With economies around the world increasingly underpinned by and focused on science and technology, the employment prospects for graduates in STEM fields continue to be favourable. It has been estimated that in the ten years between 2010 and 2020 over two million jobs have been created in STEM fields with computer science, information technology and engineering leading the way.


Certain countries around the world including America, Australia, Canada and the UK have all prioritised the recruitment of STEM skills and the development of the sector as economically crucial.  To put this into perspective in the last 30 years employment in STEM-related fields alone has grown by over 79 per cent. Earning potential for students also increases depending on the level of qualification completed, with those holding advanced degrees commanding higher salaries.



What are the top STEM subjects?

With the number of students pursuing STEM-related degrees increasing year on year, you may be wondering what the most popular subject areas are and what correlation exists between these choices and employability. The top choice for international students remains health and medicine degrees, specifically dentistry, physiotherapy, nursing and medicine.


Interestingly this also proves to have the most successful outcomes for graduates showing a 99 per cent employment rate. Engineering also attracts a significant amount of student attention and sits as the second most popular STEM qualification, with specialisations in civil, mechanical and aerospace engineering featuring at the top of the priority list for students. Job prospects in the field with those holding an engineering qualification are also robust with an 86 per cent employment rate. 



A further subject area that has shown growth is that of applied and pure science. Degrees in biology, environmental science and sports science top the popularity scales, with biological science degrees accounting for a significant number of female STEM graduates. In fact, since 2013 biological sciences have seen an increase in the number of female students pursuing STEM subjects.


Although popular, biological science qualifications deliver more modest employment outcomes with 65 per cent of new graduates finding work soon after graduating. It’s not surprising that with the rapid technological development in computing and associated infrastructure that degrees in computer science have seen increased enrolment, with students primarily focusing on software engineering, information technology and pure computer science.  It’s a fairly good option with 82 per cent of those graduating with a degree in the field finding work in the period immediately after graduation.



What do I need to study STEM?


If you have your eye on registering and enrolling for a STEM-related degree, there are a few things you’ll need to have in place. Firstly, it goes without saying that demonstrating the required academic ability in mathematics and science (physical and life) is a pre-requisite.  Further, a good level of written and spoken English is critical.


This may mean you’ll have to provide an English proficiency test score as evidence, such as IELTS and TOEFL. Some universities offer bridging or foundation courses that will allow you to receive the necessary grounding in both English and general STEM subjects so that you are academically ready for degree study. If you want to kickstart your exploration, have a look at what’s on offer.


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