Pushing STEM Students Past the 4-Year Degree

Posted March 13, 2013

When it comes to education and job creation alike, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) seem to be top priority right now. President Obama’s 2013 budget includes $150 million towards training more teachers in these industries and opening up employment positions for 100,000 educators over the next 10 years. A further $1 billion will go toward promoting greater collaboration between high schools and colleges to streamline STEM curricula.

But how much education will these teachers — not to mention other STEM professionals — need in order to get ahead in their careers?


Jobs and Education

There clearly exists a demand for graduate degree holders in the STEM fields, as evidenced by The STEM Jobs Act. While it remains a proposal, if passed it would expedite the citizenship process for international students who graduate with STEM-related master’s degrees and Ph.D.s from American schools. But even beyond legislation at the Congressional and Executive levels, the job market seems to agree that these fields are surging.

Projections see employment in STEM fields rising by 17% before 2020, compared to 14% for all others. As other industries saw their unemployment rates climb as high as 10%, STEM hit 4.1% in 2011. And STEM workers typically enjoy raises 26% more generous than their counterparts elsewhere. However, graduates hoping to enter academia following completion of their Ph.Ds should check their majors before applying to that professorship; some disciplines, like engineering, computer science, and the life sciences, prefer to hire those who graduated more than three years ago.

Although pursuing postsecondary education typically leads to better earnings overtime and greater chances in a competitive job market, the number of students finishing graduate diplomas in the STEM disciplines is actually on the decline. Between 1985 and 2009, the number of master’s degrees conferred dropped from 18% to 14%.

"The job outlook for STEM graduates with master’s degrees or Ph.D.s is outstanding at present. Besides the well-known reasons, there is a very strong entrepreneurship industry that is focusing primarily on technologies. For example, venture capitalists specifically ask how many STEM masters and Ph.D.s are on the staff of a startup," says Dr. Amjad Umar, head of the Master’s in Information Systems at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology (HUST) and a global consultant on IT issues.

Umar’s HUST colleague Andy Petroski, director and assistant professor of learning technologies, also agrees that STEM students’ futures improve with graduate school attendance. "The master’s degree is a path to the career field in most instances. There are almost no instructional design, instructional technology, or learning technologies bachelor degree programs," he says.

"In a recent eLearning Guild survey, between 40%-60% of respondents from the industry (depending on job role) indicated they have a master’s degree," says Petroski. "In general, the industry feels a master’s degree is important to high performance as an instructional designer or project manager."


The Top 8

Kelly Services identified the eight fastest-growing STEM jobs through 2020, as well as general information about the industries involved. For graduate students hoping to increase their chances of launching their careers after completing school, these paths might provide some of the best opportunities.

"Information technologies — has been and probably will stay a field in high demand for a while," explains Umar. "Due to the large number of IT applications in the public and private sectors, degrees that combine IT with other areas (e.g., IT and Business, IT and Health) are in high demand."

Biomedical Engineering
Biomedical engineers merge the biological sciences with the latest medical technologies in order to improve and save lives. Forty-five percent of professionals in the field hold a bachelor’s degree, 35% completed a master’s, and 20% went for the doctorate or professional certification. Kelly estimates it will grow by 62% over the next decade.

Medical Scientists
In this field, graduate school is almost always a requirement. Only 4% earned positions with a bachelor’s degree alone. Twenty-one percent hold a master’s, and 74% completed a doctoral or professional degree. Anyone hoping to enter into one of the medical fields (except for epidemiology) as physicians, pharmacologists, pathologists, and other positions will more than likely require a Ph.D. to succeed. Since these industries are all expected to experience job increases by 36% before 2020, it behooves students pursuing them to earn a graduate degree and stay competitive.

Software Developers, Systems Software
Systems software developers create and maintain operating systems and networks for numerous applications, including medical, military, educational, and business. Kelly posits a growth rate of 32% for this industry, and while most relevant positions do not necessarily involve a graduate degree, one will still grant applicants an edge. Bachelor’s degrees currently dominate the industry at 54%. Master’s degrees make up 23% of the software developer of systems software workforce, and Ph.D.s are so rare as to not even be recorded.

Biochemists and Biophysicists
As with the medical sciences other than epidemiology, biochemists and biophysics almost always need a doctoral degree to land a job. These positions require exploring the complex physics and chemistry of living organisms down to the cellular level. Eighteen percent of current workers in the field stopped at the bachelor’s degree, compared to 5% with a master’s and 77% with a doctorate. Kelly believes the involved industries will see a 31% increase in available positions before 2020.

Database Administrators
The job outlook for database administrators is expected to improve by 31% over the next decade as well, though its educational trends differ significantly from many of the other industries on this list. As the name implies, database administrators make sure computer databases remain running, stable, and safe. Graduate degrees remain extremely rare amongst this demographic, where 60% of employees hold a bachelor’s. Numbers for the master’s and doctorate levels are too low to be recorded.

Network and Computer Systems Administrators
Network and Computer Systems Administrators concern themselves with ensuring the safety and stability of local area networks for medical facilities, the military, businesses, schools, and plenty more. Data on the education levels for these jobs is currently unavailable, though for the most part they do not require anything more than a bachelor’s degree. Kelly’s research posits that employment in this position will rise by 28% over the coming decade.

Software Developers, Applications
No doubt as a side effect of the mobile computing boom, software developers who create applications will see an increase in job opportunities, to the tune of about 28%. But there’s not much of a need to attend school at the doctorate level. Seventy-five percent of workers in this field finished their bachelor’s, while 17% went on to complete a master’s degree. So few Ph.D.s exist, the exact statistics are not presented.

Mathematics and statistics junkies might adore actuary work, which involves crunching numerical data on death, retirement, sickness, and the like for insurance companies. Graduate degrees in this area certainly impress, as only 52% of workers in the field stopped schooling after their bachelor’s degree. Twenty-one percent hold master’s degrees, and a further 27% earned a Ph.D. or other professional graduate diploma. And with the industry expected to swell by about 27% before 2020, a graduate-level education will certainly help a candidate’s employment chances.


Picking a School

The more competitive candidates for STEM jobs would hold a postsecondary degree. Fortunately, graduate-level programs in most of these disciplines exist at nearly every four-year institution, public or private. Except for the colleges and universities specializing in the liberal arts, 20% of master’s and 66% of doctoral students enjoy a generous range of options when it comes to STEM.

"There are a variety of good programs throughout the country for a master’s in instructional technology or learning technologies," says Petroski. "Some focus on instructional technology for education, some for the corporate sector and some for both. Some focus on instructional technology theory more than application and some vice versa.

"The value of the program and the benefits a student receives depends on their undergraduate background, career experience, and ultimate goals."

Petroski stresses gaining an edge through skill-building, which students can garner through graduate school attendance. "As with most STEM disciplines, the learning technologies field is focused on technology as a competency. As a result you need to be able to communicate and represent yourself well with technology to exceed in the field," he says. "Face-to-face and traditional network building is still important, but so is being connected to a more global network through technology.

"In technology especially, much of the work can be done at a distance," he adds. "So, location is no longer a benefit or detriment to connecting to people and finding the best job opportunities. As a technology professional, you need to think of your network beyond the boundaries of your commuting distance."

"These are high demand disciplines that require not only technical skill, but creativity, analysis and a high level of communication skill to work as part of a team. So, a path in these fields has great opportunity to lead to career success," he says.


Changes to the Industries

Job-seeking STEM graduates do need to keep industry flux in mind when applying. They must sharpen their flexibility and innovation skills in order to best navigate the unexpected shifts.

"One disadvantage is that the technology industry (and maybe STEM in general) has proven to be volatile, in the sense that it is an every changing landscape with new technologies and new industries evolving all of the time, the hours are often demanding," Petroski said.

He also cautions against stagnation and dispassion, both of which will hamstring STEM careers. "You have to be constantly learning and evolving with the changing landscape and you should really, really like what you do, because you will most likely be doing it 50-60 hours a week."

College students aiming for a career in one of the STEM industries enjoy some considerable advantages over those who are not. On the whole, they receive more funding, more academic opportunities, and more career options. And investing the time and money in a master’s or Ph.D. program only enhances their chances of professional success.

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