Is it Hard to Get a STEM Degree?

These days everyone is promoting STEM degrees as the best way to secure a meaningful career and gainful employment in the job market. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that fifty-two percent of American adults believe that the main reason young people don’t choose STEM degrees is that they think STEM subjects are too hard. But is public perception a reliable indicator?

There are distinct obstacles to getting a STEM degree, including socio-economic factors, negative perceptions of ability, poor teaching methods, and cultural stereotypes. However, with persistence, patience, and focused engagement, earning a STEM degree isn’t as hard as many people might think.

Is it Hard to get a STEM Degree?

Numerous factors can be obstacles working towards a STEM degree, and many are not linked to a student’s aptitude for STEM subjects. “Hard” is a subjective concept that individual students experience differently for a  wide variety of reasons. 

Presentation and Teaching Methods Are Important

Is STEM education as hard as people think?  According to the Pew survey, while only thirteen percent of the workforce was employed in STEM fields in 2016, forty percent of those who weren’t said that they’d had interest in pursuing careers in STEM fields. When asked why they did not pursue it, their answers were quite revealing.

The Pew survey found that of the forty percent of adults who said they had been interested in a STEM career at some point in their lives, only fourteen percent said that they found STEM classes too hard or that they lost interest. Other reasons given were that there were cost and time barriers, a lack of resources, or that they had found another interest.

The majority of them, therefore, did not consider STEM subjects too difficult. They had other obstacles or distractions that made them deviate into non-STEM fields. There is also a perception among many students that STEM subjects are boring.

A Malaysian study in 2021 involving pre-university students investigated the alarming decline in STEM enrolment, despite government efforts to promote it. They found that the perception was that STEM subjects are dull, complicated, and unexciting. Science and mathematics were not the first subject choices among Malaysian high school students.

The Malaysian study surveyed students’ perceptions of STEM before and after participating in a STEM module activity in an informal setting involving real-life applications. Before the activity, thirty-two percent of the students said they were interested in learning science, while the figure improved to thirty-eight percent after the activity.

Is the subject boring, or how it’s presented?

The study suggests that the manner in which STEM subjects were being taught in high school was too academic, and students could not see their value in real-life situations.  It’s the classic, “I’ll never use this in real life” response to the subject matter.  Students were poorly motivated to pursue a career in STEM, not because STEM subjects were too difficult, but because the way they were taught made the material seem uninteresting.

Another study in 2020 by the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture at Texas A&M University also suggests that perceptions of STEM careers amongst students could be improved through informal learning environments. The researchers noted that students might choose not to pursue STEM careers because they are not exposed to possible career options, are not aware of the knowledge needed for STEM degrees, or are not informed of the financial benefits of STEM occupations.

Quick factoid:  STEM graduates earn average salaries 26% higher than those in non STEM jobs

The study found the more students are engaged in hands-on science or STEM project-based learning activities that integrate the different disciplines into one main project, the higher their perceptions of STEM pathways. If an interest in STEM subjects is inculcated in children at a young age, they are more likely to be engaged by their STEM subjects and put more effort into them.

If students are interested in STEM fields of study, they are more likely to fully engage with them at the college degree level. They are also more motivated in their studies and have a more positive approach. This translates to persistence in the face of failure, which is a necessary attitude to successfully obtaining a STEM degree.

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Being informed about STEM career paths and understanding the value and significance of STEM jobs can also motivate students more in their studies. Many universities have STEM student retention problems because their curricula require students to sit through tedious preparatory classes for years before getting involved in real-world projects that afford hands-on training in their chosen field. You know – the fun stuff!

Fortunately, this is changing as higher education institutions are starting to offer more project-based learning opportunities, mentorships, and access to internships beginning from their first day. The research indicates that the more hands-on a learning experience, the more likely students are to do well. 

STEM education is intended to be a hands on blend of the core sciences, technology, engineering, and math topics, instead of presenting these as separate subjects in siloed courses.

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In science subjects, a problem may have more than one solution and many methods to derive one. This means that more creativity is possible, but the chance of failure is also higher. An experimental approach is key in these subjects, so students need to be taught not to take failure personally but to learn from it.  

Inadequate School Preparation Increases The Difficulty Of STEM Degrees

Is the public perception that STEM subjects are too difficult to correct? The answer is not that straightforward. A great deal depends on how well STEM subjects are taught in high school and how engaged students are with the subjects at this level. STEM degrees depend on cumulative knowledge and skills gained through successful progression through the educational system.

It has been observed that due to poor middle school preparation, low-quality instruction, or an absence of available courses, too many students are permanently derailed from the STEM career path. Also, no one tells parents that by not enrolling their child in a rigorous STEM-oriented college-prep curriculum, they are denying them the opportunity to pursue a STEM career.

It can be extremely difficult for a pre-university student who has not studied beyond the basic high school level math and science requirements to obtain a STEM degree. Adequate school level preparation for tertiary STEM education plays a vital role in the successful pursuit of a STEM degree. It’s essential to foster students’ interest in STEM subjects throughout the educational system and not only at the undergraduate level.

Foundational Education is Critical for Success

On the flip side, if STEM subjects are taught well in high school, chances are that students will find it it easier to study first-year STEM subjects as majors. Math is a foundational component in this success.  A STEM student’s need for high proficiency in mathematics is well documented. A thorough grounding in math during elementary and high school is essential for the pursuit of a STEM degree.  

However, a student’s mathematical skills alone do not guarantee good performance in STEM degrees. The ability to apply those skills is vital to do well in engineering, science, and technology classes. Mathematics is a vast subject that has a wide range of applications depending on the STEM field of study. 

Programs in physical sciences, engineering, astronomy, and geosciences differ in the mathematical treatment of and approach to problems. There are many math fields within the two main branches of pure and applied mathematics.  Students need to adapt to different ways of using what they learn.  Applied mathematics like Probability & Statistics and computational sciences require a different approach than the “solving for x” problems we usually associate with pure mathematics.

Recent research has shown that high school grade point averages are significantly better predictors of success in a STEM major than mere interest in the subject. Unfortunately, the manner in which STEM subjects are taught in schools in the United States does not necessarily prepare students adequately for STEM degree study. Lack of preparation leads to the perception that it is hard to get a STEM degree.

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STEM Subjects Are Taught To Higher Objective Standards Than Other Subjects

In pure mathematics, there is usually a clear, indisputable correct answer and other answers are wrong. There may be many different methods to arrive at the correct answer, but there is a “right” answer. There may be more than one answer to the same question in the sciences, but the method by which it is derived must stand up to logical scrutiny. This means that standards in STEM subjects are more rigorous than many others.

Subjective interpretation of mathematical and scientific principles is not necessarily encouraged or rewarded as it is in other subjects such as English literature or Fine Art, and results are more subjective. Marking of STEM papers is, therefore, more exacting and objective than for other subjects.

Persistence in the face of failure and a willingness to seek solutions in spite of it are characteristics of successful STEM studies and careers. STEM faculty members are among the toughest graders, and grade inflation is less likely in STEM majors than in other major subjects. A student has to earnestly and diligently apply themselves to STEM material to pass.

Knowledge of STEM subjects is cumulative, which means that a good foundation is critical for success. For instance, one is unlikely to do well in third-year mathematics if one has not understood and thoroughly grasped first-year mathematics. In STEM education, there are prerequisite courses that one has to pass to progress further in a subject.  Think of these as gatekeepers to the next level.

For these reasons, it is recommended that STEM students prepare adequately ahead of lectures, adopt a pro-active approach to homework and assignments, and don’t skip any exams, class papers, or projects. They should also be able to identify early on when they need extra help.  This may seem like a common sense recipe for academic success, though it’s a must for students seeking degrees in STEM fields. These are study skills and approaches, as opposed to abilities, that many students can master with enough self-discipline and determination.

The more practice one has with a STEM subject, the more one’s abilities in that subject develop. Students who are not willing to engage in regular and sustained practice will probably find STEM subjects more challenging. Time management skills are also crucial for successful STEM studies as many STEM subjects require laboratory work and research in addition to lectures.

STEM degrees require knowledge and interest in analytical skills; if these skills have not been developed in the lower educational levels, students will struggle.

In 2010, it was noted by researchers at a Cornell conference that around fifty percent of American college students with STEM college majors drop out. The researchers reported that there is a substantial grading difference between science courses and other courses. Even those who successfully major in science courses earn much higher grades in their non-STEM classes.

The Complex Array Of Pathways To A STEM Degree Is Not Easily Navigated

STEM students may encounter various barriers in their STEM program studies, including the belief that natural or inherent ability determines their capacity for STEM learning more than for other subjects.  Studies of college students have linked their beliefs about their academic ability in STEM subjects to their performance and persistence in STEM degrees.

Students who believe that their STEM ability is fixed respond differently to those who think their aptitude can improve. The former are more likely to avoid challenging tasks and view them as threatening to their self-image. They respond with feelings of helplessness and by disengaging rather than showing persistence and determination to overcome challenges.  This is a classic example of a fixed vs growth mindset.

Believing that ability in STEM subjects can improve with effort leads to positive responses and performance outcomes. This shows just how much attitudes and beliefs about one’s own abilities can influence the success of STEM degree study. Those who believe that STEM is hard and that you either have STEM ability or you don’t are less likely to persist and succeed in STEM studies.

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right

Henry Ford

Negative social and educational stereotypes influence the confidence of students from disadvantaged or under-represented groups in their own abilities and may reinforce their belief that STEM ability is fixed. These stereotypes are not necessarily overt in the educational setting but may nonetheless be pervasive in organizational norms and practices within the classroom and broader society.

Uninspired teaching in undergraduate degrees and departmental, institutional and national policies may also present barriers to STEM degrees and lead to a lack of student engagement in these subjects. If a student is not interested or highly engaged in STEM subjects, this can make it hard for them to get a STEM degree.

In a 2020 study, students cited undergraduate course experiences that included perceptions of class climate, interactions with faculty, and faculty behaviors as reasons to abandon STEM majors. The researchers noted that course design and instructors’ actions can contribute to student anxiety.

Some of the things that caused students concern were not having enough personal access to instructors, not being able to find help, falling behind, and not getting immediate feedback. Other concerns were being able to pay attention in class and knowing what to study.

Still, with a growth mindset, students can overcome these obstacles and barriers.

Wrap up – Is it hard to get a STEM degree?

Getting a STEM degree is not that hard with the proper educational background, preparation, mental approach, study skills, and discipline. The barriers that exist relate rather more to the quality of high school education in STEM subjects, negative stereotyping of certain groups of students, and social and cultural norms than they do to a student’s ability in STEM subjects.

A large part of a student’s success comes down to mindset.  Like so many things in life, simply believing that a task can be done is a huge part of being able to do it.  The best education program in the world won’t be of any advantage for a student that doesn’t believe they can succeed in their academic career. While some students undoubtedly have more skill and knowledge in STEM subjects than others, skills and knowledge can be further developed and strengthened and are not as static as many people believe. 

Read more about STEM education in our post STEM Education 101: What every Parent Must Know


Howie Miller is as dedicated to fatherhood as he is to life long learning. Musician, Photographer, Educator, Consultant, Entrepreneur, Blogger, and founder of STEMtropolis, where you can share his adventures in STEM and STEAM with his family.

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