While Jennifer Mok graduated with an industrial engineering degree in 2010, she now works as a management consultant for nonprofits in Washington, D.C. “I’m interested in finding more meaning in my work, rather than stability,” she said.
And she’s not alone. A recent study found that 75 percent of college graduates with science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degrees end up in occupations outside the STEM disciplines. Still, those graduates end up in the highest-paying jobs, according to another study.
Administered by the Census Bureau, the American Community Survey found that some STEM grads chose professions that were closely related to their degree, like healthcare and construction. But others, like Mok, strayed to the business and financial industry, education, legal professions, and even the performing arts.
Middle and high schools around the country are encouraging more students to take an interest in STEM fields by creating special programs loaded with STEM courses that require specific entrance requirements or lottery enrollments. In some instances, entire public, charter, or private schools are dedicated to STEM instruction. The programs are designed to point students towards STEM degrees at the college level, with the ultimate goal of obtaining a bachelor’s degree and securing employment.
Even without finding a job in the STEM fields, these graduates consistently out-earn their non-STEM classmates overall, according to a 2012 National Center for Education Statistics survey. The survey gathered data from more than 17,000 students who graduated in 2008.
While only 16 percent of the sampled students took home degrees in STEM disciplines, those who did were paid significantly better—averaging $65,000 a year compared with $49,500 for graduates with other degrees.
The survey found a strong correlation between earning money and highly specialized degrees. More than 95 percent of grads who studied computer and information sciences, for example, were employed full-time at the time of the survey and earned $72,600 on average. Engineering students reported similar job and salary prospects.
That’s compared with a humanities graduate who was more likely to report working multiple jobs and earn a full-time salary averaging only $43,100.
In a recent interview with The Washington Post regarding the survey results, Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said STEM degrees are becoming “universal degrees” and that there is a “broad market for people with the right credentials.”
Mok agrees: While her work is not directly related to her STEM degree, it uses certain ways of thinking that are common to both—an eye for detail, project management skills, and an analytical mindset. She strayed from the traditional STEM employment path because she didn’t want to get slotted into the industry.
“I knew it would be hard to get out and try new things,” Mok said.