If you’re unsatisfied with your current career, changing to a career in STEM — which stands for science, technology, engineering and math — might be a solid option.
According to the Pew Research Center, employment in STEM occupations has grown 79 percent since 1990, jumping from 9.7 million to 17.3 million – even outpacing overall U.S. job growth. The thirst for STEM workers hasn’t subsided, either. In fact the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics projects employment in the sector to rise another 8.8 percent by 2028.
For Americans looking to make a career change (or possibly make more money), a career in the STEM fields can be tempting. Though transitioning to a STEM career can come with financial barriers, it’s worth the initial investment in the long run. Personal loans, grants and other sources of funding can mitigate any career-change expenses you incur.
Are you interested in opting for a STEM career instead of your current nine-to-five? We’ll help you understand the financial benefits, obstacles and how to get around any barriers to your STEM-related future.
Why you should consider changing your career
There are several reasons you might change to a STEM career, and they include high salary potential, job satisfaction, positive impact on society and job flexibility.
STEM jobs pay out about 70 percent more than the national average, says StratoStar, an education company. More specifically, data from Pew Research Center states that the typical full-time, year-round STEM worker earns $54,745 and a similarly educated non-STEM worker earns $40,505, or 26 percent less.
Though not an exhaustive list, here are the different STEM sectors and possible opportunities within those sectors:
Science: Physics, chemistry, life sciences, geoscience, astronomy, social sciences, environmental studies and biology.
Technology: Information technology, programming, web development, software development, IT architecture, database administration and security and systems analysis.
Engineering: Mechanical, chemical, civil, electrical, management and geotechnical engineer (and hundreds of subcategories as well).
Math: Applied and theoretical mathematics, statistics, calculus, finance and probability.
STEM careers are some of the fastest growing, most in-demand career categories, partially because of technology’s constant evolution.
There’s high demand for diverse, talented individuals to seek careers in these well-paid, future-shaping STEM fields. “By far, the greatest labor shortages of women and minorities will be in information and communication technologies,” says Dani Gehm, who works for ChickTech, which engages women and girls of all ages in the technology industry.
STEM unemployment rate is low, and according to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, STEM jobs are expected to grow almost twice as much as other jobs, at 21.4 percent. In addition, 80 percent of jobs will require technical skills within the next decade.
A Pew survey indicated that 66 percent of those working in a STEM profession or teaching felt their job gave them an identity. Only 43 percent of those working in manual or physical occupations and 37 percent of those working in retail or service jobs said the same.
Impact on society
STEM extends beyond petri dishes and coding on a computer. It includes food production, manufacturing and more than meets the initial eye. Its impact on society and current gaps in U.S. STEM jobs are two reasons why many schools so heavily push STEM education. In total, the Department of Education committed $279 million in STEM discretionary grant funds in 2018.
“You can make a material difference in humanity’s quest to increase our knowledge of the universe,” says Jason Gibson, an electrical engineer who worked for NASA then started an online tutoring company helping students in the STEM field. “Whether you work in a factory, a chemical plant, design computer chips or launch rockets, people who go into STEM fields in a tangible way increase the sum total knowledge of our species on this planet.”
Only 18 percent of Americans believe careers in STEM have more flexibility for balancing work and family compared to jobs in other industries, according to Pew.
From virtual physics teacher to technology marketing manager, there are more flexible STEM careers available than you might think. For example, many registered nurses such as case managers or hotline nurses (who answer patients’ questions over the phone) can telecommute.
Here are a few other ideas of flexible STEM sectors and/or jobs:
- Software development
- Some engineering careers
- Medical science liaison
- Technical support representative
Affording your career change
Once you’ve decided to make the leap to a new STEM career, figure out whether your new career will require you to go back to school. If so, can you get the degree online? Or will it require attaining an online certification?
Do your research
Research the salary potential and years of school needed for your anticipated career (BLS data is a great source). This will help you with a financial budget and plan.
Any initial investment could be offset by your high-paying career down the road.
However, the costs depend on what stage of your career you’re in and what degrees you’re going after. Do the math to make sure the cost of an educational program or degree will be recouped in the increased salary you’ll earn.
Always look for any grants or scholarships you can find. Grants and scholarships are free money that you don’t have to pay back for college or career school. Grants are often need-based, while scholarships are usually merit-based. Grants and scholarships can come from the federal government, your state government, the college or career school you’re considering or an organization.
You can also consider getting a student loan. Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans are great options because interest rates are lower than private loans you could get from a student loan lender.
Finally, visit the schools you’re considering and ask for a full breakdown of all of your potential costs, from tuition to transportation to technology costs and more.
Online learning/certifications for specific skills
Not sure you want to fully go back to school or want to prepare before you do? Many classes and certifications are offered online. You can find both free and fee-based programs to advance your career and knowledge base.
You can find course materials, videos and lecture series through the following free and low-cost programs, some at highly-ranked colleges and universities.
- Berkeley WebCast and Legacy Course Capture Content
- Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative
- JHSPH OpenCourseWare
- MIT OpenCourseWare
- UCI Open
- UMass Boston OpenCourseWare
- Utah State OpenCourseWare
You’ll need a blend of technical and professional skills to make a STEM career switch. In addition to training programs offered from colleges, universities, certificate programs, coding academies and more, take advantage of tech-focused meet-up groups and workshops. Networking is just as important as technical skills and can lead to a job, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Creating a new 529 or using leftover funds
A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged investment vehicle that encourages savings for future qualified higher education expenses such as tuition, fees, books, computers, computer software and other supplies and equipment. The advantage of a 529 plan is that while it’s not tax deductible at the federal level, it may be tax deductible at the state level or you may qualify for a tax credit. Check into your state-sponsored 529 plan.
You may still have money left over in a 529 plan if your child didn’t use it all or if he or she didn’t go to college. You can change the beneficiary to yourself by completing a form found on the plan’s website. Note that the beneficiary cannot be changed to a parent if the 529 plan is a custodial 529 plan.
You can also start a new 529 plan for yourself even though you may not have as much time on your side to build savings as you might have with a child’s account.
Grants and funding for going back to school
Don’t forget to see what educational opportunities your company currently offers — your company may pay for you to go back to school part-time. Visit your current company’s human resources office for more details on the particular back-to-school tuition reimbursement program your company offers.
Once you’ve done that, check out federal opportunities for STEM students based on various STEM sectors.
Minority and female resources
There are fewer females in traditionally white male-dominated STEM fields. According to Pew, the number of women in the highest-paying, fastest-growing STEM fields has actually decreased over the last few decades.
This is particularly obvious in computer-related occupations. In 1990, women made up 32 percent of all workers in this field. As of 2018, they make up just 25 percent.
Racial minorities are also underrepresented, according to Pew. Hispanics make up just 7 percent of all STEM workers, while blacks account for 9 percent. Asian STEM workers account for about 13 percent of jobs industry-wide.
Because of these small numbers, there are several scholarships and grants designed to spur more minority participation in the industry. If you fall into one of these minority categories, here are some financial aid programs you might want to consider.
Scholarship and grant opportunities for women include:
Scholarship and grant opportunities for minorities include:
Other ways to pay
If you can’t get the assistance or funding you need to go back to school, there are a few other possibilities. Look into the benefits of a personal loan over student loans. Personal loans can be used for any purpose and have less stringent requirements than student loans. You also won’t need to verify that you’re enrolled in college when you apply for a personal loan.
Consider a side hustle or an extra job while you’re going to school — or don’t quit your day job so you can pay for your education. Being a part-time student can be a great way to pay the bills.