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How to afford the switch to a STEM career

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If you’re unsatisfied with your current career, changing to a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) might be a solid option.

Though transitioning to a STEM career can come with financial barriers, it could be worth the initial investment in the long run. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment in STEM will rise by 10.5 percent by 2030, and the median annual income is nearly $50,000 higher than the median income of other fields.

Are you interested in opting for a STEM career instead of your current nine-to-five? We’ll help you understand the financial benefits, the obstacles and how to get around any barriers to your STEM-related future.

Why you should consider going into STEM

There are several reasons you might change to a STEM career, including high salary potential, job satisfaction, positive impact on society and job flexibility.

High salaries

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that the median annual wage of STEM workers in 2020 was $89,780, while that of non-STEM occupations was $40,020.

Of course, that salary will vary depending on your specific job or location. If you’re in a rural area, you can expect a lower average income, while going into a highly specialized field will open the door to higher salaries. According to job site Indeed, the highest-paying STEM jobs are radiologists, network architects, network security engineers, software engineers and computer scientists, all of which have an average income over $100,000.

Growing field

STEM careers are some of the fastest-growing, most in-demand career categories, partially because of technology’s constant evolution. There’s also high demand for diverse, talented individuals.

STEM unemployment rate is low, and according to the BLS, STEM employment is expected to grow at a greater rate than other jobs over the next decade: 10.5 percent growth for STEM, compared to 7.5 percent for all other occupations.

Impact on society

STEM extends beyond petri dishes and coding on a computer. It Includes a wide range of jobs that you may not expect, like food production and manufacturing. STEM’s impact on society and the current need for U.S. STEM jobs are two reasons why many schools so heavily push STEM education.

The U.S. Department of Education has placed special emphasis on STEM education, with millions of dollars each year dedicated to grants that will benefit STEM.

Flexibility

From virtual physics teachers to technology marketing managers, 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 examples 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, there may be some ways to make going back to school more affordable. For example, some positions or employers require an online certification in place of a degree, and others may offer online schooling or tuition support as an option.

Even if you do have to go back to school, there are ways to make the switch to a STEM career more affordable. Here are a few practical ways that can help ease the cost of affording a STEM-related career change.

Research your potential return on investment

Before selecting a program, research the salary potential and years of school needed for your anticipated career. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ wage data is a great place to start, as it can show you the average income of different careers by location and specialty. This will allow you to determine whether your initial investment in paying for the education will be offset by your potential salary down the road.

There’s good news; a Bankrate study on the most valuable college majors found that STEM majors are the most valuable majors based on income level and unemployment rates. However, to calculate the ROI of your individual career move, you should request a full financial breakdown of all potential costs for schools you’re considering, or search for the cost of attendance on the school websites to get an accurate depiction of what it will cost per semester and year to attend. You can then compare this against the potential salaries of careers you’re interested in.

Look into online options and certifications

Online classes and certifications can be a great way to get ahead in your education or sample a STEM course if you’re not sure the career field is right for you. Plus, online options can substantially lower your education costs.

Keep in mind that while an online course may save you in tuition and fees, it’s not the best option for everyone. STEM programs are notoriously rigorous, so only opt into an online course if it best suits your learning style. If you’re unable to complete a course or don’t pass due to learning remotely, that’ll cut into the value of your degree more than the cost of in-person instruction would.

You’ll also need to take networking into account when taking the online route. Networking is just as important as technical skills and can lead to a job, as you’ll need a blend of both 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 meetup groups and workshops.

Create a new 529 or use 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.

You may still have money left over in a 529 plan if you didn’t use all of the funds for your first degree. Just remember that you can use the funds only for education-related costs; if you use them for anything else, you’ll pay a penalty.

Explore grants and scholarship opportunities

Grants and scholarships are available through the federal government, your state government, the college or career school you’re considering and private organizations. These can cut the cost of your education significantly without the obligation of repayment.

To find relevant scholarships, use a scholarship search engine and narrow your search to STEM-specific awards or those designed for your background or hobbies. Don’t forget to see what educational opportunities your company currently offers — it may even 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.

Resources for underrepresented groups in STEM

According to Pew Research Center, STEM fields still have significant employment gaps when it comes to women, Black workers and Hispanic workers. For instance, while women do make up half of employees in STEM jobs, they represent only 25 percent of computer jobs and 15 percent of engineering jobs.

Pew also found that while Black and Hispanic adults comprise 11 percent and 17 percent of total employment in the U.S., respectively, they comprise just 9 percent and 8 percent of STEM jobs. There are also significant pay gaps within STEM by gender, race and ethnicity.

Because of this, there are several scholarships and grants designed to make a STEM-related education more accessible for underrepresented groups. Here are some financial aid programs designed for underrepresented populations in STEM that are worth considering.

Scholarship and grant opportunities for women:

Scholarship and grant opportunities for minority students:

Find other ways to pay

If you can’t get the assistance or funding you need to go back to school, you can always take out a student loan. Federal loans have low interest rates and several unique benefits, such as the ability to have some of your loan balance forgiven if you find work in the public sector. Private student loans can also fill in any gaps left by federal loans, though you could face higher interest rates if you have poor credit.

If you’ve maximized your financial aid and scholarship opportunities and still need funding, consider a side hustle or an extra job while you’re going to school. You could also keep your current day job and opt to be a part-time student rather than a full-time one. This will lessen the cost per semester while allowing you to keep your salary.

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Written by
Hanneh Bareham
Student loans reporter
Hanneh Bareham specializes in everything related to student loans and helping you finance your next educational endeavor. She aims to help others reach their collegiate and financial goals through making student loans easier to understand.
Edited by
Student loans editor