A Day in the Life of a STEM Major
For a high school student who hasn’t experienced life on a college campus, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect. How busy will you be on a daily basis? How much time will there be for extracurricular clubs or socializing? And how many hours can you expect to spend in the library?
It’s hard to foresee exactly what your daily life will look like, and that can be an intimidating uncertainty. There are many factors not yet determined that will affect your routine. What college you ultimately attend, what major you pursue, and which extracurriculars you choose to participate in will all play integral roles in your day-to-day routine.
If you’re considering a STEM major, you might have heard that there’s a lot of work ahead of you. Indeed, STEM courses are known as time-consuming and intensive. Will it be overwhelming? Will you still have time for the other commitments that are important in your life?
Why You Should Consider a STEM Major
STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math, and it encompasses some of the quickest growing career industries. In 2010, there were estimated to be 7.6 million STEM workers in the United States, accounting for about 1 in 18 workers. STEM occupations were projected to grow by 17% from 2008 to 2018, compared to a projected 9.8% growth for non-STEM occupations.
STEM workers also earn more than their non-STEM counterparts—26% more on average. Furthermore, STEM degree holders continue to earn more regardless of whether they work in STEM or non-STEM occupations.
STEM careers also tend to require higher levels of education, with more than two-thirds of STEM workers holding a college degree, compared to less than one-third of non-STEM workers.
While it’s clear that a degree in STEM will serve you well, it’s also known that it won’t be easy.
Challenges of Sticking With A STEM Program
A 2014 study by the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that nearly half of all college students who pursue STEM degrees leave the field or drop out. While this attrition rate is roughly the same as other fields, it is being targeted for improvement by colleges, based on the steep rate of job growth demanded by the STEM industry.
Basically, in order to meet the growing demand, colleges need to graduate more STEM majors. In response to this quickly increasing demand, more and more colleges and universities are identifying risk factors for leaving STEM fields and implementing support systems to help STEM majors stay on track.
Students are more likely to drop out of a STEM program if they take lighter credit loads in STEM courses in the first year, take less challenging math courses in the first year, or perform more poorly in STEM classes than non-STEM classes. To support these students, many colleges and universities are providing increased office hours and tutoring sessions during entry-level STEM classes.
With such a quickly growing industry, it’s important that students interested in pursuing STEM are supported as much as possible.
Commitments of a STEM Major
Like any degree, pursuing a STEM degree is a significant commitment. In fact, many sources point to it being a more rigorous and time-intensive commitment than other majors. There are many factors that will weigh into how busy you are as a STEM major. Here are the biggest ones:
In order to be considered a full-time student at most colleges and universities, you will need to take at least 12 credit hours each semester. This means spending 12 hours in class on a weekly basis. While this is the minimum course load to be considered full-time, most students need to take 15 credit hours to be on track to graduate in four years.
The course load is impacted by required coursework. Each major has specific course requirements and students who are considering graduate school or med school will have even more courses to consider in order to qualify for these postgraduate programs.
Furthermore, many colleges and universities have specific graduation requirements that include broader coursework than that prescribed by a single major. These requirements are intended to expose students to a variety of content areas and produce more well-rounded graduates.
If you’re considering a STEM major, it’s important to realize that it’s not uncommon to be required to take classes in other disciplines as well. Sometimes, students who are enrolled in STEM majors will select classes widely perceived as “easy” in order to fulfill non-STEM requirements. This makes sense due to the often more intensive time commitment required in STEM courses. There are usually many interesting choices to fill course requirements in the humanities or social sciences, and these classes don’t necessarily have to take time away from your STEM studies.
STEM majors put in a lot of work outside of their regular class hours. If you’re considering a STEM major, you can plan on spending about 20 hours studying each week, according to a 2011 study by the National Survey of Student Engagement.
Furthermore, these study hours do not include any time that you might spend attending your professor’s office hours or even discussing your coursework amongst friends, both of which are regular occurrences for STEM majors.
Many college students hold jobs in addition to their coursework. These jobs are sometimes required through work-study programs or are financially necessary. In 2011, 71 percent of the nation’s 19.7 million college undergrads held jobs. Of that number, one in five students worked at least 35 hours per week. More commonly, though, students work 10-15 hours in the average week.
Students in STEM fields might be able to find a paid research position through their school to fulfill their work requirements, but if this isn’t the case, sometimes STEM majors volunteer as research assistants or interns. In other cases, students might be able to receive course credit for their research.
Extracurriculars are a valuable component of any college education and have been associated with a positive impact on the academic experience of students ranging in age from middle school to undergrads.
On average, undergraduate engineering majors spend about the same amount of time on extracurriculars as students in other majors. This averages about eight hours per week and includes things like sports, clubs, and student government or volunteer associations.
A Day In the Life
As you can see, there are a number of factors that influence how busy you will be as a STEM major. Although no two student experiences are exactly alike, using the studies and statistics available, it’s easy to get a picture of what the average STEM student can expect in college. Keeping all of this in mind, here is what you can expect on an average day as a STEM major:
8:00 AM: Wake Up! You have a full day ahead of you and you’ll need to grab a quick bite of breakfast before you get started. Take a quick shower and get moving.
8:30 AM: Head to the dining hall or a local cafe to grab some coffee and a bite to eat on your way to your first class.
9:00 AM: Your first class of the day begins. Maybe it’s organic chemistry or calculus II. Either way, don’t forget your notebook!
10:30 AM: You’re done with your first class of the day. Time to squeeze in some studying and maybe pick up another coffee.
12:00 PM: With a solid hour plus of studying under your belt, now is time to grab some lunch before your afternoon classes begin.
1:00 PM: Class again. Maybe this time it’s a lab or a school-required humanities class.
2:30 PM: You’re done with classes for the day! Before you rush out though, you might stop in for office hours to ask some questions or get a little guidance on your newest problem set.
3:00 PM: After you hit office hours, it’s time to rush to soccer practice. Don’t be late!
5:00 PM: Practice is done, have a quick shower and squeeze in some study time before dinner.
6:30 PM: You have a little time to get dinner before you go to work.
7:00 PM: Work. Maybe you’re in the lab with a professor, or maybe you’re serving coffee at the campus cafe. Either way, it’s money in your pocket.
9:00 PM: Your shift is over, phew! Maybe you can squeeze in a little more study time.
10:00 PM: Have you finished your homework? If so, now you get some time to catch up with friends, relax, and get ready for the day ahead.
11:00 PM: Hit the sack! You’ve got to do it all again tomorrow.
This day sounds busy, but if you break it down, it’s actually pretty well-rounded. You’ve spent three hours in class. You’ve studied or done homework for three or four hours, worked for two hours, and gone to soccer practice. You had some time to enjoy meals with friends, touch base with a professor during office hours, and even hang out and socialize a little before bed. Does it sound busy? Sure! Does it sound impossible? No way!
Of course, no matter what major you pursue, there will be some days that do seem impossibly busy, while others will seem luxuriously slow. Life as a STEM major might be busier than the average college student’s life, but it isn’t crazily so. If you’re genuinely interested in STEM industries and you’re willing to invest some time and energy into getting yourself there, you may ultimately be rewarded with job security and a solid paycheck.
To learn more about STEM programs and activities, also check out these CollegeVine posts:
- How To Get a Research Assistant Position in High School
- How to Spend Your Summer as a Prospective Math Major (And Why Math is a Great Career Path)
- How to Spend Your Summer as an Aspiring Engineer
- Summer Activities for the Prospective Pre-Med Student
- A Beginner’s Guide to the Science Fair
- How to Choose a Winning Science Fair Project Idea
- The Ultimate Guide to Science Olympiad
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