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What are STEM subjects?

STEM. It’s an acronym you’ve probably heard. But did you know that those four little letters are important to you whatever you plan to do in your career?

We’ll tell you why – but first, let’s answer the question “what are STEM subjects?”

'Great transferable skills mean all students should consider studying 1+ STEM subject'

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What are STEM subjects?

STEM stands for:

  • Science.
  • Technology.
  • Engineering.
  • Maths.

At school or college, the list of STEM subjects is pretty big:

STEM subjects are important because they form the basis of a huge number of careers. Some of these jobs might be obvious – like research scientist, doctor, engineer and accountant. But others – such as software developer, pilot, architect – are not so obvious.

That’s why it’s so important to think carefully about your career plans when choosing your GCSEs and A-levels. STEM subjects also give you loads of transferable skills which you can apply in any career.

Take a look at this video to find out why you should consider a STEM career:

STEM careers are creative

Many STEM careers need creativity as much as the more analytical skills traditionally associated with STEM subjects. Most STEM roles are about coming up with solutions to problems – and problem solving is often about thinking creatively or “outside the box”.

Take architecture – it’s a core STEM career. Architects use complex maths every day. And yet it’s one of the most creative careers out there. It’s a perfect examples of where maths and creativity come together.

At the same time, STEM subjects require research, attention to detail and a critical approach which is useful in any profession or subject. This means STEM and arts/humanities subjects complement each other well at A-level, as skills gained in one can improve your approach to the other.

There’s even a campaign going on at the moment to rename STEM “STEAM” to include the artistic and design skills needed in many STEM-based careers.

What careers can STEM subjects lead to?

The breadth of careers STEM subjects can lead to is actually pretty breath taking.

Here’s a mix of the everyday – and the out-of-the-ordinary. We’ve even included a guide to the school/college subjects you must study to go into each profession:

  • Space scientist: From astronauts and rocket scientists to meteorologists and climate scientists, space scientists study the Earth’s atmosphere, as well as outer space and the things in it. Must study: Physics.
  • Doctor: General practitioners see patients locally to diagnose illnesses, while consultants specialise in a particular area of medicine, and surgeons carry out operations. Must study: Biology.
  • Civil engineer: Design the buildings, roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Must study: Maths.
  • Accountant: Prepare and look at companies’ accounts: that is, the money they spend and receive. Must study: Maths.
  • Web Developer: Use computer programming languages to build and improve websites and online apps. Must study: Maths.
  • Marine biologist: Studies sea creatures, from their behaviour and the way they interact, to the impact of humankind. Must study: Biology.
  • Automotive engineer: Design and improve land vehicles like cars, lorries and vans. Must study: Maths.
  • Chemical engineer: Make and improve medicines, household products like detergents, and cosmetics, which involve the use of chemicals. Must study: Maths.
  • Architect: Come up with the designs for buildings and other things in the built environment, from bridges to football stadiums. Must study: Maths.
  • Statistician: Use information to draw conclusions about the real-world. Must study: Maths.
Biologists study the organisms that live in the world we inhabit

What’s great about STEM careers?

Good employment prospects

Today, the UK faces a skills shortage in STEM. This is bad news for the country. If this continues, there will not be enough people in fields such as engineering, medical research and even healthcare to meet our needs and keep the economy going.

The upside is it’s good news for STEM graduates and apprentices as it means there are plenty of jobs for those with STEM qualifications.

STEM skills are flexible

If you studying engineering, you end up in engineering – right? If you study computer science, you have to be a programmer?

Not necessarily. While it’s true that STEM subjects – whether studied at university or through an apprenticeship – lead towards a particular career, the skills you pick up are very transferable. That means you can apply them to lots of different jobs.

Here are some of the skills you’ll pick up by studying virtually any STEM subject:

According to research by Kent University, analysing and investigating is the fourth-most sought after skill by employers.

You can make a difference

The sheer breadth of STEM roles means there's bound to be something you care about. Here are just some of the ways you could make a difference by pursuing a STEM career:

  • Protect wildlife as a biologist.
  • Tackle global warming as a climate scientist.
  • Develop new treatments for disease as a chemical engineer.
  • Help treat and cure patients as a doctor or nurse.
  • Develop greener ways of powering vehicles as an automotive engineer.

You can earn a lot of money

When UK Business Insider listed the ten degrees which lead to the highest-paying jobs, all of them were STEM. Civil engineering topped the list, with graduates earning an average of £45,000 per year, and maths came in at number 10, with typical yearly earnings at around £39,000.

Do I have to go to university?


Many employers are offering higher and degree apprenticeships as a way into STEM careers such as engineering, IT and accountancy.

You’ll need to have A-levels in STEM subjects, but instead of studying at university, you’ll train in the workplace and work towards academic and vocational qualifications at the same time.

Many STEM careers do require a university degree, such as doctor, nurse, research scientist, and marine biologist.

Check out our Career Zones to find out how to qualify for a particular profession.

Our tips

  • Think about what you’d like to do in your career so you know how STEM subjects can help you. Take a look at our post “What job should I do?”
  • Take at least one STEM subject, even if you’re considering a non-STEM career, or are planning to study for an arts or humanities degree at university.

Want to learn more about where STEM subjects can take you in your career. Check out our “Why study” series to see your route from classroom to work.

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