Guide to Postgraduate Applications • Guide to US Applications

Unique Advantages of STEM-Designated Majors in the US

POSTED ON 11/03/2023 BY The Red Pen

International STEM students conducting experiments in a laboratory.

“STEM”, the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, encompasses the core disciplines that drive innovation and progress today. Beyond imparting knowledge in these fields, pursuing a STEM degree offers a multifaceted educational experience that cultivates essential skills such as critical thinking, innovation, scientific literacy, and collaborative teamwork. These experiences enrich your intellectual capabilities and significantly enhance your prospects in a vastly growing high-paying, technology-driven job market.

In the US, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has implemented measures to expand STEM education initiatives by designating certain degree programmes as “STEM-designated” or “STEM degrees.” These specialised programmes go beyond conventional academic learning, equipping students with skills and proficiency in mathematics, technical expertise, and business acumen. This comprehensive skill set positions students to effectively navigate the dynamic landscape of future career opportunities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM-related occupations are projected to grow by 10.8 percent from 2022 to 2032, much faster than the average of non-stem occupations at 2.3 percent. In this blog, we show you how international students will benefit from pursuing STEM-designated majors in the US. 

Expansion of STEM-designated programmes in the US

One of the notable advantages of pursuing a STEM-designated major in the US is the remarkable expansion and diversification of STEM-related programmes. This growth is because the federal government recognises the shortage of STEM professionals in the country and acknowledges the importance of STEM fields for current and future development. 

The STEM Education Bill signed by President Obama in 2015 underscored the significance of offering better provisions for international students wanting to pursue STEM in the US. It set the stage for subsequent developments. Notably, this legislation facilitated a rise of opportunities for international students with STEM degrees, encouraging top global talent to contribute to the US STEM workforce.

Building on this foundation, the National Science and Technology Committee on STEM Education unveiled a comprehensive five-year strategic plan in 2018. This plan aimed to enhance STEM education nationwide, fostering skills such as innovation, scientific literacy, and critical thinking among students.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) expanded STEM opportunities by introducing 22 new STEM fields, including cutting-edge areas like bioenergy, anthrozoology, and climate science. Even now, the commitment to STEM education continues. In July 2023, the DHS introduced eight more STEM fields, encompassing various disciplines from Landscape Architecture to Geospatial Intelligence. 

Empowering international students with STEM-OPT extension in the US

Since supporting students wanting to pursue STEM-designated majors is now a priority in the US, international students have a distinct advantage in the length of their post-graduate visa. Until recently, one critical aspect of this support system was the Optional Practical Training (OPT) programme. OPT provides F-1 students with temporary employment opportunities directly related to their chosen field of study. Eligible students can apply for up to 12 months of OPT employment. 

Now, for international students in STEM fields, there is an additional advantage. They can apply for a STEM OPT Extension. This provision allows them a 24-month extension after they complete their OPT employment of 12 months, enabling them to work and stay in the US for three years post-graduation. 

We know the H-1B visa selects candidates randomly and is a matter of chance. While the STEM-OPT cannot guarantee the visa, it gives students additional time to find a job, and build a relationship with their employer for sponsorship. In comparison, non-STEM students only get one year, which isn’t enough time to find a job and build a relationship with their employer to secure a sponsorship for the H-1B. The STEM OPT Extension applies to both graduate and postgraduate STEM students and is granted after each degree is received, so it can be availed multiple times. It is important to note that STEM OPT Extension is a benefit of F-1 status, not a separate visa status. 

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) accepts STEM OPT Extension applications as early as 90 days before the completion of their OPT period. The entire STEM OPT Extension takes approximately two to three months to complete. Students who have submitted timely applications can continue working even after their 12-month OPT expires until USCIS decides.  According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics, 64,844 students were granted the STEM OPT extension in 2022.

High-paying job opportunities for international STEM students in the US

The demand for STEM graduates in the job market is evident, with tech giants like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon actively seeking STEM talent in software engineering, data science, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity. Pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and other healthcare organisations also regularly hire STEM graduates for drug development, biomedical research, healthcare analytics, and medical device engineering roles. According to The Economic Times, even non-tech companies have embraced hiring STEM students.

The appeal of pursuing an education in STEM often correlates with higher wages than non-STEM occupations. STEM occupations saw an annual mean wage of $100,900, compared with $55,260 for non-STEM occupations. The OEWS report is based on payroll information from about 1.1 million US businesses. The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics report states that Asian workers had the highest median earnings at $92,000.

Pursuing a STEM major as an international student in the US has many advantages, from access to cutting-edge research to the potential for securing well-paying jobs in high-demand fields. You may also read our blogs on career options after an undergraduate STEM degree and six things you should know about studying in the US. If you need assistance with your undergraduate application, please contact us. Our team looks forward to hearing from you.