According to the U.S. Department of Education, one out of two college students who plan to major in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) change their minds or drop out of school altogether.
To help STEM hopefuls beat these dismal statistics, my buddies and I reached out to nearly two hundred highly accomplished STEM students, recent graduates, and outstanding faculty members throughout the country.
We’ve distilled their collective wisdom into a practical guide, What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press), and below, we share some important tips for incoming freshman hoping to pursue a career in STEM.
Tip 1: Know what you want out of your education
First, students should start thinking about what they want out of their college experience. Samuel, a recent University of Chicago graduate and a Rhodes Scholar, believes that “The most important part of being successful is finding something that really excites you and figuring out how to focus on that throughout your career.”
Students can think about what they want to do—or what they don’t—by reading about different careers in STEM and arranging job shadowing experiences with family friends, school alumni, or other trusted members of the community. With a goal in mind, students can take advantage of their campus resources—such as pre-professional organizations and career counseling—to start angling for relevant internships and job opportunities in the coming summer. Even if students change their minds later in their academic career, as many do, they will have started racking up a track record of skills and accomplishments that will be valued by employers in a wide range of fields.
Tip 2: Apply your STEM knowledge to outside projects
Classes are necessary for teaching fundamental concepts in STEM, but what happens in a lecture hall is a poor representation of what scientists and engineers do on a day-to-day basis. Students can get a better overview to STEM opportunities by conducting research or participating in engineering or programming projects in their universities. Working on outside STEM projects will help students reinforce their knowledge and prompt them to learn even more about the field.
Julie Ann, an engineering major from Dartmouth College, states, “Finding ways to connect with engineering projects or research your freshman year is important, even if you might be doing mostly prerequisite courses. Pursuing these opportunities is really important in staying motivated because you see the light at the end of the tunnel. You’re not just swimming in math proofs and obscure physics problems. Having that end vision is a motivating factor.”
Tip 3: Be open about mental health
College is a stressful time for many individuals, and students must be open to the idea of seeking help for stress and mental health issues. According to a 2009 study released by National Institute of Mental Health, 30 percent of college students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function,” and about 6 percent seriously contemplated suicide. By having a strong net of social support in the form of family members, friends, and counselors, students will be better prepared to speak out and seek help when they need it.
Tip 4: Understand that college is going to be harder than high school—and be open to the challenge
Students should approach college with a growth mindset—a belief that their abilities can be honed with constructive feedback and hard work. In college, the academic expectations will be higher than those in high school, and many academic superstars will find what worked for them in the past will no longer cut it in college. Faced with these stumbling blocks, many students will switch out of competitive STEM majors or drop out of school altogether.
Moreover, science is all about overcoming failures, so rather than being detracted by setbacks, students should focusing on bettering themselves so that they will be better prepared to overcome future hurdles. Chris, a graduate of Lafayette University and a Fulbright Scholar, advises that whenever students find themselves facing an obstacle—from a dismal grade to a rejection from a dream internship—they should figure out “why [they] are disappointed, appraise whether or not it is realistic to be disappointed, and then make an action plan.”
Bringing It All Together
Despite the abundance of challenges, college will provide a range of opportunities for students to learn about themselves and the world around them. Incoming STEM students can maximize their college experience by creating goals to take full advantage of their campus resources, applying their knowledge, being mindful of their mental health, and believing in their capacity to grow.
Check out my new book aimed at helping college students excel in science, What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press)