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Outside of obvious choices like finance and law, the most secure and potentially lucrative careers these days are in the STEM field. There are perfectly practical reasons STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) has been a main concern of the Department of Education from primary to post-graduate schooling in recent years. Our society is increasingly dependent on technology in all quarters, from finance and commerce to entertainment and sports, which means there is more demand than ever for highly-trained professionals to keep our computers, biomedical technology, and public infrastructure intact and growing. The STEM field is wide and varied enough that just about anyone can find their niche in a technological world.

(Check out: Is a Stem Degree a Good Investment? and Woman in STEM: What You Need to Know Before Putting on The Lab Coat)

Degree Program Types

Science and technology depends on technicians, from laboratory assistants to nuclear technicians, so the associate’s degree (AA/AS) is an entry into a lot of middle-class careers. Associate’s degrees are usually attained through community college, and many offer specialized certifications for specific jobs (such as graphic design, nuclear technician, or computer support).

(Check out: What is the Benefit of Going to a Community College?)

The bachelor of science degree (BS) is usually the standard for higher-paying professional STEM jobs, and must be earned at the college or university level rather than community college. STEM bachelor’s are usually 4 year programs, though some may be 5 years, and many universities offer programs such as a 5-year master’s degree in which students work simultaneously toward the BS and MS. The bachelor degree is where STEM students further specialize, in preparation for further graduate study or professional careers.

With more people graduating from undergraduate programs than ever before, the master’s degree (MS) is becoming a standard for higher-status leadership positions. If you want to manage others, not just follow orders, the master’s degree is the way to distinguish yourself on the job market. It is also preferred, though not required, for most public and private secondary teachers. Most master’s degrees take 2-3 years to complete full-time, though online programs may pack the work into only a year or 18 months.

The Doctor of Philosophy degree (PhD) is not just for philosophers; it is the highest academic degree in most disciplines, and is usually reserved for those who want to become university professors or researchers. The PhD is research-intensive and can take many years to complete, requiring a high degree of academic discipline and motivation.

Online vs. Residential Programs

The relative advantages and disadvantages of online or residential STEM degree programs depend in part on the field, and in part on the level of education. In areas such as computer science or mathematics an online degree may be just as effective as, and even preferable to, a residential program, as these are more cerebral fields that do not require as much in-person interaction; in others, such as biology or engineering, hands-on experimentation and laboratory practice are essential, and may be less effective in a virtual or simulation setting.

The level of education makes a difference, too. Some STEM undergraduate degrees are barely offered online, as the basic foundations are better taught live, while the graduate level can be taught effectively online (engineering, for example, is rarely taught online at the undergraduate level, but online graduate degrees are common). Many students find online to be more effective at the graduate level, especially those who are already working in their field and have hands-on experience on a day-to-day basis. For these students, the flexibility and convenience of an online program is most helpful.

(Check out: Are Online Degrees a Good Investment?)

When making the choice between online and residential programs, ultimately a student needs to be self-aware and realistic about their personal strengths and weaknesses. For students who are more self-motivated and comfortable with technology, or who know their field and merely need credentialing, online may be better; for those who need the guidance and support of other students and faculty, or who are still learning the basics, a traditional residential program may be the best bet.

(Check out: 25 Best Online Degree Jobs for 2017)

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Financing Education

One of the first questions that come to mind when you decide to get a college or graduate degree is “How am I going to pay for school?” The first step is the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The FAFSA will let you know what kind of help you qualify for, and from whom.

(Check out: Common Errors When Filling Out FAFSA)

Most students look at student loans as the first source of money, unless they have some deep pockets. Federal Stafford loans are usually low-interest, subsidized by the government, and administrated by the government or a sanctioned third party; federal Perkins loans are more rare, but they are capped at 5% and are administered through the college or university; private loans come through private banks and are riskier, since they can have higher or variable interest rates and may be harder to pay off.

There are other sources of income, including private and public scholarships (which are usually merit- or need-based), federal grants (which do not have to be repaid like loans), and the Federal Work Study program, in which students work part-time jobs for their institution in return for tuition assistance. Working adults may be able to get help through their employer, if their company has a tuition reimbursement plan. Plans vary widely from company to company, but many will pay part or all of an employee’s tuition for a higher credential (if it’s in the same field, of course).

(Check out: Top 50 College Scholarships for 2015-2016)

Career Paths

STEM is huge when it comes to careers. It encompasses quite a few domains including: architecture; the life, physical and social sciences; engineering; mathematics; and information technology. And of course, not everyone in STEM is a laboratory scientist or theoretical mathematician, like we see in the movies. There are many different kinds of career paths to take within STEM:

  • Research, Development & Design
  • Sales
  • Technician
  • Managerial
  • Teaching/Education (at Postsecondary level)

Those in STEM-related Management usually fare the best as far as wages go, bringing in well over six figures annually (BLS statistics report $133K). Technicians are on the low end averaging $56k; however, keep in mind that particular career path only requires an associates degree, so the initial investment in time and money is much lower.

(Check out: University, Community College, or Trade School: Which Makes the Most Economic Sense? )