What is STEM? | Top Universities

What is STEM?

By Craig O

Updated April 20, 2023 Updated April 20, 2023

Do you keep seeing STEM on university websites and leaflets but you’re not entirely sure what it means? Don’t worry, we’re here to explain the acronym to you and why it’s becoming one of the most talked-about subject areas in higher education.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics and refers to any subjects that fall under these four disciplines. Because these things are never straightforward, there are also dozens of alternative versions of STEM (including STEAM, STREAM and METALS) but STEM is by far the most widely-used.

The acronym originates from discussions about the lack of qualified graduates to work in high-tech jobs in the US. Since its creation, governments and universities around the world have made attracting students to STEM courses a priority, in order to address this shortfall. In some cases, it’s also easier to immigrate to another country if you studied a STEM subject at degree level and are looking for work in that field.

What are STEM subjects?

As mentioned, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but a far wider range of academic disciplines fall under this description. Here’s a list of some of the other STEM courses you could study:

The full is list is far more exhaustive, but this gives you an idea of the range of subjects included under STEM.

In terms of career paths, some of these subjects will offer a quite straightforward progression to particular careers. Aerospace engineering, for example, is likely to lead into a graduate job working for one of the world’s major aircraft designers, such as Rolls Royce.

Not every STEM-related graduate job is this obvious though. For example, a STEM degree could lead to a career working on special effects in Hollywood, helping to design new sportswear, or revolutionizing the farming industry. This is in addition to roles in areas such as finance and accountancy, construction, telecoms, and the energy sector.

Women in STEM



As well as encouraging more students to choose a STEM degree, universities, employers and governments have also introduced policies aimed at increasing the proportion of women choosing to study in these areas. STEM subjects, historically, have been very male-dominated, with young girls often discouraged from pursuing such a technical career path. While 12% of women in bachelor programs will graduate with a STEM degree each year, only 3% go on to work in the STEM field. This lack of gender balance has also led to a pay gap between men and women in STEM. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the gender pay gap in STEM fields in Australia was 30.1% in 2013.

To combat this, government and charitable initiatives have been launched to increase the number of young women studying STEM degrees and going on to work in STEM-related fields. Girls Who Code, Engineer Girl, Kode With Klossy and many other organizations have been established to encourage female participation in STEM subjects, with internships and other work placements often made available specifically for young women.

Lead image: Argonne National Laboratory (Wikimedia Commons), Women in STEM image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Flickr)

This article was originally published in August 2017 . It was last updated in April 2023

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Written by

As Head of Content, Craig is responsible for all articles and guides published across TopUniversities and TopMBA. He has nearly 10 years of experience writing for a student audience and extensive knowledge of universities and study programs around the world.

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