5 Common Misconceptions About STEM Majors

I’ve almost completed my third year at the University of Michigan and, with that, also almost completed my degree in cellular and molecular biology. Now that I’ve only got one year to go, I’d like to highlight a few misconceptions that I’ve noticed or that people within and without academia may have about STEM students.

1.  We lead half-full social lives; we are consumed by our work.

I won’t say that being a STEM major is easy – no major at the University of Michigan is easy. I won’t say that I’ve never spent a Friday or a Saturday night in my room or at the library preparing for a biochemistry or a molecular biology exam. I won’t say that the grand majority of my engineering friends have ample time on their hands.

I will say that, as a Cell and Molecular Biology major, I’m very much able to enjoy my undergraduate career while simultaneously keeping up with school work. To me, the need for a balance between work and play is clear – it’s important for good work to be done, even. Sitting at a desk on a Friday night wishing I was out dancing or partying with friends is not exactly a wonderful motivator. So, I make sure to set aside time for the “play” part of college. We STEM kids can have just as much fun as anyone else.

2.  We’re only knowledgeable in the fields that we study.

I’ll note that this is a common misconception in regards to most majors. But I know plenty of students at this university who are equally as skilled with their right brain as with their left brain – they are equal parts rationality and creativity, and it shows in the work that they do for their majors or beyond them.

While I major in a STEM field, I’m also picking up a minor in Writing. It’s the perfect combination for me. I came to college unable to decide where I wanted to focus my efforts – in science or in writing. It turns out that I don’t have to choose.

3.  All our friends are STEM majors.

Some of my best friends (including my roommates) are not in STEM. One is an English major, one is pursuing a degree in International Studies, and another is in the Program in the Environment.

It’s true that a good portion of my friends are, indeed, STEM majors, but this is mostly due to my constant contact (in classes, et cetera) with people pursuing similar degrees as me. I don’t prefer one type of major over another – my friendships are based in mutual respect and love. Sure, my friends and I share common ground, but that common ground does not have to – and often does not – relate to our majors.

4.  Our parents pushed us into the STEM fields.

As with most misconceptions, there is a tinge of truth behind them. It is this truth which allows said misconceptions to be born.

I’m sure that there are students across the globe who are in STEM fields simply because their parents pressured or obliged them to be in said position. However, there are also plenty of students in STEM with parents who are not.

My parents both happen to have settled into science-based careers – this still does not mean that I was pushed into my major in any way. In fact, I’d argue that they urged me to consider options other than medicine (not that I am or have ever been interested in going to medical school).

When I was struggling to decide between science and writing, my parents both assured me that whatever decision I made was OK. My mom experienced pressure to major in the sciences when she was growing up, and she often wonders what her life might’ve looked like if she had been free to choose her degree. Perhaps her life would have turned out the same way – it’s just the principle of it. She wishes that her parents hadn’t pressured her, and so she avoided putting pressure on me and my brother. An ironic note: we both wound up in STEM.

The point is, many students choose to major in STEM completely on their own volition. They’re not crazy, they’re not masochistic, and they’re not antisocial. They just deeply appreciate the sciences, or math, or engineering and want to continue exploring these fields.

5.  Our aspirations are a joke – we’re aiming way beyond the stars.

This misconception regards women, specifically. I’ll note that this mindset is not as present as it was in the 20th century. Modern women in STEM are lucky to have had their paths paved by such strong female scientists, engineers, and mathematicians; these women have made our paths much smoother than they would’ve been without their trail-blazing efforts.

That is not to say that our roads don’t still hold speed bumps, potholes, or cracks. Although the natural sciences have seen a huge shift towards equal employment, the hard sciences (physics, for instance), engineering, and math sectors are still male-heavy.

Perhaps this is because there is a difference between the genders – men prefer math and science, and women prefer humanities. But, I do find this hard to believe.

 In my world – which, I’ll note has plenty of room to expand; there is always space to nuance opinions – the gap is due to a lack of encouragement of women interested in STEM. Historically, math, science, and engineering have been male-dominated fields. It’s no surprise that self-esteem among women interested in STEM is low. History has taught us to presume that our competence cannot match that of men.

It’s partially our job – us women in STEM – to write the history that we will become a part of. It’s partially our job to reframe our gender’s position in STEM, and with it, our vision of our own competence. It’s partially our job to lift each other up, to encourage each other to keep pressing forward in whatever fields we are interested in pursuing. And it’s certainly our job to recognize the changes that have been made in the past few decades, and to thank the women (and men!) that have been so pivotal in catalyzing them.

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