Since her second year of high school in the UK, Polish national Blanka Jaramuszko has known she wants to study physics. The desire to pursue a liberal arts education led her to apply to American schools, and she is now a sophomore at Northwestern University in Illinois with a major in physics and data science.
“Although my main interest lies in physics,” Jarmoszko says, “I have always had many neighboring interests in the humanities such as philosophy.” “I also wanted to get a chance to explore other STEM fields that I didn’t have the opportunity to study in high school.”
According to the Open Doors 2021 Report on International Educational Exchange, 54% of international students in the United States pursued a major in STEM — science, technology, engineering, or mathematics — in 2020-2021. The report says engineering remains the most popular major, with 21% of international students pursuing a degree in the field.
For prospective international students considering applying to US colleges and universities for a STEM degree, here are some things to know:
Find out what the stem means
Experts say STEM typically includes the fields of engineering, mathematics, computer science, physical sciences, life sciences, health professions, and agriculture.
“For most programs, the concept of what constitutes a STEM field is fairly straightforward — STEM,” says Elizabeth James, director of the Office of International Services at North Carolina State University. “However, as more programs become interdisciplinary, the lines become more blurred.”
For example, James says, business programs were not typically viewed as STEM fields, “but the proliferation of data analytics, statistics, supply chain management, and computational analysis in business fields has prompted many universities, including NC State, to develop more STEM focused business programs, such as the NC State MBA and Masters in Accounting programs.”
Sharon Shlado, senior consultant at California Higher Education Consulting Sharon Shlado, notes that even in different schools, “programs can have different names, for example, Operations Research at Cornell or Mathematical Computing and Science at Stanford.”
Students should also keep in mind that the same major, for example, cognitive studies, could be more focused on psychology at some universities and more focused on computer science or artificial intelligence at others, Schlado says.
Find how to participate in the STEM program
“It can be very important to research specific STEM programs at US universities if you are coming from a STEM program outside the US,” says Kevin Pipe, director of graduate degree programs in the College of Engineering and professor of mechanical engineering at the university. Michigan – Ann Arbor.
“While the core content is usually the same, the style in which it is taught can differ – eg, theoretical versus applied, analytical versus numerical, experimental versus arithmetic,” Pipe wrote in an email. “Different schools may also focus on certain subfields within a system.”
Schlado says students should narrow down the STEM program they plan to apply to so they know if the campus offers the major, what it entails, and whether it meets their academic needs.
“Something as simple as chemical engineering on one campus might focus on biotechnology and in another it might focus on petrochemical engineering,” Schlado says. “Knowing the specialty and where to focus to meet your interests is critical.”
It also recommends that every student have a balanced college roster as well.
“Often, idiots students apply to the state system and the Ivies. Nothing else,” Schlado says. “We find students on smaller STEM campuses perform very well and are mentored to join funded graduate programs or receive scholarships. This is particularly the case in health sciences, environmental sciences, and computer science/data science.”
Plan to get an internship
International students studying STEM degrees can gain work experience while in school or after graduation.
“I stayed on campus doing research in a chemistry lab all summer I was there,” says Yousra Kadeer, who is pursuing a Ph.D. He received his Ph.D. in Chemistry at Caltech and hails from Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean.
Cowder, who graduated summa cum laude from Amherst College in Massachusetts in 2021 with a double degree in mathematics and chemistry, says gaining work experience helped guide her academic goals.
“By staying in the same lab, it helped me deepen my understanding in the field, which led me to apply to graduate school,” Cowder says.
Aside from lab work, hands-on training can be achieved through the Federal Elective Practical Training Program, or OPT. International F-1 students who have been full-time students for at least one academic year and plan to seek employment in the United States in their field of study can participate in OPT, a 12-month work permit that allows students to obtain practical experience in their academic field with an employer American.
Jet Vanek, director of the Office of International Student and Scholar Services at Northwestern University, says that international students who have completed a degree on the US Department of Homeland Security’s designated STEM degree program list are eligible for a 24-month extension at OPT. The list contains more than 500 software categories.
“International students at OPT and STEM OPT retain their F-1 immigration status and continue to work with an international student advisor until three years after graduation,” Vanaik says.
Students should “be prepared to spend much of your time researching labs, creating spaces for makers, participating in co-ops or rehearsals, and otherwise engaging with your area of interest,” says Sarah Riggs, assistant director of international recruitment in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Institute of Technology.
Jarmoszko says she plans to take advantage of STEM OPT once she graduates. Last summer, I worked in a physics lab, where I helped with research.
“Over the summer and the upcoming school years, I plan to explore physics research related to quantum computers and an internship related to data science,” Jarmoszko says. “I don’t have a job on my mind, so it’s important for me to get experience in physics research as well as technology-related training.”