Engineering

What Are the Best STEM Master’s Degrees to Get—And Why?

What Are the Best STEM Master’s Degrees to Get—And Why?
Earning a graduate degree in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is one of the best investments you can make. But there are so many STEM degree options. Which is right for you? Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella April 26, 2021

Earning a STEM master's degree can help you land an excellent career with a great return on investment. The trickiest decision is selecting the right program.

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According to SimplyHired, STEM degrees rank high among academic credentials delivering the best return on investment. Better still, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects STEM employment to increase by eight percent from 2019 to 2029. Non-STEM occupations are slated to grow by only 3.4 percent over that same period.

STEM professionals earn more, too: a median annual wage of nearly $90,000, compared to just over $40,000 for non-STEM professionals. According to the most recent LinkedIn State of Salary Report, “STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) accounts for nearly half of the highest-paid fields, with engineering taking the majority of the spots.”

All this suggests that earning a graduate degree in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is one of the best investments you can make. But there are so many STEM degree options. Which is right for you? Computer science (CS) degrees may pay the most, on average, but many other degree programs lead to excellent careers as well. Much depends on your interest and aptitude. Studying robotics requires a different skillset than petroleum engineering, after all.

Examining what you’ll study in top programs can help identify a personal answer to the question what are the best STEM master’s degrees to get—and why?. This article covers:

  • The 19 best STEM master’s degrees
  • Which STEM master’s is right for me?

The 19 best STEM master’s degrees

STEM graduate degree programs come in all shapes and sizes, including full-time, part-time, online, and in-person. This article focuses on the technical skills you can develop in each.

Note that you can enter a STEM field without aspiring to become, say, a rocket scientist. STEM-designated Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs, which prepare students for management careers rather develop technical skills, have become popular in recent years, to name just one example.

Though exact careers and salaries differ, top STEM degree paths include the following.

Actuarial Science

Actuaries use data to assess risk. These professionals frequently work for insurance companies, or in risk protection.

Master of Science in Actuarial Science programs, like the one at University of Connecticut, typically prepare students for actuarial exams. Degree programs include coursework in subjects like:

  • Accounting
  • Economics
  • Finance
  • Investing
  • Statistics

Highly motivated students may not need a degree if they can self-study.

Aerospace Engineering

If you’re looking to study aerospace engineering, Embry – Riddle Aeronautical University – Daytona Beach might be the school for you. Its Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering leads to careers designing equipment like planes, rockets, and satellites. Applicants to this program need a strong engineering background.

Subjects include, but are not limited to:

  • Computational fluid dynamics
  • Aeroacoustic modeling
  • Rotorcraft aerodynamics
  • Flow control
  • Air-breathing hypersonic and rocket propulsion
  • Autonomous air and ground vehicles
  • Aircraft and spacecraft guidance
  • Navigation and control
  • Aeroelasticity
  • Structural health monitoring
  • Computational structural mechanics
  • Design optimization

Alternatively, you may earn a master’s degree in engineering management, like the one at Tufts University, which prepares students to transition into business-focused leadership roles. According to program statistics, most graduates work in the defense and space industry. You do not need to work with jet fuel to have a career in aerospace.

Biostatistics

Biostatistics merges data and healthcare. Biostatisticians typically work to analyze and leverage medical data to make decisions. Students at Drexel University learn data collection methods alongside analytics skills. Graduates apply these methods to healthcare, insurance, public health, and medical program creation and maintenance. Graduates can also conduct biomedical or public health research.

According to the school website, earning an MS in Biostatistics can help you become a biostatistician, data scientist, business analyst, or clinical research coordinator.

Chemical Engineering

Chemical engineers design the products that we use every day. They work in practically every field, including:

  • Chemical processing
  • Clothing design
  • Environmental control
  • Food processing

There are two main types of chemical engineering master’s programs: application and research. Some schools, like University of Washington – Seattle Campus, offer both.

STEM students who complete a research track typically earn a doctoral degree afterward, leading to careers in the research lab, classroom, or both. Those who decide to complete a data science track usually become chemical engineers. Though students take different coursework depending on their path and interest, core subjects include:

  • Applied mathematics
  • Kinetics
  • Thermodynamics
  • Transport phenomena

Note: note every chemical engineering program offers coursework in data science subjects like programming and cloud computing the way the University of Washington does.

Civil Engineering

Like chemical engineers, civil engineers have many career path options. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, they provide “design, build, and maintain the foundation for our modern society—our roads and bridges, drinking water and energy systems, seaports and airports, and the infrastructure for a cleaner environment, to name just a few.”

University of Massachusetts – Lowell offers a master’s in civil engineering with concentrations in:

  • Environmental engineering
  • Geoenvironmental engineering
  • Geotechnical engineering
  • Structural engineering
  • Transportation engineering

Programs typically allow you to specialize in such areas as bridge or highway design, aquatic chemistry, or air quality modeling.

Computer Engineering

Computer science is a massive field encompassing other disciplines like data science and analytics; graduate degrees can prepare you for excellent CS or information technology (IT) careers. Though computer engineers primarily design computer hardware, they certainly know how to write code and develop software.

There are many great computer engineering careers in research and design. The master’s in computer engineering program at New York University focuses on “principles underlying the design and integration of computer components and systems” to prepare students to “launch improvements in the field.” Students at Northwestern University study similar topics. Graduates frequently apply to PhD programs to become professors or researchers in addition to finding work in more traditional computer engineering roles.

Computer Science

Computer science is a massive field encompassing other disciplines like data science and analytics; graduate degrees can prepare you for excellent careers in CS or information technology (IT). Examples include principal software engineer, software architect, and VP of information technology. Computer scientists may need to be familiar with subjects like:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Cloud computing
  • Machine learning
  • Network architecture
  • Operating system design
  • Robotics
  • Software design
  • The internet of things (IoT)

Students in the Stevens Institute of Technology program study programming, database management, and software development, to name a few.

Computer science jobs for master’s degree-holders include:

  • Cloud engineer
  • Computer and information research scientist
  • Computer and information systems manager
  • Information security analyst
  • Principal software engineer
  • Software developer
  • Software engineering manager

You may complete a general focus in computer science or a specialty track. Southern Methodist University, for one, offers an artificial intelligence (AI) specialization in its program. Students complete foundational computer science coursework, then concentration-specific courses that address topics like machine learning, data mining, and AI.

Other common specialties include cybersecurity and data science. Stevens Institute of Technology offers a master’s in data science option that prepares students for high-paying careers like:

  • Computer and information research scientists
  • Computer and information systems managers
  • Information security analyst
  • Software developer

University of Tulsa offers a master’s in cybersecurity that can prepares students for careers as a:

  • Information security manager
  • Information security officer
  • Security consultant
  • Security engineer, information systems

Data Analytics

Data analytics mixes data science and business, meaning these degree-holders may not strictly have a STEM background. Students in data analytics programs typically study subjects like:

  • Applied statistics
  • Data collection and management
  • Data visualization
  • Data warehousing
  • Predictive models and descriptive models
  • Programming (languages include Python, SQL, and R)
  • Statistical analysis
  • Systems architecture

Potential career paths include:

  • Analytics architect
  • Analytics manager
  • Big data analyst
  • Business intelligence analyst
  • Business intelligence architect
  • Data engineer
  • Data scientist (depending on how technically focused your program is)

Electrical Engineering

Electrical engineers have a hand in designing things we use every day, including most electronic devices. They also play a significant role in advancing the renewable energy sector. Arizona State University – Tempe offers a master’s in electrical engineering that prepares students for careers like:

  • Electrical engineer
  • Energy manager
  • Engineering manager
  • Nuclear engineer
  • Solar energy systems engineer

The program is designed for students who hold a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering or have completed enough relevant undergraduate courses in the field.

Environmental Engineering

You may be able to complete an environmental engineering degree in a civil engineering program. University of California – Berkeley combines both degrees in a two-semester Master of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering. The school also offers a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in the field. Students are typically working engineers. The program consists primarily of math and science courses and provides networking and researching opportunities.

University of Colorado Boulder offers two degrees: a Professional Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering and Research-Based Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering. Coursework focuses on subjects like air and water quality, plus designing environmentally conscious systems and technology. Graduates typically become environmental engineers.

Epidemiology

Closely related to biostatistics, epidemiology utilizes data and history to study disability, disease, and death. Epistemologists often design clinical trials and study patterns like the spread of disease.

The University of Washington offers an MS in Epidemiology through its department of epidemiology. Alternatively, Johns Hopkins University offers it as a Master of Public Health (MPH) concentration—Epidemiological and Biostatistical Methods for Public Health and Clinical Research.

Graduates can pursue research or clinical epidemiology careers. Coursework may include:

  • Data analytics
  • Epidemiologic methods: theory and application
  • Medical biometry
  • Statistics

Marine Engineering

Earning a degree in marine engineering prepares you to build and maintain ships, frequently for the Navy. The University of Michigan – Ann Arbor offers a Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) program targeting students with an undergraduate background in marine engineering or naval architecture. The school also admits those with a traditional engineering background who complete a ship-building course.

Course titles include:

  • Fatigue of Structures
  • Intermediate Marine Hydrodynamics
  • Drag Reduction Techniques
  • Remote Sensing of Ocean Dynamics

Material Science and Engineering

According to Rochester Institute of Technology, “The materials science degree offers a serious interdisciplinary learning experience in materials studies, crossing over the traditional boundaries of such classical disciplines like chemistry, physics, and engineering.” Students learn about things like electrodynamics and X-ray diffraction.

Graduates focus on building and innovating products. They work or research in fields as varied as sports equipment and medicine; one recently developed a way to protect Monel alloys from corrosion.

Applicants must have a STEM undergraduate background in a field like:

  • Chemical engineering
  • Chemistry
  • Electrical engineering
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Physics

Mathematics

A mathematics degree leads to several great careers including:

  • Actuary
  • Mathematician
  • Physicist
  • Statistician

There are several types of math degrees; actuarial science is considered one. The Master of Arts (MA) at Boston University springboards graduates to PhD programs, which leads to professorships.

MS programs can also lead to teaching careers. University of Minnesota – Duluth has one that directs learning towards PhD programs or a high school teaching credential for students that choose a math education track. MS program also includes an Emphasis in Industrial and Applied Mathematics option, which leads to careers in industry, and a Master’s of Financial Mathematics, which leads to quantitative finance careers.

Mechanical Engineering

According to the Columbia University engineering department, “mechanical engineering is the study of objects and systems in motion.” Mechanical engineers typically design equipment.

Columbia students craft their degrees by choosing from a wide array of courses. Potential class titles include:

  • Advanced Mechanics of Fluids
  • Data Science for Mechanical Systems
  • Digital Control Systems
  • Mechanics of Fluids Course Meeting Times
  • Mechatronics & Embedded Microcomputer Control
  • Modeling and Identification of Dynamic Systems

Students are also allowed to pursue one of the following specializations:

  • Biomechanics
  • Energy Systems
  • Micro/Nanoscale Engineering
  • Robotics and Control

Network Engineering

Network engineers build and maintain computer networks. This can include developing new protocols and integrating the latest technology.

Southern Methodist University offers an online Master of Science in Network Engineering with core coursework in:

  • Network Administration
  • Network Protocols
  • Switching and Routing With Lab
  • Telecommunications

Students in this program will acquire real-world experience and be fully prepared for careers in artificial intelligence plus network engineering. Network engineering is one of the highest-paying careers available. Potential job titles, each with average salaries above $100,000, include:

  • AI research scientist
  • Computer information and systems manager
  • Computer network architect
  • Electrical engineer
  • Machine learning engineer

Nuclear Science and Engineering

Colorado School of Mines offers a Master of Engineering in Nuclear Science and Engineering. Students “are exposed to a broad systems overview of the complete nuclear fuel cycle as well as having detailed expertise in a particular component of the cycle.” Graduates pursue careers in nuclear energy and radiation.

Potential class titles include:

  • Applied Radiochemistry
  • Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Physics
  • Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Thermal-Hydraulics
  • Nuclear Fuel Cycle
  • Nuclear Materials Science and Engineering
  • Risk and Reliability Engineering Analysis and Design

Robotics

A master’s in robotics leads to careers in research and application. Students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute “turn theory into practice as they make robots, create software to operate them, understand how robots communicate, and study the ethical implications of using robots in a human world.”

Potential jobs include:

  • Aerospace operations technician
  • Mechanical engineer
  • Robotics engineer

Typical robotics coursework addresses:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Biomechanics of movement
  • Computer vision
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Kinematics, dynamical systems, and control
  • Machine learning

Beyond developing technical and research skills, students at WPI can also complete more business-focused coursework in project management and entrepreneurship.

Software Engineering

Earning a master’s in software engineering can set you up for management positions; the median income for these professionals is above $150,000 per year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

ASU offers a master’s in a software engineering program that prepares students to take on roles like:

  • Computer system analyst
  • Software architect
  • Software developer

Software engineering students typically complete courses in:

  • Advanced software engineering and process
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Data analysis
  • Decision analytics
  • Game design
  • Software management
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Which STEM master’s is right for me?

If all you’re after is money, it almost doesn’t matter which STEM program you choose. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says that actuaries earn a median annual income of over $111,000. That’s well above the already great average salary for someone with a STEM master’s.

The real question you need to answer is: would you be happy crunching numbers for an insurance company all day? If yes, then go for it. If no, a degree in actuarial science may not be right for you. A master’s in aerospace engineering pays less—just under $90,000 per year according to PayScale—but that might be worth it to work with rockets. It’s always important to prioritize career satisfaction, but that’s especially true for STEM, where most degrees lead to high salaries.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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