How to Prepare for a Science Degree in the US
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STEM studies are increasingly popular among students today. But few people would argue that pursuing a degree in science is “easy”. In fact, scientific fields are uniquely challenging. The good news? There are some things you can do to make sure that you’re as prepared as possible when you begin your degree. Read on for a roundup of six things you can do to lay the foundation for successful studies in science.
1. Understand your options.
There are many different avenues to go when it comes to studying science. Most colleges and universities offer a variety of majors within the realm of science, including everything from astronomy to zoology. Biochemistry, biophysics, chemistry, conservation, environmental science, forensic science, geology, earth science, hydrology, and biological science are among some of the more popular -- and high-paying -- science careers, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. A bachelor’s degree in one of these or an alternate scientific field offers access to a range of employment options as well as being a stepping stone to pursuing a specialized master’s degree.
As demand for trained scientists continues to grow, Pew Research took a closer look at what drives many people to studies and careers in science. Their findings? For many, the choice was fueled by a lifelong interest in science and the natural world. Others said that their curiosity was fostered by parents and family members who introduced to the world of science, while others cited exposure to mentoring and encouragement by teachers in school as a primary motivation. Scientists also cited the importance of lab and field work, as well as the desire to contribute to society, in spurring their interest in science.
Knowing what drives you can help you make the most informed decision about what and where to study.
Once you’ve decided what you want to study, it’s also important to be aware of the requisites for your chosen field as many colleges and universities will require that you have completed a predetermined number of courses in designated subject areas. For example, in the US you may need four full years of high school science and at least three years of high school mathematics in order to gain admission. Additionally, once you’ve matriculated some majors will require you to complete specific classes during your first year of studies in order to major in it.
2. Brush up on your algebra.
In an article for the Mathematical Association of America’s MMA Focus, former political science professor Andrew Hacker makes a strong case for why studying algebra is important -- especially as it pertains to people aspiring to STEM careers. In addition to helping students develop logical thinking and problem-solving skills, enhancing their comfort with technical issues, and its potential to open doors to a variety of disciplines, he also spoke to its importance for science studies. “Algebra is a prerequisite for study in college science courses, such as physics, chemistry, and biology, as well as computer science and engineering,” he insists.
Hacker’s position was shared by associate professor of physics and astronomy Chad Orzel in a Forbes piece. His number one piece of advice for students planning to study science in college? “Learn to do algebra.” He explains, “This surprises a lot of folks, because algebra is supposed to be simpler than calculus, but the problem is that too many students in too many schools rush through to calculus without taking the time to really get comfortable with algebra, and as a result they struggle with any problem that requires symbolic manipulation. But once you get past the most basic formula-regurgitating stage of the intro classes, algebra is everywhere.”
You may also need calculus for many fields, such as physics, but the stronger your foundation in algebra, the better off you’ll be as you progress through your studies.
3. Learn some statistics.
Another vital field for future scientists? Statistics. While you may not feel like statistics directly relates to your studies, it will come in handy someday -- particularly if you plan on conducting research. Why? Because statistics is a vital tool for making decisions based on collected data.
Even if you don’t plan on doing research now, you may one day change your mind and end up pursuing either a master’s or doctoral degree. But even if you don’t, there are other reasons to study statistics, including undergraduate research opportunities, on-the-job internal research projects, the ability to read technical journals, to develop critical and analytical thinking skills, and can even help you identify manipulated or misleading data, all of which are vital skills for science-based careers.
Insists the Cornell University Learning Strategies Center of the latter, “Most students completing high school and introductory undergraduate coursework have at their disposal a variety of critical thinking and analytic skills. The study of statistics will serve to enhance and further develop these skills. To do well in statistics one must develop and use formal logical thinking abilities that are both high level and creative.”
In a piece for Visionlearning, Anthony Carpi, Ph.D. and Anne E. Egger, Ph.D. further contend that statistics serve one overarching purpose: determining how much uncertainty exists in scientific results. “All data exhibit variability, and it is the role of statistics to quantify this variability and allow scientists to make more accurate statements about their data,” they assert.
4. But don’t forget about soft skills!
We’ve covered the importance of several critical “hard” skills, but developing “soft” skills is also a useful enterprise for science students. Given the increasingly collaborative nature of science, the value of being able to work as part of a group, convey your thoughts and ideas, and remain open to the thoughts and ideas of others cannot be overstated.
Orzel also speaks to why communication skills matter. “If you want to have a successful career in science, you need to be able to write papers that other people can read and understand, and give presentations that convince other people you know what you're doing. If you're going into the corporate world, you need to be able to sell your clients and bosses on whatever course of action you're proposing, which again means writing good reports and giving good presentations” he continues.
5. Know which classes you need -- and how to get them.
Depending on your university, the competition can be steep for foundational science classes. If these fill up before you’re enrolled, this can delay you on the track to your degree due to the fact that these are often prerequisites for higher-level science courses. To avoid ending up in this situation, start by scheduling your science classes first. It will be easier to accommodate lower-demand classes later.
Another tactic? Taking required courses during the summer when they’re in less demand. This can also be a smart move when it comes to particularly tough courses, such as organic chemistry. While the summer term may be more accelerated, you’ll be able to concentrate your full attention to it without a full course load.
6. Expect to be challenged -- right from the start.
“You can think of college-level science courses like a running race; if you don’t get ahead in the beginning, you will be way behind by the end,” proposes Varsity Tutors. The more you’re prepared for the workload and adopt healthy habits to manage it, the better off you’ll be over the long haul.
The good news? Colleges and universities are very aware of the challenges involved with science studies, and many resources are available to help you stay ahead of the curve. Take advantage of resources, such as office hours, help sessions, and study groups, to avoid falling behind.
These six things can help you hit the ground running when you begin your science degree. If you’re still on the fence about science, meanwhile, be sure to check out American Scientist’s roundup of 75 Reasons to Become a Scientist. Our favorite among them? Psychology professor George A Miller’s explanation of his own rationale, “Being a scientist is less a decision than a state of grace to be worked toward.”
Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.