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Friday January 15th

STEM majors grow in popularity in United States, but not necessarily at UNC

When it comes to the most popular majors in the United States, UNC doesn’t always stick to the status quo.

A recent USA Today study revealed STEM programs are the fastest-growing majors in the country, with behavioral sciences topping the list. And that isn’t necessarily reflective of UNC students’ top choices. 

The most popular majors for the UNC class of 2014 included STEM majors such as psychology and biology, but also journalism, economics, business administration and political science. 

Engineering programs are high on the list of the most pursued majors of the past five years. At UNC, the only engineering program is in the Environmental Sciences and Engineering program through the School of Global Public Health. UNC doesn’t have a biomedical engineering program of its own — it has a joint program with NCSU. 

“Regardless of the whether a student is based out of UNC or NCSU, students graduate with a joint degree that has the official seals and is signed by both institutions,” said Shawn Gomez, director of graduate studies in the UNC-NCSU biomedical engineering department. 

Despite the field’s popularity, the number of students graduating with biomedical engineering degrees from the UNC-NCSU program in the past three years was small. In 2012, there were eight MS and Ph.D degrees awarded. In 2013, there were 17, and in 2014, there were 18. 

UNC also doesn’t offer a degree in one of the fastest-growing STEM majors – petroleum engineering.

Nancy Allbritton, chairwoman of the UNC-NCSU department of biomedical engineering, said it’s not logical to educate students in North Carolina to work in a field where employment is generally found in other states or countries. 

“I don’t see any reason why anyone would want to do that,” she said. “We want to educate our students to work in the state.”

Ray Angle, director of University Career Services, said the names of degrees aren’t necessarily important as long as they pertain to the same subject material. 

“Most people who are hiring recognize that a psychology major is a behavioral sciences major. It can be just another term for a psychology or a sociology degree. They’re just different names for the same thing,” said Angle. “l don’t think any students are at a disadvantage."

Psychology is one of the most popular majors at UNC. In spring 2014, there were 444 degrees in psychology awarded to undergraduates, the most of any major offered at UNC. 

Jon Abramowitz, associate chairman of the psychology department, said he thinks psychology is pursued as a major so often because of the breadth of opportunity it offers to students. 

“A lot of people major in psychology and go to graduate school either in psychology or medical school. Some go to law school," he said. 

The range of jobs of UNC grads who majored in the behavioral sciences — psychology and sociology — is quite diverse, Angle said.

“They fit in different industries. We have teachers, and we have several who teach for Teach for America, our largest employer. We have research assistants,” he said. 

Angle said students don’t need to worry about choosing popular majors to get jobs, but should focus on educating themselves to be versatile.

“One of the things I get frustrated by is when people have very linear thinking about career development. Really we’re trying to get the word out that career development is cyclical and that you’ll change jobs throughout your lifetime,” he said. “(We) prepare you to be lifelong learners.”

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