Why would anyone study science, technology, engineering or maths? You might think it is difficult and that everyone will think you are a nerd. But a growing number of students are turning to these subjects as they prepare for their Leaving Cert.
If you want good reasons for deciding to study the Stem subjects, ask a scientist. We did – and we got a surprisingly varied collection of reasons.
Here are 10 reasons to study science selected from a longer list provided by scientists in a range of fields.
1 Science jobs
Stem graduates tend to be the first to be hired after graduation and, because the subject is somewhat specialised, it usually involves higher pay scales than many other disciplines. The State has committed large amounts of funding to research in the run-up to 2020, and the EU has its Horizon 2020 budget, which is ploughing billions into research.
This makes it a bit easier to see a career path into academic research for those interested in life on campus. The private sector is also hoovering up science graduates, a trend that will continue given the extra money being invested in research. The range of options are huge, whether in ICT, pharmaceuticals, medical devices or a large number of other fields.
2 Jobs outside science
Studying the sciences develops your problem-solving skills, which are important for all kinds of jobs, whether in the sciences or not. Many science graduates find themselves moving into management positions within companies where these skills can be put to best use.
3 The thrill of new discoveries
Imagine digging for fossils and discovering the skeleton of a completely unknown dinosaur. Or studying the sky at night and spotting a new comet. Scientists make exciting new discoveries all the time.
Recent examples that received international coverage were the discovery at Cern in Switzerland of the Higgs Boson particle and, more recently, the first direct detection of gravity waves kicked off by two merging black holes. Right now there are laboratories in Ireland where new discoveries are being made about the human immune system and cancer. Surprises happen all the time, and this keeps scientists coming to work.
4 Making a million
Sometimes a discovery in the lab can lead to new products or services that will become million sellers. It could be a new drug or a better phone app or a diagnostic test that gives an early warning of disease. Involvement in an area where discovery is a natural part of the job opens up the possibility of becoming an entrepreneur and founding a company. It happens.
5 Solving global challenges
We live in a technological world, and its complexity continues to throw up challenges that require answers. Some are life and death, for example finding new energy sources that can reduce the damage caused by climate change.
And then there is world hunger: how can you get innovations in agriculture out into the field in poorer parts of the world so that people have enough to eat?
Irish scientists developed the first successful treatment for leprosy. How would that look on your CV?
6 Travel the world
Science, technology, engineering and maths are internationally traded subjects that speak a single language. If you are an engineer designing bridges in Dublin, that same skill works in the Philippines or Australia or Canada. Graduates often go abroad to work on MSc or PhD degrees and benefit from time spent in other labs in other countries. The EU runs scholarship programmes to encourage this, because it produces more rounded scientists.
Signing up with a new university in San Francisco, Philadelphia or Chicago offers the Stem degree holder a chance to travel the world and work on their careers at the same time. It beats the heck out of the old J1.
7 This really isn’t just for boys
Many young women with a natural interest in Stem subjects are often steered away from them by the people they love. Parents warn them off, perceiving it as a career for men. Others express concern that female students will not fit in with the rest of their friends who are not doing science.
Some of the most successful scientists working in Ireland are women. Prof Valeria Nicolosi at Trinity College Dublin, for example, has just won her fourth research grant from the European Research Council, one of the most challenging bodies from which to win a research award. This is a job for women just as much as for men.
8 Understanding how things work
Studying science trains your brain how to be logical and to think clearly and, as mentioned above, to become a better problem-solver. It also tells you a lot about how things work. It could be the universe or your car or a mobile phone app or a satellite.
Science teaches you how the natural world works, from an atom to a galaxy. We live in a world that is becoming increasingly dependent on technology. Studying science lets you understand at least some part of this.
9 What is life?
Philosophers ponder fundamental questions such as why we are here, how we fit into the cosmos and what is life.
It was a scientist who took that last question and turned it into a scientific project that led to a remarkable discovery. Erwin Schrödinger at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies published a booklet, What Is Life?, which in turn was read by James Watson, who was inspired to answer it. He joined with Francis Crick to discover how our genetic blueprint DNA works. Science can sometimes be profound.
10 Yes, it really can be fun
Some scientists don’t like the idea of science being “dumbed down” as a way to make it more attractive to young people. But you have to ask these scientists why they decided to study science: few will tell you because it was hard, boring and nerdy.
Scientists have a deep curiosity and recognise the beauty of the subject. It is fun when discoveries are made and it is as much a cultural activity as art, poetry, theatre or music.