Before Choosing a University Program, Do Your Homework

How does one go about making an informed decision when it comes to choosing an undergraduate program in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM)? University brochures and websites are more about promoting a brand than providing comprehensive information, and university open houses are only useful if you ask the right questions (of the right people). So what are the right questions and where can you find the answers?

When weighing your options, focus on the structure of the program itself and its ability to deliver in terms of transferable skills. A set of transferable skills is like a portable tool box. What you have in that box will determine how easily you are able to adapt to changes in the economy and to emerging fields.

The most valuable transferable skills in any STEM degree are math and computer programming. These skills also require the most practice to master. By consulting a university’s academic calendar, you can confirm the number of required math and computer programming courses in any degree program you are considering. From that list, you can determine whether or not you will have the opportunity to master higher level math (algebra, multivariable calculus, differential equations, and statistics) and to attain proficiency in one or more computer programming languages.

Also important to confirm is the opportunity for relevant work experience before you graduate. Relevant work will allow you to acquire certain skills that can only be acquired in the workplace and to practice and demonstrate those skills to people who actually care. The workplace is also where you will meet your most important mentors and build the network that is necessary to progress to the next stage in your career.

Coop programs have relevant work experience built right into the structure of the degree. They also provide services to help students find placements and to access a network of potential employers. Pursuing a STEM degree that is not coop carries the risk that you will not be competitive, or not as competitive as you could be, when you graduate. Even if you decide to pursue a graduate or professional degree, relevant industrial experience (and not just research experience) is recognized in all STEM fields as having tremendous value. 

An undergraduate degree that is light on required courses in computer programming and higher level math may seem an attractive or easy option, but (for those very reasons) it is likely not worth the investment of your time and money. Similarly, a degree that only takes four years to complete may seem a better deal than a coop degree that takes five years, but if you consider that many employers are asking for two or more years of relevant work experience, even for entry-level jobs, a coop degree starts to make a lot more sense.

A degree that requires mastery of critical transferable skills and a minimum of sixteen months of relevant work experience will demand a lot more effort on your part, but is guaranteed to realize a big return. For what is arguably the most important investment you will ever make, do your homework and be prepared to roll up your sleeves!

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