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10 STEM Degrees that Can Lead to a Career in Public Service

You may be interested in a STEM degree but at the same time also want to serve your community. By applying your STEM education to a public service career, you’ll get to do both.

Author: Kenya McCullum
Editor: STEPS Staff

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A group of five researchers in white lab coats stand in a laboratory, surrounding a robot with a tablet. They appear to be engaged in a discussion related to their STEM degrees. The lab is equipped with various electronic equipment and machinery.

Are you considering a STEM degree in a field such as math, civil or mechanical engineering, computer science, or agricultural science? Do you want to make a difference in the community, but you’re not sure how to use a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degree to make a contribution? If you think you can’t combine STEM with public service, think again.

In fact, STEM leaders have been encouraging professionals with this training to enter the public sector, and government agencies have been pushing to attract STEM talent for years. Students are starting to take notice: According to a survey of 37,000 students from 646 schools, 25 percent listed state, local, or federal government among the top industries to pursue after graduation.

It’s not surprising that the public sector would court STEM graduates: From science to policy, these STEM-trained employees have a lot to contribute to their communities. So, if you’re interested in STEM but aren’t set on following the traditional career trajectory for these graduates, consider taking a different path to pursue a public service career.

Want to learn exactly how STEM degrees translate into public sector professions? You’re in the right place. Continue reading to find out about specific STEM degrees and the types of public service careers they can be applied to. Also, you’ll find information on how to pay for your education and how much money you may earn in specific professions.

In this guide, you’ll find:

  • Ideal STEM degrees for working in the public sector
  • Benefits of using your STEM degree in public service professions
  • Strategies for paying for a STEM education, including scholarships you can apply for now
  • STEM careers in public service and their salary potential

Agricultural Science Degrees

Agricultural science is a broad field that includes farming, food science, and animal husbandry. These degrees provide a holistic view of the profession and prepare students to work in government agencies that regulate agricultural activities or educate the public on food safety.

On the associate level, students learn the foundations of pruning, landscaping, weed control, and farming — foundational knowledge that can prepare you for a four-year program. Bachelor’s degrees give students a more advanced look at the field by addressing the science, technology, and business aspects of agricultural work. You’ll also find master’s and doctoral degrees available, which may focus on agricultural education, economics, and research. With this education, students enter a government agency with a firm understanding of agricultural science and how it applies to the realities of the profession.

Potential careers:

  • Agricultural extension agent. Agricultural extension agents are responsible for developing and delivering education programs at land-grant universities. They teach courses on topics such as agriculture, animal production, and diet and nutrition to members of the community.
  • Food safety inspector. Food safety inspectors examine food products to ensure they don’t contain biological or chemical contaminants. Also, they examine product packaging and labelling and stay abreast of potential food hazards.

Civil Engineering Degrees

Civil engineers are involved in constructing the infrastructure — such as buildings, highways, and waterways — that all communities depend on. As a result, civil engineering degree programs have a diverse curriculum that covers architectural, wastewater, transportation, and environmental engineering. Students earn these degrees on the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. When they complete their studies, graduates work for agencies that oversee the construction or maintenance of different types of infrastructure.

Potential careers:

  • Infrastructure project manager. An infrastructure project manager is responsible for overseeing projects related to utilities, transportation, or construction. This entails creating and managing budgets, implementing a project timeline, and ensuring the different departments involved in a project work together to complete it on time.
  • Water resource engineer. These professionals help to ensure that water resources in an area are readily available and safe to use by designing and implementing projects. Tasks include assessing water quality, creating strategies to control flooding, and identifying environmental issues that impact the water supply.

Computer Science, IT, and Cybersecurity Degrees

Whether they focus on computer science, information technology, or cybersecurity, students in these STEM programs get the knowhow to solve technology problems in any workplace. Although there’s some overlap with these degrees, there are some differences as well.

Computer science degrees focus on the hardware and software of technology systems, which can include databases, robotics, and software development. Degrees in this area are found on the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. Information science degrees — which can also be associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees — are similar. However, they concentrate on systems that create, store, and use information. Cybersecurity degrees provide expertise on how to protect networks and programs from digital attacks. They’re also offered to associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral students.

Whichever area students choose, they can work in numerous nonprofit organizations or government agencies to make decisions about building, maintaining, and protecting technology systems.

Potential careers:

  • IT security specialist. Organizations turn to these professionals to maintain and protect computer systems. The position may entail analyzing the security of a system and addressing any safety breaches; staying up to date on the latest security threats and ensuring their organization is protected; and evaluating safety protocols for mobile devices.
  • Data scientist. Data scientists use their technology and analytical skills to answer organizational questions by the numbers. To do this, they choose methods for gathering relevant data; collect and analyze the data obtained; and create reports detailing their findings.

Earth Sciences Degrees

The earth science discipline explains how the different components of the planet come together and have evolved over time. The degrees in this field — associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral— may focus on areas such as gemology, meteorology, climate science, and volcanology. This allows graduates to have the proficiency needed to teach about earth science in the classroom or in public service campaigns. They also bring their scientific knowledge to government agencies that respond to natural disasters.

Potential careers:

  • Seismologist. Seismologists are geoscientists who specialize in earthquakes and related natural phenomena, such as tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. They use their knowledge to keep people safe by observing earthquake data from around the world to make predictions. When an earthquake occurs, they measure its impact.
  • Teacher/educator. Earth science teachers educate their students on the different components of earth science — geology, meteorology, oceanography, and astronomy. They work in K-12 schools, colleges and universities, or more informal learning spaces. Outside of the classroom, these educators may also conduct research.

Environmental Science Degrees

Environmental science degree programs provide an understanding of natural and human environments to recognize how they interact. These programs have an interdisciplinary curriculum that covers a variety of areas, including chemistry, biology, social sciences, and economics.

Associate and bachelor’s programs lay the foundation for a higher-level degree or entry-level job. These programs focus on scientific concepts, a historical perspective of the field, and the relationship between environmental science and adjacent disciplines. On the graduate level, students in master’s and doctoral degree programs get more in-depth instruction on environmental science principles and an advanced understanding of research.

When students complete these degrees, they have a well-rounded understanding of environmental science. This allows them to conduct research, teach, and execute projects in various public sector settings.

Potential careers:

  • Environmental policy. Those who work in environmental policy are responsible for understanding state, local, and federal laws to plan and execute projects. They collect and analyze data, draft reports about environmental project plans, and create project strategies based on relevant regulations.
  • Natural resource management. These professionals work to protect the natural resources — wildlife, soil, and plants — in an area. They may monitor the impact people have on these materials, study specific wildlife to understand population trends, and oversee natural resource facilities.

Fire Science Degrees

Earning a fire science degree isn’t necessary to become a firefighter. However for careers related to the fire safety field, a fire science degree is a must. Those enrolled not only learn how to fight fires, but they also investigate their causes and educate people on how to protect themselves from blazes in their homes. As a result, people may enroll in fire science associate and bachelor’s degrees to learn about fire behavior and suppression methods, hazardous materials management, fire safety and prevention, and the role of fire service agencies. Those who want to move up in their careers can pursue graduate degrees. These programs could include a master’s degree in fire executive leadership or a doctorate in fire protection engineering.

With a fire science degree, graduates make a direct impact in their communities, whether they’re involved in preventing, extinguishing, or investigating fire incidents.

Potential careers:

  • Fire marshal. From private residents to commercial buildings, fire marshals help to ensure safety codes are being maintained. Their work includes planning building inspections and investigating why fires occurred. They also create and implement programs to educate people about fire safety.
  • Firefighter. These heroes not only respond to fires, but they also handle emergencies involving hazardous materials and medical issues. Additionally, they participate in search and rescue missions after a disaster and educate their communities about fire prevention and safety.

Forensic Science

When legal matters need to be settled, oftentimes scientific methods must be used to get to the truth — and that’s where forensic science comes in. Forensic science associate degrees explore the basics of the field, including how evidence is collected, processed, and analyzed. Bachelor’s degrees provide more in-depth knowledge and may allow students to learn a specialization, such as forensic chemistry or criminalistics. Experienced forensic scientists who want to upskill can go on to earn a master’s or doctoral degree. All forensic science degrees give students the scientific acumen needed to execute investigations in public service jobs.

Potential careers:

  • Forensic scientist. Forensic scientists use their understanding of different disciplines — such as nursing, anthropology, or psychiatry — to address various legal issues. Their work entails examining evidence to determine what happened when a crime was committed, writing reports about their findings, and providing testimony in court.
  • Crime scene investigator. When a crime is committed, crime scene investigators are called in to find, collect, and preserve evidence. They also maintain equipment, secure crime scenes to prevent contamination, and document autopsies.

Mechanical Engineering Degrees

From machines to the human body, mechanical engineering is a broad field that focuses on energy and the movement of particles. Armed with the skills they learn in their degree programs, mechanical engineering graduates work in civil service jobs where they conduct research to solve technology-related problems. That’s because associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD students learn mechanical engineering principles and research methods that become more complex as they continue their education.

Potential careers:

  • Energy efficiency specialist. These professionals make recommendations on the best ways to save energy based on analyzing data from audits and assessments. They also create programs about energy-saving strategies to increase efficiency and decrease costs.
  • Public works director. These professionals manage the activities of various departments in the public works sector, such as parks, utilities, equipment maintenance, and sewage treatment departments. They may also oversee the hiring of contractors.

Public Health Degrees

Public health professionals use their science expertise to help impact the medical outcomes in a community. They may directly care for patients, track diseases in an area to understand their prevalence, or educate people about the prevention and risk factors of an illness. These degrees are available on the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. Students take coursework in biostatistics, epidemiology, healthcare policy, global health, and nutrition.

Potential careers:

  • Public health nurse. Nurses who specialize in public health work to improve the outcomes in a community by understanding disease and illness trends, identifying risk factors, and creating intervention plans. They also design and implement campaigns to educate people about disease prevention.
  • Community health officer. Community health officers provide basic care to patients, such as immunizations and preventive services. They also build relationships with the public to teach people about healthy habits and disease risk factors.

Statistics & Mathematics Degrees

Graduates who want to dedicate their career to work involving facts and figures may decide to use their mathematical acumen to conduct research in public service jobs, or train those who will in the future. Students who have degrees in statistics — which can be bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD programs — learn to analyze large amounts of data to gain an understanding of an issue.

Students who have mathematics degrees have completed a curriculum that’s broader. Students learn how to solve problems with calculations — a skill that can be applied to numerous areas, including engineering, healthcare, or business. Schools offer associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in mathematics.

Potential careers:

  • Demographer. Demographers help organizations and government agencies make sound decisions by examining the population of a community. To that end, these professionals study birth and death rates, ages, and ethnicities of the people living in a specific area.
  • Teacher/educator. Math teachers provide instruction to primary, secondary, and postsecondary students. Their duties include creating a course curriculum, choosing classroom materials, and assigning and grading homework.

Why Should I Use my STEM Degree in Public Service?

Many students who complete graduate and undergraduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics get jobs at tech companies, drug manufacturers, and healthcare providers. However, this doesn’t have to be your path. There are several good reasons for STEM graduates to pursue public service jobs:

Contributing to the community

Working in a public service job allows STEM graduates to make a positive contribution to the community. Whether you’re conducting research, educating people, or taking a leadership role on projects, you’re able to use the skills gained in your program in ways that help the public.

Job security

Although people with STEM degrees are highly skilled, that doesn’t mean they’re not at the mercy of industry changes. For example, in 2023 alone, 262,735 tech company employees were laid off. When STEM professionals build their careers in the government, they have more job security because government agencies aren’t beholden to shareholders and they’re unlikely to shut down.

Work-life balance

People in STEM private sector careers put in long hours to meet the demands of their workplaces. In the public sector, depending on your job, you may have more flexibility with your schedule. This means you’re better able to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Good benefits

Public sector jobs may offer benefits that are equal to or better than those in the private sector. In some cases, employees have more holidays and vacation days, more robust insurance coverage, or student loan forgiveness.

Geographic options

Depending on the company you work for, you may or may not be able to transfer to another city or state if you want to relocate. But with the state or federal government, you may have opportunities to work in other locations because agencies have different offices.

Paying For Your STEM Degree

Paying for a STEM degree can be challenging, but the good news is there are a variety of ways to defray the cost of your education. In this section, you‘ll find these financial aid opportunities. We begin with specific scholarships and grants for those earning STEM-related degrees, including how much the awards are and their eligibility requirements.

Then we discuss student loans and describe the process of receiving them. We end with information on loan forgiveness programs specifically available to the public service workforce.

Grants & Scholarships

AREMA Educational Foundation Scholarships

Career Development Grants

  • Amount: $2,000 to $20,000
  • Eligibility: Offered by the American Association of University Women, these grants are for students who have a bachelor’s degree and plan to enroll in a STEM graduate program.
  • Application Deadline: November 15

Career Development Grants

  • Amount: $2,000 to $20,000
  • Eligibility: Offered by the American Association of University Women, these grants are for students who have a bachelor’s degree and plan to enroll in a STEM graduate program.
  • Application Deadline: November 15

ISC2 Undergraduate/Associate Scholarships

  • Amount: $1,000 to $5,000
  • Eligibility: Students should be enrolled in a cybersecurity, information assurance, or similar degree program. Applicants may be studying full time or part time, on campus or online, and have a minimum 3.3 GPA.
  • Application Deadline: February 28

MG Eugene C. Renzi, USA (Ret.) STEM Teachers Scholarship

  • Amount: $2,500
  • Eligibility: Applicants must be enrolled in a graduate education program to prepare to teach a STEM subject in K-12 schools. They should have a STEM-related bachelor’s degree and at least a 3.5 GPA in their undergraduate studies.
  • Application Deadline: May 1

Student Loans

In addition to scholarships and grants, another major form of financial aid that STEM undergraduate and graduate students can receive is student loans. Students can receive loans from the federal government or a private lender, and it’s important for them to understand the difference. With government loans, you’re able to enjoy several benefits. You can receive a fixed interest rate that’s lower than what’s available from a bank. Also, you may receive a six-month grace period after graduation before your loan accrues interest or has payments due. If you can’t afford the monthly payments, you may be approved for an income-based repayment plan.

To get approved for a government student loan, fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid. During the application process, the government determines how much you’re eligible to receive in financial aid based on education expenses and need.

On the other hand, student loans from private lenders begin accruing interest right away and have fixed or variable rates that are generally higher than federal student loans. Also, when you apply for loans from banks, credit unions, or state loan agencies, you may be expected to have a co-signer to be approved.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness Programs

One attractive perk of working in public service is the possibility of having federal student loans forgiven. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Program is available to full-time employees of nonprofit organizations or government agencies — local, state, federal, or tribal — who have made 120 payments on their student loan. To be considered, visit the PSLF tool to submit an application along with your most recent W-2 form or your employer’s Federal Employer Identification Number. Once the application has been received, the U.S. Department of Education will calculate how many qualifying payments have been made to determine your eligibility for loan forgiveness. If you’re not eligible at that time, you can resubmit your information when the remaining payments have been made.

STEM Career Outlook in Public Service

Workers with STEM degrees come to the workplace with a variety of skills that employers value. As a result, when you graduate, you may be able to command a healthy salary — so you receive a positive return on your education investment.

Of course, the salary you earn depends on the type of job you land. To get an idea of what specific professionals make, review the table below. We’ve compiled the salary data for several careers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and listed which degrees people are expected to have to be qualified for these jobs.

STEM CareerDegree RequiredMedian Salary
Agricultural and Food ScientistsBachelor’s degree in agricultural science$76,400
Civil EngineersBachelor’s degree in civil engineering$95,890
Computer and Information Research ScientistsMaster’s degree in computer science$145,080
Environmental Scientists and SpecialistsBachelor’s degree in environmental science$78,980
Forensic Science TechniciansBachelor’s degree in forensic science$64,940
GeoscientistsBachelor’s degree in geoscience$92,580
Information Security AnalystsBachelor’s degree in computer science$120,360
MathematiciansMaster’s degree in mathematics$116,440
Mechanical EngineersBachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering$99,510
StatisticiansMaster’s degree in statistics$104,110

Salary data from BLS.gov