Tips for International Students Studying STEM at U.S. Colleges | Best Global Universities

Since her sophomore year in high school in the United Kingdom, Polish national Blanka Jarmoszko knew she…

Since her sophomore year in high school in the United Kingdom, Polish national Blanka Jarmoszko knew she wanted to study physics. The desire to pursue a liberal arts education prompted her to apply to U.S. schools, and she’s now a sophomore at Northwestern University in Illinois double majoring in physics and data science.

“Even though my main interest lies in physics, I have always had many adjacent interests in humanities such as philosophy,” says Jarmoszko. “I also wanted an opportunity to explore other STEM fields that I haven’t had a chance to study in high school.”

According to the Open Doors 2021 Report on International Education Exchange, 54{1ecc11bb1501b786f489293ac2ac25fb54683d686574816a94d14a51901cfb17} of international students in the U.S. pursued a major in a STEM field – science, technology, engineering or mathematics – in 2020-2021. The report says engineering remains the most popular major, with 21{1ecc11bb1501b786f489293ac2ac25fb54683d686574816a94d14a51901cfb17} of international students pursuing a degree in the field.

For prospective international students considering applying to U.S. colleges and universities for a STEM degree, here are a few things to know:

Know What Stem Means

STEM typically includes engineering fields, math and computer science, physical and life sciences, health professions and agriculture, experts say.

“For most programs, the concept of what constitutes a STEM field is fairly straightforward – science, technology, engineering and math,” says Elizabeth James, director of the Office of International Services at North Carolina State University. “However, as more programs become interdisciplinary, the lines get a little more blurry.”

For example, James says, business programs were not typically thought of as STEM fields, “but the pervasiveness of data analytics, statistics, supply chain management and computational analysis in business fields have led many universities, including N.C. State, to develop more STEM-focused business programs, such as NC State’s MBA and Master’s in accounting programs.”

Sharon Schladow, chief consultant at Sharon Schladow Higher Education Consulting in California, notes that even at different schools, “programs can have different names, for example, operations research at Cornell or mathematical computation and science at Stanford.”

Students should also keep in mind that the same major, for example, cognitive studies, can be more psychology-focused at some campuses and more focused on computer science or artificial intelligence at others, Schladow says.

Research How to Participate in a STEM Program

“It can be quite important to research particular STEM programs at U.S. universities if you are coming from a STEM program outside of the U.S.,” says Kevin Pipe, director of graduate degree programs in the College of Engineering and professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor.

“While the basic content is usually the same, the style in which it is taught can vary – for example, theoretical vs. applied, analytical vs. numerical, experimental vs. computational,” Pipe wrote in an email. “Different schools may also emphasize particular subfields within a discipline.”

Schladow says students should narrow down the STEM program they plan to apply to so that they know whether the campus offers the major, what it entails and if it meets their academic needs.

“Something as simple as chemical engineering at one campus may focus on biotechnology and at another may focus on petrochemical engineering. Knowing the major and where it has the focus to meet your interests is critical,” Schladow says.

She recommends that every student have a balanced college list, as well.

“Too often, foolish students apply to a state system and Ivies. Nothing else,” says Schladow. “We find students at smaller campuses in STEM do extremely well and receive the mentorship to go onto funded graduate programs or receive fellowships. This is especially the case in the health sciences, environmental sciences and computer science/data science.”

Plan to Get Hands-On Training

International students studying STEM degrees can get hands-on experience while in school or after they graduate.

“I stayed on campus doing research in a chemistry lab for all the summers I have been there,” says Yusrah Kaudeer, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry at California Institute of Technology and hails from Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean.

Kaudeer, who graduated cum laude from Amherst College in Massachusetts in 2021 with a dual degree in mathematics and chemistry, says getting hands-on experience helped steer her academic objectives.

“By staying in the same lab, it helped to deepen my understanding in the field, which further pushed me to apply to graduate school,” Kaudeer says.

Apart from working in labs, hands-on training can be achieved through the federal Optional Practical Training, or OPT, program. F-1 international students who have been full-time students for at least one academic year and plan to seek employment in the U.S. in their field of study can participate in OPT, a 12-month work authorization that allows students to get hands-on experience in their academic field at a U.S. employer.

Geet Vanaik, director of the Office of International Student and Scholar Services at Northwestern, says international students who have completed a degree listed in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s STEM Designated Degree Program List are eligible for a 24-month extension of OPT. The list contains more than 500 program categories.

“International students on OPT and STEM OPT maintain their F-1 immigration status and continue to work with their international student’s adviser up to three years after graduation,” says Vanaik.

Sara Riggs, assistant director of international recruitment in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Institute of Technology, says students should “prepare to spend much of your time researching in labs, creating in makers spaces, participating in co-ops or internships, and otherwise engaging with your field of interest.”

Jarmoszko says she plans to make use of STEM OPT once she graduates. This past summer, she worked in a physics lab, where she assisted with research.

“Over the next summers and school years, I plan on exploring physics research related to quantum computers and internships related to data science,” Jarmoszko says. “I don’t have a career in mind, hence it is important for me to get experience in physics research as well as tech-related internships.”