Date Uploaded: 24/05/2016
With more students opting for science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) degrees, what’s the best route? Should you go for a specialised Stem course or is it better to do a basic degree and diversify later on?
Increasingly, the consensus view is that students are better off doing a broad, basic degree, such as science at the University of Limerick, engineering at NUI Galway or computer science at UCD, before moving on to specialise in second or third year or looking at a postgraduate course down the line. Indeed, that was the advice given by this journalist earlier this year, and most third-levels, particularly Maynooth University and UCD, are moving towards a broader entry system.
Last year, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) published research which found that students were overwhelmed by the number of options on the CAO form. The ESRI’s Prof Frances Ruane suggested that students shouldn’t be making career-defining decisions at 18 years old.
But consensus is there to be shaken up. Writing recently in The Irish Times, Dr Greg Foley, associate dean for teaching and learning at the school of biotechnology in Dublin City University, said that this isn’t always good advice for everyone and that students should have a choice between a broad entry course or a more specialised option, such as biotechnology.
He says that not all colleges will be in a position to guarantee students entry into their discipline of choice at the end of first or second year, because capacity is limited. This could place first years under the stress of a high-pressure and competitive environment.
His advice: if you’ve done your research and are confident that you know what you want to do, don’t write off a specialised course. If, on the other hand, you have “only the vaguest idea” of what you want to do, broad entry is the way to go.
In 2004-2014, employment in information and communications technology (ICT) companies grew by more than 30 per cent. Salaries in these companies are 29 per cent above the national average, and there are an estimated 44,500 roles to fill in ICT alone, according to the Smart Futures project. In the medium to long term, there appear to be good employment opportunities in the sector.
Margie McCarthy is head of education and public engagement at Science Foundation Ireland, which, in association with Engineers Ireland, runs the Smart Futures programme, a collaboration between government, industry and education to encourage students into Stem careers.
“Technology means that change happens quicker than ever before, and this is predicted to continue,” she says. “How do you prepare for an unpredictable future? By equipping yourself with the best set of tools or skills to ensure you can be flexible, adaptable and a quick learner. These skills help you to apply yourself to more opportunities when you graduate, and this is what a Stem qualification offers.”
McCarthy says that analytical, innovative and problem-solving skills provide a great launchpad to a multitude of careers, including developing lifesaving medical devices and new technology platforms.
“A primary Stem degree gives you choices, but sometimes it is hard to navigate through all of these choices,”she says.
Smartfutures.ie provides students with access to more than 1,000 volunteers from all kinds of Stem-related backgrounds, including pharmaceuticals, food science, banking, business and energy, and features more than 100 examples of Stem careers in Ireland. Students, teachers and guidance counsellors can register their school for free careers talks at any time over the school year.
“These stories can help demystify who gets involved, what they do and the wide variety of career paths you can travel with a Stem qualification,” McCarthy says.
Journalist: Peter McGuire