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Why Would Anyone Want to Major in STEM?

It turns out many STEM students want to change the world, not just make money.

NazWeb/Wikimedia Commons
Source: NazWeb/Wikimedia Commons

In 2012, the United States made it a national priority to increase the number of undergraduate degrees awarded in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by at least 1 million over the next decade in order to meet expected growth in those industries. In turn, many colleges and universities have bolstered their efforts to raise the number of students they enroll and graduate in STEM majors. For educators and policymakers, it seems a no-brainer to urge students into STEM given the high demand and attractive salaries in those fields. But increasing the number of STEM graduates is no simple task:

Thus, many students who enter college intending to pursue STEM begin in non-credit bearing classes, fail introductory STEM courses at exceedingly high rates, and are at greater risk of not even finishing college. Given these struggles, many of us are asking why this pathway is so difficult for so many. But Dr. Amanda Diekman, assistant professor of psychology at Miami University, has taken a step back to ask an even more fundamental question: Why do students want to study STEM in the first place? According to her research, the answer to this question may help to explain the challenges we face in getting more students to major in and graduate in STEM.

Dr. Diekman’s goal congruity perspective is founded on the basic idea that college students are motivated to participate in majors and enter careers that will fulfill their psychological needs or goals. And for many college students, these goals are communal: wanting to help people, serve humanity, and work collaboratively with others. Unfortunately, when many college students think about a career in STEM they picture someone like “Doc” Brown or Rick Sanchez: the lonely, eccentric scientist working late hours in the laboratory to uncover the mysteries of nature, without any heed for the practical value of doing so. For those of us engaged in science, we know nothing could be further from the truth (except, perhaps, the eccentric part), but this is the stereotype flashing through many students’ minds when they consider the direction of their education.

The goal congruity perspective may help explain why we see systematic disparities in STEM performance. Dr. Diekman has shown that women reliably endorse communal motives more strongly than do men, and that stronger communal motives predict lower interest in STEM. Moreover, this reasoning may extend to racial/ethnic minorities and first-generation students. Dr. Nicole Stephens, associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University, has shown that students from “working-class backgrounds” value interdependent college goals (e.g., wanting to help one’s family, giving back to one’s community) more so than do undergraduates from traditional backgrounds. These interdependent goals map well onto Dr. Diekman’s communal goals, providing another context for why these students may underperform and ultimately withdraw from STEM pursuits.

The other important implication of Dr. Diekman’s research is that colleges and universities can bolster students’ interest in STEM fields by changing their stereotypes. For example, Dr. David Yeager and his colleagues (read more about their research in my earlier post) asked ninth graders to write about how their education connects to how they want to make the world a better place—what the researchers call a self-transcendent purpose for learning. This brief exercise increased STEM GPA by the end of the school year, especially for lower-performing students. In a college setting, Dr. Diekman presented undergraduates with “day-in-the-life” vignettes of scientists that portrayed STEM careers in a communal light. Reading these vignettes changed women’s perceptions of STEM, resulting in greater positivity toward careers in STEM (results were similar for men, but not statistically significant). Both studies demonstrate that brief interventions that tap into students’ desire to work with others and improve the world around them could have a big impact on STEM completion rates, especially amongst students who are at the greatest risk for failure.

So as we continue to encourage students to enter into STEM fields and develop better ways of supporting them, it’s worth asking why these students study STEM in the first place. While career opportunities and financial benefits are no doubt on their minds, reminding them of the ways in which science is collaborative, engaging, joyful, and of benefit to society should speak to them in a new and impactful way.

Interested in learning more about how to use behavioral science to improve students’ success in STEM? Sign up for a free webinar on Thursday, July 20, at 1:00 pm EST.


Diekman, A. B., Brown, E. R., Johnston, A. M., & Clark, E. K. (2010). Seeking congruity between goals and roles: A new look at why women opt out of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. Psychological Science, 21(8), 1051-1057.

Diekman, A. B., Clark, E. K., Johnston, A. M., Brown, E. R., & Steinberg, M. (2011). Malleability in communal goals and beliefs influences attraction to STEM careers: Evidence for a goal congruity perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(5), 902-918.

Stephens, N. M., Fryberg, S. A., Markus, H. R., Johnson, C. S., & Covarrubias, R. (2012). Unseen disadvantage: How American universities’ focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1178-1197.

Yeager, D. S., Henderson, M. D., Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., D’Mello, S., Spitzer, B. J., & Duckworth, A. L. (2014). Boring but important: A self-transcendent purpose for learning fosters academic self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(4), 559-580.