STEM Majors and OPT Extensions for International Students

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By Azara Lantra
Last updated on July 1, 2024

For an international student, majoring in STEM can help build your long-term career in the US and improve your chances when applying for OPT.

Two students sitting a lecture hall while looking at a laptop, with three other students seated behind them.

According to the World Economic Forum, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees are the US’s most desirable qualifications, featuring high pay and strong career prospects. Graduates entering the workforce are qualified for roles in operations, may already exhibit industry specializations (e.g., petroleum engineering, video game programming, or architectural design, to name a few), and are solutions-driven, well positioned to discover better outcomes and efficiency.

Additionally, there are an estimated 821,300 STEM job openings expected in the next 10 years, making it a great time to pursue a STEM degree. Internships, on-campus mentorship programs, and full-time opportunities provide hands-on training for students to enhance their skills. 

Pursuing a US university degree and a career in STEM gives you the chance to work in a constantly growing field with the potential to earn high salaries. Let’s take a look at how you can work toward a successful STEM career.

Let’s start with the basics.

What Does STEM Mean?

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM principles and practices are the foundation of many advancements and technological innovations in modern society. From computers, phones, and data systems to weather forecasts and medical advancements, STEM-related innovations have contributed significantly to the world we live in today.

What Are the Benefits of Studying STEM?

  • A STEM education offers transferable skills — STEM curriculum covers a broad range of subjects such as mathematics, engineering, software management, and biomedical engineering. As you master your technical skills, STEM degree programs encourage students to build adaptability, innovation, planning, and execution capabilities, all of which are essential to any professional role.

  • STEM graduates are high in demand — There is a growing need for artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics engineers, along with environmental specialists, data analysts, and economists. Many organizations need STEM professionals who can drive innovation and developments within the company.

  • STEM graduates earn higher incomes — STEM professions offer higher entry-level salaries compared to non-STEM jobs. Data security officers, mechanical engineers, architectural engineers, and computer scientists are some of the highest-paid roles in the US, and all are considered STEM-related.

Taking STEM courses at your US university is a great way to determine which topics and potential fields are a good fit for your interests, capabilities, and goals.

Check out all STEM stories from Shorelight >

Amazing STEM Degree Programs – The Pathway to a STEM Career

With hard work and perseverance, anyone can pursue a STEM career. However, it will require a strong foundation in STEM principles, which a degree can provide. Gaining a general understanding of STEM courses and evaluating your own capabilities is a good way to begin preparing for a STEM degree program. 

Here are a few STEM degree programs available through Shorelight universities:

Check out all Shorelight universities offering STEM-designated degree programs >

As you research possible degree programs and careers, also consider the following:

Step 1: Establish Your Career Objectives

What are your career goals? Consider what you would like to achieve professionally in both the short- and long term, which qualifications you want, and the timeline in which you hope to achieve them. 

Step 2: Identify Your Preferred STEM Industry 

Once you have mapped out your career action plan, the next step is to understand which industry you are interested in, such as medical science, robotics, engineering, or statistics, for example. Research online or speak to a counselor to identify your best-fit possibilities.

Step 3: Match Your Skills and Goals to the Requirements of Your Selected Field

Some STEM schools require additional test scores to be submitted with your application. For example, some medical programs have an entry-level examination you need to pass with a specific score. Recognizing your current capabilities can give you clarity on any skills you may need to develop or improve to make sure you can pass these tests and have a good base for starting your degree program successfully.

Step 4: Look for Schools that Offer Programs that Match Your Career Goals

Seek out universities with programs that give you the chance to develop specific skills and hands-on experience that align with your long-term goals. Review curriculum, subjects covered, and campus resources. For example, engineering students may require access to labs and workshops, while computer science students need access to computers, databases, and even servers.

How Can a STEM Major Benefit You

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2022 and 2032, STEM-related jobs in the US are expected to increase by 10.8%. So, choosing a STEM major can open many doors to career opportunities in the US — or anywhere else in the world.

In addition to having increasing job opportunities, F-1 visa students in the US who are STEM majors may also take advantage of programs to extend their stay in America. For example, international students who pursue a STEM degree are eligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT) employment, which allows them to work and study with STEM and OPT in the US for up to 12 months. An added advantage of studying STEM is that international students can then request to extend their OPT for an additional 24 months. (To truly gain a competitive edge here, remember to also hone your soft skills to become a well-rounded STEM major and secure your spot in STEM and OPT.)

When to Apply for STEM OPT Extension

As an F-1 student pursuing STEM majors, you may be eligible for a 24-month STEM OPT extension after completing your initial 12 months of OPT. To qualify, you must pursue a STEM degree, be employed by a company that is registered with E-Verify (an internet-based system that allows businesses to verify the eligibility of employees to work in the US), and your employment must be directly related to your degree. Additionally, you must have a valid job offer and submit a training plan with your OPT application.

While the time of each stage will vary, your STEM OPT Extension application timeline may look like this:

Stage 1: Request your STEM OPT I-20 form

Stage 2: Submit your STEM OPT application to USCIS

Stage 3: Receive approval

Stage 4: Maintain F-1 STEM OPT status

The processing time for a STEM OPT extension can change depending on potential delays or documentation required, but can take up to 90 days or more, so it is important to plan accordingly.

Use the following checklist to ensure you have all the necessary documents and information for your STEM and OPT extension application:

  • Application fee

  • Degree certificate

  • Form I-983 training plan

  • I-94 arrival/departure record

  • I-20

  • Previous EAD card (if applicable)

  • Proof of employment

  • Passport

  • Transcripts

  • Visa

  • Any additional supporting documents

By planning in advance to meet the eligibility requirements and submitting a complete STEM OPT Extension application, you can maximize your chances of obtaining an extension on time.

Which STEM School Is the Best Fit for You?

We mentioned earlier that in order to qualify for STEM OPT after graduation, you must pursue a STEM major for your degree program. There are many universities in the US offering different STEM majors to choose from, and it can be challenging to decide exactly which one is right for you. 

Check out all Shorelight universities offering STEM-designated degree programs >

With so many STEM majors to consider, take some time to think about what you enjoy most and the types of careers you would find fulfilling. Additionally, you can always speak with a trusted advisor who can help you focus and make the best decision for you and your goals.

No matter which STEM major you choose, as an international student, you will be making a smart decision for your future. Pursuing a career in STEM is highly rewarding, whether you decide to work in the US or anywhere in the world.

Talk to a Shorelight advisor about academic support for international students >