STEM degrees: Perception vs Reality

Authored by David Walker

What studying a STEM subject at Durham is really like and how it’s different to what you probably think.

Perception: STEM students are all intelligent.

Reality: Most of them are, but most Durham students are!

It’s true that most STEM students at Durham are pretty intelligent, but that’s because most students at Durham are pretty intelligent! I’d argue that STEM students have been trained in their own way to breakdown specific problems. It’s not that we’re naturally smarter than other people; it’s more that we’ve had techniques and practices related to our subject hammered into us for years. I think some of this comes from the differences in the way one works through a technical problem compared to forming an argument or essay.

Figure 1 [1]: An average day in a lecture.

When doing calculations or trying to figure out what the last lecture even meant, the mental anguish usually comes from understanding the material. Once this is done, STEM subjects become much more straightforward. This isn’t to say that our degrees are inherently harder or easier than humanities; rather the style of learning is different. Looking through lecture notes of technical subjects can make STEM seem impossibly hard to someone who hasn’t studied it and thus makes anyone who studies it look really smart. It’s even common to get questions like “how do you understand any of that?” However, the truth is that I probably don’t understand much of it and I probably won’t until the week before the exam. I have met many very intelligent people in Durham who study a mixture of subjects and despite being more competent in the subject they’re studying (as expected), I haven’t found any subject, STEM or non-STEM, which has significantly more intelligent people than any other.

Perception: You have to be good at maths to excel in STEM subjects.

Reality: 100% true for some subjects and not always the case for others.

There is definitely some degree of truth to this perception. Certain STEM subjects such as Mathematics, Physics, Engineering and Computer Science require a high proficiency in mathematics to communicate many of the concepts being taught with any accuracy (see Figure 2). Here, A level maths and even further maths is usually recommended if you don’t want to have a really rough first year. Chemistry and Material Science can also be intensely maths heavy, despite a large portion of the public not realising this. Subjects such as Biological Sciences and Psychology, however, tend to not rely quite so much on mathematics (as long as you don’t delve into mathematical biology), but even here there are modules that rely rather substantially on statistics. The truth is that no matter what STEM subject a Durham student does, you can guarantee they are at least competent in maths. However, not all of us have an intuitive mathematical understanding and some of us only use it as a means to an end when we have to.

Ultimately, the STEM subject studied determines how proficient one has to be in maths to succeed and enjoy it. As a Mechanical Engineering undergraduate, there is rarely a day where I write more prose than formulae, whilst a Biology or Psychology undergraduate may find the opposite to be true. However, even in Engineering, there are people who truly have a passion for maths and excel in mathematically heavy modules and people who merely use it a tool for problem-solving.

Figure 2: Third year engineering mechanics notes. You probably need to enjoy calculus and linear algebra to not hate this module.

Perception: STEM subjects are difficult, with long hours, high workloads and

endless assignments.

Reality: Completely true.

STEM is hard. The hours can be pretty rough (I had around 25 contact hours in first year per week) and the workload can be high and demanding. On top of lectures and 3-hour laboratories, I have problem sheets every week, at least 6 or 7 coursework deadlines per year and generally have a large number of exams at the end of the year. This is specific to my subject, but I have heard of similar workloads from Natural Sciences, Maths etc. This is not to say however, that STEM is automatically harder than any other type of degree. The amount of reading I have to do is minute compared to a History or Law student and many find the rigid structure and frequent problem sheets a blessing in disguise. Unlike subjects like English or Philosophy, where the work given is often open ended and flexible, being told exactly what to learn and what to practice is something that can be easily taken for granted.

Figure 3 [2] – A Physics Lab. I have spent many hours doing labs that ultimately failed…

Perception: STEM students are all introverts and have poor social skills.

Reality: Somewhat untrue, but introversion is not uncommon.

This is a perception that I believe has come about from the wrong place. I do not believe the stereotype that STEM students have no social skills and hate socialising more than the average student. Many friends I know who study STEM subjects are some of the most outgoing people I know. However, I do think that there is a tendency for STEM subjects to attract some of the more introverted amongst us. Whilst humanity degrees may attract people who enjoy forming arguments and discussing critical reviews of bodies of work, STEM students, regardless of what subject they are studying, enjoy working through problems.

Whilst there may be the view that STEM students spend most of their time in a lab or discussing group projects, a substantial portion of our time is actually spent solving problems that we get stuck on. A lot of the time, this is done alone and away from others, but group work is still possible and encouraged by some departments. Whilst in many humanity subjects, one is encouraged to share viewpoints and opinions in seminars, I know personally in Engineering, the closest thing we have to this are problem classes… where we mostly sit in silence to do problems and only ask for help if absolutely necessary. If I really wanted to, I could probably sit through a year of these classes, not say a word and no one would notice. It’s not that STEM students are socially awkward, it’s that we have the freedom to not be extroverted if we choose to.

Figure 4 [3]: The open access area located in Engineering and Computer Science. This is actually a very social space!

Perception: STEM is only for a select few who can understand it to a high level.

Reality: STEM is for everyone!

The truth is that most STEM students only know their very specific discipline to a high level themselves! As an Engineer I might have some idea how a bridge deflects under load or how thermodynamics works, but my knowledge of the nervous system or biodiversity is probably worse than a GCSE student. This does not mean the whole area cannot be appreciated for what it is, regardless of knowledge level or degree subject (e.g. a History student who loves Physics is a cool thing!). For too long STEM has been seen as an extremely complicated field that only the very brightest can ever understand or appreciate. The reality is that anyone with a thirst for knowledge can enjoy, appreciate and share these subjects, regardless of age or background. If you enjoy STEM subjects I highly recommend sharing it through things like SCA Science and Maths clubs, or you could write for this magazine!


[1] Science Alert – Homer Simpson Predicted the Mass of the Higgs Boson 14 years before CERN,, (5 March 2020).

[2] Durham University – Department of Physics,, (accessed 5 March 2020).

[3] Durham University – Department of Engineering,, (accessed 5 March 2020).

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