If you're an international student, choosing your field of study is one of the biggest choices you'll make. We've listed out the top five most popular subjects, with career options to go with them.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), more than one million international students currently pursue their studies in the U.S. Those numbers increase each year, but recent legal developments pose new challenges, as does the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

If you're an international student, you may be wondering what you should do to prepare for school in the fall. Although some of the most impactful questions have yet to be settled, something you can do right now is consider which subjects interest you the most.

The good news is there's an academic subject for everyone, and most schools offer a ton of options. So many, in fact, that you may have trouble narrowing things down! How will you choose?

We've compiled a short list of degree topics to help you do just that. It includes the top five subjects most popular among international students, plus possible career paths for each.

Popular Subjects for International Students to Study


The Institute of International Education (IIE) lists engineering as the most popular subject for international students. In 2019 alone, over 20% of international students chose this field of study, which includes popular specializations in technology, transportation, construction, and precision production.

Engineering programs instill hard skills in systems analysis, mathematics, and spatial relations. International students who choose this subject learn to solve complex problems using scientific principles.

Earning a bachelor's degree in engineering prepares you for a variety of career paths or further advanced study. Some of the most popular careers include biomedical engineering, civil engineering, and mechanical engineering.

Biomedical engineers design equipment and create new technologies to improve health outcomes in medical facilities. Civil engineers perform similar tasks within the context of transportation and infrastructure, while mechanical engineers focus on engines and other heavy machinery.

Business and Management

Degree-seekers enrolled in business or business management programs are prepared to work in corporations and other commerce-related organizations after graduation. Most business programs develop technical knowledge in organizational management, finance, and human resources.

Business and management is one of the fastest-growing fields of study for international students. IIE reports that during the 2018-19 academic year, 18.6% of international students chose this major — a near 10% increase over previous years.

Because it is one of the broadest and most versatile fields of study, a degree in business and management qualifies you for diverse career options. These include work in accounting, sales, information technology, and entrepreneurship, just to name a few.

In addition to entry-level employment, an undergraduate degree in business can be a solid stepping-stone for further study. Many business students go on to earn more specialized credentials in order to broaden their job opportunities and increase their earning power, like going on to an MBA program.

Social Sciences

The social sciences study how individuals and societies develop, interact, and evolve over time. It includes more specific disciplines like psychology, anthropology, political science, and sociology. These subjects differ significantly from one another, but they all use the research tools and methods of inquiry explored in social science classes.

Nearly 85,000 international students currently study the social sciences, according to IIE. Social science students account for 7.7% of all international students, with most focusing on psychology or sociology.

Common career options for students in the social sciences include work in public policy, economics, urban planning, and market research. Most professionals with a degree in this area conduct targeted research designed to isolate or address widespread social phenomena.

For example, urban planners develop space utilization solutions to accommodate population or community growth equitably. Market researchers, on the other hand, develop tactics to help enhance sales and encourage interest in a product.

Physical and Life Sciences

The number of international students studying the physical and life sciences grows every year due to individual interest and localized demand. IIE data indicate that the number of students enrolled in physical science classes increased by nearly 4% recently, adding just under 3,000 new learners.

Sometimes called the "hard" or "natural" sciences, physical and life sciences encompass an array of applied subjects, including biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy. Each subject uses empirical evidence derived through observation and experimentation to make informed predictions about organic life and natural phenomena.

Most international students begin by studying the physical and life sciences more generally and then narrow to pursue a specialization that interests them. These specializations correlate with varied career options.

For example, if you're interested in wildlife and ecosystems, you may find work in zoology or marine biology especially fulfilling. Other popular occupations include forensic science, geoscience, archeology, and biochemistry.

Fine and Applied Arts

International students interested in careers in art and design, such as architects, web and graphic designers, photojournalists, and videographers, will be a natural fit for studying fine and applied arts. Fine arts programs focus on the history of aesthetics and the core techniques that inform crafts like painting, sculpture, and printmaking.

In 2019, over 63,000 international students were enrolled in fine or applied arts programs. Fine and applied arts majors currently make up approximately 5.8% of the international student body across the U.S.

If you are a creative person with some interest in the fine arts, this could be the way to go. Pursuing fine arts studies is a great way to deepen your skills and jumpstart your career in art or design.

Final Word

Studying as an international student in the U.S. is an exciting endeavor, even amid new challenges and unanswered questions. However, before you enroll, you first need to consider your own skills, interests, and professional goals.

The fields of study listed above aren't the only ones available, but they are among the most popular — international students consistently turn to them for career preparation. Earning a degree in one of these areas won't automatically guarantee you a job, but it will give you a leg up on the competition as you enter the workforce.

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