‘Biology is easy, physics is hard’: Student perceptions of the ideal and the typical student across STEM higher education

Billy Wong*, Yuan-Li Tiffany Chiu, Órla Meadhbh Murray, Jo Horsburgh, Meggie Copsey-Blake

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)
4 Downloads (Pure)


This paper draws upon in-depth interviews with 89 students from two UK universities to explore how students from Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degrees describe the ideal as well as the typical student in their respective disciplines. We provide a comparative insight into the similarities and differences between disciplinary identities based on student perceptions. More specifically, we consider how undergraduates from biology, engineering, mathematics and physics construct the ideal and the typical student in their degree, highlighting the popular discourses and desirable traits that appear to characterise students in these disciplines. In addition to a masculinised construction of students in engineering, mathematics and physics, we found a social hierarchy within STEM degrees where biology was perceived as the easier STEM subject. We conclude with a discussion of the impact of such hierarchies on student identities in STEM, and potential implications for equality, diversity and inclusion.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)118-139
Number of pages22
JournalInternational Studies in Sociology of Education
Issue number1
Early online date25 Sept 2022
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jan 2023
Externally publishedYes

Cite this