Computer Science

What You Need to Know About the Top Computer Science Graduate Programs

What You Need to Know About the Top Computer Science Graduate Programs
Whether you're looking at Master of Science in Computer Science programs or related degree pathways, you'll find plenty of schools that don't require applicants to have a tech background or a certain undergraduate degree. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry May 6, 2020

You don't necessarily need a master's degree to land a high-level position in computer science. Still, an MSCS from a top school can open a lot of very lucrative doors.

Computer Science Programs You Should Consider

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Researching computer science graduate programs can lead to more questions than answers. On one hand, there’s not a lot of doubt that a master’s in computer science can lead to more interesting job opportunities, positions in management, and advancement in a competitive market. On the other hand, you’re going to encounter a lot of “helpful” articles claiming you don’t need a master’s degree to become a senior software engineer, work in artificial intelligence, or become a data scientist.

The fact is that having one or more advanced degrees doesn’t guarantee success in tech, and you may not need one if you want to spend your career in software development. If, however, you want to work in specialty areas like robotics or artificial intelligence, pursue information research, teach undergraduate college courses, or become a senior systems engineer or software development manager, you’ll probably need a graduate degree. And if you want to make top dollar in tech, getting a master’s degree will almost definitely boost your earning potential.

There are hundreds of computer science master’s degree programs—thousands if you include degrees in subdisciplines like information systems—and all represent an investment of money, energy, and time. You can increase the chances that your investment will pay off in higher salaries and promotions by exploring the top computer science graduate programs first. These are the programs with classes taught by industry experts, experiential learning opportunities in the curriculum, and (most importantly) robust professional networks.

In this article about the best computer science graduate programs, we highlight some of the top schools for comp sci and cover the following:

  • What are the prerequisites for the top computer science graduate programs?
  • What do students in computer science graduate programs study?
  • Which schools have the best computer science graduate programs?
  • Where can I find the best online computer science graduate programs?
  • How much is tuition for the top computer science graduate programs?
  • What types of jobs require a master’s degree in computer science?
  • How much can I earn with a master’s in computer science?
  • Does it really matter where I get my computer science master’s degree?
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What are the prerequisites for the top computer science graduate programs?

Whether you’re looking at Master of Science in Computer Science programs or related degree pathways, you’ll find plenty of schools that don’t require applicants to have a tech background or a certain undergraduate degree. The top computer science graduate programs, however, typically do require incoming students to have a computer science background, if not a BS in Computer Science, and possibly also advanced programming chops. Sometimes professional experience is part of the criteria for admissions eligibility; many students in high-ranking computer science master’s degree programs have already been working in tech for many years when they enroll.

In other words, prerequisites can vary significantly from program to program, so be sure you are eligible to apply before sending in your application. If you’re not sure whether you meet a school’s criteria for admissions, you can always contact the admissions office to verify that you’re eligible.

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“I'm Interested in Computer Science!”

“Typically the additional income from a master’s degree over a lifetime is worth the sticker price you pay for it.” (source)

A master’s in computer science can open countless doors from coast to coast. It will expand your knowledge and can help you advance your career, opening doors to management and leadership roles and increasing your earning potential. Jobs are plentiful around the country in a wide variety of industries, from healthcare to finance, entertainment to manufacturing.

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What do students in computer science graduate programs study?

There are two types of computer science graduate programs. The first is designed for students who are coming directly out of bachelor’s degree programs and students who want to transition into tech. These programs tend to cover core programming, database, and computer language theory fundamentals.

The second type of master’s-level comp sci degree serves working professionals and students with a strong background in computer science. These programs skip over basic courses. Top computer science graduate programs tend to fall into the latter category. While some are designed for generalists, many are geared toward students looking to develop their skills in one area of computer science. Many MSCS programs give students the opportunity to choose concentrations like:

  • Big data
  • Computational biology
  • Computer security
  • Computer systems
  • Foundations of computer science
  • Game development
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Machine learning
  • Natural language processing
  • Network systems
  • Robotics
  • Software systems

A computer science graduate program’s curriculum is often determined by the concentration a student chooses. Core courses across computer science graduate programs typically dive into topics like:

  • Advanced algorithms
  • Computational theory and practice
  • Data compiling and network/Internet protocols
  • Data warehousing and storage
  • Database design
  • Operating system analysis
  • Network architecture
  • Network security
  • Software theory

Most computer science master’s degree programs require students to complete 30 to 45 credit hours of coursework, which can take one to two years of full-time study or up to five years of part-time study. Students in top computer science graduate programs often have to complete an internship, thesis, capstone course, co-op project, or practicum to graduate, though some highly-ranked MSCS programs—like the one at Tufts University, for example—have made these culminating experiences optional. At Tufts, MSCS students do have the option of completing an MS project or an MS thesis, but they can opt to take one elective computer science course as a replacement without penalty.

Which schools have the best computer science graduate programs?

US News and World Report maintains a list of the best colleges and universities for computer science at the graduate school level. According to their rankings, you’ll find top computer science graduate programs at the following schools:

Where can I find the best online computer science graduate programs?

It should come as no surprise that there are online computer science graduate programs at colleges and universities since comp sci courses can be easily adapted for distance learners. The following colleges and universities have highly-ranked computer science programs and offer graduate degrees you can earn entirely online:

How much is tuition for the top computer science graduate programs?

There are MSCS programs and other master’s-level computer science programs that cost between $10,000 and $20,000 in total tuition and fees. However, the average cost of a master’s degree in computer science falls somewhere around $40,000. The cost of an MSCS degree at top colleges and universities can be more than $60,000. While that isn’t as much as the cost of the average MBA, it’s still a lot, and you should compare costs carefully when choosing between programs.

Remember, too, that tuition isn’t the only expense you’ll be on the hook for when you pursue a master’s degree. There are university fees plus the cost of books and materials. If you’re studying full time, you should also figure loss of income into your calculations.

What types of jobs require a master’s degree in computer science?

Many people associate computer science with programming, but only about 23 percent of developers have master’s degrees. While some MSCS graduates do work as programmers designing and coding software products, the ongoing digitization of business and other sectors means there are jobs for computer scientists in fields as diverse as finance and fashion.

After earning a master’s in computer science, you might work for a large corporation, small nonprofit, government agency, or startup doing work related to:

A master’s degree in computer science can also help you transition into upper management. If your dream is to head up a team of developers, you may find you hit a ceiling when it comes to career advancement. A graduate degree from a top program can be the key to making the jump from senior developer to senior management positions.

How much can I earn with a master’s in computer science?

According to PayScale, the median annual salary for MSCS graduates is $101,000. In terms of ROI, computer science degrees represent a good investment. When Forbes ranked master’s degrees by potential salary increase, it found that the MSCS and similar degrees offered the second biggest bump in pay (behind biomedical engineering).

With this degree, you might eventually earn:

  • $142,000 as a principal software engineer
  • $143,000 as a software engineering manager
  • $143,000 as an information technology director
  • $147,000 as a senior solutions architect
  • $151,000 as a software engineering director
  • $175,000 as a vice president of engineering
  • $178,000 as a senior engineering manager
  • $190,000 as a chief technology officer

While you might spend $60,000 on a computer science degree from a top school, you’ll potentially make a lot more than that throughout your career.

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Does it really matter where I get my computer science master’s degree?

The relative quality of a graduate degree often comes down to how much effort you put into it. That’s especially true of computer science degrees. One of the reasons people in this field frequently question the value of advanced degrees is that technology is evolving so rapidly. Choosing a career in computer science means becoming a lifelong learner. The skills you pick up in a graduate program will only serve you for so long. Eventually, you’ll need to learn new languages, new theories, and new technologies—usually on the job. Those who claim that earning a graduate degree in computer science is a waste of time often argue that time spent in the classroom is time that could be spent racking up professional experience.

That may be true, but it ignores the fact that career success is often a result of who you know, not what you know, or even the pedigree of your degree. According to Business Insider, the “best computer-science and engineering schools in the US are hotspots for elite companies like Google, Apple, Raytheon, Facebook, and Lockheed Martin to recruit new talent.” An MSCS from Cornell or Princeton or Stanford will undoubtedly make your resume look more impressive, but you might not even need your resume. The connections you make during your graduate school years could be reaching out to you with lucrative opportunities, and that may be all it takes to land you that plum gig.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


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Computer Science Programs You Should Consider

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