Many computer scientists started out as mechanically inclined "tinkerers," people who enjoy learning how something works and pushing the boundaries of their understanding. Take Bill Gates, for example. As a teen at Lakeside Prep School in Seattle, Washington, the Microsoft co-founder often skipped class to write his first computer program. It powered a human vs. machine tic-tac-toe game.
Decades later, he wrote: "I was 13 years old when I fell in love with programming. My school had just become one of the first in the country to get a computer terminal. The machine was huge and slow, and it didn't even have a screen—but I was hooked." While computers looked much different when Gates was a teen, their ability to help students explore their creativity remains unchanged. These days, there are more computer science programs than ever devoted to doing exactly that.
A robust job market for computer science graduates helps drive enrollment trends in computer science degree programs. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of computer and information technology (IT) jobs is projected to increase by 12 percent through to 2028, the result of a growing emphasis on cloud computing, the collection and storage of big data, and information security.
BLS data also show that many common career paths among computer science degree-holders lead to six-figure salaries. For example, in 2019 the median annual income among professionals who held the title of database administrator was $93,750. Software developers and computer network architects did even better, making a median $105,590 and $112,690, respectively.
Add in ample research opportunities, specialization options, and the wide variety of convenient online programs available in the field, and it's understandable why pursuing a degree in computer science may be on your mind. But how long will it take to complete? The answer depends on the degree path that's right for you.
Associate programs in computer science typically offer students a path to earning either an Associate of Science (AS) or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree. This degree will not qualify you for most computer science careers, which require a minimum of at least a bachelor's degree. That does not mean they are without value, however. Associate's programs deliver a general education that lays the foundation for later learning and can prepare you for a range of entry-level computer science and IT-related positions.
While some students may pursue work after completing their associate's degree, others may choose to transfer to a four-year college to complete a bachelor's. With lower-level core requirements completed, they generally will only need to take courses directly related to their computer science major.
Each computer science associate program has its own curriculum. Topics typically cover lower-division undergraduate 100- and 200-level courses that provide students with an introduction to general education courses in language arts, science, and mathematics in addition to major courses. Computer science courses help students learn how to develop problem-solving algorithms, master programming languages, and apply data structures and other methodologies when creating software. Course titles may include:
Admission into associate degree programs in the field typically requires a high school diploma or equivalent. Some schools may also expect students to have a specific minimum GPA, minimum standardized test scores, or both. Some programs offer test score waivers to students with prior college coursework or related work experience.
Students are usually required to complete about 60 credits to earn an associate degree in the field. They may do so online, at a local community college or technical school, or a college or university. Those who enroll full-time can complete a program in as little as two years, while students who choose part-time enrollment can finish their degree in as little as two and a half years and as long as five to six years.
Bachelor's programs in computer science typically culminate in either a Bachelor of Science (BS) or Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree. BS programs in the field tend to emphasize a more scientific, practice-oriented approach to computer science and require students to complete a greater number of credits directly linked to their major.
BA programs, on the other hand, typically require fewer credits directly linked to the computer science major. In this sense, students can expect to earn credits in a wide variety of liberal arts subjects, including the humanities, English, social sciences, and foreign languages, while gaining a broader computer science education.
Cornell University in New York offers both a BS and a BA in computer science. While the core requirements for both programs are identical, the BA program supports a liberal arts approach to the field while the BS focuses on engineering.
Outside of core coursework, Cornell's BA program in computer science includes courses in physical and biological science, a foreign language requirement, and "breadth" courses, which require students to complete credit hours in subject areas relating to geography and history. While students in Cornell's BS program also complete a variety of liberal arts courses, their studies place a greater focus on STEM-related topics such as physics, chemistry, and engineering
Though courses can vary between schools, most computer science bachelor degree programs offer a curriculum that outlines critical introductory topics in computer science theory, computer systems, and applications. After building the foundation of their major, students typically have the opportunity to study more advanced subjects like calculus and discrete math, data structures, computer engineering, mobile applications, and software development.
Many computer science programs at this level also provide students with the opportunity to complete a variety of electives that lead to specializations in the field. The online BS in computer science degree program at Southern New Hampshire University, for instance, offers concentrations in data analysis, project management for STEM, information security, and software engineering. When searching for schools, students may also discover those that offer unusual concentrations such as high-performance systems, mobile computing, computer architecture, and game design.
While specific admission requirements vary widely from one school to another, most programs generally maintain similar application criteria, including a high school diploma or equivalent. Applicants typically must meet their program's minimum GPA threshold and demonstrate their verbal and quantitative reasoning skills through standardized test scores.
Many programs also require a statement of purpose that outlines the applicant's background, personal and professional goals, and motive for studying computer science. Most also require letters of recommendation from teachers and supervisors.
Many schools offer a variety of enrollment options to suit students' needs, including on-campus, online, and hybrid programs, as well as accelerated programs that enable them to enter the workforce more quickly. Most programs typically require four years of full-time study, while those who pursue their bachelor's degree part-time will need about five to six years. Accelerated programs in the field operate on a much faster track to degree completion and generally take about two years.
Master's in computer science programs build on bachelor's level foundations and help students build an advanced skill set in the field. Earning this type of graduate degree comes with a variety of benefits. It's a great way for potential students to help ensure they stand out in the applicant pool, whether entering the job market for the first time, changing careers, or seeking promotion to mid- and senior-level positions in the computer science and IT realm.
Some master's degree programs are more focused on research and the theoretical nature of computer science. Others are geared toward professional applications in the field. The professional master's degree often requires students to gain real-world experience in the computer science industry through internships or fieldwork. In contrast, the research master's degree prepares students to contribute original knowledge to their field. Some students may also choose to continue their master's research through a doctoral program.
Computer science master's degree courses vary by school. Still, some curriculum standards do tend to universally apply. The degree typically includes foundational courses in math and science disciplines requiring that students possess strong analytical reasoning and problem-solving skills. Most expect a background in computing theory, applied algorithms, and operating systems. Core classes may range from topics such as programming to software engineering and computer security to machine learning, web development, and Python methodologies. There are vast opportunities for students to pursue a concentration while completing their degree.
Most master's programs in the field also require students to conclude their program with a practicum, internship, or other type of culminating activity. The online MS in computer science at Tufts University, for example, includes a capstone project that students complete over two semesters, providing them with the opportunity to produce a substantial piece of work examining a particular area of the field.
Computer science master's degree prerequisites vary depending on the program, but generally, applicants must have a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution and professional experience. Some programs also require applicants to have completed specific undergraduate coursework in areas like linear algebra, computer organization, and operating systems. Other common admissions requirements include GRE or other standardized test scores, a minimum GPA, a statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation.
Whether attending graduate school through a traditional program, online courses, or a combination of the two, full-time students can generally complete their master's in computer science in about two years. Those in accelerated programs can typically do so in one year. Students who opt to attend school part-time take longer, often about three to five years.
Doctoral computer science programs typically involve independent study in a focused area of interest, and coursework and research that culminate in a final dissertation. Many PhD programs also provide hands-on fieldwork opportunities involving current topics facing the industry, such as biologically inspired computing, data mining, and cybersecurity. Students who enroll in computer science PhD programs generally aspire to enter highly specialized computer science fields, teach at the college level, or a combination of both.
Required courses vary by school and often depend on each institution's resources and faculty. However, computer science PhD programs are designed to provide students with a broad mastery of in-depth knowledge across topics like algorithms, software, systems, and computational theory alongside expertise in more specialized areas of computer science, such as artificial intelligence, computer graphics, cryptography and security, and data science.
Some PhD programs may also require students to take classes in business. These courses cover how data is used to make business decisions and explore concepts such as finance, accounting, operations, and human resources.
Students who wish to pursue a PhD in computer science usually need to have a bachelor's degree or master's degree with a substantial background in computer science or a related field. Those with a master's degree will most likely need to complete sixty credit hours' worth of coursework, while those starting with a bachelor's degree will need to complete an average of about ninety credits. Additional common requirements include:
The time to complete a PhD in computer science depends largely on what degree a student starts with and the specific requirements of their school's program. However, on average, they take between four and seven years to complete. One advantage of doctoral programs is that they often allow students a hefty amount of flexibility when considering how long they spend learning, which partially accounts for the range. In some cases, schools may offer students up to ten years to complete their degree requirements.
Questions or feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org