Computer Science

Computer Science Degrees: Bachelor’s, Master’s, Doctorates, Oh My! [2021 Expert Guide]

Computer Science Degrees: Bachelor’s, Master’s, Doctorates, Oh My! [2021 Expert Guide]
Pure computer science is the study of algorithmic processes, information processes, computer technology, and computation. Image from Pexels
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry January 29, 2021

You can launch a career in tech with an associate's degree in computer science, but you're going to need to do more if you want to land one of the best-paying jobs or work in a niche field. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about where different computer science degrees can take you.

Computer Science Programs You Should Consider

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People associate computer science with tech disciplines like software development and hardware design, but increasingly, it’s a part of everything. This is not a particularly new insight, by the way. Way back in 1993, Michael R. Fellows and Ian Parberry wrote, “We need to do away with the myth that computer science is about computers. Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes, biology is about microscopes, or chemistry is about beakers and test tubes. Science is not about tools; it is about how we use them and what we find out when we do.”

When Fellows and Parberry penned those lines, the practical applications of computer science were relatively limited. Today, digital technology not only powers almost every industry but also keeps our households and lives running smoothly.

Earning one or more computer science degrees can lead to a career in tech or fields as diverse as healthcare, manufacturing, entertainment, and finance. You might specialize in artificial intelligence and then work for a company producing smart appliances. Study robotics and you can design surgical systems. The only limiting factors will be your drive and your highest level of education. You can become a programmer without a degree, but you’ll need at least one—maybe more than one—to become a computer scientist.

In this guide to computer science degrees, we look where different degrees can take you and cover:

  • What is computer science?
  • Is computer science a science?
  • How hard is computer science?
  • Why computer science is important
  • Associate’s degrees in computer science
  • Bachelor’s degrees in computer science
  • Master’s degrees in computer science
  • Doctoral degrees in computer science
  • What computer science degree is right for me?

What is computer science?

Computer science is a broad discipline that blends scientific inquiry, engineering, and technology, but beyond that, it’s hard to pin down precisely what comp sci is. Some define it as a practical discipline encompassing everything from web design to biocomputing. Others assert it’s a branch of mathematics or the purest expression of computational thinking.

Many authoritative sources define computer science in terms of its utility. According to the University of California – Santa Barbara, computer science is mainly concerned with the creation of technology and systems “used in a wide range of industries, including medicine, communications, entertainment, manufacturing, business, and science.” Computer science professionals, according to the BBC, “design new software, solve computing problems, and develop different ways to use technology.” The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business uses a similar definition, explaining in its materials that computer scientists “develop new computing methods to solve problems in countless industries, as well as find innovative new uses for existing technology.”

On one hand, these definitions provide useful guidance for students looking for more information about computer science jobs or computer science salaries. On the other hand, they tell us very little about computer science as a discipline or what the study of computer science entails.

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Is computer science a science?

This question is still up for debate because the line defining where the science in computer science begins and ends is fuzzy.

Pure computer science is the study of algorithmic processes, information processes, computer technology, and computation—suggesting computer science is definitively a science. As one Quora commenter put it in a thread about why computer science is a science, computer science explores “the scope of what can possibly be computed, how efficiently, and with what algorithms.”

There are, however, prominent figures in this discipline who assert it isn’t a science. Notable researchers and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors Hal Abelson and Gerry Sussman wrote, “Computer science is not a science, and its ultimate significance has little to do with computers.” Computer scientist and Y Combinator founder Paul Graham said, “I never liked the term ‘computer science’… Computer science is a grab bag of tenuously related areas thrown together by an accident of history, like Yugoslavia… Perhaps one day computer science will, like Yugoslavia, get broken up into its component parts.”

This role confusion extends into the world of computer science degrees. Many programs differentiate between theoretical computer science (the study of computation) and applied computer science (which includes software engineering and information technology) but include elements of both in their curricula.

Approach matters, too. Some colleges and universities treat comp sci like a science. Others like engineering or even a business discipline.

Is computer science STEM?

Computer science might be the ultimate expression of STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and it’s widely agreed that comp sci is a STEM discipline. That doesn’t mean computer science degree programs officially billed as ‘STEM-designated’ are more advanced. “We don’t have the infrastructure that other STEM disciplines have,” writes Mark Guzdial on the Association for Computing Machinery blog. “We know less about how people learn programming than what we know about how people come to understand algebra, evaporation, bacteria, and Newton’s Laws… The other STEM disciplines have decades more experience in defining learning progressions, establishing programs for preparing teachers, defining frameworks and standards, and creating and testing curriculum.”

A STEM-designated computer science program is simply one that meets specific criteria laid out by the United States Department of Homeland Security as part of the country’s efforts to attract foreign science and tech talent. Foreign students who enroll in these programs are automatically eligible to stay in the US three times longer.

How hard is computer science?

The answer depends on whether you’re talking about the discipline itself, breaking into the field, or computer science degree programs.

Computer science isn’t easy, but it is a discipline open to anyone willing to put in the work. Patience and determination are often more important determinants of success in comp sci than coding chops or an aptitude for math. If you’re willing to put your all into coming up with logical and elegant solutions to computational challenges, you’ll do just fine.

On the other hand, the barriers you’ll encounter in this discipline may not be related to the work itself. Women still face discrimination in computer science, and people of color encounter institutional roadblocks. Organizations and HBCUs with comp sci programs are working to democratize computer science, but progress is slow going.

You should also consider that there’s a difference between how hard computer science is in academia versus in the professional world. “I can’t count how many times I thought about dropping out just from frustration and anger alone,” writes one commenter in a Reddit thread about how hard CS degree programs are. “It’s a very very hard degree. But the [professional] work is super easy and it pays so much, so it was worth it in the end.”

Why computer science is important

The answer is obvious. Even now, computers power our cars, which were built by robots. Houses are getting smarter, thanks to connected appliances and systems. Computers form the foundation of our power grids and telecommunications networks, allowing us to keep in touch with friends and family worldwide in real time.

Computers have the potential to do so much more for us, however. Someday, medicine will use data to diagnose us before we feel sick—and robotic systems will perform the surgeries that cure us. Systems will predict natural disasters and disease outbreaks before they happen. Computational devices may even begin to learn more as people do and to make scientific breakthroughs benefiting humanity.

The bottom line is computer science is the discipline with the most significant impact on our lives. Even relatively small changes to computer technology can have a massive impact on how we work, play, live, and relate to one another. Becoming a computer scientist means becoming a part of those transformational shifts. The first step is getting a degree.

Associate’s degrees in computer science

Think of an associate’s degree in computer science as a useful stepping stone on the way to a bachelor’s degree. In an associate’s degree program, you can knock out core liberal arts classes and take foundational computer science courses for less money than you’d pay in a traditional four-year program. After graduating with an Associate of Science in Computer Science (ASCS), you’ll be qualified to work in many web development, IT, and network administration roles—or to transfer into a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science program.

Curriculum

The ASCS curriculum varies by school. Students typically take undergraduate 100- and 200-level general education courses in the humanities, math, and science along with basic computer science classes that sometimes have frustratingly vague titles like Computer Science I and Computer Science II. Core courses and electives cover topics like:

  • Computer Architecture: Explores the design, structure, and functionality of computer systems, focusing on how processors, memory, and input/output systems interact to execute instructions.
  • Computer Programming Fundamentals: Introduces basic programming concepts, including variables, control structures, data types, and algorithms, using a starter programming language.
  • Cyber Security: Covers the principles and practices designed to protect networks, computers, and data from attack, damage, or unauthorized access.
  • Data Structures: Studies the organization, management, and storage of data for efficient access and modification, including arrays, linked lists, stacks, queues, trees, and graphs.
  • Digital Forensics: Focuses on the recovery and investigation of material found in digital devices, often related to computer crime.
  • Graphics: Introduces the theory and practice of computer graphics, including rendering techniques, geometric modeling, and computer animation.
  • Management Information Systems: Explores how organizations can use information systems and technology to support decision-making, optimize workflows, and enhance performance.
  • Mobile App Development: Teaches the design and development of applications for mobile devices, emphasizing user interface design, programming, and deployment.
  • Networks and Networking: Covers the fundamentals of computer networking, including architecture, protocols, network technologies, and data communication principles.
  • Operating Systems and Their Design: Examines the design and functionality of operating systems, focusing on processes, memory management, file systems, and security.
  • Program Logic: Focuses on developing logical thinking skills necessary for programming, including problem-solving strategies, algorithm development, and debugging techniques.
  • Programming Languages (e.g., Python): Introduces programming through a specific language (like Python), covering syntax, semantics, data structures, and object-oriented programming.
  • Systems Management: Deals with the administration of information technology systems, including hardware, software, networks, and security policies.
  • Web Authoring: Teaches the creation of web pages and websites, including HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and web design principles.

Very few associate’s degree programs in computer science will dive deeper into comp sci than this, making the ASCS a good option for those new to the discipline. If you have real-world professional experience creating software, managing networks, or implementing cyber security, you may not get much out of this degree.

Graduation requirements

Full-time 60-credit associate’s degree programs usually last two years—even if you choose to pursue an online computer science degree—but many associate’s programs are designed for non-traditional students who need flexibility. Students often have the option of enrolling part-time, and may take as long as six years to graduate. Most programs don’t require students to complete a culminating project unless they opt into an independent project-based elective. Internships are seldom a part of the ASCS curriculum.

Jobs you can get with an associate degree in computer science

Associate’s degree holders often work in entry-level computer science jobs. The good news is there are plenty of them, though there is plenty of debate as to whether any of the following jobs for associate’s degree holders fall under the umbrella of computer science:

  • App developer ($57,000): Specializes in creating, testing, and programming apps for computers, mobile phones, and tablets. This role involves understanding user needs, designing application elements, and updating apps based on feedback.
  • Computer support specialist ($46,000): Provides help and advice to people and organizations using computer software or equipment. They might support IT employees within an organization or help non-IT users with their computer problems.
  • Junior software developer ($63,000): Works on the development of software applications under the supervision of senior developers. This role includes writing code, debugging, participating in code reviews, and learning the full software development lifecycle.
  • Junior systems analyst ($56,000): Assists in analyzing and designing technology solutions to meet business needs. Involves working with stakeholders to understand requirements, as well as with developers to implement those solutions effectively.
  • Junior UX developer ($64,000): Focuses on developing the user experience of websites and applications. This role combines elements of psychology, user research, design, and technology to make products intuitive and user-friendly.
  • Junior QA specialist ($49,000): Responsible for testing new software and applications for bugs and usability issues. This role involves running various tests, documenting findings, and working with developers to resolve issues.
  • Web developer ($51,000): Specializes in developing World Wide Web applications or distributed network applications that run over HTTP from a web server to a web browser. The role includes designing, coding, and modifying websites, from layout to function according to client specifications.

The average salary associated with an ASCS is about $45,000, though you can increase your chances of earning more by completing an internship on your own. Any experience you can bring to the table will help you compete for job openings against candidates with bachelor’s degrees.

Bachelor’s degrees in computer science

Computer science bachelor’s programs prepare students for all kinds of relatively well-paid tech jobs. The Bachelor of Science in Computer Science (BSCS) or the Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science (BACS) are the most common, but schools offer a variety of related diplomas, including the:

  • Bachelor of Applied Science in Computer Science
  • Bachelor of Computing in Computer Science
  • Bachelor of Engineering in Computer Science
  • Bachelor of Mathematics in Computer Science
  • Bachelor of Technology in Computer Science and Engineering

As recently as 2017, headlines proclaimed that undergraduate computer science degree programs were shrinking, but statistics tracking the number of undergrads by discipline told a different story. Computer science programs weren’t shrinking—they were expanding to include related degrees in computer engineering, software engineering, and data science (all of which might have once been a part of the CS department).

Computer science is alive and well in 2021. When these programs are small, it’s because they’re selective, designed to weed out students who aren’t cut out for careers in tech.

Is computer science a good major?

Only you can answer this question. Jobs in the computer science field tend to pay well, and there are lots of them, but too many comp sci undergrads flunk out because they don’t understand what they’re getting into. The top computer science programs are extremely math- and logic-focused. Choose this major because you love video games or you loved building a PC, and you’re going to be disappointed. BSCS courses cover some potentially frustrating material.

“It doesn’t necessarily take a genius to get a CS degree, but… not everyone has the patience for it,” writes one commenter in a Reddit thread about whether comp sci is hard. “It really requires that you develop an entirely different way of thinking, which in the early stages is very frustrating and sometimes feels completely hopeless.”

Curriculum

Coursework in undergraduate computer science degree programs varies from school to school, but core courses in most programs cover topics like:

  • Abstraction: Focuses on the concept of abstracting complexity by hiding the unnecessary details and showing only the essential features of objects or concepts, a fundamental principle in computer science for managing complexity.
  • Algorithms: Studies step-by-step procedures for calculations, data processing, and automated reasoning tasks. This course covers the design, analysis, and optimization of algorithms to solve computational problems efficiently.
  • Calculus: Provides an introduction to the concepts of differential and integral calculus and their applications in computer science, such as in machine learning algorithms, optimization problems, and modeling continuous systems.
  • Computer Architecture: Explores the design, structure, and functionality of computer systems, focusing on how processors, memory, and input/output systems interact to execute instructions and perform computations.
  • Computer Engineering: Bridges the gap between electrical engineering and computer science. It covers the hardware aspects of computing, including the design of microprocessors, personal computers, and supercomputers, as well as embedded systems.
  • Data Structures: Teaches the organization, management, and storage of data in various forms, such as arrays, linked lists, stacks, queues, trees, and graphs. Focuses on selecting the appropriate data structure for a given problem to optimize program efficiency.
  • Linear Algebra: Covers the study of vectors, vector spaces, linear transformations, and matrices. It is essential for understanding computer graphics, machine learning algorithms, and systems of linear equations in computer science.
  • Logic: Introduces the principles of logic that underpin computer science, including propositional and predicate logic. Focuses on reasoning, proof techniques, and the foundations of mathematical logic in computer programming and algorithm design.
  • Programming: Provides the foundational skills in writing computer programs. This course covers programming languages, syntax, control structures, data types, and problem-solving strategies, typically using one or more programming languages as the medium of instruction.
  • Software Development: Focuses on the methodologies and techniques used in the development of software systems, including requirements analysis, design, implementation, testing, and maintenance, as well as project management principles.
  • Statistics and Probability: Teaches the principles of statistics and probability theory and their applications in computer science, such as in data analysis, machine learning, and the modeling of random processes.

In addition to taking the required foundational classes, computer science students can usually choose from among elective courses focused on topics like:

  • AI and Machine Learning: Focuses on creating algorithms and statistical models that enable computers to perform tasks without explicit instructions, relying on patterns and inference instead. It includes studying the fundamentals of artificial intelligence, machine learning algorithms, neural networks, and deep learning.
  • Algorithmic Functions: Examines functions that can be computed by algorithms, emphasizing the mathematical properties and behaviors of these functions. This topic often explores recursion, iteration, and the fundamental principles of constructing and analyzing algorithms.
  • Compilers and Compiler Design: Covers the theory and practical skills needed to design and implement compilers, which are programs that translate high-level programming languages into machine code. Topics include lexical analysis, syntax analysis, semantic analysis, optimization, and code generation.
  • Computational Theory: Also known as theory of computation, this area explores the fundamental capabilities and limitations of computers, encompassing topics such as automata theory, computability theory, and complexity theory. It seeks to understand what problems can be solved by computers and how efficiently they can be solved.
  • Cyber Security: Addresses the techniques and policies designed to protect digital information from unauthorized access, cyber attacks, and other threats. This field includes the study of cryptography, network security, application security, and ethical hacking.
  • Data Science: Integrates statistical analysis, machine learning, data analysis, and computer science techniques to extract meaningful insights and knowledge from data. This interdisciplinary field covers data mining, data visualization, and data storage, among other topics.
  • Distributed Systems: Explores the principles, algorithms, and architectures used to design and manage distributed computing systems, where components located on networked computers communicate and coordinate their actions by passing messages.
  • Game Design: Focuses on the creative and technical aspects of creating video games, including game mechanics, story development, gameplay design, graphics, and audio, as well as the programming skills required to bring game ideas to life.
  • Graphics: Deals with the generation and manipulation of images and visuals by computers. Topics include rendering techniques, modeling, animation, and the use of graphics hardware and software for visual effects.
  • Human-Computer Interaction (HCI): Studies the design and use of computer technology, focusing on the interfaces between people (users) and computers. HCI researchers observe the ways humans interact with computers and design technologies that let humans interact with computers in novel ways.
  • Information Theory: A mathematical framework for quantifying information, including its transmission, processing, and utilization. Topics include entropy, information content, data compression, and error correction codes.
  • Operating Systems: Explores the software that manages computer hardware and software resources, providing common services for computer programs. This course covers process management, memory management, file systems, and security.
  • Real-Time Computing: Involves computing systems that respond to input within a specified time period for correct performance, applicable in environments that require immediate processing and response, such as embedded systems and real-time simulation.
  • Software Engineering: Focuses on the application of engineering principles to the design, development, testing, and maintenance of software. It covers methodologies, design patterns, project management, and software development life cycles.

Some BSCS programs let students choose a specialization track, but most focus on comp sci fundamentals.

Graduation requirements

The typical 120-credit BSCS program takes four years of full-time study to complete. Students take a variety of general education classes in the humanities, science, and mathematics in addition to computer science courses. Some comp sci bachelor’s programs culminate in an internship, which can be a hugely valuable experience—and not just because it helps students grow their networks.

“I went to Drexel University and majored in computer science,” explains Daring Fireball founder John Gruber in an episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “Drexel has a great program, they call it co-op, but it’s mandatory to graduate to do internships. I loved it because it helped me figure out very quickly that I didn’t really want to be a programmer.”

Jobs you can get with a bachelor’s degree in computer science (salary)

There are many well-paying positions for BSCS grads, including:

  • App developer ($70,000): Designs, develops, and updates mobile applications. Works with multiple programming languages and platforms, focusing on user experience, performance, and integrating with back-end services.
  • Back-end developer ($78,000): Focuses on server-side web application logic and integration. This role involves writing APIs, working with server databases, and ensuring that data flows correctly to the front end.
  • Computer network architect ($122,000): Designs and builds data communication networks, including local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs), and intranets. Requires a deep understanding of the company’s business plan to design a network tailored to the organization’s needs.
  • Computer programmer ($64,000): Writes and tests code that allows computer applications and software programs to function properly. They turn the program designs created by software developers and engineers into instructions that a computer can follow.
  • Computer systems analyst ($69,000): Studies an organization’s current computer systems and procedures and designs information systems solutions to help the organization operate more efficiently and effectively.
  • Cyber security analyst ($77,000): Protects IT infrastructure (including networks, hardware, and software) from a range of criminal activity. Monitors systems for security breaches, conducts investigations on how breaches happen, and prepares reports on findings.
  • Database administrator ($74,000): Uses specialized software to store and organize data, such as financial information and customer shipping records. Ensures that data are available to users and secure from unauthorized access.
  • Front-end developer ($74,000): Responsible for implementing visual elements that users see and interact with within a web application. They are usually supported by back-end web developers, who are responsible for server-side application logic and integration of the work front-end developers do.
  • Information security analyst ($73,000): Plans and carries out security measures to protect an organization’s computer networks and systems. Their responsibilities are continually expanding as the number of cyberattacks increases.
  • Junior game developer ($65,000): Works on the development of video games under the supervision of senior developers. This role might involve programming, graphic design, sound design, or game testing.
  • Quality assurance engineer ($71,000): Ensures that the final product observes the company’s quality standards. In software development, it typically involves overseeing the entire development process, which includes software testing, from start to finish.
  • Web developer ($60,000): Specializes in the development of applications relating to the World Wide Web or distributed network applications, which typically run protocols like HTTP from a Web server to a client browser using associated programming languages like HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and PHP.

The median salary for bachelor’s degree holders is a respectable $85,000. Earn a master’s degree in computer science and your earning potential could easily hit six figures.

Master’s degrees in computer science

If you want to work in competitive fields like robotics or step into managerial or executive roles, you’ll need a Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS).

Curriculum

Many of the best MSCS programs build curricula around hyper-focused concentrations like human-computer interaction, machine learning, or computer vision. Your specializations will determine what classes you take beyond a handful of core courses. Concentration-based programs are more likely to require incoming students to already possess foundational knowledge and programming skills.

At schools with on-campus and online CS programs for non-CS majors, however, programs usually have a set curriculum rooted in applied computer science. Students take courses in software engineering, database management, and web development. Some MSCS programs for non-CS majors include theoretical computer science topics in the curriculum, but many don’t.

Some programs, like the online MSCS program at Stevens Institute of Technology, include foundational and higher-level topics in the standard curriculum. Core courses in this program include:

  • Advanced Programming in the Unix Environment: Delves into sophisticated programming techniques in Unix-like operating systems, covering system calls, file operations, process control, and inter-process communication to build robust and efficient software.
  • Agile Methods for Software Development: Explores Agile methodologies for developing software, focusing on iterative development, team collaboration, customer feedback, and rapid delivery of high-quality software. Methods like Scrum, Kanban, and XP (Extreme Programming) are commonly covered.
  • Algorithms: Studies the design, analysis, and application of algorithms to solve computational problems. Topics include sorting, searching, graph algorithms, string processing, and algorithmic complexity.
  • Computer Organization & Programming: Examines the architecture of computer systems, including data representation, instruction sets, processor design, and memory hierarchy. This course also covers assembly language programming and the relationship between high-level programming languages and the machine code executed by the processor.
  • Data Structures: Focuses on advanced data structures and their applications. Topics include trees, graphs, hash tables, and data structures for dynamic and high-dimensional data. Emphasis is placed on understanding, implementing, and analyzing data structures to solve complex computational problems.
  • Database Management Systems: Provides an in-depth look at the theory and practical aspects of database design, implementation, and management. Topics include relational models, SQL, transaction management, database architecture, and data warehousing.
  • Distributed Systems & Cloud Computing: Explores the principles, architectures, and technologies of distributed systems and cloud computing. Topics include distributed algorithms, system models, cloud service models (IaaS, PaaS, SaaS), virtualization, and scalable computing.
  • Human-Computer Interaction: Studies the design and evaluation of user interfaces, with a focus on making systems usable, accessible, and enjoyable. Covers principles of design, usability testing, and interaction techniques.
  • Introduction to Java Programming: Covers the basics of programming in Java, including syntax, object-oriented programming principles, data types, control structures, and exception handling, with an emphasis on applications in computer science.
  • Introduction to Operating Systems: Provides a comprehensive overview of operating system concepts, including process management, memory management, file systems, and security. This course explores the design and implementation of modern operating systems.
  • Mobile Systems & Applications: Focuses on the design and development of mobile applications, covering topics such as mobile operating systems, application development frameworks, user interface design, and the unique challenges of mobile computing.
  • Web Programming: Teaches the fundamentals of programming for the web. Topics include HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and server-side scripting. The course may also cover web application frameworks, APIs, and the development of interactive and dynamic web applications.

Graduation requirements

How long it takes to earn an MSCS varies by institution. Two-year, full-time programs are the most common because comp sci master’s programs tend to cover a lot of ground. Most MSCS programs require that students complete 30 to 60 credit hours of work made up of classwork plus a practicum, internship, or culminating project. The 33-credit online MS in Computer Science curriculum at Tufts University, for example, includes a two-semester capstone course.

Jobs you can get with a master’s degree in computer science

The answer to the question ‘What can I do with a computer science masters?‘ is complex. Your specialization area will probably determine what you’re qualified to do. Common job titles for MSCS grads include:

  • Computer scientist ($81,000): Engages in the theoretical foundations of information and computation, applying algorithmic techniques to the design and development of new software and hardware technologies. This role often involves research and innovation in areas such as artificial intelligence, data processing, and computational theory.
  • Cloud engineer ($91,000): Specializes in designing, implementing, and managing cloud computing systems. This role involves working with cloud service providers (like AWS, Azure, or Google Cloud) to deploy and maintain scalable and efficient cloud infrastructure, services, and applications.
  • Cyber security engineer ($97,000): Focuses on protecting systems, networks, and data from cyber attacks. Duties include designing secure networks, developing security protocols, implementing firewalls and encryption, and responding to security breaches and threats.
  • Database administrator ($74,000): Responsible for the performance, integrity, and security of databases. Tasks include installing and maintaining database systems, backing up data, ensuring data availability, and optimizing database performance.
  • Information systems manager ($84,000): Oversees an organization’s information technology (IT) operations, ensuring that computer systems, networks, and data security meet the organization’s needs. This role involves strategic planning, managing IT staff, and coordinating IT-related projects.

The highest-paying master’s in computer science jobs include:

  • Chief technology officer ($161,000): A senior executive responsible for the technological direction of a company. They oversee the development and implementation of technology strategies, manage the technology team, and ensure that technological resources align with the company’s business needs.
  • Information security manager ($117,000): Oversees the organization’s information security program, including managing the team responsible for protecting data and systems against unauthorized access, disclosure, alteration, destruction, or disruption.
  • Information technology director ($121,000): Leads and manages the IT department, overseeing the infrastructure of technical operations, managing a team of IT professionals, and developing and implementing strategic plans to meet the technological needs of the organization.
  • Network architect ($122,000): Designs and builds data communication networks, such as local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs), and intranets. This role requires a deep understanding of the company’s business plan to design a network tailored to the organization’s needs.
  • Principal software engineer ($139,000): A senior-level engineer who leads the design and development of software applications or systems. This role involves high-level decision-making, mentoring junior engineers, and may include involvement in strategic planning.
  • Senior solutions architect ($136,000): Works with clients and business stakeholders to design and implement technology solutions that meet specific business needs. This role involves a deep understanding of both technology and business processes.
  • Software engineering director ($150,000): Oversees the software engineering department, leading the development and delivery of software products. This includes strategic planning, product design, quality assurance, and managing the software development lifecycle.
  • Software engineering manager ($140,000): Manages a team of software developers, overseeing the planning, design, and implementation of software applications or systems. This role involves coordinating project activities, mentoring team members, and ensuring the quality of the software developed.

So, is a master’s in computer science worth it? The answer is an almost unequivocal yes. An MSCS from one of the top on-campus or online computer science programs might be overkill if you want to spend your life coding. If you want to advance into the highest-paid positions in the computer science world, however, you’ll almost certainly need a graduate-level computer science degree. An MSCS can have a profound impact on your earning potential. In Forbes’ rankings of graduate degrees by salary increase, the Master of Science in Computer Science offered the second-biggest boost.

Doctoral degrees in computer science

The biggest perks of having a PhD in Computer Science include being able to use the honorific ‘Dr.’ and being qualified to step into roles in the R&D labs where innovations in technology happen. The biggest downside is the value of your degree will be setting-specific. “If you want to go into research… then it’s difficult to do so without a PhD,” Greg Law, co-founder and CTO at the Undo software company, told U.S. News & World Report. “But beyond a research role… I don’t feel a PhD opens up any opportunities that would otherwise be precluded.”

You’ll be happiest in a computer science doctorate program if you accept that a PhD probably won’t be a financial investment. Computer science PhD salaries are comparable to those of master’s degree holders—the average PhD in CS salary is about $125,000—and you may actually earn less in the high-profile specialized research roles typically coveted by PhDs than you would working as a humble software developer at a big Silicon Valley tech firm.

Curriculum

Most doctoral-level computer science degree programs don’t have a fixed comp sci curriculum. Instead, students either take courses specific to set specialty areas or create unique interdisciplinary curricula (which many schools call a program of study) in support of their research. Examples of specialty areas offered by colleges and universities with computer science PhD programs include:

  • Artificial Intelligence: Explores advanced concepts and techniques in AI, including machine learning algorithms, neural networks, deep learning, natural language processing, and robotics. Students learn to design intelligent systems capable of performing tasks that typically require human intelligence.
  • Computational Theory: Focuses on the mathematical aspects of computing, covering topics such as computability, complexity theory, algorithms, and the fundamental limits of what can be achieved with computational processes. This course lays the foundation for understanding the capabilities and boundaries of computation.
  • Graphics and Visualization: Covers advanced techniques in computer graphics and visualization, including rendering, animation, 3D modeling, and simulation. The course emphasizes the mathematical and algorithmic foundations of generating and manipulating visual representations of data.
  • Human-Computer Interaction: Explores advanced topics in the design, evaluation, and implementation of interactive computing systems for human use. This course delves into user-centered design, usability testing, interaction design, and emerging technologies in HCI.
  • Robotics: Offers an in-depth look at the design, construction, operation, and application of robots, combining concepts from AI, machine learning, control theory, and mechanical engineering. Topics may include robot kinematics, perception, motion planning, and robotics systems.
  • Systems and Networking: Focuses on advanced topics in the design and implementation of computer systems and networks. This includes operating systems, distributed systems, network architecture, protocols, security, and performance analysis. Students learn about the challenges in building reliable, scalable, and secure computing systems.

Graduation requirements

Every PhD program has different graduation requirements, and these can change based on the degrees you’ve earned previously and your professional experience. In general, however, enrolling in a computer science doctorate program means committing to four to seven years of work. During that time, you’ll not only study and do research but also teach.

Jobs you can get with a doctoral degree in computer science

Most jobs for computer science PhDs are in research and academia. However, what makes computer science unique among fields is that high-profile tech companies are known for hiring doctorate holders. While many computer science graduates do go on to become professors and researchers, more end up in positions at companies like:

  • Amazon
  • Apple
  • Facebook
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Microsoft
  • Oracle

Google, in particular, is known for hiring PhDs. One out of every three hires in the company’s San Francisco branch has a doctorate.

What computer science degree is right for me?

The answer depends on where you are in your professional life. Any of the above computer science degrees can lead to an engaging and stable career that lets you bank a few bucks. An associate’s-level computer science degree won’t qualify you to step into senior-level positions in this thriving field. Still, it may be the best choice if you want to kick off a career in tech with no prior experience. A bachelor’s program might be the better choice if you know a little programming and have some experience in IT. Master’s degree programs admit both CS majors and non-CS majors, so don’t assume you can’t earn an MSCS just because you don’t have a BSCS. You might just have to work a little harder for it. And chances are you already know whether your destiny lies in a PhD program.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for comp sci professionals will grow at a rate of about 15 percent through 2029 as more than 500,000 new tech jobs are created across industries. That suggests whichever degree pathway and career path you choose will lead to good things because computer science professionals will continue to be a hot commodity and computer science salaries will stay high.

(Last Updated on March 21, 2024)

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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.

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Categorized as: Computer ScienceInformation Technology & Engineering