Computer Science

Computer Science vs. Information Systems [Which Master’s Degree Is Better?]

Computer Science vs. Information Systems [Which Master’s Degree Is Better?]
Some guides will tell you that computer science is a theoretical discipline, while information systems focuses on business IT. However, this ignores that most computer science grads don't work in research and that plenty of information systems specialists spend their days coding or building hardware. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry January 12, 2021

To advance in the business side of tech, you'll probably need a graduate degree. A Master of Science in Computer Science can help you realize your ambitions, but so can a Master of Information Systems. This guide can help you choose between them.

Computer Science and I.T. Degree Programs You Should Consider

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Technology creates more jobs than it automates out of existence—hundreds of thousands of well-paying new positions each year. Launching a career in tech is clearly a smart move, but one that requires some thought. That’s because there are so many vastly different disciplines in this sector.

Computer science and information systems are just two of the five major computing disciplines, but they encompass hundreds of career pathways between them. Some are very technical, others less so. Some are research-based, others practical. All involve working with computers.

If you have an affinity for tech and an aptitude for mathematics and programming, picking one of these disciplines over the other might not be easy. The first step involves choosing between a master’s in computer science and a master’s in information systems, which can be similarly challenging. Some guides will tell you that computer science is a theoretical discipline, while information systems focuses on business IT. However, this ignores that most computer science grads don’t work in research and that plenty of information systems specialists spend their days coding or building hardware.

As you assess degree programs, don’t assume that getting a master’s degree in computer science is a road to riches and prestige, while an information systems management degree will lead to a career behind a help desk. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We put together this guide to showcase how much these disciplines have in common and help you figure out which degree supports your goals. In it, we look at computer science vs. information systems and cover:

  • Computer science vs. information systems: what’s the difference?
  • Master’s in computer science vs. master’s in information systems: which is for you?

Computer science vs. information systems: what’s the difference?

Computer science and information systems are closely related tech disciplines; the dividing line between them is anything but clear. Some resources sum up the difference by asserting that computer science is concerned with the development of new technology, while information systems is concerned with the application of that technology. Others say computer science encompasses everything having to do with computational thinking, software, hardware, and algorithms, while information systems encompases only the business applications of those things (which is why the MBA in Information Systems exists). Still others treat information systems as a branch of computer science primarily focused on the software and hardware used to collect, store, process, and analyze data.

What we can state with certainty is that Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) programs are usually more technical, while Master of Information Systems (MIS) programs more equally split time to technology and its business applications. There are also programs, however, in which MIS students learn to optimize existing computer technology and to create new tech, as well as MSCS programs for non-CS grads that teach basic programming, network administration, and information technology strategy.

Curriculum

MSCS programs and MIS programs each involve programming, tend to be structured around concentrations, and prepare students for technology careers. Courses in both may touch on topics like software engineering, database creation, and network security, but students in information systems master’s programs are more likely to study technical topics in the context of business.

What do you learn in computer science master’s programs?

The typical master’s in computer science curriculum is anything but typical because so many programs are specialization-driven. In general, however, computer science master’s programs dive into topics like:

  • Advanced data structures
  • Algorithm design and analysis
  • Computational theory
  • Computer architecture and computer networks
  • Computer engineering
  • Data compiling and network protocols
  • Data warehousing and storage
  • Database systems design
  • Information science and information systems
  • Operating system analysis and design
  • Network architecture
  • Network security
  • Software engineering
  • Software theory

Some colleges and universities (especially those with computer science master’s programs for non-CS majors) have a generalist MSCS curriculum. More, however, develop MSCS curricula geared toward specific areas of specialization. Southern Methodist University, for instance, offers an MSCS in Artificial Intelligence with a unique curriculum.

Some MSCS programs let students design custom programs of study based pm areas of interest or professional goals. Students enrolled in the University of Tulsa‘s computer science master’s program complete 30 credit hours of coursework consisting of graduate-level computer science courses they choose themselves.

What do you learn in MIS programs?

Master’s in information systems programs (which sometimes confer degrees like the Master of Science in Information Management or the MS in Computer Information Systems) are also largely concentration-based, making it difficult to nail down the average MIS curriculum. Topics covered across programs include:

  • Data analytics
  • Database creation
  • Database management
  • Information law and policy
  • Information organization
  • Information security policy and practice
  • Network administration
  • Object-oriented programming
  • Project management
  • Strategic IT management
  • Virtualization and cloud computing
  • Web app development

How technical the MIS curriculum gets varies from school to school. Some programs (like the one at Stevens Institute of Technology) are offered by business schools and emphasize the business applications of technology. Others treat information systems as a technical discipline. Quora commenter Levi Heidrick studied at the University of Kansas‘ School of Engineering and had this to say about the program:

“At my university both degrees are offered through the school of engineering, so either way you get an engineering degree. Both degrees require courses in discrete mathematics, statistics, and physics. Plus data structures and algorithms as well as other various programming courses including database, operating system, and software engineering.”

There are also programs like Boston University‘s MS in Computer Information Systems that prepare students to work in the business side of tech but also let students take elective comp sci courses like Advanced Programming and Advanced Cryptography.

Specializations

MSCS specializations are usually highly technical. Common concentration options include:

Master of Information Systems concentrations tend to be more application-focused and include:

  • Business intelligence
  • Cyber security
  • Data analytics or data science
  • Database management
  • Enterprise systems management
  • Health Informatics
  • Information systems management
  • Computer information systems (CIS) security
  • IT project management
  • Strategic technology management
  • Web application development

How long does it take?

Colleges and universities approach master’s-level technology programs differently, and program length can vary considerably.

How long does it take to get a master’s in computer science?

How long it takes to earn an MSCS may depend on the type of program you choose. The most technologically advanced computer science master’s programs typically take two years of full-time, intensive study to complete. Students in these programs designed for experienced tech professionals also have to meet thesis, capstone course, co-op project, or practicum requirements to graduate. Students who work while enrolled in part-time MSCS programs can take up to five years to graduate while accelerated computer science master’s programs last just 18 months. One-year computer science master’s programs are relatively rare, but some online MSCS programs (including online computer science master’s for non-CS majors enable motivated students willing to take heavy course loads to graduate in 15 months.

How long does it take to get a master’s degree in information systems?

Earning an MIS can take anywhere from one year for full-time students who can take time off work to three years or more for students in part-time information systems master’s programs. Two-year programs are standard, but some highly rated colleges and universities have accelerated one-year and 16-month MIS programs among the best in the US.

Top programs

Highly ranked information technology master’s programs and comp sci programs have regularly updated curricula, expert faculty, robust career support, and high post-graduation employment rates. The best programs also have relationships with companies in the technology field to facilitate real-world, hands-on experience before graduation and lead to career opportunities after.

Which schools have the top master’s in computer science programs?

These colleges and universities are home to some of the best graduate computer science programs:

Which schools have the top MIS programs?

Some of the best on-campus an online information systems master’s programs are offered by:

Cost

The average graduate student leaves school carrying about $45,000 in student loan debt. If cost is one of your primary concerns, be aware that you may pay less for an MIS than for an MSCS.

How much does it cost to get a master’s in computer science?

The average computer science master’s degree costs about $40,000, but you don’t have to spend that much to get an MSCS. While the most prestigious computer science master’s programs typically cost upward of $60,000, there are some budget-friendly programs that cost just $10,000 from start to finish. The MSCS programs at HBCUs tend to be very affordable, if not quite that affordable.

How much does it cost to get a master’s in information systems?

The average cost of a MIS degree is about $30,000, though many online information systems master’s programs cost less. While $10,000 MSCS programs are relatively rare, there are a fair number of MIS programs at state schools that won’t cost much more than that if you qualify for resident tuition. On the other end of the spectrum, high-profile programs like the one at Carnegie Mellon cost upwards of $115,000.

Job outlook

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes growth predictions forcomputer and information technology professions as an umbrella category that includes not only computer scientists and programmers but also information research scientists and information systems managers. Employment in computing roles is projected to grow 11 percent over the next 10 years, but that doesn’t tell us much about how MSCS and MIS holders will fare.

What are the chances of getting a job in computer science?

The answer depends on what you want to do with your degree. While some computer science careers will grow faster than the national average across tech jobs, projections vary considerably by title and sector. Jobs for software developers are being created more quickly than jobs in other computer science areas, but hardware engineering jobs are lagging at present. And while cyber security and data science are both hot areas of computer science now, job creation in both may be slowed by innovations in automation.

What is the job outlook for information systems?

BLS data suggests that jobs for computer and information systems managers are also being created more quickly than is typical for all occupations. That doesn’t mean, however, that all the roles associated with this discipline are in demand. Employers are creating jobs for computer systems analysts relatively slowly while the outlook for information security analysts is booming.

Career paths and earning potential

Earning a master’s degree in either computer science or information systems can lead to six-figure paychecks because both provide you the qualifications to step into senior-level and management positions.

What kind of jobs do you get with a computer science degree?

MSCS graduates work in fields like:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Cloud services
  • Computer and information science
  • Cyber security
  • Data science
  • Database administration
  • Engineering management
  • Information systems management
  • Machine learning
  • Network architecture
  • Security engineering
  • Systems administration

They also earn good money. Early career computer science jobs for developers, analysts, and architects may not pay $100,000+ but most entry-level jobs in computer science pay more than the national average across occupations. The median annual salary for MSCS graduates is $101,000, and senior-level roles pay more. The highest-paying computer science jobs include:

What do you do with an information systems degree?

The average salary for MIS holders is about $86,000, but salaries in information systems are comparable to computer science salaries when you get into management. These positions include:

  • Enterprise architecture manager ($170,000)
  • Information architecture director ($102,000)
  • Information systems director ($103,000)
  • Information systems manager ($146,000)
  • Vice president of information technology ($152,000)

MIS graduates also work in roles like:

  • Business analyst
  • Business intelligence analyst
  • Business systems analyst
  • Information technology director
  • IT consultant
  • MIS director
  • Network administrator
  • Systems analyst
  • Systems developer

Many roles in tech are open to both MSCS and MIS holders, including:

One of the highest-paying roles in tech—Chief Technology Officer—is also open to professionals with both degrees. At large corporations, experienced CTOs can earn seven figures after bonuses and other non-salary compensation.

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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.

University and Program Name Learn More

Master’s in computer science vs. master’s in information systems: which is for you?

With more information about computer science degrees vs. information systems degrees and careers, it should be relatively easy to make your choice. There’s no right or wrong answer. Know is that the MSCS is the more versatile degree because computer science programs often include information systems in the curriculum while information systems programs seldom teach advanced engineering.

Is a master’s in computer science worth it?

There are plenty of good reasons to get a computer science master’s. The demand for qualified comp sci professionals is high, as are computer science salaries. The MSCS will give you a bigger post-graduation salary boost than most other graduate technology degrees, and some tech fields are hard to break into without a computer science master’s.

Is a master’s in information systems worth it?

An information systems master’s is worthwhile, too. High-profile companies across industries like Ernst & Young, Amazon, IBM, Accenture, and GM employ MIS grads, and jobs in this discipline are abundant. In a Quora thread about careers in information systems, one commenter wrote, “My career has given me a lot of flexibility—you can work in a variety of different jobs, from programmer to analyst, to technical project manager, and beyond. It has good pay, and it’s always been easy for me to find jobs. Most jobs are pretty flexible and allow at least some work from home.”

The bottom line is that if your goals include earning top dollar in a tech career and you have your eye on senior-level or management positions, getting a master’s degree is a smart idea. Which one is up to you.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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.

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Computer Science and I.T. Degree Programs You Should Consider

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