Computer Science

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

Computer Science vs. Information Technology [Which Master’s Degree Is Better?]
There's more overlap between computer science and information technology than most people realize, even though the fields are fundamentally different. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry January 12, 2021

High pay and better-than-average job growth are the norm in both information technology and computer science. A master's degree in either can help you launch a recession-proof career. How to choose between them?

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

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The tech sector isn’t the number one source of new jobs in the United States, but it comes close. Hundreds of thousands of new tech positions emerge each year, with millions of open positions at any given time. Information technology and computing jobs are growing especially fast, and they pay well, too. Employers have launched numerous initiatives designed to attract new talent and diversify these sectors.

Maybe you’re considering a career in tech because median salaries are nearly double the national wage. Maybe you’re looking for job stability. Or maybe you just like playing around with computers. Whatever your reasons for exploring opportunities in this field, you have some tough decisions to make. Tech is a broad field, and working with computers can mean anything from working as a web developer to coding firmware to overseeing a company’s data warehousing strategy.

Having a master’s degree can make it easier to do all that and more—and boost your lifetime earning potential—but choosing the right master’s degree can be tricky. Earning a master’s in computer science seems like a no-brainer, but don’t overlook information technology master’s programs.

The easiest way to explain the difference between these disciplines is that computer science focuses on application and algorithm development, while information technology focuses on configuring and managing existing computer systems (especially in enterprise settings). There’s more overlap between them and their academic pathways than most people realize, even though they’re fundamentally different.

The computer science vs. information technology debate is one you’ll have to settle for yourself by examining which of the two disciplines seems more compelling and better suited to your ambitions. Research is crucial, and we can help.

In this article, we look at the difference between computer science and information technology master’s degrees and cover:

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

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

Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) programs are usually highly technical. They’re typically geared toward professionals with well-developed programming skills and professional experience in fields like application development (though there are some computer science master’s programs for non-CS grads).

Some colleges and universities treat information technology (IT) as part of computer science. Others treat it as part of business (much as many tech-focused analytics programs are administered by business schools). Don’t assume an information technology master’s program will dive deep into the tech underlying computer systems, operating networks, and databases—although it might. Whether a Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) degree is administered by the business school or the comp sci department can provide a clue about its focus.

We sum up the similarities and differences between the MSCS and MSIT below. However, you’ll still need to read program guides carefully to differentiate among specific MSCS and MSIT programs.

Curriculum

Computer science master’s programs and information technology-focused programs differ significantly in focus. Both can be highly technical, involve courses in programming languages, and offer specialization areas, but that’s generally where the similarities end. Computer science master’s degree programs are often advanced and geared toward students with a strong background in computer science. Courses don’t cover the fundamentals of programming, software engineering, and computer language theory because students are expected to arrive with a firm grasp of all three.

Meanwhile, information technology master’s programs are geared toward students preparing for careers in fields like IT project management, IT security, or information systems design and architecture. Classes in information technology master’s programs blend technical concepts with business and management fundamentals.

The typical master’s in computer science curriculum

There’s no such thing as a typical master’s in computer science curriculum, though most students take classes in subjects like:

  • Advanced algorithm analysis and design
  • Advanced database systems design
  • Advanced data structures
  • Computational theory and practice
  • Computer architecture and computer networks
  • Computer engineering and computing systems
  • Computer information systems
  • Data compiling and network/Internet protocols
  • Data warehousing and storage
  • Information science
  • Operating system analysis
  • Network architecture
  • Network security
  • Software theory

The reason many schools don’t have a core MSCS curriculum is that concentrations frequently dictate the courses students take (more on this below). At Southern Methodist University, for example, students pursuing an MSCS in artificial intelligence take core classes related to that concentration.

There are also MSCS programs in which students design custom curricula. The University of Tulsa‘s MSCS program’s broad requirements allow students to dive deeper into their areas of interest. Students complete 30 credit hours of coursework made up of graduate-level computer science courses selected with a program advisor’s help.

The typical master’s in information technology curriculum

The typical master’s in information technology curriculum takes a multidisciplinary approach to computers and their applications in a real-world context. Students learn about the role of information management in different fields and IT strategy in courses that cover topics like:

  • Business intelligence
  • Computer forensics
  • Cyber security policy
  • Data management
  • Data modeling
  • Database design
  • Financial management
  • Information systems architecture
  • Machine learning
  • Managing information technology
  • Programming
  • Project management
  • SQL query design
  • Systems analysis and design
  • Technology management

Specializations

There’s not much overlap between computer science concentrations and information technology concentrations. MSCS specializations tend to be more technical. Popular concentration options include:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Biocomputation
  • Cognitive computing
  • Computational biology
  • Computer systems
  • Cyber security
  • Cyber-physical systems
  • Distributed systems
  • Foundations of computer science
  • Game development
  • Graphics and visualization
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Machine learning
  • Natural language processing
  • Networked systems
  • Operating systems
  • Robotics
  • Software design and engineering
  • Software theory

Concentrations for IT specialists tend to focus on the practical applications of computer systems in various environments. MSIT students choose from among concentrations like:

How long does it take?

Program length is highly variable whether you’re looking at MSCS programs or MSIT programs.

How long it takes to earn a master’s in computer science

How long it takes to earn an MSCS varies from school to school. Most programs require students to complete 30 to 45 credit hours of coursework plus an internship, thesis, capstone course, co-op project, or practicum. This can take 18 months to two years of full-time study, up to five years of part-time study while working, or less time in online MSCS programs with flexible formats that allow students to max out their course loads.

How long it takes to earn a master’s in information technology

Earning a graduate-level IT degree usually takes one to two years. If getting a graduate degree as quickly as possible is one of your priorities, you’re in luck. Accelerated IT programs are much more common than accelerated computer science programs. Be aware, however, that you may need to take a leave of absence from work to study full-time if you want to graduate in just 12 months (even in more flexible online master’s in information technology programs).

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 that make it easier for computer scientists and IT professionals to gain real-world, hands-on experience before graduation and lead to career opportunities after.

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

You’ll find some of the top computer science graduate programs at the following colleges and universities:

Which schools have the top information technology master’s programs?

The following schools are home to some of the best information technology master’s programs:

Cost

Many graduate students finish school with substantial debt—about $45,000 for advanced degree holders, according to some surveys. You don’t have to spend that much to earn an MSCS or an MSIT, however.

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

The average cost of a master’s degree in computer science falls somewhere around $40,000, though there are programs that cost just $10,000 and programs that cost more than $60,000. Some of the most affordable MSCS programs are at HBCUs. The most prestigious MSCS programs tend to have higher price tags, but may also deliver the biggest salary bump.

How much does a master’s in information technology cost?

The MSIT is the less-expensive degree. Most programs cost between $13,000 and $54,000 in total tuition, though programs at high-profile colleges and universities can cost a lot more. Meanwhile, the most affordable master’s in information technology programs cost less than $8,000. You probably won’t get the same post-graduation support in a lower-budget program, but you will learn skills that can help you launch a career in tech.

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Job outlook

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) groups computer and information technology professions in its growth estimates. Employment in computer and information research is projected to grow 11 percent over the next 10 years, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Computer science job outlook

The BLS projects that careers in computer science will grow faster than the average across tech jobs. Its estimates can be broken down even further, however. Jobs for software developers, for instance, will be created even more quickly than many other computer science jobs, while hardware engineering jobs will grow more slowly than average.

Information technology job outlook

Information technology jobs are often more stable than computer science careers because they support business operations and manufacturing processes directly. Most of the IT careers the BLS tracks are projected to grow more quickly than other jobs over the next decade, which means qualified IT professionals should be in demand for years to come.

Career paths and earning potential

Both the MSCS and MSIT can help you land six-figure jobs in tech. Both can help you overcome career plateaus and qualify for management positions. The work you do, however, will differ depending on which degree pathway you choose.

What jobs can I do with a master’s in computer science?

There are a multitude of computer science jobs for MSCS graduates 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

Entry-level computer science jobs pay well. More senior positions pay very well. According to PayScale, the median annual salary for MSCS graduates is $101,000. Tufts University maintains a list of high-paying computer science jobs that include:

  • Director of engineering
  • Information security manager
  • Principal software engineer
  • Senior hardware design engineer
  • Senior product manager
  • Senior software engineer
  • Senior systems engineer
  • Software architect
  • Software development manager
  • Solutions architect
  • Vice president of information technology

What jobs can I do with a master’s in information technology?

MSIT holders usually work in roles that involve:

  • Building, protecting, and evaluating computer networks
  • Ensuring that data is secure and accessible
  • Helping companies and organizations leverage technology effectively

Average salaries in information technology careers are close to $90,000. There are also six-figure IT salaries. The highest-paying roles include:

  • Chief information officer
  • Chief technology officer
  • Cloud solutions architect
  • Data modeler
  • Database administrator or manager
  • Information architecture analyst
  • Information security analyst
  • Information systems manager
  • Information systems security manager
  • Information technology manager
  • IT audit manager
  • IT management consultant
  • IT project manager
  • IT risk manager
  • Network architect
  • Network engineer
  • Senior systems analyst

Career paths supported by degrees

Some career pathways are open to both MSCS holders and MSIT holders, but the computer science master’s is the more versatile academic pathway. Much of what you’ll learn in a broadly focused MSCS program can boost your hireability in IT, and the program you choose may even cover topics related to information technology. The online Master of Science in Computer Science curriculum at Stevens Institute of Technology, for example, includes core courses like Database Management Systems, Distributed Systems & Cloud Computing, and Computer Organization & Programming. Some programs, like the Master of Science in Computing and Information Science at Case Western Reserve University, split the difference.

Just be aware that most Master of Science in Information Technology programs don’t cover topics like advanced engineering and computational theory. Consequently, a computer science master’s graduate can usually step into roles like information technology architect or director of IT. Still, it’s much harder for MSIT graduates to transition into roles involving software development or hardware automation.

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

Now that you have more information about computer science degrees vs. information technology degrees, it should be easier to choose the right one for you. You may still be wondering, however, whether you need a master’s degree at all. It’s true that merely having a graduate degree won’t guarantee success in tech. Plenty of software developers make big bucks without degrees, and there are probably master’s degree holders stuck working at the help desk. The bottom line is that if you want to make top dollar in technology jobs and/or advance into senior-level or management positions in computer science and IT, getting a master’s degree can’t hurt. As to which degree, let’s take one last look at the benefits.

Is a master’s in computer science worth it?

There are many reasons to get an MSCS. According to Forbes, this is one of the top paycheck-boosting master’s degrees. Computer science salaries are high. An MSCS will also give you a competitive edge when you’re competing against job seekers with similar experience. And there are some areas of computer science that are hard to break into without a graduate degree.

Is a master’s in information technology worth it?

Again, the answer is yes. An information technology master’s is worth it, and not just because you’ll get more respect in business environments where advanced degrees are common. You’ll also earn more, be less susceptible to economic downturns, and have the bona fides to brand yourself as the information technology expert in your organization.

More importantly, you’ll learn something along the way. When it comes to which degree is the better choice, there’s no right answer. Ultimately, you should choose whichever will support your career goals and satisfy your curiosity.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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