As Paul Jones, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor, explained in 2018: "Humans need tools. Humans need and want augmentation. And as the saying goes 'First we make our tools, then our tools form us.'"
These days, our tools primarily take the shape of new and evolving technologies. They continuously reshape our world in ways that encourage us to form new habits, find new ways to work and live, and even think differently. In most cases, these changes trigger opportunities and disruptions across every industry.
It's not only senior tech professionals who are paying attention to these patterns. In higher education, students pursuing computer science master's degrees have long followed the tech industry's rise and constant job growth. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that the number of graduate degrees conferred in computer and information sciences has grown rapidly, climbing from the 1,588 awarded in 1970-1971 to more than 46,000 in 2017-2018.
While some may argue that advanced degrees in the field aren't worth it, others counter convincingly that as educational level rises, earnings do too. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), master's degree holders pulled in a median $1,497 in weekly earnings in 2019, while those with a bachelor's made a weekly median of $1,248.
A White House report predicted that 2020 would bring 1.4 million computer science-related jobs, with only about 400,000 computer science graduates qualified to fill them. The COVID-19 pandemic may have dampened that job market, but the long-term trends are clear: computer science jobs outnumber qualified candidates. As a result, pay in the field is expected to remain high—as is demand for computer scientists who've honed their training past the undergraduate-degree level.
Job security and lucrative salaries may be enough to qualify a master's in the field as well worth the effort and financial investment. But is it worth the time it takes to earn? And how much time will you need, anyway?
We'll answer how long it takes to complete a master's degree in computer science and other questions in this guide, including:
Graduate schools offer computer science master's programs across a range of formats to suit students' needs, learning styles, and career goals. Here are just a few options you'll find when compiling your program search—and how much time you'll need to complete them.
Like most master's programs, a master's in computer science takes about two years of full-time study. Graduate students may pursue their education through the traditional, on-campus route or through online master's programs. The latter option allows them to study at their own pace and set their own schedules while fulfilling the same curriculum requirements as on-campus students.
Some programs follow a hybrid format, combining distance learning and in-person courses. Some hybrid options may allow students to complete most or all of their coursework online and participate in hands-on learning experiences, if required, on or near campus.
Students who opt to pursue graduate school part-time may take longer—often three to five years—to complete their computer science degree. Part-time enrollment is especially beneficial for those who want to advance their education around commitments to career and/or family. Some part-time programs may offer courses in the evenings or on weekends for greater flexibility.
Some schools offer a pathway to computer science master's degrees specifically designed for students with bachelor's degrees in non-STEM fields. Typically referred to as a bridge program, this option is ideal for students looking for a flexible way to gain the tools and skills they need to pursue their chosen program.
One example of this approach is the Tandon Bridge program at New York University, which trains students with non-STEM bachelor's degrees in the fields of science and engineering, including computer science, cybersecurity, bioinformatics, computer engineering, and integrated digital media.
Within the computer science focus, the fully online Bridge comprises 24 weeks of learning in computer programming in C++, object-oriented design, discrete math, data structures and algorithms, principles of operating systems, and introduction to computer networks. Upon completion, students are qualified to submit a formal application to the NYU's Master of Science (MS) in Computer Science, an on-campus, two-year, 30-credit program located in New York City.
Some accelerated master's programs in computer science are available for computer science professionals seeking to expedite their career advancement through rigorous, fast-paced courses. These programs are typically referred to as professional master's programs. They can be completed in about 12 to 18 months.
Most accelerated computer science programs take the 4+1(BS/MS degree) format. This approach is designed to allow full-time students to earn a bachelor's in computer science or a closely related field in four years, followed by a master's in computer science earned in one additional year.
Master's-level computer science curricula encompass core courses intended to build on students' understanding of various topics and research methods. These courses typically fall into three categories:
Many computer science graduate degree programs also enable students to choose a concentration. Through specialization, students align their learning with a specific area of interest and prepare for career paths in the many information technology subfields. Common concentrations include:
Additionally, graduate programs in the field may require students to cap their education with a thesis. Theses in this realm typically take the form of research or a culminating project. They allow students to dig into a topic and produce work demonstrating their growth and development through their program.
Some master's programs in computer science offer both a thesis option and a non-thesis option. Computer science students who choose a thesis program tend to conduct more research than those in a non-thesis program. The non-thesis option is usually sought out by working professionals who do not have the time and resources to conduct multi-semester research. The online Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) at Tufts University, for example, gives full-time students the option to choose a non-thesis track or commit up to three additional semesters to pursuing independent research that will ultimately lead to a thesis.
Generally, practicum requirements vary from one computer science master's program to the next. Programs that do require practicums generally separate them into two parts. First, students apply the skills and knowledge gained through their program in a real-world setting under the supervision of an industry professional or a faculty member within their program. Next is the practicum course, which helps students summarize their goals and expectations throughout the experience.
US News and World Report provides graduate school rankings for a variety of master's programs, including computer science. Here's a list of top programs:
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