Computer Science

Guide to Earning a Computer Science Master’s While Working

Guide to Earning a Computer Science Master’s While Working
Before diving into a graduate degree program, it's critical to consider how you'll benefit from a master's and whether keeping your job through school is worth the cost. Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella September 23, 2020

Keeping your job while you earn a Master of Science in Computer Science can be a lot of extra work. It's also a great way to minimize the cost of your degree. Find out who should consider running this gauntlet.

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To attend a full-time master’s program, you will likely have to forgo—or at least dramatically curtail—work. You’ll also likely accumulate significant debt: according to the Center for American Progress, 60 percent of all graduate students assume federal graduate debt averaging $41,000. In contrast, a software developer with only a bachelor’s degree can easily earn more than $100,000 per year, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Given those conditions, who in his right mind would give up work to pursue a graduate degree?

Fortunately, you can work AND pursue a Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) on a part-time basis. It’s a little more complicated than making the necessary time and financial commitment, though. According to Medium, you may need to give up social and potentially even career opportunities. That’s because work and school combined will claim practically all your waking hours (and some of your sleeping hours too, in all likelihood).

Before diving into a graduate degree program, it’s critical to consider how you’ll benefit from a master’s and whether keeping your job through school is worth the cost. In this article on master’s in computer science while working, we address those issues by covering:

  • What is a master’s in computer science? And what do you learn?
  • Are some degree programs better suited to working professionals more than others?
  • Who earns a master’s in computer science while working?
  • What are the benefits and drawbacks of completing a computer science degree while working?

What is a master’s in computer science? And what do you learn?

A master’s of computer science is a professional graduate degree. MSCS holders usually go on to advanced tech management or research jobs. While it is possible to earn a PhD in computer science, people generally choose one or the other.

Most computer science programs offer classes on:

  • Cloud computing
  • Cyber security
  • Information system management
  • Machine learning
  • Operating system principles
  • Software engineering

Most master’s degree programs include required (core) coursework and electives. They also allow students to focus on one particular computer science area through a specialization or concentration. Through this focus, students develop a niche skill set that can determine the trajectory of their careers.

MSCS specializations include:

  • Data science
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Programming languages
  • Software engineering
  • Information security

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Are some degree programs better suited to working professionals more than others?

Absolutely. If you have a full-time job, you probably won’t be able to go to school full-time. Working professionals often opt for part-time online degree programs (in-person part-time degrees also exist), which offer greater flexibility. The University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign stresses this feature in its advertising, boasting of the opportunity to “complete a Master’s degree at your own pace, at your own place!” Students in part-time programs, such as the one at Southern Methodist University’s Lyle School of Engineering, can take anywhere from two to seven years to earn a MSCS degree.

University of Illinois’ online program—delivered through the Coursera platform—allows students to view lectures on their schedule instead of having to sign in at a set time. Other online programs, such as those at Columbia University and The University of Texas at Austin offer pre-recorded lectures as well. Not all programs are entirely asynchronous, however. Some—like the Master of Computer Science at Tufts University– include weekly live online class sessions to facilitate greater student-faculty and student-peer interaction.

Completing a Master of Science is not an easy proposition. You’ll find plenty of testimonials online confirming difficulty of this degree. Having a flexible schedule does not mean that you get to avoid work entirely. You will likely need to sacrifice aspects of your social life to complete a degree and potentially even decide between performing well at work and performing well at school.

Who earns a master’s in computer science while working?

The two main types of professionals who get a master’s degree while working are:

  • Those looking to change careers
  • Those looking to add specializations to their credentials

According to the University of Chicago, “pursuing a Masters in Computer Science is really for people who want to rise to the top of the industry and have access to the top companies, salaries and opportunities the industry offers.”

This master’s degree best benefits those with significant work experience who want to explore a new computer science career path. According to Adrian Chang, a former web developer and graduate from the Georgia Institute of Technology – Main Campus Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS), career stagnation often motivates graduate study. You’ll develop new skills and gain knowledge you wouldn’t have merely putting in hours at your current job, and that can lead to career advancement. Those who have their sights set on advanced technical or management positions may need advanced education.

Another reason people complete a CS program is to break into a computer science career. These professionals likely have a bachelor’s degree in another field. The University of Chicago offers programs for both “career changers without a background in computer science and those currently working in the industry looking to take the next step in their careers.” The school does suggest having some previous education before applying—even if it’s not through a bachelor’s degree program.

Some schools offer immersion courses to bring those without experience up to speed before completing a degree—Columbia’s bridge program is an example. Bootcamps are another popular way to round out your education. These are not master’s programs, but they do provide an opportunity to develop a new skill set.

All this is to say that you want to have some relevant experience before applying to a master’s in computer science—even if you aren’t a computer scientist or software developer, two careers that typically require a related bachelor’s degree. Keep in mind; there are computer science jobs available to those without a formal undergraduate degree—not to mention a graduate school diploma.

Finally, it’s possible to be self-taught and still land a great job, with the right portfolio. Potential careers for those without higher education include:

  • Web developer
  • Junior data analyst
  • Software engineer

Not only can a few years of experience in one of these careers help you get into a graduate program, but it can also help inform your chosen course of study.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of completing a computer science degree while working?

Perhaps the biggest benefit to working while you earn a master’s in computer science is that you’re less likely to take on debt. The average salary for someone with a bachelor’s in computer science is nearly $86,000, according to PayScale. With the amount of debt that graduate students typically assume—plus anything leftover from an undergraduate degree—this should be a huge consideration.

By attending an affordable graduate program and continuing to work, you should be in an excellent position to pay for your education, even if it means taking out student loans.

Another option is not paying for your degree at all—or paying less. Many employers offer tuition reimbursement opportunities, which means they’ll help pay for a master’s degree. Many employers are only willing to reimburse $5,250 annually, which generally doesn’t make a big dent in a top-tier program’s tuition (but does allow them to collect a tax break). Still, some companies may offer more, depending on your degree and how much it aligns with their interests.

Tuition reimbursement is an opportunity you can only take advantage of while working—and you’ll likely be required to continue working for that company for a set number of years to pay back the debt.

There are also significant drawbacks to working during a master’s in computer science. The potential lack of social life is a major one. Depending on how long you spend in the program and how rigorous it is, it can get grueling. Some students can take five years to complete a degree. Even though they may not be putting in as many hours every week as someone who spends three years studying part-time, it’s still a long time to have school hanging over your head.

More than just not seeing friends, you may face burnout, which potentially has real effects on your daily life. According to the University of Colorado Boulder, effects of burnout include:

  • Exhaustion
  • General unhappiness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Slipping grades

Remember, the goal is to keep your job and excel in a graduate program, not struggle with both.

Finally, make sure that completing a degree is truly something you want or need to advance your career prospects. Even if you can comfortably pay for a degree or have your employer pay for it, the time spent earning your diploma may be better spent trying to advance in your current job. If you can learn the same skills that a master’s program provides on your own, it might be more beneficial to your career goals and less time-consuming.

Earning a master’s in computer science while working can be a great way to save money and advance your career, but only if you go about it wisely.

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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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