Computer Science

Is a Master’s in Computer Science Worth It?

Is a Master’s in Computer Science Worth It?
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Eddie Huffman profile
Eddie Huffman March 29, 2023

A master's in computer science may take you two years to earn in a full-time program, and even longer if you study part-time. Is the degree worth the time and cost? We think so; here's why.

Computer Science Programs You Should Consider

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Despite highly publicized layoffs in Silicon Valley in early 2023, computer science remains one of America’s best educational bets for a stable, lucrative career. If you have a head for math and problem solving, this profession promises intellectual challenges and financial rewards.

The computer and IT job market should grow 15 percent in the next decade, much faster than average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That growth will translate to nearly three quarters of a million new jobs. The reasons for this are clear. “Computing is making a tremendous impact on society and has become an indispensable – if not central – part of society,” Ljubomir Perkovic, a professor in DePaul University’s School of Computing, told Fortune magazine.

So, is a master’s in computer science worth it? You can probably guess our answer from this intro, but read on all the same while we discuss:

  • What will I learn in a master’s in computer science program?
  • How to get a master’s in computer science__
  • What can I do with a master’s in computer science?
  • Is a master’s in computer science worth it?
  • Is an online master’s in computer science worth it?

What will I learn in a master’s in computer science program?

Ready for a deep dive into the world of Python, threat management, and cognitive simulation? When you earn a master’s degree in computer science, you’re likely to study all of that and more. Common subjects include:

  • Algorithms: This course covers the design, analysis, and implementation of algorithms, focusing on techniques for solving computational problems efficiently. Topics often include sorting, searching, graph algorithms, and complexity analysis.
  • Artificial Intelligence: This course introduces the concepts and techniques behind intelligent systems, covering areas such as reasoning, learning, perception, and language understanding. It explores various AI models and algorithms used to simulate intelligent behavior.
  • Computer Vision: This course focuses on enabling computers to interpret and understand visual information from the world, such as images and videos. Topics include image processing, pattern recognition, 3D reconstruction, and object detection.
  • Cybersecurity: This course covers the principles and practices of securing computer systems and networks. It includes topics like cryptography, security protocols, vulnerability assessment, and defense strategies against cyber threats.
  • Data Mining and Analytics: This course teaches methods for discovering patterns and knowledge from large datasets. It covers techniques in data preprocessing, classification, clustering, association rule mining, and predictive modeling.
  • Database Systems: This course introduces the design, implementation, and management of database systems. Topics include data models (e.g., relational, NoSQL), SQL, database design, transaction management, and data warehousing.
  • Deep Learning: This course delves into advanced machine learning techniques using deep neural networks. It covers the fundamentals of neural networks, convolutional and recurrent neural network architectures, and their applications in areas like image and speech recognition.
  • Machine Learning: This course covers the theory and practical algorithms for machine learning and statistical pattern recognition. Topics include supervised and unsupervised learning, decision trees, support vector machines, and neural networks.
  • Models of Computation: This course explores theoretical models of computation, including finite automata, context-free grammars, Turing machines, and computational complexity. It provides a foundation for understanding the limits of what computers can and cannot do.
  • Network Security: This course focuses on the techniques and policies to protect data during transmission over networks. It covers topics such as cryptographic protocols, authentication, intrusion detection systems, and firewalls.
  • Networks and Protocols: This course provides an overview of computer networking principles and protocols. Topics include the OSI and TCP/IP models, routing and switching, IP addressing, network topologies, and common network protocols.
  • Programming Languages: This course examines the principles, paradigms, and concepts underlying programming languages. It covers topics like syntax, semantics, type systems, and language features of imperative, functional, and object-oriented languages.
  • Software Engineering: This course covers the methodologies and tools used in the development of large-scale software systems. Topics include software development life cycle models, requirements engineering, design patterns, testing, and project management.

Let’s zoom in to look on some sample courses. The MS in computer science program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland offers:

  • Analysis of Algorithms
  • Computational Perception
  • Data Privacy
  • High Performance Data and Computing
  • Introduction to Artificial Intelligence
  • Introduction to Graduate Computer Science
  • Programming Language Concepts
  • Smartphone Security

At Tulane University in New Orleans, courses include:

  • Algorithms
  • Computational Geometry
  • Computer Networks
  • Data Visualization
  • Intro to Computer Science
  • Machine Learning and NLP
  • Reinforcement Learning

“I’m ready for a degree!”

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How to get a master’s in computer science

Most programs require a bachelor of science degree in computer science, computer engineering, or a similar discipline–or proven familiarity with programming languages, at least. Prerequisite undergrad courses may include:

  • Calculus and discrete mathematics
    • Calculus: This course covers the fundamental concepts of differential and integral calculus, including limits, derivatives, integrals, and the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus. It often explores applications of calculus in problem-solving across various domains.
    • Discrete Mathematics: This component focuses on the study of mathematical structures that are fundamentally discrete rather than continuous. Topics include logic, sets, functions, algorithms, number theory, combinatorics, graphs, and finite probability, with an emphasis on applications in computer science.
  • Developing and managing data structures: This course introduces the concepts, design, implementation, and management of data structures such as arrays, linked lists, stacks, queues, trees, and graphs. It covers the principles of data organization, storage, manipulation, and complexity analysis, enabling efficient data access and modification.
  • Programming languages such as Python, C, and C++
    • Python: A high-level, interpreted programming language known for its ease of learning and readability. The course covers basic syntax, control flow, data structures, functions, and commonly used libraries for applications like web development, data analysis, and machine learning.
    • C: A procedural programming language that provides low-level access to memory and is widely used for system/software development. The course covers fundamentals such as variables, data types, control structures, functions, arrays, and pointers.
    • C++: An extension of C that includes object-oriented features. The course covers the basics of C++ and expands to include topics such as classes, objects, inheritance, polymorphism, templates, and Standard Template Library (STL) for efficient programming of complex systems.
  • Systems programming: This course focuses on programming at a more system-centric level, including operating systems, compilers, and networked applications. Topics often include process management, memory management, system calls, concurrency, and using system-level tools and languages (e.g., C and scripting languages) to write efficient programs that interact with the operating system and hardware.

“If you want to start from scratch, I recommend you take the time that is necessary to understand the foundations,” says Cristian Rennella, CEO and cofounder of elMejorTrato. “Take your time, because being disciplined, methodical and patient become the most important skills in computer science.”

The application process typically requires:

  • Undergrad transcripts
  • Personal references
  • A personal statement or essay
  • A resume or CV
  • An application fee

How many years does it take to earn a master’s in computer science?

Most schools offer a two-year master’s program in computer science; the process may take longer for part-time students. Some schools offer programs that can be completed in less than two years, such as Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, and the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. The average completion time at Tulane is 20 to 28 months for full-time students. The university recommends a pace of 28 to 36 months for part-time students.

How hard is a master’s in computer science?

Getting a master’s in computer science takes a lot of time, effort and concentration. Newcomers may have to push past daunting challenges to make it across the finish line. Some drop out along the way.
“Beginning students are often challenged with imposter syndrome,” says Meg Barry of Northeastern University, head of Align, a program for people earning a master’s in computer science without a technical background. “We work with them on maintaining their confidence because it might not be easy to develop these skills right off the bat.”

Students may have to learn a new programming language from scratch. Programming and labs may add an additional 10 to 20 hours a week to classroom and study time.
Colorado State University Global cites several challenges toward earning a master’s degree. Computer science:

  • Has a steep initial learning curve, particularly for students with no programming background
  • Is time-intensive
  • Is a constructive discipline; mastery of each step is crucial to doing the next
  • Requires great attention to detail: “Tiny mistakes can cause major problems”
  • Requires creativity, because there may be multiple routes to making a program work

The good news: that need for creativity means companies often welcome problem solvers with diverse backgrounds. And the work usually gets easier and more intuitive once students have mastered a programming language, taken four or five classes, and completed some projects.

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

Costs vary by program and region, of course, and depend in part on whether you attend a public or private university. “Per-credit costs for an online computer science degree typically range from $500 to $2000,” U.S. News and World Report said in 2021. “Students should expect to pay between $15,000 and $72,000 in total tuition.”

Here are some sample tuition costs, which don’t include other fees such as application, enrollment, and transcripts:

  • Case Western Reserve University has a 30-credit online computer science master’s program that costs $1500 per credit hour, totaling $45,000 in tuition.
  • Tufts University’s 33-credit online Master of Science in Computer Science costs $1,697 per credit hour, or $56,001 in total tuition.
  • At Stanford University, tuition runs $1,400 per unit for each course, with a course running from three to five credit hours. Students must earn 45 units of credit within five years of their start date to earn a master’s degree, bringing the minimum tuition total to $63,000.

Few people pay full price up front for higher ed. You may be able to offset or delay some of the costs with financial aid, scholarships, grants, fellowships, employer contributions, loans, or benefits for past or present members of the military.

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

A master’s in computer science can open countless doors from coast to coast. Jobs are plentiful around the country in a wide variety of industries, from healthcare to finance, entertainment to manufacturing. Potential positions include:

  • App developer: Designs, develops, and maintains applications for various platforms, including mobile (iOS, Android) and desktop. Involves understanding user needs, designing interfaces, and coding functionality.
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning engineer: Develops AI models and machine learning algorithms to enable machines to make decisions or predictions based on data. Works across various domains like natural language processing, computer vision, and robotics.
  • Business analyst: Analyzes business needs and challenges, and uses data analysis to help organizations improve processes, products, services, and software through data analysis. Bridges the gap between IT and the business to facilitate solutions.
  • Chief information security officer: Senior-level executive responsible for an organization’s information and data security. Oversees strategies to protect against cyber threats and ensure compliance with security standards.
  • Computer and information research scientist: Conducts research to innovate and solve complex problems in computing. Fields of study may include artificial intelligence, robotics, or data science.
  • Computer network architect: Designs and builds data communication networks, such as local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs), and intranets. Ensures networks are optimized and secure.
  • Data scientist: Uses statistical methods, machine learning algorithms, and data analysis to extract insights and knowledge from data, helping organizations make data-driven decisions.
  • Database administrator: Responsible for the performance, integrity, and security of a database. Involved in the planning and development of the database, as well as troubleshooting any issues on behalf of the users.
  • Database architect: Designs, constructs, and manages complex databases. Focuses on database design and the integration of databases to store and retrieve data efficiently.
  • Digital designer: Specializes in creating digital media, such as websites, apps, and digital marketing materials, focusing on aesthetics, usability, and user experience.
  • Information security analyst: Protects an organization’s computer systems and networks by monitoring for security breaches, investigating violations, and implementing security measures.
  • .NET developer: Specializes in using Microsoft’s .NET framework to design, develop, and implement software applications, often focusing on web applications.
  • Network and computer systems administrator: Ensures the daily operations of an organization’s computer networks, including LANs, WANs, network segments, and other communication systems.
  • Programmer: Writes, tests, and maintains code for software applications. Works with various programming languages and platforms, turning program designs into functioning software.
  • Quality assurance analyst and tester: Ensures that software and applications meet quality standards and function correctly. Involves testing, identifying bugs, and suggesting improvements.
  • Research and development (R&D) scientist: Works on the innovation and improvement of products and technologies through research and development. Often involved in scientific and technological advancements.
  • Software developer: Designs, develops, and tests software applications that meet user needs. Involves coding, debugging, and improving system performance.
  • Software engineer: Applies engineering principles to the design, development, maintenance, testing, and evaluation of software and systems that make computers or anything containing software work.
  • Solutions architect: Designs and manages complete solutions to complex problems, considering the business and technical needs of an organization. Focuses on strategy and implementation.
  • Support specialist: Provides technical support and assistance to users experiencing issues with software, hardware, or other IT-related problems.
  • Systems analyst: Analyzes and designs information systems. Helps organizations to optimize and improve their computer systems and business processes through analysis and design.
  • User interface designer: Focuses on designing the user interface for software and applications, aiming to improve user experience through intuitive layouts and navigational elements.
  • Web developer: Specializes in developing websites and web applications. Involves working with programming languages and frameworks suited to the web, focusing on front-end, back-end, or full-stack development.

Is a master’s in computer science worth it?

An MS in computer science will expand your knowledge and can help you advance your career, opening doors to management and leadership roles and increasing your earning potential. But earning the degree requires a significant investment of time and money.

People in the field offered mixed opinions about the value of a master’s in computer science in a Reddit thread.

“Typically the additional income from a master’s degree over a lifetime is worth the sticker price you pay for it,” Rocket717 writes. “In computer science, this is a little muddy because a lot of jobs offer very competitive salaries to new grads right off the bat.”

DonaldPShimoda recommends a master’s in computer science only under certain circumstances (accelerated programs or ones paid for by an employer) and for certain people (foreigners hoping to break into the American tech sector, someone aspiring to earn a Ph.D.).

“I value education a lot, so naturally I went for an MS when I had the opportunity,” he concluded. “That’s not the right call for everyone, but it worked out for me!”

A professor of computer science at Columbia University in New York City offered a glowing report about the prospects in his field to U.S. News and World Report.

“It’s a golden age right now for computer science, and we’re very fortunate in this field,” Salvatore Stolfo says. “For people who study computer science in their education, it’s a great, great time, and essentially the sky is the limit.”

Is an online master’s in computer science worth it?

Online degree programs often offer more flexibility. They may include accelerated options that allow students to earn a degree in less than two years. It may be easier to keep your current job while pursuing a master’s in computer science online.

But online programs also have disadvantages, ZDNet reports: “Distance learners can be a disadvantage when it comes to personal attention and building relationships among peers and instructors. Resources may be limited for online learners, as well.”

As for cost, online programs may offer some savings, but the difference between an online and in-person program is seldom dramatic.

“Online programs are rarely cheaper than those delivered on-campus – particularly at top-ranked institutions that create hands-on, high-engagement online courses based on or identical to those in the on-campus MSCS curriculum,” according to Tufts. “Providing that level of quality course content online can cost more because online programs require large, capable support staff to ensure everything runs smoothly and that troubleshooting, when necessary, is quick and effective.”

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About the Author

Eddie Huffman is the author of John Prine: In Spite of Himself and a forthcoming biography of Doc Watson. He has written for Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Utne Reader, All Music Guide, Goldmine, the Virgin Islands Source, and many other publications.

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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Categorized as: Computer ScienceInformation Technology & Engineering