Computer Science

What Can You Do with a Computer Science Degree?

What Can You Do with a Computer Science Degree?
Companies across industries—from retail to healthcare to manufacturing—leverage technology. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry September 2, 2020

Computer science majors face many potential career paths. How best to plan your future? Here's what you need to know about launching your comp sci career after earning your degree.

Computer Science Programs You Should Consider

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We forget sometimes that a computer science degree qualifies you for a whole lot more than software development. However, computer science is a broad discipline, making a computer science degree an exceptionally versatile credential.

Companies across industries—from retail to healthcare to manufacturing—leverage technology. Majoring in comp sci (CS for short) prepares you for a career in fields as diverse as robotics, cryptography, and even finance (in algorithmic trading, for instance). “Almost every type of company relies on software infrastructure to some degree; almost every new technology being developed has some type of software component,” software test engineer Hannah Pierce-Hoffman told US News & World Report, adding that the skills learned in computer science degree programs can be applied in any field.

As a result, opportunities for computer science majors abound, whether they hold associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, or PhDs in computer science. Many jobs for computer science degree holders are headquartered in tech hubs, but computer science expertise is in demand across the US; what you can do with a computer science degree isn’t limited by geography. And the pay is good: it’s not unusual for computer science majors to earn $110,000 or more because of the high demand.

You’ll access multiple computer science career options when you study CS. In this article, we answer the question what can you do with a computer science degree? and cover the following:

  • Are there career specialties in computer science?
  • What industries employ computer scientists?
  • Are there roles for computer science degree graduates in government?
  • What can you do with a bachelor’s degree in computer science?
  • What are the best-paying jobs for computer science degree holders?
  • Do you need a master’s degree to work in the highest-paying computer science jobs?
  • What can you do with a PhD in Computer Science?
  • How do I know if computer science is the right field for me?

Are there career specialties in computer science?

Computer science can be divided into many subdisciplines. They usually fall into one of two broad categories:

  • Theoretical computer science, which focuses primarily on the mathematical side of comp sci and exploring the limits of computation and algorithms
  • Applied computer science, which focuses on the development and implementation of computer systems to meet specific practical needs

Most specialty areas of computer science fall into one or the other. A career in applied CS might involve any of these specializations:

A career in theoretical computer science, on the other hand, might focus on:

  • Algorithms: Focuses on the design, analysis, and optimization of procedures or steps to solve computational problems.
  • Automata theory: Studies abstract machines and the computational problems that can be solved using these machines.
  • Computational biology: Applies algorithms and theoretical computer science principles to solve complex biological problems.
  • Computational complexity: Examines the classification of computational problems according to their inherent difficulty and the resources required for their solutions.
  • Computational geometry: Deals with algorithms and their computational complexity in relation to geometric problems.
  • Computational theory: Encompasses the fundamental aspects of computation, including models of computation, computational problems, and the efficiency of algorithms.
  • Cryptography: Focuses on secure communication techniques, encryption, and data protection methods.
  • Formal methods: Utilizes formal logic and mathematical models for the specification, development, and verification of software and hardware systems.
  • Information theory: Studies the quantification, storage, and communication of information, often involving aspects of data compression and transmission.
  • Machine learning: Involves algorithms and statistical models that enable computers to perform tasks without explicit instructions, relying on patterns and inference.
  • Programming language theory: Deals with the design, implementation, analysis, and categorization of programming languages and their individual features.
  • Quantum computing: Explores computational systems and algorithms that utilize quantum-mechanical phenomena, such as superposition and entanglement.
  • Reactive systems: Studies systems that continuously react to their environment, such as operating systems or automated control systems.
  • Software theory: Encompasses the theoretical foundations of software engineering, including software development methodologies and maintenance.
  • Very-large-scale integration: Focuses on the process of creating integrated circuits by combining thousands of transistors into a single chip, and the theoretical aspects of circuit design and layout.

These CS subdisciplines require a solid understanding of programming languages and methodologies, computational theory, data structures and algorithms, and computer elements and architecture. It’s worth noting that some degree programs (like the highly-rated online Master of Science in Computer Science program offered by Tufts University, for example) cover both the theory and application of computer science in depth.

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What industries employ computer scientists?

People wrongly associate computer science only with big tech companies like Google and Silicon Valley startups. In reality, the demand for competent computer science professionals transcends industries. Computer science has become a part of almost every field imaginable because companies across disciplines need digital data storage, software, analytics, IT management, and automation.

Do a lot of graduates of computer science programs holders end up working for technology service companies? Yes, but graduating with a bachelor’s in computer science or master’s in computer science doesn’t have to mean spending a lifetime at Google or Amazon. When the Forbes Technology Council put together a list of the top industries in need of computer science professionals, most of the entries weren’t fields typically associated with tech. Agriculture made the list, as did construction, oil, and education. There’s likely room in computer science for even further specialization. As Jeff Ton, founding member of the Indy CIO Network and SVP at InterVision put it, “I don’t believe programmers have the luxury to code for any industry. To solve complex business problems, programmers need an in-depth understanding of the vertical of their business as well as their specific line of work.”

In many ways, the sky’s the limit. “Every single industry requires programmers, so you can decide what path you want to pursue,” Sam Gavis-Hughson, CEO and founder of Byte by Byte, told U.S. News & World Report. “For example, you could do software development and work for Warby Parker and be in fashion, or work for Google doing artificial intelligence type projects. If you are into cars, you could work for a big auto company and write the software for their vehicles. The possibilities are endless.”

Are there roles for computer science degree graduates in government?

Yes, especially at the federal level. In fact, the federal government is one of the largest employers of computer and information research scientists. Some computer science graduates gravitate toward government jobs because of the easy-to-understand salary structure and the generous benefits federal employees often receive. State and municipal governments have also added jobs for computer science degree holders as public administration services go digital.

Some of the more compelling government jobs for computer scientists can be found at agencies like the:

  • CIA, which has extensive data processing needs and is involved in supporting the development of cutting-edge intelligence technology
  • FBI, which hires computer science professionals with bachelor’s degrees and above to work on investigations that include cyber crime and cyber security threats
  • IRS, which requires a vast computer infrastructure to operate and has specialized security needs
  • NSA, which has a growing need for computer scientists who’ve specialized in network operations, information assurance, vulnerability discovery, and data management

What can you do with a bachelor’s degree in computer science?

The bar for entry is relatively low in computer science because there are still many more open positions in the field than qualified applicants. That demand means it’s possible to land well-paying positions with a bachelor’s degree in computer science or even an associates degree. Some career options for computer science bachelor’s degree holders include:

  • Back-end engineering: Focuses on server-side development including databases, scripting, and website architecture. Involves writing APIs, working with server logic, and database interactions.
  • Computer systems analyst: Analyzes and improves the efficiency of IT systems in organizations. Involves understanding both business and technical requirements and implementing solutions to meet these needs.
  • Database management: Involves storing, organizing, and managing data using database management systems. Includes ensuring data integrity, performance, and security.
  • Front-end development: Centers on developing the visual and interactive elements of websites and applications that users engage with directly. Involves coding in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and working with design and user experience.
  • Game development: Involves creating video games, including coding the underlying mechanics, designing levels, and working on graphics and animation.
  • Mobile app development: Focuses on designing and building applications for mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets. Involves coding for iOS, Android, or cross-platform frameworks.
  • Network architecture: Involves designing, implementing, and managing computer networks such as LANs, WANs, and intranets. Ensures efficient and secure data communication within and between organizations.
  • Software testing: Deals with the process of evaluating and verifying that a software application or system meets specified requirements and functions correctly.
  • Web development: Encompasses both front-end and back-end development to build and maintain websites. Involves creating website layouts, features, and functionality, and may also include database and server management.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science, you might work for a digital agency, designing software products for various companies, or for a large corporation working on their custom computer systems and platforms. You can also hang out a shingle and work as a contract web developer, application developer, database administrator, information security analyst, or systems analyst. You might even find entry-level positions in computer network administration or quality assurance.

While you won’t earn as much with an undergraduate computer science degree as you might with a Master of Science in Computer Science (the median annual salary for MSCS graduates is about $110,000 compared to $93,000 for bachelor’s degree holders), you can still earn quite a bit. Computer science degree salaries tend to be higher than average across the board, and you can advance quickly if you’re sufficiently motivated.

What are the best-paying jobs for computer science degree holders?

Some of the highest-paying jobs for computer science majors include:

  • Chief technology officer ($174,000): Senior executive responsible for overseeing the technological needs and development of an organization. Sets technology strategy and ensures alignment with business goals.
  • Cloud engineer ($125,000): Specializes in designing, implementing, and maintaining cloud-based systems and solutions. Works with cloud platforms like AWS, Azure, or Google Cloud.
  • Information technology director ($125,000): Oversees the IT department within an organization. Responsible for technology strategy, system management, and ensuring IT aligns with business objectives.
  • Principal software engineer ($148,000): Senior-level developer responsible for high-level design and development of software systems. Often handles complex projects and may provide technical leadership.
  • Senior engineering manager ($156,000): Manages and leads teams of engineers. Responsible for project management, team development, and overseeing technical processes and strategies.
  • Senior solutions architect ($143,000): Designs and implements complex software solutions and systems. Works closely with clients and teams to architect technology solutions that meet business needs.
  • Software engineering director ($162,000): Leads and directs all software engineering activities in an organization. Responsible for strategic planning, product development, and team management.
  • Software engineering manager ($148,000): Manages software engineering teams. Responsible for overseeing software development projects, managing team performance, and coordinating with other departments.
  • Vice president of engineering ($180,000): Senior executive role overseeing the engineering department. Responsible for technical strategy, product development, and leading multiple engineering teams.

Do you need a master’s degree to work in the highest-paying computer science jobs?

The answer depends on whom you ask, though you’ll almost certainly have an easier time landing one of the above positions with a graduate-level computer science degree. A master’s degree can boost your earning potential regardless of the titles you hold over the course of your career. Georgetown University’s College Payoff report found that computer engineers with master’s in computer science degrees typically earned $300,000 more throughout their careers than those with bachelor’s degrees.

Possessing one or more advanced degrees doesn’t guarantee success in tech, however. Advancement in computer science is often based not on highest level of education completed, but on time spent in the industry and the skills you can bring to the table. It’s possible to learn what you need to know to work in specialty areas of computer science like AI, machine learning, or robotics without an advanced degree. Still, you’ll have to be driven enough to commit to a course of independent study.

What can you do with a PhD in Computer Science?

The consensus seems to be that a PhD in Computer Science is really only necessary if you want to work in research or academia. Outside those fields, a computer science doctorate may not be worth much. “If you want to go into research… then it’s difficult to do so without a PhD,” Greg Law, co-founder and CTO at the Undo software company, told U.S. News & World Report in the article linked above. “But beyond a research role… I don’t feel a PhD opens up any opportunities that would otherwise be precluded.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue a CS PhD if you love working as a computer programmer or in information systems, but you need to be aware of the downsides.

First, enrolling in a PhD program means committing to four to six years of work that includes not only study and research, but also teaching. Next, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a stipend, and stipends may not cover your living expenses. And finally, computer science PhD salaries aren’t much higher than salaries for master’s degree holders, if at all. Average salaries for computer science PhD holders hover around $133,000, which is less than a talented computer engineer can make in tech hubs like Seattle and Silicon Valley and not much more than an experienced software developer can earn.

How do I know if computer science is the right field for me?

This is a question only you can answer. Do you love computers and the programs that power them? Do you find problem-solving exciting? Are you an abstract thinker? Have you ever wondered whether it could be possible to exceed the theoretical upper limits of computation? If you answered yes to all of these questions, chances are that you’ll thrive in a computer science degree program.

The key is to choose the right one. Consider where your passions lie as you research the computer science degree programs at different colleges and universities. Some spend more time on theoretical computer science. Others focus on the practical applications of software and automation. Look for programs with core courses and electives that harmonize with your professional goals.

On the other hand, if you love the act of coding more than you love computers or the theoretical underpinnings of software design and development, a software engineering degree may be a better fit and lead to opportunities that are more in line with your interests.

(Updated on January 24, 2024)

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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