The 4 People You'll Meet in a Computer Science Graduate Program
October 12, 2022
Computer science graduate students typically fall into one of four categories. Which one best describes you? Read on to learn more.
You will meet many different people in your computer science graduate school journey. At the outset, you'll meet admissions officers, financial aid officers, and other staff members charged with facilitating your application, admission, and financing. Later, you'll meet faculty of many different backgrounds with a dizzying array of specializations in programming, engineering, artificial intelligence, data science, information systems and more.
And, of course, you'll meet classmates. They, too, will come from a broad range of professions and experience levels. Most, however, will fall into one of four categories: the Fresh Face, the Seasoned Hand, the Pivoter, and the Visionary. This article discusses these four people you'll meet in a computer science graduate program and what you can learn from them by addressing the following issues:
- Who typically gets a Master of Science in Computer Science?
- Why get a master's degree in computer science?
- How popular is a Master of Science in Computer Science?
- The four people you'll meet in a computer science graduate program
Who typically gets an MSCS?
There's no such thing as a typical computer scientist, because the field of computer science is vast and growing rapidly. Those who typically seek computer science graduate degrees are as diverse as the work available in the field; which is to say, extremely diverse.
One common thread among many who pursue an MSCS is a desire for relatively high salaries and job security, which most computer science jobs provide. Another shared trait: most people who pursue a computer science master's degree or Doctor of Philosophy in Computer Science also have an undergraduate degree in computer science or a related field, such as computer engineering or electrical engineering.
With a Master of Computer Science, you could become an academic, a researcher, an information systems manager, a developer, an operation systems designer, or a professional in software engineering, data science, or hardware engineering. Those who work in high-level theoretical components of computing or technology development typically have job titles that include the term "computer scientist." Other MSCS graduates are more often described as applied computer science professionals.
Why get a master's degree in computer science?
As you consider whether a master's degree in computer science (or a PhD degree, for that matter) is the right degree for you, you'd do well to consider the career paths available to graduates of computer science master's programs as well as the employment markets of industries you might like to work in. The job market for computer scientists is expected to grow 19 percent over the next 10 years; 38 percent of job listings seek candidates with a master's degree or a PhD. This means that while it's possible to start your computer science career with just a bachelor's degree, many professionals find that they reach a career plateau if they try to continue without obtaining an MSCS or a PhD in computer science.
A graduate program in computer science, whether it be a master's degree or a PhD program, will provide you with the skills necessary to develop algorithms, new computer hardware and software, and new approaches to gathering and managing data. A master's program will qualify you for higher-up (and higher-paying) positions at leading companies in a wide range of industries, from computer game design to health informatics to government research. You'll also likely have more job security than you'd have in the vast majority of other industries, as well as a six-figure salary. Overall, if you want in-depth training in the theories and practical application of information technology and computer systems, a master's degree in computer science is for you.
How popular is a Master of Science in Computer Science?
Master of Science in Computer Science degrees are growing in popularity as the computer science field becomes more competitive, and more and more companies expect applicants for associate-level and senior-level positions to have master's degrees. The computer science industry is one of the fastest-growing fields in the US, as technology evolves unceasingly and demand for ever-more-skilled workers grows.
While computer science jobs are abundant, there is a severe shortage of professionals qualified to fill most of those jobs. Amit Shesh, associate teaching professor and director of Northeastern's Master of Science in Computer Science program, says that this is because many of today's computer science positions demand nuanced and varied skills specific to an industry, many of which cannot be learned through a bachelor's degree program alone. "The bachelor's degree is more about breadth than depth; it makes you more of a Swiss army knife in computer science," Shesh explains, "Computer science is one of those fields where having a bachelor's degree is enough to get some jobs, but certainly not all, particularly more-senior roles. There are companies that are looking to fill positions with people who have a master's degree—that's motivation for a lot of people to pursue one."
As it stands today, 249 schools across the country offer a master's in computer science, and 11,524 students completed a graduate program in computer science between 2015 and 2019. That's something to consider seriously as you ponder your competitive position for top computer science roles.
The 4 people you'll meet in a computer science graduate program
The Fresh Face
The Fresh Face recently graduated from college. They have some computer science skills—perhaps even some advanced skills in a programming language—and maybe they have a year or two of professional "real-world" experience working as an IT consultant or help desk technician. The Fresh Face is that Swiss army knife that Amit Shesh is talking about—equipped with general knowledge and a foundational understanding of the most essential computer science disciplines. They've likely been earning around $69,000 a year in their entry-level computer science position—assuming they're not pursuing their master's degree straight out of college—and they're returning to school to develop a specialization or a competitive edge in the job market.
The Fresh Face will dive into their coursework with energy and enthusiasm no matter the discipline—whether it's artificial intelligence, cloud computing, computer systems, data mining, data science, information systems, programming languages, cybersecurity, or software engineering. The Fresh Face will stand out in any department of computer science for the entire two years (or however long) of their program as they strive for the highest test scores and the approval of faculty members.
The Fresh Face knows they've got a lot to learn—and a lot more to earn. They're attending a computer science graduate program because they want to equip themselves with as many skills as possible right out of the gate, and they believe wholeheartedly that a computer science master's program is the way to do that. They'll teach other graduate students ambition and energy, and they might remind you of the possibilities you imagined when you first started out in this racket. They'll teach you how to be the darling of faculty members. If they're particularly talented, they might teach other graduate students humility, too.
The Seasoned Hand
The Seasoned Hand has been a tech pro for 10 years. They've already advanced in a specialized area, but they're hoping to either: seek highly specialized training in their current area of expertise in order to advance to a top position; or broaden their skill set to open themselves up to other opportunities. The Seasoned Hand might already hold another master's in an area such as mathematics or engineering.
Meeting the Seasoned Hand may surprise other graduate students for several reasons. According to Stanford University's website, an MSCS is a "terminal professional degree" intended to get students ready to advance to higher-level research or managerial positions in technology. This definition implies that the MSCS is essentially an extension of a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science (and software developers with 10 years of experience are already pretty advanced).
However, some computer science master's programs are either designed for, partially designed for, or adaptable to older professionals. These programs teach students with extensive professional computer science backgrounds advanced computer science concepts, enabling them to advance their skills and explore niche interests as well as allowing them to concentrate in different areas such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, electrical engineering, and robotics. Thus, the Seasoned Hand can be found either part-time or full-time among many other Seasoned Hands or among those Fresh Faces right out of undergraduate computer science degree programs.
The Seasoned Hand will teach other graduate students commitment and drive—they've been in the field for a decade or more, and they're still dedicating copious amounts of time and energy to growth and self-improvement. They're hoping to become directors overseeing complex computer systems, innovative computer scientists, VPs, or C-level executives, and they're assiduous on their journeys there.
You may think that everyone who pursues a computer science graduate degree has a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. If so, prepare to be surprised. Many people obtain an MSCS in order to distinguish themselves from other applicants when applying for jobs, but others pursue a computer science graduate degree to launch entirely new careers. A good number of computer science master's programs are willing to admit students who didn't major in computer science in undergrad, as long as those students have strong quantitative and analytical skills, and majored in a concomitant discipline such as engineering, mathematics, or physics.
Tufts University's MSCS program, for example, doesn't require students to have a degree in computer science. However, they do require that students demonstrate competence in and understanding of several concepts typically taught in an undergraduate computer science curriculum, such as computer architecture and assembly language, data structures and analysis of algorithms, programming languages (especially functional programming and object-oriented programming with inheritance), data science (including data mining) and theory of computation.
That's where the Pivoter comes in. The Pivoter is an experienced professional in a discipline other than computer science—likely a manager whose job exposes them to high-level computer science work. However, the Pivoter lacks the training and understanding to perform this high-level computer science work themselves. The Pivoter (before entering the MSCS program, of course) interacts with the computer science team and appreciates their work—so much so, in fact, that they want to join the team themselves. The Pivoter has foresight, predicts future growth in computer science areas, and feels that pursuing a graduate degree in computer science might be their chance to work on something groundbreaking, exciting, and crucial. They realize that their non-computer science skills, developed over years of professional accomplishment, will (far from being wasted) actually be an asset in their future computer science careers.
You'll learn a lot from the Pivoter—adaptability, for one, and strength of purpose. You'll learn foresight, how to examine changing industries and predict what those changes might mean for one's own future. Most of all, you'll learn confidence. A preponderance of MSCS students will have more knowledge and training than the Pivoter, but the Pivoter is game to learn and grow despite this and is dedicated to reaching the finish line regardless of their late start.
The Visionary is an experienced computer science professional with an undergraduate degree in computer science—they may have held a software developer or data architect position for a few years or been a true computer "scientist," developing new computing methods to solve problems in various industries and finding innovative new uses for existing technology. They'll fit right into any master's degree or doctoral computer science program and likely sparkle as an addition to a department of computer science.
The Visionary is certain that emerging computer science trends hold substantial promise, but they believe that additional credentials and training will be necessary to take advantage of those trends. The Visionary, having worked in the computer science arena for a substantial period, knows that few fields change as rapidly as computer science. The Visionary knows that they need to be learning every day to keep up and that the only promise in technology is that it will continue to evolve.
The Visionary wants to be up-to-date on the latest computer science advances and technologies. They may be hoping to specialize in an area such as artificial intelligence, wherein technology is relatively new and developing even more quickly than in other areas of computer science. They may be hoping to delve even deeper into such disciplines as information technology, cybersecurity, cloud computing, software engineering, programming languages, information systems, or perhaps some research area of information technology.
Like the Seasoned Hand, the Visionary will teach you dedication to self-improvement, and like the Pivoter, they'll teach you foresight. However, you'll recognize the Visionary primarily thanks to their powers of innovation and creativity. They're the sibyls of computer science, constantly anticipating changes in the field and considering how they might adapt to that change. Hitch your wagon to the Visionary's star, and you'll never stop learning.
_Best computer science master's programs_
Top on-campus computer science master's programs include:
- California Institute of Technology
- Carnegie Mellon University
- Cornell University
- Georgia Institute of Technology (Main Campus)
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Princeton University
- Stanford University
- University of California - Berkeley
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- The University of Texas at Austin
- University of Washington - Seattle Campus
_Best online computer science master's programs_
You'll find excellent online master's in computer science programs at:
- Boston University
- Columbia University
- Drexel University
- Georgia Institute of Technology
- Johns Hopkins University
- Southern Methodist University
- Stevens Institute of Technology
- Tufts University
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- University of Southern California
- Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
- Worcester Polytechnic Institute
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