Switching Careers to Software Engineering: Which Master's Degree(s) Are Best?
October 11, 2021
A master's in software engineering can help you change careers, but it's not the only STEM degree that leads to a new dream job. We survey all the degrees that lead to new careers in software engineering.
Software engineers produce and connect digital devices. That means software engineering is integral to everyday life.
Just think about all the devices that need to communicate with one another. Your Bluetooth headphones are useless if they can't speak to your phone or computer. Your smart speaker can't change the thermostat if they don't both speak the same language.
For those considering a career change, becoming a software engineer can seem daunting. Designing electronic systems sounds like something that requires a PhD. While software engineering doctoral programs exist, transitioning from your current job to a software engineer role likely requires far less education.
Truthfully, you may not even need to earn a degree to access this unsaturated job market. The demand for qualified professionals is so high—the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the field to grow by 22 percent from 2019 to 2029—that many employers are willing to consider candidates without formal education. However, it's not as simple as taking a few online courses and waiting for recruiters and CEOs to come knocking.
Earning a master's is a foolproof way to transition into this exciting new job. Degrees can provide students an intro to the programming concepts and problem-solving skills necessary to become a software engineer. And you won't need to piece together an education from different websites and pull your hair out trying to teach yourself. A highly respected institution will create the optimal academic program for you, then confer your expertise with a valued credential when you graduate.
This article on switching careers to software engineering: which master's degree(s) are best? explains how a master's degree can prepare you for a new career. It covers:
- What is software engineering?
- Software engineering careers
- Do I need a master's to advance in software engineering?
- Software engineering master's degrees
- Should I get a master's degree to switch careers to software engineering?
What is software engineering?
Software engineering is the process of developing usable software. Software engineers know multiple programming languages, including:
Software engineers and developers also maintain technology by upgrading and updating software. This helps equipment keep running efficiently and stay current with industry developments.
You may be wondering whether there's a difference between software engineers and developers. There is, though both have similar skillsets. First, developers typically earn less—an average salary slightly over $72,000, as compared to slightly over $87,000 for software engineers, according to PayScale. Developers spend more time with clients developing a blueprint of the product. Engineers consider the way the entire product works, meaning decisions that impact the bottom line as well as the end product's functionality and utility.
Software engineering careers
Software engineering careers are not limited to developers and engineers. Top jobs in the field include:
- Chief technology officer
- Cybersecurity manager
- Desktop developer
- Engineering manager
- Software architect
Reaching these positions may require multiple years of experience and potentially another graduate degree. Experience can also help you advance to a senior software engineering position. Senior roles are often stepping stones to management roles.
You may decide to specialize in a niche area like mobile or game engineering. In these roles, software engineers focus on systems (e.g., iOS, Android) or functions (e.g., graphics).
Other closely related career paths include:
- Backend engineer
- Full-stack engineer
- Front-end engineer
Whatever new career path you decide to take, you'll likely be compensated well. According to PayScale, professionals with a Master of Science in Software Engineering earn average annual salaries over $107,000. This projection includes upper-level management and entry-level careers, meaning it provides a broad snapshot of the industry. In comparison, CTOs earn an average base salary of over $163,000. The average software architect earns more than $125,000 per year.
Do I need a master's to advance in software engineering?
You do not need a master's degree to advance in software engineering, but it should make advancement easier. The benefit of attending a master's in engineering program is that you'll graduate with an accredited degree. Potential employers know what they're getting when they see you have a master's in software engineering, which is especially valuable when you're switching careers. You don't need to worry if the bootcamp is legitimate or your personal projects meet industry standards.
However, there are ways to become a software engineer without spending thousands of dollars and two years on a graduate degree program. You can complete a reputable bootcamp through an organization like Springboard at a fraction of time and cost of a master's program. Institutions like Columbia University and University of California - Berkeley also offer coding bootcamps that can help you land your first job in the field.
Having coding experience before applying to a master's degree program is a good idea, though there are programs designed for students with no experiences. Northeastern University's computer science department, for one, welcomes applicants looking to change careers. Schools commonly require inexperienced students to complete bridge courses to prepare for graduate-level coursework.
If possible, you should strongly consider self-studying or even completing a short programming bootcamp before applying to a graduate program. It will help you determine whether you can keep up with coursework and also whether you enjoy software engineering as much as you think.
Software engineering master's degrees
So, which is the best master's degree for aspiring software engineers? Is a master's in software engineering the only option?
Notably, admissions requirements can differ drastically from school to school; top programs are less likely to accept inexperienced applicants. Be sure to research before applying to any program on this list.
Remember, while programs can welcome students with no experience, many software engineering programs are designed for those with at least a couple of years of work history or a STEM undergraduate background. The Arizona State University - Tempe program focuses specifically on providing students with "advanced knowledge in software development methodologies, techniques, tools and processes so you can effectively manage a variety of software projects." Experienced students can use a master's to move into advanced technical positions or management.
Typical course titles for students in software engineering graduate programs include:
- Advanced Software Engineering
- Decision Analysis and Engineering Economics
- Foundations of Artificial Intelligence
- Software Design Patterns
- Web and Mobile Architectures
Earning a software development degree prepares you for jobs like software developer (obviously) and computer and information research scientist. The program at Boston University is a technically minded degree that focuses on software development and coding coursework.
The University of Utah offers a degree program designed for students who lack a computer science background and want to switch career paths. The degree provides graduates with the skills to become:
- Big data analysts
- Computer security experts
If you have zero experience and want to become a software engineer, a master's in software development might be the best place to start. After graduation, you may need to take a software development or programming job then work your way up.
Earning a Master of Business Administration (MBA) is an excellent way to reach upper-level management and executive positions. This is a great option for someone with a business background who may not have the requisite technical skills.
All MBA degrees focus on business management. They include coursework in finance, economics, marketing, business communication, quantitative analysis, and leadership, among other subjects. Those who want careers in software engineering management should strongly consider choosing a technically focused MBA track or specialization. Options include:
- Information management
- Information systems
- Information technology
Many MBA programs are embracing STEM and analytics. Southern Methodist University, for example, includes analytics coursework as part of its core curriculum. Other programs, such as Carnegie Mellon University, receive a STEM designation from the Department of Homeland Security. Experienced applicants (usually those with more than ten years), may decide to complete an Executive MBA (EMBA). Howard University offers a highly ranked online EMBA program that's more streamlined than a traditional MBA program.
A master's in computer science is one of the most popular degree options; it prepares students for more careers than just software engineering. Stevens Institute of Technology students go on to roles like principal software engineer and software engineering manager.
Computer science programs provide an excellent opportunity to bolster your technical skills. Students in the Tufts University online computer science master's can complete coursework in areas like:
- Computation theory
- Database systems
- Data structures
- Machine learning
- Operating systems
- Programming (multiple languages)
- Software engineering
University of Tulsa offers a master's in cybersecurity degree that teaches students concepts necessary to succeed in cyberdefense positions. Like most cybersecurity master's programs, University of Tulsa's targets those with existing experience in the field (or at the very least a significant computer science background). The part-time online program is designed for students to continue working as they study.
Students complete class titles like:
- Defensive Cyber Security Technologies
- Foundations of Cyber Security
- Information Systems Assurance
- Security Audit and Penetration Testing
- System Security and Cryptography
Students take on cybersecurity positions like security architect or risk manager. Cybersecurity engineers focus on addressing software security breaches and risks.
Some computer science master's programs offer cybersecurity as a concentration.
Though both have the term engineering in the title, electrical engineers focus primarily on hardware rather than software. New York University's electrical engineering students "use what ]they've[ already learned about physics, chemistry, and mathematics to create the products of tomorrow."
Electrical engineers, like software engineers, benefit from knowing multiple programming languages; the two careers have overlapping skills. However, it may be better to think of electrical engineering as an alternative to software engineering, though it requires a more advanced skillset.
Entrepreneurship is typically taught at business programs; it's a common MBA specialty. That said, there's room for software engineering in modern entrepreneurship.
NYU offers a Master's of Science in Computing, Entrepreneurship & Innovation, which combines computer science and business courses. The degree doesn't go as in-depth into hard technical skills as other programs, illustrating how you don't necessarily need an advanced background to work in software engineering. Graduates look to identify groundbreaking new technology or trends and start a business or work at a startup. This is another good option for those who have a business background.
Information technology (IT) is a large designation with many subspecialties, such as information systems. A master's in IT typically sets students up to work with computer systems and architecture. This includes building and maintaining them.
It's difficult, though possible, to pursue software engineering in an IT program, which traditionally covers topics like:
- Computer architecture
- Database management
- Software development
- Systems administration
- Systems security
Sacred Heart University offers an MS in Computer Science & Information Technology that includes software engineering coursework.
According to Arizona State University, a master's in IT can prepare you for careers like:
- Big data specialist
- Database architect
- Network administrator
- Network engineer
This is another degree program that typically attracts more advanced professionals, though degrees do exist for beginners.
Math is the basis of just about everything digital, so it's beneficial to becoming a software engineer. Knowing high-level mathematics can make learning programming easier.
That said, earning a master's in mathematics to become a software engineer is kind of like being a weightlifter who only eats vegetables; they're excellent for you and provide extraordinary benefits, but you need protein to gain muscle. Undergraduate students who earn bachelor's degrees in mathematics possess the analytical thinking required to transition to a software engineering master's degree. It's common to see math on the list of acceptable undergraduate degrees that you can use to get into a STEM master's program.
Network administrators manage networks. They typically don't have master's degrees, but programs do exist, including in IT or CS. Students at University of Colorado Boulder study subjects like:
- Data communication
- Network programming
- System administration
If you want to get closer to a software engineering career, earning a master's in network engineering may be a better degree option. Network engineers design the systems that administrators keep running. Southern Methodist University offers an MS in Network Engineering in which students complete telecommunication and administration coursework plus architecturally focused courses that address subjects like protocols and network design.
Should I get a master's degree to switch careers to software engineering?
You don't necessarily need a master's degree to become a software engineer; you don't even need a degree at all. That said, a degree can help you get past a lot of HR gatekeepers, a necessary step in acquiring many jobs.
You can learn lots from free tutorials on YouTube if you have the self-discipline to see it through. Self-learners need to code without deadlines or grades for a few hours each day, which can be difficult with a full-time or even part-time job. They should develop projects through sites like Github, complete open-source coding challenges, and enroll in bootcamps through organizations like FreeCodeCamp.
The drawback to the bootcamp route is that employers often want candidates with experience, according to one Reddit thread, meaning it can be challenging to find a job after graduating. Taking advantage of an internship opportunity during a master's degree program can give you a leg up, though the job search can be difficult no matter your educational background.
Degree programs are great for networking opportunities and establishing concrete proof of your skills; graduate degrees still look great on LinkedIn. You also have more chances to make connections with classmates and professors as a graduate student.
Earning a master's degree in software engineering essentially guarantees that you'll be able to get a job after graduation. Even though master's degrees can be expensive and take multiple years to complete, they can provide an excellent return on investment, especially in STEM disciplines. If your goal is to switch careers and earn a better job, a master's in software engineering can make it a reality.
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