What is Computer Science?
Our daily lives are so intertwined with computers and computing systems, that it’s hard to imagine life before them. From mobile devices (and the artificial intelligence powering Internet search engines) to the World Wide Web, communications satellites, automotive controller area networks, avionics, etc., there’s virtually no aspect of our modern society that isn’t impacted by computer programs. Yet none of it would exist without computer science and its relevant theories, mathematical models, and software development processes.
Computer science is a broad field that covers subjects like artificial intelligence, computer graphics, systems and networks security, software engineering, database systems, programming languages, and so much more. It’s also one of the fastest-growing professions with job projections at 21% through 2031!
Computer Science Careers
There are dozens of in-demand careers available for graduates with a computer science degree. A few popular examples include:
- Computer and Information Systems Manager
- Computer Network Architect
- Computer Systems Analyst
- Database Administrator
- Information Security Analyst
- Network and Computer Systems Administrator
- Software Developer
- Software Development Engineer
- Web Developer
What Can I Do With A Computer Science Degree?
What can’t you do with a computer science degree? The career possibilities are nearly endless because computer science impacts so many different industries. Also, there is a wide range of roles to fill, depending on experience and areas of specialization. From entry-level positions to management and C-suite executives, organizations around the globe rely heavily on their team of computer science gurus!
Below are a few of the exciting, well-paid careers you can launch with a computer science degree:
- Median Salary: $120,730
- Career Outlook: +26% (2021-2031)
- Required Education: Bachelor's Degree
Software developers work behind-the-scenes building the systems our devices and apps run on. Most developers get started with a bachelor’s degree, making this one hot job for computer science graduates!
- Median Salary: $126,830
- Career Outlook: +22% (2021-2031)
- Required Education: Master's Degree
A career as a computer and information research scientist is a highly attractive option for many computer science grads with a master’s degree or higher. Workers in this field live on the cutting edge of technology, leveraging their research to push the envelope and create innovative new products and services in a wide array of industries.
- Median Salary: $120,520
- Career Outlook: +6% (2021-2031)
- Required Education: Bachelor's Degree
Computer network architects, aka network engineers, build data communication networks or cloud infrastructures for organizations.
Computer Science Degree
A computer science degree incorporates studies from all STEM disciplines, with a focus on computers (including both hardware and software), networks, databases, and more. There are several specialties and subspecialties as well, including artificial intelligence, network security, data science, video game design, human-computer interaction, and real-world computing, to name but a few.
Computer Science is highly conducive to online learning, which is why many schools offer online or hybrid courses. It’s also an extremely popular major which is why so many public and private schools offer programs for certificates, associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Let’s take a look at the general requirements for each.
Certificate in Computer Science
Some students don’t want or need to earn a full degree, while others already have one but want to boost their computer science skills. Either way, a certificate program is a convenient and affordable way to go.
Not to be confused with a non-academic certification from a third-party organization, such as Google or Amazon Web Services, a college certificate typically consists of 12 to 18 semester credits. These credits are a mix of required classes plus a few computer science related electives.
Associate Degree in Computer Science
Associate degrees cover most undergraduate general education requirements, along with some of the basic core classes for your computer science program. An associate degree typically counts toward half the credits needed for a bachelor’s degree, usually around 60 credits.
Full-time students can expect to finish in two years, while part-time students may take up to twice as long, depending on their course load. In addition to general education courses, introductory computer science related classes for an associate degree may include:
- Computer Architecture and Assembly Language
- Data Structures
- Design Engineering
- Differential Calculus
- Elements of Discrete Mathematics
- Engineering Computation and Algorithmic Thinking
- Integral Calculus
- Introduction to Computer Science
- Statistics for Engineers
- Web Development
Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science
A bachelor's degree dives deeper into computer science subject matter, and usually allows for a minor or an area of specialization. Some programs feature a double major option or a combined bachelor’s degree and master’s degree.
Program lengths are usually four years for full-time students but can take twice as long if going part-time. Online programs may offer accelerated classes if they are asynchronous. Required and elective courses vary by program, but below are a few general topics to expect:
- Artificial Intelligence
- Cloud Computing
- Computational Data Analysis
- Computer Architecture
- Computer Science Theory
- Data Logic
- Data Management
- Design Physics
- Electronic Design
- Files and Databases
- Full-Stack Development
- Machine Learning
- Network Fundamentals
- Operating Systems
- Programming Languages
- Software Engineering
- Software Security
Master’s Degree in Computer Science
A master’s degree is where things really pick up and courses get even harder. University graduate schools are notoriously tough to get into, which is why you’ll not only need a great undergrad GPA but also a strong resume, letters of recommendation, and a solid essay.
A Master’s Degree in Computer Science is designed to prepare students for higher-level roles or to help working professionals qualify for career advancement. Many people choose to pursue a Master’s Degree in Computer Science after gaining a few years of work experience. Others pursue a master’s directly after finishing their bachelor’s degree.
If you choose a traditional program, expect to add anywhere from one and a half to two years to your timeline. If you choose to pursue an accelerated or combination program, you may only need to add one year after graduating with your bachelor’s degree.
Doctoral Degree in Computer Science
A PhD in Computer Science will focus heavily on research and theory. With this in mind, many graduates with a PhD often go into careers involving research, academic writing, or teaching at the postsecondary level.
Online Computer Science Degree
Online computer science programs are extremely popular for a number of reasons, one of which is flexibility. Instead of having to attend classes at certain times on certain days, online students can study at their own pace, thus removing one of the main barriers to educational access.
In addition, there’s no requirement to live on campus which can save students money because on-campus housing can be expensive. There’s also no commute, meaning no driving or walking long distances to get to class. Instead, you can attend class from anywhere with a laptop and an Internet connection.
Many online computer science programs are accredited through ABET’s Computing Accreditation Commission (CAC), which is a sign that their curriculum meets high educational standards, at least equal to what students could expect from an accredited on-campus program.
Although accreditation is technically voluntary, schools often go through the process because it shows credibility. Some employers prefer candidates who have graduated from CAC-accredited computer science programs, especially when any engineering work is involved. That said, if it’s a top school with an established stellar reputation, then CAC accreditation may not be as important.
Finally, because online programs have fewer encumbrances, they can often be streamlined, meaning accelerated learning so students can graduate faster. Below are some of the best online computer science programs in the US!
UC Berkeley is renowned for its rigorous academics, and in an effort to reduce barriers to educational access, it offers many programs online through its continuing education branch, Berkeley Extension. The extension features several Technology and Information Management programs related to computer science, including coding and cybersecurity bootcamps, a certificate in software development, and an expert seminar series on AI and Machine Learning for Engineering.
Often ranked among the Ivy Leagues, North Carolina’s Duke University only has about a 6% acceptance rate for in-person applicants. Getting into Duke Online might be a simpler way to slide a foot in the door, and there are several computer science related online programs to consider. Here are some of their most popular:
- Java Programming
- Software Engineering Fundamentals Specialization
- AI Foundations for Product Innovation Graduate Certificate, via the celebrated Pratt School of Engineering
Computer Science Areas and Specializations
Computer science degree programs feature several areas of specialization to choose from. Not all schools offer every specialization field, so it’s helpful to narrow down your area of focus before applying to a program. A few popular specialties are:
Best Colleges for Computer Science
There are hundreds of great computer science programs at colleges and universities around the country. But what makes one rank among the “best”? That depends on the student’s unique interests, needs, and goals. What’s best for one student might not be ideal for another.
With all that said, here are a handful of our top picks of the best colleges for computer science, based on high academic standards, experienced faculty, superb facilities, and their abundance of academic computer science offerings.
Though it is one of the hardest schools to get into, MIT is worth applying to for top-notch computer science education. The Electrical Engineering & Computer Science Department (EECS) is deeply immersed in computer science-related research, from artificial intelligence and machine learning to computational fabrication, computer architecture, graphics, HCI, programming languages, quantum computer, robotics, and more.
Featuring top-of-the-line facilities, award-winning faculty, and a wide array of undergrad and graduate computer science programs, MIT’s EECS Department is “where the future is invented!” There are also online computer science options through the Schwarzman College of Computing, in partnership with EECS.
The seventh-oldest higher education institution in America, Rhode Island’s Brown University has the oldest applied math program and the oldest engineering program in the Ivy League! Brown’s computer science department is renowned for its commitment to excellence in teaching, as well as its boundary-breaking research and multidisciplinary approaches.
Brown’s computer science program includes its students in “opportunities to be part of the university’s intellectual life” through undergraduate study, two master’s (either computer science or an online MS in Cybersecurity ), a doctoral program, and the unique Data Science Initiative master’s.
Though it’s not part of the Ivy Leagues, California’s prestigious Stanford University sure seems like it should be! Located on a massive 8,180-acre campus, the institution relishes in a mind-boggling $36 billion endowment, enabling it to afford some of the best labs, facilities, and faculty on the planet.
The computer science undergraduate curriculum covers many fields, including engineering, science, and medicine. Master’s students may select one of nine specializations and can continue on to earn a PhD. There are also a couple of joint degree options—a Joint CS MS/Law or Joint CS MS/MBA. Stanford Online students can also sign up for the online Computer Science MS or other virtual computer science courses.
Out of all the Ivy League schools, Cornell is considered the “easiest” to get into…but easy is a relative term at this level. One of the nation’s most elite schools, Cornell is highly selective because of its superb academic programs—including those offered by the Bowers College of Computing and Information Systems.
Undergraduates can earn a Bachelor’s in Computer Science or add Computer Science as a second major. Exceptional students can apply to the College Scholar Program to design their own curricula. There’s also a study abroad program, as well as other higher education options including a master’s and doctorate program.
Founded in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin in 1740, UPenn is notable for producing some of the wealthiest and most accomplished alumni of any university on Earth. Its acclaimed Computer and Information Science department falls under Penn Engineering, the “birthplace of the modern computer.” The school’s areas of research includes Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, robotics, computer vision, data science, HCI, and many more. Students can select from two degree paths:
- BS in Engineering with several computer science-related major options
- Bachelor of Applied Science featuring more liberal arts classes.
There are six master’s and doctoral-level programs, but competition for a slot gets fierce!
Computer Science College Financial Aid
Earning a computer science college degree is a worthy investment, but also an expensive one. The cost of tuition and other fees can seem overwhelming, which is why students are highly encouraged to seek any and all forms of financial aid available to them. The government recommends accepting financial aid in the following order:
- Free money (via scholarships and grants)
- Earned money (via work-study programs or part-time jobs)
- Borrowed money (via federal aid or private loans)
Below is a list of the most common types of aid available to students:
There is a wide range of scholarship sources, including most colleges and universities themselves, as well as our scholarship search tool. Not all colleges and universities offer scholarships, but many do, so be sure to check. State governmental organizations also offer scholarships in some cases. Be sure to also check out our tips for dominating those scholarship applications.
Common scholarship types include academic scholarships, athletic scholarships, scholarships based on extracurricular activities, legacy scholarships (for those whose parents attended the school previously), scholarships based on diversity factors, military scholarships, and employer scholarships.
The most overlooked sources of scholarship funding are private organizations offering merit- or need-based scholarships to computer sciencestudents. Scholarships aren’t paid back. They are free money, and generally, you can apply for as many as you’d like.
Computer Science Scholarships
Upsilon Pi Epsilon is the International Honor Society for Computing and Information Disciplines. Each year, UPE issues scholarship awards to outstanding applicants, with amounts ranging from $1,000 - $3,000. Applications are submitted by respective UPE chapters, and scholarship recipients must be registered for a college program. UPE also gives out awards in partnership with the Association for Computing Machinery. Submission deadlines vary so check their website for the most current details.
The IEEE Computer Society's Richard E. Merwin Student Scholarship gives out $1,000+ awards to full-time computer science students with at least a 2.5 GPA. Criteria include “branch/chapter activities (30%), academic achievement (30%), extracurricular activities (10%), letter of recommendation from student branch/chapter advisor (20%), and quality of Student Ambassador vision statement (10%).” Nomination deadlines are in April and September.
The Generation Google Scholarship offers $1,000 to women students studying computer science in the Asia Pacific region. Awards are based on candidates’ demonstrated commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as proof of innovation and good grades. Submissions must include transcripts, a resume, and two short essays. This scholarship will reopen in early 2023.
How To Earn A Computer Science Degree - Next Steps
If you’re excited about starting a computer science program, but don’t know where to begin, have no fear! We’ve got a great list of steps for you to take, no matter where you’re at on your educational pathway!
Sign Up for Computer Science Preparatory Classes - For high school students, taking any computer science and IT courses is greatly beneficial, but other courses are important in the framework of computer science including geometry, trigonometry, calculus, physics, design, typing, and speech. Most of these courses are also offered at community colleges.
Join a Computer Club - If your school has a computer club, join it! If not, start one yourself! Clubs are a fun way to learn new things and stay motivated. Helpful resources include Stanford Engineering Everywhere, MIT OpenCourseWare, and Codecademy.
Learn on Your Own - Students who are persistent and patient can teach themselves the foundations of computer science by reading books, watching video tutorials, participating in online forums, and taking online courses.
Find and Apply to Programs - Researching different schools and programs can be overwhelming, but it is important to find a program of interest that also has realistic eligibility requirements that students can meet. It may be helpful to make a list of target schools, dream schools, and “safety” schools so you can apply to some in each category.
Secure Funding - Majority of students need to plan for how they’ll pay for college. Check out the Computer Science College Financial Aid section above to explore some options.
Computer Science FAQ
What can you do with a Computer Science degree?
- There are several great-paying, popular jobs for college graduates with a computer science degree including Computer Network Architect, Computer Systems Analyst, Database Administrator, Network Administrator, and Software Developer.
Is a Computer Science degree worth it?
- Yes, computer science jobs are hot! The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 15% job growth in computer science career opportunities over the next decade, and the average annual wage is nearly $100,000 (which is twice the median wage for all occupations).
Is a computer science degree hard?
- Computer science is a challenging field of study that requires knowledge of several disciplines. Perhaps the hardest aspect of computer science is that because technology evolves, students will always be learning new things!
How long does it take to get a Computer Science degree?
- Most undergraduate computer science degrees take four years to complete, if attending full-time. Part-time programs may take up to twice as long. Some online programs feature accelerated courses that can reduce the time it takes to graduate.
What field in Computer Science is the highest paid?
Can I make $200k+ with a computer science degree?
- It’s not uncommon for workers in computer science fields to earn over $200,000 a year, but, like most professionals, salaries depend on many factors including the job itself, education, experience, employer, and geographic location.
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