Master’s in Computer Science Degree Overview
It’s no secret that computer science is a hot major in our ever growing digital world! The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the entire computer and IT industry will grow 11% in the coming decade.1 By comparison, the combined average growth for all other occupations is only 4%! Clearly, a degree in computer science is a worthy investment. But should you stop with only a bachelor’s or keep going to finish a computer science master’s degree?
The answer to that depends on your career goals and expectations. There are many variables to consider, so we’ve put together an overview of useful information for your decision-making process!
What is a Master’s in Computer Science?
What exactly is a Master’s Degree in Computer Science? As with any graduate degree, a master’s is designed to expand upon the educational foundation from undergraduate coursework, such as programming languages in this case. Computer science grad programs build on prior skills learned, but they also venture deeper into advanced topics such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, software engineering, and databases. It’s not just a continuation of what you learned before though. A master’s opens new avenues to explore and provides opportunities for specialization.
Most universities offer this degree as a master of science, which takes two to three years of study beyond the bachelor’s degree. Many schools host flexible online programs, making it more convenient for working or out-of-area students to attend the program of their choice!
List of 10 Computer Science Master’s Degree Specializations
It’s common for Master’s in Computer Science programs to offer specialization options to students. Some common CS specializations are:
- Artificial Intelligence – AI is currently the hottest trend in the computer science world. It involves teaching computers to perform tasks humans can do (but better!), such as recognizing patterns and voices or making decisions using cognition.
- Cloud Computing – One of the more critical and fastest-growing industries in the IT world, cloud computing, makes resources available on-demand over the internet.
- Cybersecurity – Also called information technology security or various other terms, this area focuses on protecting computers, networks, mobile devices, and associated technology from malicious outsider attacks.
- Data Science – This specialization teaches students how to extract and exploit data to gain valuable insights for organizational decision-making.
- Game Design – Game Designs covers infrastructure researching and development related to software and hardware, as well as cognition (ideas for modeling simulated characters and storylines) and immersion.
- Human-Computer Interaction – HCI is a multidisciplinary study of the way people engage with computer technology in order to make improvements and innovations.
- Bioinformatics – This focus area deals with the methods and tools used for recognizing, storing, and analyzing complex biological data sets using a variety of techniques.
- Information Systems – Information systems work to serve data-intensive apps using integrated sets of components. Companies like Amazon, eBay, and Google rely on sophisticated information systems for their operations.
- Machine Learning – ML is tied to artificial intelligence and focused on using data and algorithms to create predictive models.
- Software Engineering – This CS field utilizes methodical practices to develop and test software and applications to meet user requirements.
Master’s in Computer Science Cost vs. Benefit Analysis
Spending the extra time and money to finish a Master’s in Computer Science is a big commitment! Luckily, according to several indicators, it’s a commitment that can pay off even bigger in the long run. There’s no guarantee of return on investment, but below are a few data points to demonstrate the potential benefits of completing your graduate degree!
Master’s in Computer Science Salary
According to data from PayScale, the average salary for employees with a Master’s in Computer Science degree is $103,813.2
In comparison, computer science workers with only a bachelor’s earn $85,691 on average. That’s more than an $18,000 a year difference. Over the span of a two-decade career, that average difference adds up to roughly $362,000 — enough to pay for a nice house in most states!
Salaries vary depending on the actual role, of course, so here’s a sampling taken from wages reported on PayScale.
|Software Development Engineers||$104,000||$113,000|
|Lead Software Engineers||$114,000||$125,000|
|Senior Software Engineers||$117,000||$124,000|
How Long Does It Take to Earn a Master’s in Computer Science?
On average, a Master’s in Computer Science takes two years to complete if attending school full-time. However, part-time students may take three to five years, depending on their course load each term.
Online programs can be helpful to speed things up since they eliminate the need to commute, and students have more flexibility about attendance times. Here are a few examples:
- Syracuse University advertises that their MS in Computer Science can be done in as few as 15 months.3
- The number of required credit hours depends on the program itself, plus whether or not any prerequisites must be taken or whether or not a thesis option is selected. For example, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign requires 28 credit hours of coursework plus 4 thesis credit hours (for a total of 32 hours).4
- The University of New Orleans requires 30 credit hours for a thesis-based MS or 36 for a non-thesis option.5
Two other factors that can expedite completion are transferring credits and signing up for an accelerated BS/MS program. Accelerated programs are often designed to be finished within five years (four for the bachelor’s plus one extra to complete the master’s).
How Much Does It Cost to Earn a Computer Science Master’s?
As noted by U.S. News & World Report, “a school’s sticker price is rarely the actual amount families pay for college.”6 That’s because most students utilize financial aid from either federal programs, scholarships, or other sources. However, it’s still essential to look at the actual costs of a Master’s in Computer Science program.
Several factors impact the cost of a degree. All universities have different tuition rates, with private schools tending to cost much more. Ivy League institutions can run into the tens of thousands of dollars per year.
Meanwhile, even within the same university, rates can vary from program to program. For example, Harvard’s MS in Computational Science and Engineering costs $58,244 per year, compared to $50,928 for other Harvard degrees in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.7
Even outside of such high-end schools, tuition rates vary wildly. Two-year, on-campus programs can cost as much as $30,000 or more, on average. However, many universities offer online programs at significant savings to help offset escalating costs and decrease barriers to access. For instance, Georgia Institute of Technology’s Online MS in Computer Science has a program cost of roughly $7,000, making it one of the most affordable and flexible options we’ve seen (and even praised by President Barack Obama for its low cost).
Another advantage of online programs is that you may attend a school outside your state without being charged an exorbitant out-of-state tuition rate.
It’s important to shop around and make cost comparisons to ensure you’re getting your best value for the money. Along with tuition fees, the cost of a computer science master’s degree program will also include books, technology materials (laptop, camera, microphone, WiFi, etc.), and other supplies. In addition, students attending in-person will also need to budget for medical insurance, transportation and parking expenses, costs for coffee, snacks, and eating out, entertainment and event admission prices, and other residual expenses that can add up quickly.
Grad students are also highly encouraged to review all of their federal aid options and pay close attention to deadlines. If you’re thinking about a loan, have a look at federal versus private loan options and closely read the fine print to ensure you understand all the terms.
Whenever possible, take the time to apply for scholarships, even if they are relatively small. It may seem like a hassle to go through those scholarship application processes, but it’s better than taking loans or using a high-interest credit card to pay for your education!
Pros and Cons of Pursuing a Master’s in Computer Science
While this guide can’t predict every person’s unique circumstances, there are several general trends we can spot related to the pros and cons to pursuing a Master’s in Computer Science:
- Greater big-picture understanding of the field
- Ability to specialize in areas that interest you the most
- Increased competitiveness in future job markets
- Broader, more impactful career opportunities around the world
- Enhanced promotion potential
- Higher annual salary adding up to significantly greater lifetime earnings
- The rising cost of graduate tuition and expenses
- Additional time and study commitments
- May delay entry into the workforce, if attending school full-time
So…Is It Worth It?
Do the pros outweigh the cons? Only you can make that determination. The wide world of higher education is well aware of the downsides and is making strides to mitigate those. Flexible distance education options are empowering students to attend master’s programs while keeping their day jobs. Online programs are also helping to reduce costs by reducing the time it takes to finish a degree.
Meanwhile, government initiatives are seeking to address the rising cost of education, with the aim of increasing accessibility and reducing student loan burdens.
As the Department of Education states,
“In today’s economy, higher education is no longer a luxury for the privileged few, but a necessity for individual economic opportunity and America’s competitiveness in the global economy. At a time when jobs can go anywhere in the world, skills and education will determine success for individuals and for nations. As a result, a college education remains the best investment a student can make in his or her future.”
Private employers are also getting in on the action, offering tuition reimbursement incentives to workers. From tech giants like Amazon to fast-food franchises such as McDonald’s, companies are recognizing the value that an educated workforce brings to the table!
Earning a Master’s Degree in Computer Science sets you apart from bachelor’s degree holders, gets you into leadership positions, and gives you leverage to demand higher pay.
Most entry-level computer science industry jobs don’t require a master’s degree, but having one can help you secure positions requiring higher qualifications and offering better salaries.
Employees with a master’s degree earn $10,000 – $15,000 more each year than those with a bachelor’s. That gap increases to an average of $18,000 for computer science workers.
A few job opportunities open to people with a Master’s in Computer Science include computer network architecture, software development engineering, computer and information systems management, and research scientist.
Software development directors, principal software engineers, and software development managers averaged over $135,000 per year in 2020.
To get into a Master’s Degree in Computer Science program, you need a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science or a related technical field (or the ability to take prerequisite makeup courses), a qualifying GPA, transcripts, and usually a statement of purpose and recommendations.
Computer Science is a challenging field of study, but everyone has their own strengths and competencies. For example, it might be harder for students with a poor foundation in mathematics, but tutoring can help boost your skills.
You may be able to pursue a Master’s degree in Computer Science without a bachelor’s in that field, but you would probably need to take prerequisite undergraduate-level courses to get up-to-speed and qualify. Those credits would not count towards the master’s.
A Master’s Degree in Computer Science typically takes two years for full-time students and up to twice as long for part-time students. Accelerated BS/MS combined programs allow students to complete both in roughly five years. Some online MS programs advertise completion times of 15 months.
Yes, as with any graduate-level program, expect to put in some serious work. A Master’s in Computer Science takes commitment and resources to finish, but the reward is worth it!
Students pursuing a Master’s in Computer Science may expect to take classes in software engineering, system development, data analytics, artificial intelligence, applied communications, and network architecture.
An MBA programs provide deeper insight into business and finance, while a Master’s Degree in Computer Science provides more focused skills and knowledge in this specific field.