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Should You Get a Master’s Degree in Computer Science?

What can you do with a master’s degree in computer science? Find out whether going to graduate school for computer science makes sense for your career goals.

Two women at a desk looking at a computer screen next to a man looking at a tablet.

It is no secret that a master’s degree in computer science is highly marketable, and not just in Austin, Boston, Silicon Valley, or Seattle. While undergraduate classes are overflowing with hopeful computer scientists, what is computer science like at the graduate level? 

Read our complete guide to graduate-level computer science: we will go over what classes you can take, what the course workload is like, and the possible career paths after graduation. Find out whether a master’s degree in computer science is right for you. 

If you are thinking about getting an undergraduate degree in computer science, check out our companion article, What Is Computer Science? All About US Computer Science Degree Programs.

What do you need to know about graduate-level computer science? 

In general, graduate degree classes for computer science will be very different from undergraduate studies. Expect all your classes to be computer science-related, requiring a deep understanding of the subject matter. You will spend more time researching and developing projects, theses, and conceptual work. There will be higher standards for graduation, with many grad school programs requiring a 3.0 or higher grade-point average. 

Universities and colleges require you to complete one of the following to graduate:

  • Independent study project—perhaps the most creative option, an independent study allows you to craft a capstone project with the help of a professor in your department. You often present your project to your professor or a committee for approval. Many students choose to focus on something experimental for their capstone project, such as creating algorithms for new spaces, paper grading applications, or facial recognition innovations.

  • Master’s thesis—your thesis is a paper on a pre-approved computer science subject that demonstrates your comprehensive understanding of computer science, which you will defend in front of a committee of professors at your college or university. During the defense, you will be expected to answer questions from the committee. 

  • Coursework—some programs allow you to graduate based on your regular classwork and do not require a thesis or project to earn your degree. 

Most full-time master’s degree students in computer science graduate in two years. Some schools have accelerated programs that allow you to finish in just one year, while others offer part-time options with a minimum number of credits per semester. 

There are combination degree programs, too: the University of South Carolina College of Engineering and Computing, for example, offers an accelerated undergraduate program that allows you to get both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years total. When applying to graduate school, make sure your universities and colleges have options that fit your personal needs. 

Before you apply to graduate school for computer science, remember that most programs evaluate candidates on the following four criteria:

  1. Bachelor’s degree—you must complete your undergraduate studies in computer science before you can apply to grad school. Many consider where you attended university and how rigorous your computer science degree program was. 

  2. GPA—admissions committees will look closely at your grades during your undergraduate studies. 

  3. Test scores—your GRE and TOEFL or IELTS score are also important. Top computer science students have an average score of high 150s to mid-160s on both the quantitative and verbal sections of the GRE, according to the Educational Testing Service and U.S. News & World Report.

  4. Professional experience—universities may consider any relevant work experience you already have. Because most grad students are between the ages of 25 and 29, according to the National Center for Education Services (NCES), many have worked as software developers or in other computer science jobs before going back to college for their graduate degree. 

What is the coursework of a graduate degree program in computer science?

Because there are so many specializations, it is much harder to show a basic computer science curriculum for graduate school coursework than undergraduate coursework. Additionally, many computer science programs allow you to build your own curriculum based on your interests and input from your advisors and faculty members. 

So instead, here are some popular areas of graduate degree computer science subjects and their sample classes. 

Artificial intelligence: students study language, probability, and logic to inform decisions in the fields of robotics, machine learning, and probabilistic modeling and inference. Artificial intelligence is an exciting field that is expected to grow, especially in industries like transportation (e.g., self-driving cars), logistics, and health care. 

Sample classes in AI:  

  • Algorithmic data mining 

  • Natural language processing 

  • Machine learning  

Computer and network security: students take classes in cryptography, networking, and network security to learn how to protect information from malware, hackers, and virus attacks. Security-based computer science professionals are in high demand due to increasing concerns over hacking and informational privacy as network architecture becomes more complex. People with graduate degrees in computer and network security become cybersecurity analysts, consultants, and engineers. 

Sample computer and network security classes: 

  • Introduction to cryptology

  • Real-world data networks 

  • Distributed systems 

Information management: sometimes known as data analytics, information management professionals design systems, mine data, and develop database applications. Information management is important to many industries as more companies use data to inform how they market, where they invest, and which strategies can outperform their competitors. 

Sample information management classes:

  • Mining massive data sets

  • Database systems principles

  • Information retrieval and web search

Human-centered computing: students studying human-centered computing, or human-computer interaction, are interested in the future of computation, using concepts like augmented and virtual reality in interesting or helpful ways. Human-centered computing is an interdisciplinary specialization at many universities, which means you will take classes and work with students outside of the computer science department. With this curriculum, expect a lot of creative work, group projects, and design challenges.

Sample human-centered computing classes: 

  • Human-computer interaction (HCI) design 

  • User-centered research 

  • Interaction design studio

There are many computer science specializations available at the graduate level, with new possibilities always developing as technology advances and computing needs change. Graduate schools work hard to keep up, but it is important to look closely at what each university offers. Faculty members, class size, and career opportunities are all important factors when choosing a graduate school—but do not forget the computer science degree program itself! For instance, if you are interested in computational biology, make sure the universities and colleges you are looking at have programs in that specialization. Talk to your undergraduate advisors and recent alumni to hear first-hand experiences. If you can, schedule a visit to the university campus to get informed. 

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

Nowadays, everyone relies on technology, no matter the sector or industry. Even if you do not graduate with a highly specialized computer science degree, you may still have promising job prospects. 

Here are some common career choices for computer science professionals, including salary information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Network architect 

A network architect creates local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs), intranets, and other data communication networks. The networks you work on can be small, covering a few offices, or could serve entire communities or more. 

Entry-level education: Bachelor’s degree

2018 media salary: $109,020

Research scientist

As a computer and information research scientist, you will work on the most complex problems facing computer science today, researching and experimenting with solutions using math, data structures, and computational theory.

Entry-level education: Master’s degree

2018 media salary: $118,370

Software developer 

Software developers turn blank screens into functioning software. They find new and interesting ways to solve technological problems and then write the code that gets those solutions up and running.  

Entry-level education:  Bachelor’s degree

2018 media salary: $105,590

Is a master’s degree in computer science right for you? 

Studying at the graduate level is your chance to focus on a specific niche in computer science. Advanced topics such as deep learning may only get mentioned at the undergraduate level but can be the primary focus of graduate studies. If you choose to continue your education and apply for a doctorate degree, then graduate school is an essential opportunity to start your research. If you choose to enter the workforce, a graduate degree in computer science can help you land a job that requires higher qualifications and pays a better salary. 

With a master’s in computer science, your work can be applied to almost every industry, from the nonprofit sector to Wall Street. As a graduate student, you may study data science, blockchain, or machine learning. You could specialize in robotics, human-computer interaction, or a different subset of computer science. 

If you have more questions about studying computer science at the graduate school level, reach out to a student who is already in the master’s program at the college or university that interests you. Make sure to research available jobs in the US and in the country you intend on returning to after you get your degree. See which computer science job positions are on hiring websites, and what the national statistics say about industry growth. Remember, you can always ask your Shorelight advisor to help you determine whether getting a master’s degree in computer science aligns with your goals. 

Discover where you can study computer science in the US > 

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