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What is Computer Science? All About US Computer Science Degree Programs

What can you do with a US computer science degree? If you are considering a computer science major, learn about computer science coursework, careers, and more. 

A young man codes on a keyboard and computer screen next to another laptop.

It is an exciting time to study computer science in the US. In addition to being one of the fastest-growing sectors of the global economy, it is also one of the most versatile degree programs. Computer scientists are changing the world through everything from the Internet of things to quantum computing and big data. 

But what is computer science? What is it like to study computer science as an undergraduate or graduate student enrolled in a college or university in the USA? Then, after you graduate, what can you do with a US computer science degree? Keep reading…

What is computer science?

Computer science is the study of computers and computational systems. However, students studying computer science learn quickly that this definition does not cover the many real-world applications for a computer science degree. At universities and colleges in the US today, computer science majors can focus on robotics, machine learning, computational biology, and cybersecurity, to name just a few fields of computer science.

Computer science vs. computer engineering: what’s the difference?

Many students interested in computing are unsure what the difference is between computer science and computer engineering. There are a lot of overlapping similarities between the two. For instance, both fields use computers to build advances in technology. Both disciplines study software, hardware, networks, and computing systems. 

However, computer science is more concerned with the theory of computation, algorithms, numerical analysis, and programming. Electrical engineering influences the study of computer engineering, which is more concerned with the practical applications of computers. 

For this article, we will be focusing on computer science majors for undergraduate students.

How much money do computer scientists make? 

Choosing to get a computer science degree during your undergraduate studies in the USA can be a smart decision for your long-term earning potential throughout your career. When it comes to salaries, computer science-related careers are flourishing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer and information technology jobs are projected to grow 12% between 2018 and 2028–that is a faster rate than any other occupational sector. 

In May 2018, the median salary for computer and informational technology occupations was $86,320. According to a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average starting salary for a computer science bachelor's degree holder is $66,005, second only to engineering degree holders.  

Generally speaking, computer scientists are analytical, curious, and interested in new technologies. They love math and are persistent problem solvers. If this sounds like you, read on to learn more about classes, programs, and careers available to computer science undergraduate and graduate students.  

What is it like to major in computer science as a US undergraduate? 

Classes in computer science are not just about learning programming languages, although that is a significant part of the curriculum. As a CS major, expect to take discrete math and other math-related classes. You will also take engineering, theory, systems, and networks classes. 

Remember, too, that most US universities and colleges require students to take electives and general education classes during their undergraduate studies. While almost all schools offer electives that allow students to learn about more specialized fields of computer science, your computer science degree will consist of more core-style classes than specialized electives. As you continue toward your senior year, you will have the opportunity to take more focused courses while completing the prerequisites for your computer science degree, allowing you to get a better idea of which fields of computer science interest you the most. 

At the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), students are required to take 128 hours of classes to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Computer science classes range from engineering prerequisites, such as an engineering orientation, to general elective courses, such as academic writing I.

Here are some examples of computer science subjects that you could study as a computer science undergraduate student at a US university:

  • Artificial intelligence 

  • Introduction to machine learning

  • User interface design and programming

  • Video game design and development

  • Software engineering 

  • Engineering distributed objects for cloud computing

  • Introduction to networking

  • Advanced computer architecture

  • Public policy, legal, and ethical issues in computing, privacy, and security

  • Software development for mobile platforms

  • Database systems

  • Secure operating system design and implementation

  • Codes and cryptography

Should I go for a BS or a BA in computer science? 

Many schools, such as the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass Boston) offer both a bachelor of arts (BA) and a bachelor of science (BS) in computer science. So, what’s the difference?

A BA in computer science:

  • Functions more like a computer science liberal arts degree, and includes a more diverse course load with classes in humanities, social sciences, and foreign languages 

  • Generally requires fewer computer science-based hours to graduate 

  • Provides a solid education in computer science without any specific concentration

A BS in computer science: 

  • Involves fewer general education requirements (although you will still take some classes outside of your major) 

  • Builds a better understanding of technical and practical computer science applications 

  • Gives more opportunities to specialize

When deciding if a BA or a BS in computer science is right for you, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I want to go directly into a computer science-related field, or do I want a computer science degree to help me with another type of career, such as product management?

  • Do I know what I want to specialize in as a computer science major?

  • Do I enjoy engineering and the sciences?

If you are more of a generalist and are not as interested in typical computer science career options, or if you are thinking about computer science as a step before business school, you may be more interested in a BA in computer science. If you are looking to graduate with practical, in-depth computer science experience and knowledge, and are sure you want a computer science-related career, you may want to consider a BS in computer science. 

Not every school offers both a BA and a BS in computer science. For example, the University of Utah, ranked 25th in the US in computing by CSRankings, only offers a BS in computer science. Since a BS is more common than a BA in computer science, unless otherwise specified, the following information will reflect a bachelor of science curriculum. 

What does the freshman year class schedule look like for a computer science major?  

In your first year as an undergraduate student studying computer science, expect to take a mix of general education, engineering, and math classes, with some foundational computing classes added in. 

Keep in mind that many students have not yet decided on a major when they first start their undergraduate education. Not only is this OK, it is also very normal at US colleges and universities. That is why so many American colleges have students focus on general education, science electives, and required engineering classes during freshman year. The variety of courses allows students to learn about a wide range of specialties, and they are meant to help students get a better idea of what they want to major in as they move toward graduation. 

Let’s take a look at a sample first year of classes for a computer science major at UIC. 

First semester: 15 total hours 

  • Calculus I

  • Program design I

  • Academic writing 

  • Science elective 

  • Engineering orientation 

Second semester: 16 total hours 

  • Calculus II 

  • Academic writing II

  • Program design II 

  • Mathematical foundations of computing 

  • General education course 

What does the sophomore year class schedule look like for a computer science major?  

Most American college students pick their major at the end of sophomore year. As a result, your second-year class load will be similar to your first year, only the courses will be more advanced. 

Here is a sample sophomore class schedule for a computer science major, also at UIC. 

First semester: 17 hours 

  • General education course

  • Science elective 

  • Calculus III

  • Programming practicum

  • Data structures

Second semester: 15 hours

  • Required mathematics course

  • Humanities/social sciences/art elective

  • General education course

  • Machine organization 

  • Languages and automata 

What does the junior year class schedule look like for a computer science major? 

By your junior year, you are expected to have picked a major at US universities. At this point, as a computer science major, your classes start to shift from general core curriculum studies toward focused computer science subjects. Junior year is also a great time to explore internships, workshops, hacking events, clubs, or independent studies. 

It is always a good idea to gain field experience in your major by completing an internship or working. As a rising computer scientist, it may be even more important. From fixing a bug to designing a new product, working and interning allows you to put your classroom principles into practice and gives you an opportunity to strengthen your problem-solving skills. It is also a great way to see the different industries and roles available to you once you earn your degree. 

Here is what a typical junior year computer science major’s class schedule may look like, based on UIC curriculum. 

First semester: 17 hours 

  • Systems programming 

  • Computer design

  • Software design 

  • Required math course

  • General education course

  • Free elective 

Second semester: 16 hours 

  • Programming language design and implementation

  • Operating systems design and implementation

  • Required math course

  • Humanities/social sciences/art elective

  • Free elective

What does the senior year class schedule look like for a computer science major? 

By senior year, you will have likely finished all your general education or core class requirements. During this final year of study at a US college or university, you will focus on required project work or specialized electives in the computer science subjects that interest you most. 

Here is a sample senior year class schedule for a computer science major at UIC.

First semester: 17 hours 

  • Communication and ethical issues in computing

  • Computer algorithms I

  • General education core course

  • Technical elective

  • Technical elective

  • Free elective

Second semester: 15 hours 

  • Technical elective

  • Technical elective

  • Technical elective

  • Free elective

  • Free elective

Now that we have completed our overview of a sample undergraduate computer science degree program, it is important to consider post-graduation options. 

After getting a computer science degree, many US college graduates find jobs and start working. Others move directly into graduate degree or doctoral programs. 

How do you know whether to go to grad school in computer science or start working? The answer depends on what is right for you and your goals. Here are some questions to help you decide. 

Is a master’s degree in computer science worth it?

According to PayScale.com, your bachelor’s degree in computer science will net you an average salary of $84,000 a year, while you could earn a median pay of $118,370 with a master’s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. An extra $34,000 a year sounds nice, but there is more than just your salary to consider. 

Before filling out your grad school applications, ask yourself the following questions: 

  1. How much will it cost? A master’s degree in computer science can cost as much as $50,000 a year, but there are many great programs available at a lower price, such as the computer science master’s program at the University of Utah, ranked 43rd nationally by U.S. News & World Report. (Keep an eye open for tuition waivers or reduced tuition for research and teacher’s assistant roles on campus if you are trying to cut grad school costs.) 

  2. Do I need a master’s degree to be successful? Since computer science is such a broad field, there are many opportunities for success without the extra schooling. In addition, some computer science majors learn new skills with a graduate certificate for a fraction of the cost of a master’s degree. In other cases, either because of the nature of the work or because of the company culture, you may need a graduate degree just to be considered for the role. Interning and working jobs in your related field will help you make a better choice about grad school.

  3. Will I learn more valuable skills by working? Compare the grad programs in computer science that interest you to your potential job opportunities. In some cases, a good entry-level job with the potential to advance may be more useful than continuing directly to graduate school. Similarly, if you decide to get a graduate degree and work at the same time, you may find it hard to manage both your class schedule and your professional responsibilities. Look at all scenarios and choose the one where you think you can do your best.

  4. Do I want to work in a more specialized field? With so many options tied to a computer science degree, you may find that your interests guide you toward a specialization that you did not cover as an undergrad student. To make yourself an attractive candidate for a role in robotics or cryptography, for example, you may have to go back to school to get the right qualifications. 

Before you apply to graduate school, understand how continuing your education will affect your life personally, financially, and professionally. Talk with an advisor at your school, a computer science professor, or find some current grad students in computer science programs and ask them about their grad school experience. The more information you have, the better decision you will be able to make. 

Is computer science right for me? 

Studying computer science is not just learning programming languages and building websites. With a computer science degree, you will understand how to approach abstract algorithmic problems, analyze and improve database performance, and learn how to program handheld devices. 

In addition to the coursework, you should consider the career options you will have after graduation. Even with just an undergraduate degree, you will have opportunities in almost every industry, from health care to environmental technology. Let’s take a look at what you can do with a computer science degree.

Computer systems analyst

Computer systems analysts use technology to help businesses perform better. Systems analysts are problem solvers, building efficient and creative information technology (IT) solutions to solve organizational and operational challenges.  

Entry-level education:  Bachelor’s degree

2018 median salary: $88,740

Database administrator

Database administrators (DBAs) store and organize data through the use of specialized software. They build and manage the systems that allow businesses to reach, analyze, and protect important information. 

Entry-level education: Bachelor’s degree

2018 median salary: $90,070

Programmer 

A computer programmer designs, tests, debugs, and maintains computer programs. A programmer is meticulous, detail-oriented, and enjoys both creative and analytical work.

Entry-level education:  Bachelor’s degree

2018 median salary: $84,280

These jobs represent only a small sample of the many careers in the fields of computer science. You may find that certain jobs are more in demand in your home country than they are in the United States and vice versa. Similarly, salary ranges are based on data from the US, so be sure to check the data available in the city or country where you want to live and work after graduation.

Your future as a computer scientist 

With average starting salaries of $66,005 and overall salaries of $84,000 a year, computer science majors make decent money and have many career options.  However, the opportunity to specialize and a median pay jump of $34,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, will entice many undergraduates to apply to graduate school right away. 

It is a good time to be a computer science major. But if you are still not sure if computer science is the right field of study for you, talk with advisors and current students to find out more information. Research the job openings in your home country and their prospects for the future. Most importantly, listen to yourself and remember your long-term goals. Take your time and explore your options to make sure a US computer science degree is the best choice for you.  

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