A Guide to Computer Science Degrees

December 13, 2022

Computer science isn’t all about computers – it’s about understanding how we can solve problems through the use of technology. As Michael R. Fellows and Ian Parberry wrote in 1993, “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes, biology is about microscopes or chemistry is about beakers and test tubes. Science is not about tools; it is about how we use them and what we find out when we do.”

A degree in computer science can help you learn to think creatively and approach real-world problems from different angles, using technology to find solutions. The ubiquity of digital tech has led to varied computer science- and technology-focused career paths in sectors as diverse as healthcare, finance, science and education. No matter your occupational interests, there are degrees that can help you get the job you want in computer science.

An associate’s degree, for example, can help you get an entry-level programming job while you pursue more advanced studies. If you want to be a software engineer, however, most companies will require that you have a bachelor’s degree. Bachelor’s degree programs in computer science let you dive deeper into computing by taking courses in various specializations in tech, e.g., cyber security or artificial intelligence. Earning an undergraduate degree is typically also the first step toward pursuing a master’s degree, which unlocks even greater career and earning potential.

Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) programs, such as the Online MS in Computer Science with Artificial Intelligence Specialization offered by SMU Lyle School of Engineering, provide the skills and credentials to advance into leadership roles in technology and to work in emerging computer science subfields.

Choosing the right degree program is critical when launching a career in computer science or advancing in fields such as robotics or computer research. This guide covers everything you need to know about computer science degrees: the different types of programs available (including online computer science master’s degree programs), the skills you’ll need to succeed, and the job prospects and salaries in the field for each level of educational attainment.

Why Study Computer Science?

There are as many reasons to study computer science as there are people who study it, from intellectual passion to career ambition. Computer science offers:

  • Well-paying careers: The median salary for computer science professionals with bachelor’s degrees is $89,000 annually. Those with graduate degrees can earn over $100,000 straight out of the gate.
  • Booming demand: The computer and information technology industry is expected to grow by 13 percent between now and 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations. Manufacturing plants, retail firms, research laboratories, healthcare networks and marketing firms have IT, software engineering, technology management, data analytics and automation needs.
  • Creativity: Computer science professionals need to use their skills and creativity when solving problems. The field evolves as new technologies emerge, providing fresh challenges and often encouraging out-of-the-box thinking.
  • Job satisfaction: Technology and computer science jobs can be some of the most personally rewarding careers. Eight of the top 10 jobs in Glassdoor’s 50 Best Jobs in America for 2022 are in the tech industry, while tech firms such as NVIDIA, HubSpot, Google and Salesforce are on top of Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work list. Additionally, 72 percent of tech professionals say they feel appreciated on the job, and 71 percent are happy with their work/life balance.
  • Helping others: Computer science professionals develop cutting-edge solutions and innovations that improve people’s lives, from vaccine research to environmental monitoring and protection. Sectors as diverse as engineering, business, entertainment and education need highly skilled computer science professionals. According to the Association of Computing Machinery: “If you want to make a positive difference in the world, study computing.”

Earning a degree in computer science can be the first step in a long, successful and fulfilling career. 

Computer Science Degrees: Four Options Beyond Bootcamps

There are several options to consider when choosing the right computer science degree. To determine which degree path is best for you, consider factors such as:

  • Your goals: What is your objective in terms of career advancement? What do you hope to achieve in the medium or long term? Do you want to work in private industry or go into academic research?
  • Your timeline: How much time are you willing to commit to your education? Do you want to spend two years or 10 years getting your degree?
  • Your budget: How much money can you spend on your education? Are you willing to take financial aid, or are you looking for scholarships?
  • Your current skills: Do you have experience in computer science, or are you starting from scratch? 
  • Your academic background: Do you meet the prerequisites to pursue a particular degree, or are there courses you need to take before you qualify?

Whether you’re just starting out or making a career shift, answering these questions is critical for your educational success. Consider what you want to get out of your computer science degree, and make sure your chosen program aligns with your interests and goals.

Associate’s Degrees in Computer Science Programs Teach the Basics

Earning an associate’s degree in computer science is the quickest way to enter the tech workforce. This program provides students with the basic skills and knowledge needed for entry-level positions in computer science.

While an associate degree will not qualify you for jobs that require a bachelor’s degree, it can be a stepping stone to a more advanced position. Many students use associate’s  degrees to get their foot in the door and then pursue a bachelor’s degree while working.

Associate degree programs teach basic computer science principles – often in 100- and 200-level core courses, with titles such as Computer Science I and Computer Science II. The coursework typically covers foundational subjects such as programming, computer architecture, operating systems, computer organization and systems management. These programs rarely involve internships, and students generally don’t need to complete a culminating project to receive their degree.

Computer science associate’s program graduates work in roles such as:

  • Junior software developer
  • Junior computer systems analyst
  • Junior UX developer
  • Junior QA specialist
  • Programmer
  • Support specialist
  • Web developer

There are many benefits of enrolling in an associate’s degree program in computer science:

  • For those just starting out, an associate’s degree is the ideal way to launch a career as you pursue further education. An online associate degree in computer science provides a student with basic knowledge of the field, which can lead to a successful full-time or part-time career.
  • An online associate’s degree is a more affordable option than a bachelor’s degree, and can be completed in as little as two years. Programs that are flexible and designed for non-traditional and working students may take longer to complete.
  • Students who wish to later pursue a bachelor’s degree can often transfer the credit hours earned in an associate degree program.

Bachelor’s in Computer Science Programs Teach Fundamentals 

The bachelor’s degree in computer science is the most popular type of computer science degree. This degree pathway provides students with a well-rounded education in computer science fundamentals.

Most bachelor’s degree programs last four years, but some schools offer accelerated programs that students who study year-round can complete in just three years. Many programs also offer internships and opportunities to complete a culminating project.

Although the focus of undergraduate degree pathways can vary, most computer science programs cover similar concepts. Some of the fundamentals included in the computer science bachelor’s degree curriculum include:

  • Data structures and database systems
  • Algorithms
  • Abstraction and logic
  • Computer architecture
  • Software development
  • Programming languages
  • Computer networks

Elective computer science courses in undergraduate programs may cover topics related to specific branches of computer science, such as artificial intelligence, game development, theory of computation, software systems or cyber security.

A bachelor’s degree in computer science qualifies graduates for entry-level and mid-level positions in computer science. These positions include:

  • App developer
  • Back-end developer
  • Computer systems analyst
  • Cyber security analyst
  • Database administrator
  • Front-end developer
  • Information security analyst
  • Network architect
  • Software developer
  • Quality assurance engineer
  • UX developer

Unlike an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree provides students with the opportunity to take electives or declare a minor to concentrate in a specific area of computer science. In addition, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in computer science helps graduates qualify for more advanced positions and a higher salary.

Some computer science bachelor’s graduates also pursue further education by earning a master’s degree or doctorate. However, depending on the program, undergraduate study in computer science is not always necessary to obtain a CS master’s degree or doctorate.

For example, Lyle School of Engineering considers applicants from other disciplines for its Online Master of Science in Computer Science with Artificial Intelligence Specialization program. However, successful applicants from other disciplines may need to take articulation coursework or satisfy a competency requirement before full admission.

Master’s in Computer Science Programs Support Career Advancement 

Students pursuing master’s degrees in computer science typically have backgrounds (either degrees or previous coursework) in computer science, information technology, information systems or technology. Although some MSCS programs have a general focus, many computer science master’s programs prepare students to specialize in a particular branch of computer science.

As such, an online master’s degree in computer science is a popular choice for students who want to pursue advanced training in the field. The online MSCS-AI offered by SMU Lyle School of Engineering helps students develop computer science skills applicable in many areas of technology (e.g., algorithm engineering and computer architecture), as well as skills in the subfield of artificial intelligence (e.g., data mining and natural language processing).

Most online master’s degree programs can be completed in two years, although students may take longer if they are working full-time or part-time. Certain schools offer accelerated programs that last one year. While some programs require students to complete a culminating project, capstone or thesis, others are coursework-focused, without such a requirement.

Some core and elective topics covered in graduate programs include:

  • Algorithm engineering
  • Operating systems
  • Computer architecture
  • Database management
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Machine learning
  • Data mining

Are you wondering if you should get a master’s degree in computer science? Many computer science professionals need a master’s degree to pursue the careers that most interest them. A recent study by LaborInsight suggests that 4 out of 10 technology-related jobs require a minimum of a master’s degree.

Earning an advanced degree in computer science can open even more doors for your tech career. MSCS graduates frequently have titles such as computer scientist, information security manager, IT manager, senior solutions architect and software engineer. Managers in computer science careers often have master’s degrees.

The career outlook for MSCS students is strong in and out of the technology sector. Selecting a computer science online program with a track record of alumni success in tech and related fields is essential. For example, 82 percent of graduates of SMU’s online master’s degree program find employment by graduation.

Doctorate in Computer Science Programs Develop Researchers

Doctorate programs in computer science – which include PhD programs and Doctor of Computer Science programs – represent the most advanced degree pathway available in the field. This academic pathway is for students who want to pursue careers in research and development or academia and the degree requirements reflect that.

Computer science doctorate completion times vary from program to program and person to person but usually last between four and seven years. Typically, computer science doctoral students spend most of their time engaged in independent study and scientific research, looking for new ways to apply theories and technologies. To graduate, doctoral students must write a thesis that contributes fresh ideas or innovations to the field of computer science.

Due to the personalized nature of programs at this level, most doctoral computer science degree programs do not have a fixed curriculum. Instead, students take elective courses related to their fields of interest, creating one-of-a-kind programs of study. Doctoral students may serve as research assistants or teaching assistants as a funding condition.

Those with doctorates in computer science can move on to positions in academia as professors or postdoctoral fellows or find work in research and development positions at big tech firms with titles like research scientist. At Google’s San Francisco office, for example, nearly 30 percent of software engineers have a PhD.

Why Pursue an Online Computer Science Master’s Degree

While the degrees available for students at all levels of computer science teach vital skills and can launch careers, the master’s degree is the right choice for many students with specific career advancement goals. However, the decision to pursue a computer science master’s degree shouldn’t be made lightly. Many prospective students looking at graduate school programs are already working full-time or part-time and don’t want to sacrifice income or advancement opportunities to return to school.

For these individuals, an online computer science master’s degree program may be the right answer. Online degrees offer several advantages at every stage of the educational journey. The courses in the online master’s degree in MSCS-AI offered by SMU Lyle School of Engineering help mid-career students develop a wide range of computer science skills while learning to implement artificial intelligence technologies in different industries. The benefits of pursuing an MSCS-AI online at SMU Lyle include:

  • Flexibility: Online computer science master’s degree students enjoy the flexibility of remote learning, coupled with the personalized experience offered by Lyle School of Engineering’s on-campus program.
  • Convenience: Online students gain skills and knowledge without sacrificing income, opportunities for advancement or time with friends and family. They complete their coursework around their work and personal commitments.
  • Choice: Elective options enable you to customize your learning experience around the concepts that interest you most and align with your professional goals.
  • Technology access: SMU has a robust online learning platform that offers access to the latest technology and technological resources.
  • Networking: Students can network with classmates from around the world, helping build invaluable professional relationships.
  • Practicality: Students can apply their new skills in their current jobs or use them to advance their careers from day one.

The discipline of computer science is constantly evolving and branching, and specialization is becoming the norm. Pursuing a master’s degree in computer science positions you to drive change in emerging areas of technology, such as artificial intelligence, NLP and machine learning. In particular, an online computer science master’s degree from SMU Lyle School of Engineering is an excellent way to stay ahead of the curve and future-proof your career.

The Online MSCS-AI at SMU is currently accepting applications. Are you ready to take the next step in your career? Start your application today.