Should I Get a Master's in Computer Science? How to Decide.

A woman in a blue shirt and black glasses smiles in a work environment.

The ROI of a master's in computer science is indisputable. Computer science bachelor's degree holders earn about $87,000 while salaries for Master of Science in Computer Science, or MSCS, holders average out to about $104,000. MSCS holders are qualified to step into high-paying, high-demand computer science careers in specialty areas of the field such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and algorithm development. And when Forbes ranked graduate degrees by salary increase, the M.S. in Computer Science came in second.

Answering the question 'Should I get a master's in computer science?' involves more than just weighing the cost of an MSCS against the potential financial benefits, however. That's an important step, but it's only the first step. Next, you'll need to look at where you are in your career and where you want to be, the job market where you live (or where you want to live), the landscape of available MSCS programs, and whether a computer science master's is the right degree for you.

SMU Lyle School of Engineering's Online Master of Science in Computer Science is a results-driven graduate program for ambitious professionals with two or more years of work experience in computer science, computer engineering, software development or related fields. Is it the program for you? Keep reading to find out how you might benefit from an MSCS and where SMU Lyle Online students end up.

Who Typically Gets a Master's in Computer Science?

There is no such thing as an average MSCS cohort. Because most programs stipulate that applicants should have some academic and professional experience in or related to computer science, many students in master's in computer science programs are already software developers or programmers, web developers, database administrators, networking professionals, and information security or cybersecurity analysts. There are exceptions to this rule, however. The people you'll meet in an MSCS program will probably include not only career advancers, but also career switchers and career reskillers.

There are subcategories within each of those categories. For instance, a career advancer might be a junior programmer five or so years out of a bachelor's degree program or a mid-career software engineer who has hit a career plateau. What they have in common is the desire to qualify for more senior-level positions and to earn more money. Career switchers are often looking for ways to transition into more technical roles in their industries. Some come from healthcare, where an MSCS will help them leverage the potential of artificial intelligence to improve patient care and efficiency. Others work in finance, where computer science is disrupting traditional asset management, and are excited to join the expanding world of fintech. Still others are experienced teachers who want to empower their districts to offer comprehensive computer science instruction in K-12 schools.

A few students in this hypothetical computer science master's cohort are likely aspiring researchers preparing to enter PhD programs in the future. They may or may not need the MSCS itself to apply for doctoral-level computer science programs. What they're after is the knowledge they'll gain while pursuing this degree.

Perhaps you recognize yourself in one of the above descriptions, which suggests you should get a master's in computer science. Don't assume, however, that you don't belong in an MSCS program if you don't match one of these profiles. People enroll in computer science master's programs for many different reasons. There are students who choose SMU's Online MSCS because they want to specialize in artificial intelligence (a core focus of the curriculum) and students who find their way to Lyle School of Engineering's online computer science program because they're looking for a path into management. The M.S. in Computer Science is a very versatile degree.

What Can You Do with a Master's in Computer Science?

A computer science master's can take your career in many different directions, in and out of tech. Just over half of all SMU Online MSCS graduates work as software engineers or software developers, but some hold titles like:

  • Computer scientist
  • DevOps engineer
  • Game developer
  • Product manager
  • Security engineer
  • Software architect
  • System administrator
  • Web developer

Some of the highest-paying computer science jobs for master's holders include:

One follow-up question you need to consider is whether most people in the roles you aspire to be in have advanced degrees. This can vary significantly by career path and location, so as you contemplate the question 'Should I get a master's in computer science?', do some research into the competitiveness of the computer science job market where you live along with the typical educational requirements for the jobs you want. In highly competitive job markets, you may need a master's degree to stand out even when applying for positions that don't normally require advanced education.

How Does a Master's in Computer Science Compare to Other STEM Master's Programs?

As you contemplate the question 'Should I get a master's in computer science?', look at how the MSCS compares with other master's degrees with similar curricula and career outcomes. Chances are your interests and aptitudes will quickly reveal where it is you truly belong.

Computer science and computer engineering degree programs, for example, can cover a lot of the same ground—e.g., programming languages, human-computer interaction, abstraction, computer architecture, and software engineering—but the computer science vs. computer engineering question isn't much of a conundrum. In the 1960s, Peter Denning wrote that the fundamental question that drives computer research is, "What can be efficiently automated?" Computer scientists build software systems that automate processes while computer engineers build the hardware systems that make automation possible—and degree programs reflect that. Computer engineers may take programming and software engineering courses, but typically spend more time studying physics, microprocessor design, electronic circuit design, and digital signal processing.

Some people look into computer science degrees when their primary interest is in cybersecurity. While the right MSCS program can help you advance in a cybersecurity career, there are plenty of graduate degree programs focused exclusively on cybersecurity. Whether you'll be happiest studying computer science or cybersecurity depends on whether you're more interested in manipulating data or protecting it. The good news is you can't go wrong with a graduate degree in either discipline when it comes to opportunity and salary.

You might also be interested in both computer science and data science, and choosing between these disciplines can be a challenge. Computer scientists' and data scientists' skill sets intersect quite a bit when it comes to programming and algorithm design. Computer science is the much broader discipline, however, and one with a wider range of potential applications. Data science tends to be more narrowly focused on statistics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and heuristics. Aspiring data scientists might study some programming principles and computer systems in their graduate programs, but most coursework will revolve around topics related to technology-driven information analysis.

As you consider these and other alternatives to the MSCS, you may encounter bootcamp and certificate programs that companies advertise as comparable to a master's in computer science. Realistically, less expensive non-degree programs can help you develop some of the same skills you'll hone in an M.S. in Computer Science program. What they can't do is replicate the real-world experiences, networking opportunities, and access to respected experts in the field students get in a program like SMU's MSCS-AI.

How Do Master's in Computer Science Programs Vary?

The best computer science programs tend to have faculty who are esteemed yet accessible, active alumni, and diverse students. The curricula in these programs are typically industry-driven and designed to align with employer demand. The similarities often end there, however. Online degree programs can vary significantly when it comes to:

Admissions Requirements

Top computer science master's programs are selective, but that doesn't mean you necessarily need to have a bachelor's degree in computer science, great grades, years of professional experience in computer science, research credits, and near-perfect GRE scores. Lyle School of Engineering's admission requirements don't keep people out but rather help admissions officers identify applicants whose aptitudes, interests, and goals suggest they'll get the most out of the program.

Full-Time vs. Part-Time

Many full-time, on-campus MSCS programs take about two years to complete—provided students don't have other commitments. Part-time programs, on the other hand, are geared toward students who need or want flexibility and want to be able to apply what they're learning right away in the real world.

Online vs. Hybrid

Some computer science master's programs billed as online actually offer courses in a mix of formats. These programs tend to appeal to graduate students who live or work close to the schools they want to attend. True online computer science degree programs like SMU's MSCS-AI don't require students to come to campus at all and are accessible to students anywhere in the world.

Specialization Options

Computer science is a broad field, and it's not unusual for degree programs at the master's level to be specialized in some way. Some programs offer concentration tracks with set courses. Others let students create ersatz concentrations through their choice of computer science electives. Still others, like the Lyle School of Engineering's Online Master of Computer Science, have a distinct focus—in SMU's case, artificial intelligence—and include a mix of core classes focused on advanced computer science fundamentals plus specialized core and elective courses focused on AI and its applications.

Is SMU Lyle's Online M.S. in Computer Science the Right Program for Me?

Having read this far, you likely have some idea whether pursuing a master's degree will help you fulfill your career goals. The next question you need to ask yourself is whether a program like SMU's will be a good fit.

Fit is important because you'll get more out of an MSCS program that aligns with your aspirations, interests, learning style, schedule, and needs. For example, if you plan to work full-time while pursuing your degree, a flexible 100 percent online, part-time program like the Lyle Online MSCS will be a better option than a full-time on-campus program. Perhaps you were motivated to research graduate school programs by a desire to grow your professional network and maximize your access to opportunity. SMU's program will give you access to an on-the-ground network in a state with tens of thousands of openings for computer scientists, and artificial intelligence specialists plus an active global alumni network.

And if you hope to leverage the reputation of your alma mater in your quest for career advancement, you can because Lyle School of Engineering is widely recognized as a leader in engineering education. MSCS candidates also benefit from the Department of Computer Science's reputation for outstanding research. Employers recognize that SMU MSCS graduates have both leading-edge computer science skills and the broad perspective necessary to make an immediate impact using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

Still undecided? It's telling that 88 percent of SMU MSCS students find employment in the field within one year of graduation. If you're ready to not only get a world-class computer science education but also the skills and knowledge you'll need to drive advancement in artificial intelligence, there's still time to apply.