Computer science majors study programming languages, discrete math, and database design to prepare for careers as software designers, network administrators, and IT managers. Read on to learn about typical courses, resources, and careers in this field.
Why Pursue a Career in Computer Science?
Careers in computer science allow qualified individuals to pursue many different types of jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), computer and information research scientists earned a median annual salary of $122,840 in 2019.
Careers for a computer science major require advanced skills related to problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity. Professionals must keep up with evolving technology to find success. They must also enjoy working with others to design systems and implement new programs.
Computer Science Career Outlook
Careers in computer science offer higher than average salaries. The BLS found that computer and mathematical occupations as a whole commanded a median annual salary of $88,340.
Jobs in computer science are also in high demand. The BLS projects 11% job growth for computer and information systems managers between 2018 and 2028. As a growing number of companies rely on technology for everyday business operations, professionals who understand these systems are in great demand.
|Job Title||Entry-Level (0-12 months)||Early Career (1-4 Years)||Midcareer (5-9 Years)||Experienced (10-19 Years)|
|Computer Support Technician||$39,260||$42,120||$48,070||$54,420|
|Information Technology Manager||$61,110||$67,970||$79,040||$94,020|
Skills Gained With a Computer Science Degree
Computer science programs equip students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in several careers. For example, if your goal is to work as a software engineer, you can focus on learning multiple computer programming languages and honing skills related to application development.
Alternatively, if you aspire to a leadership position in computer science, you can supplement your technical expertise with a business administration degree in a field like project management or organizational leadership.
Below are several skills that students develop while studying computer science.
At the most basic level, computer programming languages allow both computer hardware and software to function. Nearly all computer science professionals must know at least one programming language, such as Java, Python, Ruby, or C++. Because different circumstances or systems often require different languages, many employers prefer candidates with proficiency in multiple languages.
- Database Administration
Database administration refers to the storage, organization, and access of data, usually within a specialized data management system. Many IT professionals oversee or work closely with databases. Computer science programs prepare graduates for this work by providing an introduction to data management best practices and database-specific programming languages, such as SQL.
Working in computer science requires strong communication skills. For example, computer support specialists must know how to communicate clearly with nonexperts to diagnose technical issues. Software engineers and developers must collaborate with clients and end users to understand their unique needs.
Rather than simply imparting knowledge, many computer science programs help students independently solve problems they encounter in their practice. Professionals use these skills to search for documented solutions to similar issues, conduct experiments, and collect data to inform decision-making.
- Personnel Management
Students who hope to take on supervisory roles within computer science must understand how to manage their staff. Personnel management courses often cover subjects such as resolving conflicts between team members, motivating employees, and assessing both individual contributions and progress towards organizational goals.
Computer Science Career Paths
Careers in computer science follow several different paths and exist in myriad industries. When selecting a computer science degree, students should also look at the concentrations that a program offers. Concentrations can help graduates find work in specific computer science subfields.
- Data Science
Students pursuing a concentration in data science often take classes that cover database management systems, machine learning, and human language technologies. Upon graduation, they can find work as database administrators, information research scientists, and computer network architects.
Cybersecurity professionals protect their organization's computer systems and sensitive data. To prepare for these roles, students explore applied cryptography, forensic analysis, and network security. They also benefit from experiential learning opportunities, like using ethical hacking techniques to assess the strength and weaknesses of a system's security design.
- Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI), also known as machine intelligence, describes the ability of computers and other devices to learn new concepts and solve original problems. AI is used in fields like healthcare, economics, defense, and education. Topics covered within this concentration include algorithm design, deep learning, neural networks, and vision intelligence.
- Software Engineering
Students who specialize in software engineering usually complete coursework in interface design methodology, embedded systems, and multiple computer programming languages. They may also take elective classes related to the industry in which they plan to work. For example, an engineer who develops software for banks may study financial analysis to better understand organizations' technological needs.
- IT Management
Overseeing a team of information technology specialists requires more than just technical skills. Through coursework in financial accounting, marketing, and organizational behavior, a concentration in IT management prepares students for both corporate leadership and entrepreneurial roles. Many students who major in IT management go on to earn a master's in computer science or business administration.
How to Start Your Career in Computer Science
Computer science graduates help businesses and nonprofits access the tech support and establish the safety protocols needed to function online. Computer science professionals provide database management, network security, and software development.
Minimum educational requirements vary based on a worker's job title and company. Individuals may qualify for some positions with an associate degree, although a bachelor's degree makes you a more qualified candidate. Professionals with a graduate degree often work in management, research, and professorial roles.
Associate Degree in Computer Science
An associate degree qualifies you for entry-level roles in computer science, such as computer support specialist and web developer positions. Students can also apply associate-level credits toward a bachelor's degree — the most common requirement for IT jobs.
Most associate programs consist of 60 credits, and full-time students typically graduate in two years. Coursework covers both general education subjects, like psychology, as well as introductory computer science topics, such as basic programming languages and software security.
What Can You Do With an Associate in Computer Science?
- Computer Support Specialist
Computer support specialists provide technical assistance and advice to colleagues and clients. They troubleshoot issues, perform regular maintenance, manage system updates, and offer training on specific pieces of computer hardware or software. While some positions require an associate degree, others simply require general proficiency with computers and strong customer service skills.
- Web Developer
Web developers design and build websites. They write the underlying code for a website using a language like HTML or XML, work with graphic designers to create and test interactive components of a site, and monitor website traffic on an ongoing basis. Most of these roles require an associate degree.
Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science
With a bachelor's degree in computer science, you can find work as a computer programmer, information security analyst, software developer, or computer system administrator. Bachelor's programs provide advanced instruction related to data structures and algorithms; mobile architecture and programming; and software testing, automation, and quality assurance.
Many bachelor's programs also feature experiential learning. For example, students may complete capstone projects during their senior year, applying their learning to a practical issue in computer science. Learners may also participate in an internship, gaining practical experience in an IT department or at a technology company.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Computer Science?
- Information Security Analyst
Information security analysts protect their organization's computer systems and information. They actively monitor systems for security breaches, install firewalls and data encryption software, and train colleagues on how to avoid phishing attacks and other digital threats. In collaboration with senior leadership, these analysts may also develop overall security policies and protocols.
- Computer Network Architect
Computer network architects design and construct data communication systems, like a local area network that connects two offices in the same building or a cloud computing infrastructure that facilitates the work of a multinational corporation. Network architects need an intimate understanding of their organization's technical needs, along with expertise in both computer hardware and software.
Master's Degree in Computer Science
A master's degree in computer science can prepare you for specialized roles and career advancement. Completing graduate coursework in data mining and data visualization, for example, may position you for a job analyzing patient information to create more effective healthcare technologies. In addition, when hiring for positions like chief technology or information officer, many organizations prefer to hire candidates with an advanced degree.
Master's programs usually focus on either practice or research. Practice-oriented programs often combine advanced instruction in computer science with business administration coursework in areas like budgeting or quality management. Research-oriented programs typically require students to write a thesis.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Computer Science?
- Computer and Information Systems Manager
Computer and information systems managers plan and direct computer-related activities at their organization. They hire and train staff, create budgets for their department, and supervise the work of their teams. Although not always required, a master's degree in computer science or business administration may provide a competitive edge over other candidates.
- Chief Information Officer
As a member of their company's senior leadership team, chief information officers shape and implement their firm's overall technology strategy. At larger organizations, they oversee the work of multiple computer and information systems managers leading departments or projects. Most of these IT leaders hold an advanced degree and have completed graduate coursework in management information systems.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
Doctoral Degree in Computer Science
A doctoral degree in computer science qualifies you for teaching and research positions at four-year colleges and universities. Some private sector research roles may also require a doctorate.
Doctoral programs usually involve three years of coursework, a comprehensive examination, and a dissertation. The dissertation process requires students to conduct original research, present their findings and methodology in a written document, and defend their work before a faculty committee.
While completion times vary considerably, most full-time learners earn their doctorate in 4-7 years.
What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Computer Science?
- Computer or Information Research Scientist
Computer and information research scientists develop new technologies and innovative uses for existing technologies. For example, a research scientist specializing in robotics may design a probe that can autonomously explore other planets. Scientists also help develop new programming languages and forms of artificial intelligence. Some of these positions only require a master's degree, although a doctorate can help set you apart from the competition.
- Postsecondary Teacher, Computer Science
Postsecondary computer science teachers instruct students at colleges and universities. They also conduct research, publish their findings in academic journals, and offer dissertation advice to doctoral students. Nearly all of these roles — especially those that lead to tenure — require a doctorate.
How to Advance Your Career in Computer Science
After earning a degree, professionals can advance their computer science careers in several meaningful ways. Certifications offer an excellent solution for demonstrating advanced knowledge in a niche subject. Pursuing continuing education through online courses, fellowships, and special training can also help professionals develop their skills.
Alternatively, some professionals decide that going back to school to earn another degree is the best way forward professionally. The following sections cover various options that can help you continue to advance within the computer science field.
Certifications and/or Licensure
Because computer science represents such a broad field, many different types of relevant certifications can be found. Many associations and certification boards offer professional certifications. Readers should note that certificates offered at universities are different from certifications offered by professional organizations.
Computer science professions do not typically require licensure, but some hiring managers may prefer candidates with specific certifications in their chosen discipline. Professionals should review recent postings to determine how common certification is in their particular area.
A few options to consider include certified information security manager, project management professional, and certified information systems security professional credentials.
These certifications represent only a small sample of what is available. Students should conduct extensive research to find the credentials that best suit their needs. In some cases, employers may pay for certification programs if an employee agrees to stay at their company for a set amount of time.
Continuing education can take on many different forms. Some students may decide to take free online courses available through sites such as Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn. Harvard University and Stanford University — as well as many other four-year institutions — host free massive open online courses.
Professionals may also decide to pursue fellowships through organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
For some workers, however, going back to school offers the best path forward for their career aspirations. Online computer science programs often allow students to continue working full time while completing their coursework.
While building computer science skills is an important part of the professional journey, it is just as important to keep those skills sharp. A few ways to keep on top of this evolving field include the following:
- Completing Continuing Education: Continuing education credits prove your commitment to the discipline and help you stay abreast of changes without committing to a longer certificate or degree program.
- Networking: Getting to know other computer science professionals can help you learn about new positions and technologies. It also provides opportunities to forge relationships and friendships within the industry.
- Joining Professional Organizations: Being a member of a professional organization allows for access to annual conferences, industry journals, scholarships and awards, and opportunities for building leadership skills through committee work.
How to Switch Your Career to Computer Science
Professionals who work in an unrelated field and want to change careers into computer science can do so in several ways. Those who already hold an undergraduate degree may be able to take part in a bootcamp or certificate program to gain the skills needed for an entry-level position.
Some professionals may also decide to pursue a full degree in computer science as part of their transition. Aside from giving them the skills needed to compete for a job, pursuing an advanced degree can also make it easier to compete for managerial positions.
Where Can You Work as a Computer Science Professional?
You can embark on numerous careers with a computer science degree. Your job and salary prospects, however, depend greatly on where you choose to live and the industry in which you work.
For example, if you hope to find a job at a large technology company like Microsoft or Google, you must live reasonably close to their headquarters or a corporate satellite office.
Whether you want to work for a business, a nonprofit, or in a freelance capacity, many different jobs exist in the computer science industries highlighted below.
- Computer Systems Design and Related Services
Professionals in this industry develop and design new computer systems, such as new versions of Linux, Windows, and Apple OS.
Average Salary: $96,900
- Management of Companies and Enterprises
Many computer science professionals work their way up to managerial positions. Common titles include chief technical officer and director of network systems.
Average Salary: $93,630
- Software Publishers
Working for a software publisher allows computer scientists to develop and test new types of software for many different types of clients.
Average Salary: $110,310
- Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services
Working in consulting allows computer science professionals to work with an array of clients rather than as an in-house employee.
Average Salary: $94,920
- Insurance Carriers
Insurance carriers rely heavily on network systems, database management, and software development to manage their clients, develop new products, and track claims.
Average Salary: $95,010
When recent graduates are thinking about where to launch their careers, they should consider which states employ the most computer scientists. California houses the most computer science positions thanks in large part to Silicon Valley. Texas ranks second in the nation with several emerging tech centers located throughout the state.
Washington offers the highest salary for computer and mathematical occupations, where workers make $115,770 per year, on average. California ranks second at $112,220. When thinking about salary, students and professionals should also consider the cost of living. San Jose, for instance, offers the highest salaries in the country for these workers, but it also has a substantially higher cost of living than most cities.
Interview With a Professional in Computer Science
Sam Gavis-Hughson, founder of Byte by Byte, helps software engineers successfully interview for jobs at top tech companies. Sam has helped more than 400 students land jobs at companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Bloomberg, and Uber. Sam graduated from Princeton University with a BS in computer science. He has appeared in U.S. News & World Report, Simple Programmer, and Developer on Fire.
- What is computer science?
Computer science is the study of computers, but it's also the study of what you can compute using computers. While computer science itself has a programming component, it's much more focused on the theory behind it. Software engineering, on the other hand, is focused more on the career of building software.
Computer scientists do not focus on the engineering of computers, but they deal mainly with software and software systems. Subjects include artificial intelligence, security, database systems, graphics, design, and — of course — development.
- What is so valuable about earning a degree in this field right now?
A computer science degree is valuable for anyone who wants a job at any of the top tech companies (Apple, Google, Facebook, etc.). It teaches you the fundamentals that you are expected to know for those top-level software engineering positions.
Even though the job itself is a little bit different, you are expected to know all of the components that are taught in this degree. A computer science degree sets you up for top tech jobs. The big companies absolutely expect it.
- Can graduates of computer science programs find careers all over the country?
A computer science degree can be used anywhere in the country. The best jobs, though, are centralized in the big cities like the Bay Area, Seattle, New York City, Austin, and Los Angeles.
Other places also hire software engineers, because basically every company can use a developer for one thing or another. But those aren't going to be the best jobs.
Students who want to apply for jobs at FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, or Google) companies will need to be willing to move to one of the five cities specified to get the best jobs. This is where the tech giants are predominantly located.
- What did your career trajectory look like after you graduated? How did you end up in your current position?
I did an internship during my junior year of college, and I applied to jobs during my senior year. During the summer between my junior and senior years, I moved to Boston to work at HubSpot for a three-month internship.
After graduation, I went right to work for Yext as a software engineer. But the process of going from college to Yext wasn't completely smooth. I applied for many jobs and had many interviews. Not all of them went very well. I began to see that software engineering skills and interview skills are two very different things.
What I do now is an offshoot of what I did with my job. It has allowed me to use my developer skills to help other software engineers looking to land top jobs improve their studying and interview skills. After seeing the gap in knowledge for new CS graduates and the interview process, I developed Byte by Byte.
- What are the pros and cons of working in the computer science industry?
There are a lot of pros. If you're a good programmer, it's very lucrative with lots of excellent perks. These are six-figure jobs, which is nothing to laugh at coming right out of college. Many tech companies also have very large sign-on bonuses, free on-site meals, gyms, daycare, etc.
But it's also very competitive. If you aren't super good as a programmer, it's hard to find a job. It also tends to get a lot harder as you get older. In programming in particular, there is a strong age bias.
- What advice would you give to computer science graduates just starting their job search?
My biggest advice for new computer science graduates is to make sure you know the fundamentals and to really prepare for interviews. Many people think that their existing knowledge will carry over into interviewing, but it doesn't nearly as well as people expect it to. Treat your interviewing as its own skill and prepare for that specifically.
You can check out Byte by Byte for how to get started.
Resources for Computer Science Majors
Many different types of professional and educational resources exist to help computer science students and professionals find the support they need. Professional organizations offer networking and continuing education opportunities, while publications help individuals stay informed. Check out some of the top resources below.
- Professional Organizations
Upsilon Pi Epsilon: UPE is the national honors society for collegiate computer science studies. Founded in 1967 at Texas A&M University, UPE has opened chapters in nearly every single state, along with a chapter in Prague. Prospective and current students can apply for the UPE scholarship award through the society's website. The award provides $750-$1,500 to undergraduate and graduate applicants.
IEEE Computer Society: This is a student and professional networking society created by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. IEEE founded this society in 1946, and it currently enlists over 8,800 members and has 19 chapters. This computing society provides dozens of IEEE online publications, national conference event listings, and job board listings.
Association for Computing Machinery: This global scientific organization is composed of researchers, faculty members, and professionals. The association hosts 170 conferences a year in cities around the world, including Singapore, Bangkok, Vienna, and San Diego. ACM also hosts an extensive digital library of e-books, journals, and magazines.
CompTIA: This international student and professional society is dedicated to continued education and networking within the IT field. It offers several professional certifications, and members can apply for scholarships.
Computer Science Teachers Association: This academic society is an excellent resource for students and professionals who aspire to teach computer science in a K-12 classroom environment. Some of the resources that CSTA provides include grants, advocacy tools, and leadership cohort programs. CTSA is highly regarded for its major research reports, which present educator techniques to foster academic interest among women and people of color.
- Open Courseware
Several colleges and universities offer free online courses to help learners gain access to education without enrolling in a program. Courses can be found at introductory, intermediate, and advanced levels.
Introduction to Computer Science - Harvard University: This introductory course is offered through edX. Each class lasts 11 weeks, and students should plan to devote 10-20 hours per week on their studies.
Computer Science 101 - Stanford University: This course is available for free through edX. Topics covered throughout the program include computer hardware engineering, structured data, and computer security functions.
An Introduction to Software Development: OpenLearn offers this free, advanced class, which requires six hours of study. Topics covered include software development, the role of modeling, and object-oriented approaches to software development.
Journal of Computer Science: This academic publication focuses on sharing peer-reviewed articles dedicated to cutting-edge research. Covered topics include practical implementation techniques, theories and methodologies of information and computation, and computer systems applications. Subscribers receive 12 issues per year.
Computer Science Review: Published by Elsevier, this long-standing academic publication accepts and publishes research surveys, expository overviews, and other types of reviews targeting readers looking to learn about the latest computer science products.
The Computer Science Journal: This quarterly publication is produced by AGH University of Science and Technology out of Krakow, Poland. It has been in print since 1999 and publishes original papers on theories and applications of computer science problems, including pattern recognition and processing, evolutionary algorithms, and computer networks management.
Quanta Magazine - Computer Science: With the goal of "illuminating basic science and math research through public service journalism," Quanta is an online publication that operates under the Simons Foundation. Areas of interest include theoretical computer science, engineering and the environment, and theoretical mathematics.
Association for Computing Machinery: ACM publishes several print and digital journals, including Digital Government: Research and Practice, Computing for Healthcare, and Transactions on the Internet of Things. Many offer open access and opportunities for submitting work throughout the year.
Science of Computer Programming: Another Elsevier publication, this journal highlights research in topics such as software systems development, software aspects of hardware design, and use and maintenance of software. It is published multiple times per year and regularly accepts submissions.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is computer science a good career?
Computer science offers excellent career prospects in terms of average annual salaries, job stability, and the opportunity to continue learning throughout your career. However, if you do not enjoy problem-solving, computer science may not be the best fit for you.
- What is the best field in computer science?
The best field in computer science depends on your interests. Some professionals may prefer cybersecurity because they enjoy working at the crossroads of computer science and criminal justice. Others may find that database management best suits their interests as it allows them to help clients manage data securely and effectively.
- Is a computer science degree worth it?
Computer science graduates tend to earn significantly higher salaries than the national average for all occupations, suggesting that most graduates receive a good return on their investment.
- What are some high-paying jobs in computer science?
- Are computer science specialists in demand?
Yes. The BLS projects healthy job growth in many computer science professions between 2018 and 2028.