Best Master's in Computer Science Programs

Oct 20, 2021

What Is a Master's in Computer Science Degree?

For students interested in working with technology, a Master of Science in Computer Science degree teaches broad, research-based skills to future programmers, engineers, software analysts, developers, administrators or specialists in the field. Students often choose from a wide range of specializations to concentrate their interests including artificial intelligence, design, or computer and network security, among others. Master's programs in computer science typically take between two to three years to complete, though some schools may offer accelerated programs for students earning bachelor's degrees in the same field. Upon completion, students may be expected to present a thesis or research project or take a comprehensive exam depending on the program.

Common Undergraduate Degrees for Computer Science

The most common undergraduate degree for master's programs in computer science is a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. It is not typically required to hold a bachelor's degree in computer science and most programs accept students from a wide variety of academic backgrounds, though students with technical backgrounds in mathematics, computer science or engineering are preferred.

Students may be required to take certain courses or prove proficiency in skills such as programming or mathematics to be considered for some programs. Prospective students who have earned a graduate certificate in computer science can often apply coursework from their certificate toward a master's degree in computer science with the same institution, so students should evaluate their prior coursework when choosing a program.

Admissions Requirements for Computer Science Master's Programs

In order to gain admission into a computer science master's program, students must hold a bachelor's degree and be capable of graduate-level work in computer science. Most programs require three letters of recommendation, preferably from professors or those who have evaluated the student's work ethic and academic abilities. Recommenders will often be required to submit letters of recommendation directly to the school, usually submitted online. Students must also submit transcripts and provide a short statement of purpose. Most programs will also require a resume or statement of personal history. Non-native English speakers may be required to provide TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System) scores as proof of English fluency. Some programs may require or prefer GRE scores. Prospective students should be prepared to submit their applications and pay all relevant fees.

Why Should I Get a Computer Science Master's Degree?

Computer science-related occupations continue to burgeon in opportunities as more and more of the world becomes interconnected through technology. Computer science students can specialize from a broad array of concentrations like security, artificial intelligence or game design to build expertise in specific areas that will make them most desirable to prospective employers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer and information technology employment will grow by 11 percent between 2019-2029, much faster than the average rate of four percent across all occupations. In 2019, computer science and technology-related employees were also paid an average of $48,430 more than the average of all occupations.

How to Choose a Master's in Computer Science Program

One major consideration prospective graduate students should keep in mind is the time they intend to devote to earning their Master of Science in Computer Science. Computer science undergraduates entering their final year may prefer an accelerated master's program in computer science. Students may apply for accelerated programs in their senior or junior years and complete them in one additional year, allowing graduates to swiftly enter the workforce with a master's. Fifth-year MS degree programs usually continue a student's education at the same institution. Students who have already graduated or will hold a bachelors in a field other than computer science should consider program reputation, research opportunities and institutional financial aid before deciding which institutions to apply for.

Computer Science Master's Degree Courses

Computer science courses will vary based on what specialty students pursue. In general, computer science courses focus on operating and computer systems, software development, programming design, graphics and algorithms or mathematics courses relevant to computer science. Students will gain a strong background in programming languages, computer architecture, and debugging from which to build their specializations. Courses in game design, artificial intelligence or computer security among other specialties will typically be offered. Students often coordinate thesis or project reports with advisors at the completion of coursework.

Computer Science Foundational Courses

Common foundational courses in computer science include:

  • Programming Design
  • Software Engineering
  • Algorithms & Mathematics in Computing
  • Computer Systems
  • Graphics

As previously stated, coursework typically culminates in project reports or thesis projects, though some programs will conclude with comprehensive exams. Project reports are usually an in-depth overview of an approved project undertaken with the supervision of a faculty member. A master's thesis will present a specific area of interest to a thesis committee. A thesis may be research-oriented, but many programs do not require a research element. Examinations may be written, oral, or a combination of both, but will be a substantive review of all coursework.

Computer Science Specialist & Elective Courses

Elective courses in computer sciences are typically technical courses that students can tailor according to their interests. Usually, programs require elective courses to be above a certain level, such as courses numbered over 100, though each program's requirements will vary.

Some elective courses may include:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Game Design
  • Robotics

Prospective students who want to train intensively in one area may also consider pursuing a specialized degree. Specialized degrees can focus on similar material differently from computer science concentrations. For instance, MFA or MA degrees in game design may emphasize the art of design over the science of computer engineering. Data science degrees may provide more detailed coursework than a concentration. Interested students should weigh the merits of game design versus computer science degrees or data science versus computer science programs before making a final decision.

Licensure & Certification in Computer Science

Computer science certification indicates mastery of a certain programming language, technology, software or technological device. Earning a professional certificate helps resumes shine because it proves expertise in one subject and may be especially helpful for entry-level professionals in the field of technology.

Some of the most commons kinds of certification include:

  • CCT (Cisco Certified Technician): certifies proficiency in diagnosing or repairing Cisco network and system devices
  • COMPTIA Certification (including COMPTIA ITF+, A+, Security+ or Network+): certifies information technology skills in different areas like security and network
  • Microsoft Certification (including 365 Fundamentals or Javascript): certificates available in many specializations, can prove proficiency with Microsoft software such as Office 365
  • C/C++: certifies knowledge of C or C++ programming language

Those seeking a certificate will have to take a class or be sufficiently familiar with the material and pass an exam. Certificates are generally renewable.

Concentrations Offered for a Master's in Computer Science Degree

A benefit to choosing a computer science degree is that the degree programs often give students great flexibility in following their specific interests through concentrations. For example, students with a passion for robotics can specialize in artificial intelligence and follow a degree plan that will dive into the principles of their specialty, teach appropriate programming language, offer project-based coursework to reinforce learning and build a solid knowledge base for a career in their chosen field.

The credit hours required for concentrations will vary based on the degree program. Most concentrations require 12-36 hours of specialized coursework. Common concentrations include:

  • Robotics
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Software Engineering
  • Game Design

Post-Graduate Options After Master's in Computer Science

A doctorate in computer science is a research-oriented degree for those who want to pursue roles in academia and research after graduation. Students with a bachelor's degree or higher can apply to PhD programs in computer science. PhD programs are typically funded through assistantships or fellowships that students can identify through their prospective programs. Joint MS/PhD or MS/MBA programs in computer science are also frequently offered. An MBA is roughly equivalent to a master's degree, requires fewer credit hours than a PhD, and is appropriate for computer science students who are focused on pursuing careers in business. Meanwhile, PhD programs prepare students for advanced research or teaching in laboratories or academia through intensive training. Students should weigh the benefits and costs when determining whether an MBA vs PhD in computer science is right for them.

What Can I Do with a Computer Science Master's Degree?

Degree-holders can choose from a wide variety of careers after graduation based on their interests and specializations. Some graduates may pursue PhDs in areas such as robotics or artificial intelligence and work in research laboratories or academia. Others may work creatively in video game design or as software developers, while business-oriented individuals could seek work as web developers or systems administrators for large companies or organizations. Earning a master's allows graduates to pursue occupations that typically require advanced-level degrees for entry, like computer and information research scientists. These occupations are often higher-paying with greater opportunities for career development.

Job Outlook for a Master's in Computer Science

Most fields related to computer science are projected to grow over the next ten years. Occupations involved in data collection and information security will see the most growth as companies expand their online presence and must develop secure platforms for users to interact in various ways. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), some of the careers that will expand the most in employment opportunities include information security analysts, computer and information research scientists, and software developers, where job outlook is projected to increase between 15 to 31 percent over the 2019-2029 period, which exceeds four times the average growth rate projected for all occupations.

How to Become a Computer and Information Research Scientist

Computer and information research scientists solve high-level issues in computing through research and data analysis. Computer and information research may be used to help assess and improve the efficiency of software or hardware through developing new computing methods, algorithms and computing languages. There are many roles computer and information scientists fill. Some computer scientists work in robotics or programming while others enhance information security through the development of less complex algorithms. Positions are available at universities, in software development for various companies, and with the federal government.

In general, a master's degree is required for this advanced work, though some federal government agencies may hire individuals with bachelor's degrees. In May 2019, the BLS reported that the average wage for computer and information research scientists was $127,460. During the 2019-2029 period, the BLS also projected job growth at 15 percent. As companies require more advanced, efficient and secure software, more opportunities for computer scientists will arise.

How to Become a Software Developer

Software developers design and test software programs to meet user needs for various companies and software publishers. Software developers work collaboratively with other team members such as programmers, who are typically responsible for code writing, to craft intuitive, user-friendly and appealing software.

There are various kinds of software developers. Systems software developers create operating systems for computers and devices. Meanwhile, application software developers are responsible for designing applications and programs with a distinct function and purpose, like video games or photo editing software.

Most positions for software engineers require at least a technology-related bachelor's degree, though some employers may prefer master's degrees. Many employers may prefer candidates who have some prior experience in the field. Internships can help provide early experience for those seeking to become software developers.

In May 2019, the BLS projected job growth for software developers between 17 to 22 percent from 2019-2029. In the same year, applications software developers earned an average wage of $108,080 while systems software developers earned $114,000.

Master's in Computer Science Program Financial Aid & Scholarship Resources

There are various financial aid resources available to underrepresented groups working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Women and minorities may wish to begin their search for financial aid opportunities specific to them.

For instance, the Society for Women Engineers (SWE) provides a wide variety of scholarships to undergraduate and graduate engineering or computer science students who identify as women. Prospective students can find applicable scholarships for their class level through searching their website, and the application process for all scholarships is done entirely online. The SWE awarded over one million dollars in scholarships in 2020.

The Generation Google Scholarship awards $10,000 annually to students with histories of academic excellence and exhibit financial need who will increase the representation of underrepresented groups in computer science. Students may apply online. Students must provide transcripts, pertinent household information, a resume or CV, and answer three short essay questions.

All students should begin their process by submitting their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). FAFSA can help students find the appropriate institution and program specific federal aid and can be completed entirely online.

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