Is a Master's in Computer Science Worth It?

If you’ve spent any time in the computer science field, you know that it is a discipline that is best learned by doing. Because of this, many professionals in this field question whether a Master’s in Computer Science is worth it. This question has no easy answer, but there are many things to consider that may help you determine the right path.

Some argue that time spent in the classroom takes away from the real learning that takes place on the job, while others argue that the lessons learned in the classroom make graduates with a Master’s in Computer Science better equipped to handle the complex, real-world challenges of computing that undergraduates cannot.

There are certainly arguments to be made on either side, but it really comes down to you. What are your goals? Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Do you have the time (and money) to devote to school? Does your employer expect you to get an advanced degree? You and only you can determine if a computer science master’s is worth it.

As you navigate this decision, take time to learn more about what a Master’s in Computer Science entails: where you can take classes, if you are a good candidate to pursue a master’s, how you want to use the degree, as well as the cost of the degree and future salary expectations. Considering these factors, as detailed below, will put you on the right path to deciding what is in your best interest.

What is a Master’s in Computer Science?

A Master’s in Computer Science (CS) is a graduate degree that provides current computer scientists and engineers the opportunity to expand their knowledge base and gain a more sophisticated understanding of development, troubleshooting and more. Master’s in Computer Science programs cover topics like computer language theory, software development, advanced algorithms and more.

Ultimately, what you study will depend on your previous education and career focus. Some CS master’s programs waive basic courses for students who have completed similar coursework during their undergraduate studies. Additional courses depend on your concentration and post-graduate goals. Be prepared to complete a master’s thesis, as most colleges require a capstone project, to complete your degree.

Depending on the school and your previous years of study, you will be required to complete 30 to 45 credits to earn your Master’s in Computer Science. This can be accomplished through attending either full or part-time. Full-time programs typically take a year or two while part-time CS master’s programs take three to four years to complete.

Many students who pursue a Master’s in Computer Science have already spent several years in the workforce. These students often opt for a professional master’s degree program that is designed for students who are current professionals in the field.

As computer science is a very hands-on discipline, many universities incorporate real-world training into their graduate programs. For example, “At Northeastern University, each MS in CS student is required to complete a six-eight month co-op where they work on a project full-time for a company, which allows them to bring what they learn in the classroom out into the workplace,” says Professor of the Practice Tiffani Williams, director of the Computer Science Programs at Northeastern University–Charlotte.

Where can I get a Master’s in Computer Science?

There is a ranking of Master's in Computer Science programs provided by U.S. News and World Report. This list provides information about the nation’s top Master’s in Computer Science programs. It also allows users to organize the list by four specialties: artificial intelligence, programming language, systems and theory.

Many of the CS programs offered by top schools are now available online. While online colleges and universities were once stigmatized, online graduate learning is now a legitimate, reliable means to gain a quality education. When completing an online master’s degree, the coursework is nearly identical to what you would experience in an on-campus class. Furthermore, gaining your Master’s in Computer Science online gives you the flexibility to fulfill your professional and personal commitments, all while earning your degree.

Regardless of whether you attend an online or on-campus program, make sure to find a school that has been regionally accredited and accredited by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology. This ensures that your credits are transferable and that they qualify for federal financial aid and corporate tuition reimbursement plans. If you do not attend an accredited university, your degree may not be recognized by your employer or relevant professional organizations.

Who Gets a Master’s in Computer Science?

If you want to learn more about data science, information systems, video game development, cloud computing, IT security and more, then a Master’s in Computer Science may be the answer. If you want to move into upper management but find that you are underqualified, getting a Master’s in Computer Science could be the key to unlocking your career goals.

Most people who pursue a Master’s in Computer Science already have an undergraduate degree in the same or a similar discipline. This includes individuals with a BAS in computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering or another, similar subject matter. Many have spent three to five years working in the computer science (or another similar) sector.

Even though they have had moderate success in their careers, these professionals often find that they “hit a wall,” so-to-speak, and get to a point where they can no longer progress without a graduate degree. Often, they are seeking a senior management or other similar role, but lack the higher education needed to set them apart from their peers.

Those wondering if getting a Master’s in Computer Science is worth it should think about their goals. Do they want to become senior managers? Do they want to lead their own team of programmers? Do they want to rise through the ranks of their network and become a leader in the tech industry? If any of those apply to you, you should seriously consider a Master’s in Computer Science.

What can I do with a Computer Science Master's?

Getting a Master's in Computer Science will significantly broaden your career potential. In fact, many employers are now preferring candidates with a master's degree over those with a bachelor's -- for jobs that previously only required a bachelor's. According to Fast Company, 32 percent, almost one in three, employers have increased their education requirements for new hires.

When considering if a computer science master’s is worth it, consider the potential career paths you could take with such an education. Here is a table of the most common positions sought by graduates with a Master's in Computer Science. The table, compiled with information from Indeed, includes information about job locations and availability:

Job Title Top Locations Availability
Software Development Engineer Seattle, WA; New York City, NY; San Francisco, CA 87,300
Computer Scientist New York City, NY; Seattle, WA; San Francisco, CA 12,400
Security Engineer New York City, NY; Washington, DC; San Francisco, CA 58,100
Mobile Application Developer New York City, NY; San Francisco, CA; Seattle, WA 11,300
Senior Software Web Developer Seattle, WA; New York City, NY; San Francisco, CA 10,100
UNIX System Administrator Annapolis Junction, MD; Washington, DC; Fort Meade, MD 3,100
Software Development Engineer, Test San Francisco, CA; Seattle, WA; New York City, NY 37,700

While the table includes the top three cities, in order of job volume, for each position, do not be limited by these locations; most of these jobs are available all over the country and many can be done from home. Job availability is approximate and fluctuates daily.

These jobs and others like them are in high demand. According to a White House report, there will be 1.4 million computer science jobs available and yet only 400,000 qualified professionals able to fill those positions by 2020. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics agrees and predicts that computer science careers will increase by 19 percent from 2016 to 2025. That’s much greater than the 7 percent job growth they project for the rest of the American workplace. Bottom line – this is a growing field with high demand; these jobs aren’t going anywhere.

How Much Will I Earn With a Master’s in Computer Science?

A graduate degree, no matter what the discipline, increases your earnings potential. Overall, professionals who have earned a graduate degree earn 18 percent more than bachelor’s degree holders over their lifetime. The same holds true for employees with a Master’s in Computer Science, but on an even greater scale.

The median annual pay for a graduate with a Master's in Computer Science is $114,000. When compared to other graduate programs, those with a Master’s in Computer Science see their pay increase the most – by as much as $30,000.

Now consider the cost of a graduate program. If you are curious whether computer science graduate school is worth it, the cost of computer engineering graduate programs varies greatly depending on where you go, but the national average is about $40,000.

Prestigious schools with the most sought-after programs cost as much as $100,000, although there are many solid state and online institutions that are in the $10,000 to $20,000 range. Based on the average cost of school and the increase in annual salary, a Master’s in Computer Science will quickly pay for itself.

In 2017, Forbes ranked a Master’s in Computer Science as the second best master’s degree to get, due to the degree’s high ROI. The table below shows the pay range and median salary you can expect to earn with a Master's in Computer Science:

Job Title Salary Range Average Salary
Software Engineer $65,000 - $134,000 $92,786
Senior Software Engineer $83,000 - $143,000 $110,520
Software Developer $56,000 - 120,000 $80,700
Computer Hardware Engineer -- $111,730
Systems Software Developer -- $105,570
Application Software Developer -- $98,260

So, is a Master’s in Computer Science worth it?

It’s normal to question whether a Master’s in Computer Science is worth it. The answer is different for everyone, although it’s hard to consider any type of education a waste. Getting a Master’s in Computer Science is a huge investment not only financially, but also an investment in time and effort. Deciding to go for it (or not) is deeply personal and depends on many variables.

There are so many factors to consider: do you want (or need) to learn more about computer science? Is going to school feasible right now? Do your career aspirations require an advanced degree? Can you fit a graduate program into your life? These questions barely scratch the surface of what you should consider before making your decision.

The knowledge and skills learned while earning a Master’s in Computer Science will enhance your job performance and increase your proficiency in troubleshooting and development, not to mention substantially increase your pay. These are things that nearly every computer science professional would claim to want, but is the time and financial investment worth it to you? Ultimately, the decision is yours.

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