An online master’s degree in computer science is a great way to get the professional skills necessary to meet the growing demand in tech fields. Computer scientists enjoy a very high demand for their skills and occupy a wide variety of organizational roles. This means job security, relatively high salaries, and plenty of upwards mobility for savvy computer specialists.
Of course, with great opportunity comes great competition. Many professionals are increasing their technological know-how, as virtually all modern industries intersect with technology in one way or another. So how can you stand out in this competitive environment and land your dream gig?
One method is pursuing an online master’s degree in computer science. Acquiring the skills to succeed in this field usually requires some mix of self-taught capabilities and formal academic training. As of 2020, 42 percent of the US population attained undergraduate degrees, with only 13 percent pursuing it through the graduate level. This means a graduate program can help you differentiate yourself to employers, acting as both skill development and professional qualification.
The downside to a graduate degree program is the time and money it takes to complete, not to mention the inconvenience of driving to class (often after working a full shift). To offset some of these opportunity costs, many university programs are offering their curriculum entirely online. This reduces the inconvenience and time investment, while also (often) lowering prices as well. After all, universities can operate more cost-effectively without relying on classroom space. Which begs the questions: do the benefits outweigh the costs?
The answer will vary on a case-by-case basis, but an online master’s degree in computer science will open many doors, professionally speaking. From artificial intelligence to web design to business analytics and even game development, computer scientists are pretty much in demand in every industry and locale. Success means commanding higher salaries and working from almost anywhere in the world, which is about as good a reason as any to invest time into an online graduate degree program.
If all of that sounds rather freeing to you, the next step is deciding what type of content to study (and why). Let’s take a look at some common curricula to lay some foundation for your decision.
Master’s-level Computer Science Curriculum
Graduate-level coursework operates under the assumption that all the general education content has been completed at the undergraduate level. The upside to this is that students can dive right into the core content they’re interested in, which in this case revolves around software engineering, programming, mathematics, and computer networking.
While it would be exhaustive to expand upon every possible area of expertise, there are five or so starting points to get you career contemplations started:
- Algorithms and data structures: Algorithms and data structures, or DSA, speaks to the intersection between structuring information and executing operations to make use of that data. It can be viewed as a Venn Diagram, allowing programmers to align the architecture of information with expected use cases.
- Database systems: Similarly, database experts focus on the way in which data is stored, modified, and/or deleted throughout a constant process of use and reuse. Database systems have specific languages (like SQL), and database engineers can capture significant value for organizations through efficiently designing database systems for security, scalability, efficiency, and concurrency.
- Computer networking: Management of computing networks simply means mediating the communication and information flow between devices. Networks are digital highways, and network engineers lay the concrete and police those highways. It’s a very important task, as it enables virtually all of our modern communication apparatus.
- Artificial intelligence: Artificial intelligence, or AI, is an emergent phenomenon in computer science, where iterative learning protocols (i.e. machine learning and deep learning) are capable of completing relatively complex tasks autonomously. Designing machine learning algorithms is great for abstract thinkers with a knack for problem-solving and thinking outside of the box.
- Software engineering: A broader field of study compared to AI would be software engineering, which encompasses the construction of programs and applications that drive functionality on devices. Software engineers are particularly adept at designing, developing, and maintaining computer software. They are expert problem-solvers, in the sense that they design and build programs which are fit for a given purpose.
Each of these fields could represent an entire concentration, or be used as secondary skills which support more specialized computer science disciplines. Game development is on the rise, overlapping significantly with software engineering, database design, and computer networking. Web design and UX/UI is another viable option for creative types. Certified specialists in AWS and other cloud computing platforms are also in particularly high demand, and cloud computing more generally will continue to drive strong salaries.
As you may have noticed, all of these capabilities can be learned completely remotely. One of the great benefits to an online graduate degree in computer science is that all you really need is proper motivation, a working computer, and coursework that can show you the way. Projects tend to be hands-on, and deliverables tangible. The important thing is that you apply yourself, and have the self-motivation to successfully engage with the content.
Speaking of applying yourself, let’s take a quick look at the typical application procedure for online graduate school programs in computer science.
Applying for a Computer Science Master’s
As a general rule, online graduate school programs have a similar (and sometimes identical) application procedure as their onsite counterparts. Technical programs do have a more rigorous curriculum in general, and are therefore a bit more challenging to gain admission to in many cases. Eligibility criteria for acceptance will vary from institution to institution, but reputable online graduate degree programs will expect some combination of the following:
- A minimum GPA from your undergraduate degree program (3.0 being a common norm)
- An undergraduate degree in computer science or related field
- Demonstrate completion of prerequisite courses (official transcripts required)
- Letters of recommendation, ideally from professors and employers
- A personal statement and CV
- GRE test scores and, if applicable, English fluency test scores (TOEFL)
Application deadlines are typically the same for online enrollment compared to onsite, often with the addition of a summer semester. This is because many of the classes will be delivered live by professors, and these professors are operating on the same schedule with online students as offline students. While it may seem convenient to have rolling enrollment for online courses, there is still the logistical necessity of organizing cohorts which will collaborate together (and paying professors to assess the quality of work delivered).
It’s a good idea to prepare your applications carefully and distribute them widely. Understanding the variance in application requirements based upon the stringency of the program will allow aspiring graduate students the best chance of participating in the right program for their level of expertise and experience levels. Assessing the learning environment at each institution, even as an online student, is an important consideration as well.
At this point, many prospective online graduate students are wondering what the actual learning environment is like. How do digital classrooms work? Will I still be working within a team? How strict will my schedule be? Let’s take a look.
The Virtual Classroom
Online learning programs are highly flexible from a scheduling perspective, allowing students to go at their own pace as they earn their MS in computer science. Some students will finish programs more quickly than a traditional onsite arrangement, while others will spread it out and take their time. Most graduate students are working full-time, and therefore tend to space out the course requirements in a part-time manner.
The courses themselves consist of a combination of live lectures, pre-recorded lectures, group work, and technical assignments. Let’s break this down a little further:
- Cohorts: Group work may be on a per-assignment basis, or the courses may be designed to accommodate cohorts. Cohorts are basically groups which stay together across an entire set of courses, building stronger relationships through consistent collaboration. As one of the primary drawbacks to an online graduate program is lack of networking opportunities, prioritizing live courses which make use of cohorts is a fairly good way to offset this lack of opportunity.
- Live (Virtual) Classes: Of course, not all lectures will be live, and even missing a live lecture often means having the opportunity to rewatch it at your convenience. The importance of live classes, even virtually, comes from participation. Participative learning is more effective, as it motivates students to pay attention, ask questions, and stay on their toes.
- Learning Management Systems (LMS): Interactions between students, professors, and cohorts will be a fairly lively mix of conference calling software, emailing, and assignment tracking. All of these capabilities will exist within a single online platform, or LMS. It’s worth exploring how mature a given university’s LMS is, as this is essentially going to be the centerpiece of the educational experience. It should include the virtual classroom capability, as well as collaboration tools, assignment submissions, calendars, syllabi, and a record of all lectures.
While these tools are all maturing rapidly, it’s still no perfect substitute for in-class networking and face-to-face mentorship. Building networks sometimes happens over an unexpected coffee encounter or casual conversation after class. Similarly, mentorship of some skills is best achieved when you can share a keyboard and screen, iterating on a problem together in real-time. Weighing the pros and cons, as well as requesting a demo of the university’s LMS, is an important part of the decision-making process.
Of course, the final decision comes down to achieving your future professional goals and ambitions. Let’s take a quick tour of the typical jobs a recent master’s in computer science would be qualified for, as well as the salary they can expect on average.
Computer science jobs are notoriously high-paying, which is certainly nothing to complain about. Job growth is also very high, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics expecting computer science jobs to grow at three times the national average. The only real downside here is that computer science jobs are many and varied, and it’s difficult to predict which specific functions will become more or less important. As such, let’s outline some of the most common job categories:
- Software Developer: Developing programs and applications is the bread-and-butter of computer science in the 21st century. These professionals identify design needs within a given application’s parameters, and build, manage, and test the development of solutions to those needs. Average salary is around $86k/year.
- Database Engineer: Designing the back-end, including the database architecture and functionality, is a huge task. Database engineers deal with massive data streams, securing and organizing this data for application use. These professionals command an average salary of $117k/year.
- Full Stack Developer: Computer scientists who have mastered the database layer, software layer, and presentation layer are referred to as full stack developers. These professionals are prized for their technical versatility, and may see upwards mobility due to their broad view of a software product from start to finish. They are compensated quite well, with an average of $120k/year.
This is only a small sample of the full list of career paths a computer scientist might embark on, and it’s well worth taking a bit of time to explore more resources. Getting started is as easy as the following 5 steps:
- Identify your current skill and qualifications level. Do you hold an undergraduate degree? GPA over 3.0? Prerequisites in computer science?
- Determine your ideal career path, and work backwards to identify which courses and specializations are required to get you there.
- Research online university programs, and build a shortlist of preferred institutions. Make sure to check application requirements, as each institution has their own approach.
- Speak with career advisors at the universities which accept you, and confirm that your aspirations can be met via the available coursework at that institution. Demo the LMS, if you can!
- Enroll in graduate school, and begin your career transformation from the comfort of your own home!
It’s hard to go wrong with a career in computer science, so long as you love problem-solving and don’t mind getting your hands dirty with the programming work. Best of luck on your journey!