Earning a Master's in Computer Science Online

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Computer science continues to be a popular field of study in colleges and universities throughout the United States. The number of undergraduate degrees in computer and technology science awarded by U.S. schools increased steadily in the last decade. To stand out in a sea of diplomas and to keep up with the rapid growth of the field, an increasing number of computer science professionals pursue graduate degrees. A master's in computer science benefits mid-career professionals as well as those just starting out in the field. This guide explores topics such as funding sources, degree milestones, and the varied resources available to computer science professionals.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master's Degree in Computer Science?

Since an advanced degree provides several opportunities for both professional and personal growth, an online master's in computer science attracts different types of students. In addition to benefiting new graduates and seasoned professionals, a master's degree is also advantageous for those who want to shift their career trajectory to the computer science field. Some master's in computer science programs do not require an undergraduate degree in computer science for acceptance, but they may require completion of prerequisite courses in upper level mathematics and computer programming.

Why Get a Master's Degree in Computer Science?

Pursuing Specialization

Computer science is a vast area of study that encompasses a variety of subfields. A master's degree provides the opportunity to focus on a particular field, such as artificial intelligence, bioinformatics, or software engineering, which leads to different career fields.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Most industries, including government agencies and nonprofit organizations, acknowledge the worth of a master's degree by offering degree holders higher salaries. This often means a corresponding increase in the level of responsibility and visibility within the company, agency, or organization.

Online Learning Technology

Working toward a master's in computer science online is not only convenient, it also provides students with the chance to become acquainted with the latest in communication technology. Knowledge of cutting-edge communication technology can enhance careers in software development, network security, and information technology research.

Prerequisites for Online Computer Science Programs

Most schools have similar admission requirements for students who wish to pursue a computer science master's online. Below are some of these prerequisites.

    • Work Experience: Not all master's programs in computer science require applicants to have prior work experience; however, having some type of professional experience may help students grasp concepts and theories faster.
    • Exams and Test Scores: Many computer science master's programs require applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and submit their scores. Minimum accepted test scores vary between programs. Keep in mind that GRE scores are only part of a program's admission requirements and are rarely the sole basis for admission to an online master's degree in computer science.
    • Coursework: Master's in computer science programs typically require applicants to have at least a 3.0 undergraduate GPA. Non-computer science majors may be expected to have a higher GPA or required to enroll in basic mathematics and computer courses prior to admission.
    • Recommendations: Computer science master's programs often ask for at least two letters of recommendation from individuals who can vouch for the applicant's academic and professional competency, such as a direct supervisor, a professor, or a colleague.
    • Essays: Since most master's program involve a heavy writing component, many master's in computer science programs require applicants to submit an essay that details their background, reasons for applying, and future career plans.
    • Interviews: Few schools require applicants to undergo an interview prior to being admitted to an online master's program in computer science. The schools that do usually conduct an interview online through video chat platforms such as Skype. Schools often make an accurate assessment of an applicant's academic and professional capabilities through the various admission documents, negating the need for a live interview.
    • International Students: In addition to the application documents required of students based in the U.S., international applicants must submit the results of a recognized English proficiency test. The two most commonly referenced tests are the Test of English as a Foreign Language and the International English Language Testing System.

How Much Can I Make with a Master's Degree in Computer Science?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment for the computer and information technology sector to grow 13% through 2026. Additionally, the median annual wage for jobs in this sector, $84,580, is more than double the median annual wage for other occupations, $37,690. Computer and technology professionals face a robust job market, especially in technology hubs such as Silicon Valley, but jobs are not limited to certain areas since almost every industry has some level of computer and technology needs.

Traditional Careers for Computer Science Master's Graduates

Career Stats Description

Computer Programmer

Median Pay: $82,240

Job Growth: -7%

In addition to writing and testing codes, computer programmers also design systems or application interfaces, detect and correct faulty lines of computer code, and develop programs implemented in various platforms.

Ideal for: A meticulous individual with exceptional debugging and problem-solving skills.

Computer Systems Analyst

Median Pay: $88,270

Job Growth: 9%

After studying the computer and network systems of a company or organization, a computer systems analyst proceeds to design solutions that streamline and secure procedures and processes with the goal of improving productivity and increasing output.

Ideal for: Computer experts with excellent analytical, critical, and creative thinking skills and the ability to devise technologically sound solutions with ease.

Database Administrator

Median Pay: $87,020

Job Growth: 11%

Database administrators organize, store, and secure different types of data while making sure only authorized users can access said data. They prevent data loss by backing up and restoring data, updating permissions, and merging old databases with new ones.

Ideal for: Individuals with an extensive background in disaster recovery, creating and maintaining backup systems, and strong problem-solving skills.

Network and Computer Systems Administrator

Median Pay: $81,100

Job Growth: 6%

Network and computer systems administrators install and maintain computer systems, including local area networks and intranets. They also train users in the optimal use of both software and hardware systems.

Ideal for: Highly organized professionals with both business acumen and software fluency.

Additional Careers for Computer Science Master's Graduates

Career Stats Description

Computer and Information Research Scientist

Median Pay: $114,520

Job Growth: 19%

Computer and information research scientists solve complex computer problems for several different types of industries. They update existing technology while also researching and designing radical approaches to current computing technology.

Ideal for: Individuals with analytical and critical thinking skills and a keen interest in research and innovation.

Information Security Analyst

Median Pay: $95,510

Job Growth: 28%

Information security analysts plan, implement, and maintain the security of a company's computer systems and networks. They analyze and test systems to uncover vulnerabilities and devise ways to correct them.

Ideal for: Security professionals who keep up with the latest technology and techniques and work well under pressure.

Software Developer

Median Pay: $103,560

Job Growth: 24%

Software developers design applications that perform specific tasks on computers and other devices. They also recommend software upgrades and document the software development process for future troubleshooting efforts and system maintenance.

Ideal for: Professionals with a technical mindset who keep up with current software technology and incorporate said technological advances in their work.

Postsecondary Teacher

Median Pay: $76,000

Job Growth: 15%

Postsecondary teachers create course outlines, lecture, and assess student progress in the discipline of computer science. They also stay informed about the latest innovations in their field.

Ideal for: Individuals with relevant professional experience and graduate education in the computer science field who completed a formal teaching program.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, PayScale, 2017-2018

Paying for an Online Master's in Computer Science

Enrollment status not only determines the length of time it takes to earn a master's degree, it also influences a program's cost. Students may end up paying more in terms of tuition and fees when enrolled part time, especially if the school increases its rates in the middle of the enrollment period. Whether pursuing a master's in computer science online or on campus, financial aid matters for graduate students.

Tuition Timelines

Most schools that offer online master's in computer science have flexible programs that allow students to pursue a study path that accommodates their professional and personal responsibilities.

Part-Time Path

Enrolling as a part-time student extends the amount of time it takes to complete an online master's in computer science program by at least one semester, which often means paying additional fees and a higher cost per credit unit.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: University of Texas - Austin
Total Credits Required: 30
Summary: Elective coursework in subjects such as machine learning, data centers, and security allow students to customize their learning experience.

Full-Time Path

Many online master's degrees in computer science offer asynchronous classes, adding flexibility for working professionals.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Colorado State University
Total Credits Required: 35
Summary: The university offers scholarship opportunities for qualified online students which can help mitigate any tuition increase within the two year program timeline.

Accelerated Path

Many accelerated programs offer a generous transfer credit policy, thus decreasing the number of credits needed to earn the master's degree.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Total Credits Required: 32
Summary: The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign permits students to transfer up to eight credits from another accredited program or university. This means students only have to take an additional 24 credits for the online master's in computer science program.

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants & Scholarships

Scholarship opportunities abound for computer science professionals looking to enhance their careers by pursuing an on-campus or online computer science master's degree.

What to Expect from a Master's Level Online Computer Science Program

Like most master's programs, an online master's in computer science degree consists of 30-36 credits. Culminating experiences differ between programs, with some requiring students to complete a capstone project and others requiring the submission of a thesis. Almost all computer science master's programs require students to undergo an internship program whether students pursue a master's in computer science online or on campus.

Major Milestones

  1. Capstone coursework

    Students enroll in a capstone course as they near the end of their program.

  2. Internship

    Some students prefer to complete their internship at the same time that they enroll in a computer science master's program.

  3. Thesis topic approval

    Before students can begin the research and writing of their thesis, they must first have their thesis topic approved. This can occur as early as a student's first semester or after the first year of a two-year program.

  4. Thesis defense

    The culminating experience of the thesis defense occurs at the end of a master's program. Students must mount a successful defense of their thesis in order to graduate.

  5. Graduate department requirement completion

    Most schools require students to submit proof of the completion of all departmental requirements for the degree, including meeting the GPA threshold and core and concentration coursework completion.

  6. Intent to graduate/completion confirmation

    Before graduating from a master's program, students file an intent to graduate form indicating that the student complied with all the requirements for graduation.

Coursework

Although curriculum for master's programs in computer science can vary greatly, most schools offer similar foundational courses.

Analysis and Design of Algorithms

Students learn select appropriate data structures and design efficient algorithms to operate on these structures. They also perform asymptotic analysis and use algorithms to solve problems connected with sorting, searching, and connectivity.

Artificial Intelligence

This course provides students with an overview of artificial intelligence and introduces them to basic AI programming languages.

Computer Performance Modelling

In this course, enrollees study the characteristics and behavior of different network components such as instrumentation, protocols, tuning, and hardware interconnections, and manipulate these components to boost network performance and efficiency.

Database Management

This course introduces students to fundamental database management concepts including functional dependencies; query language design, implementation, and optimization; and transaction processing.

Principles of Operating Systems

In this introductory course, students examine topics such as concurrent programming, elements of distributed operating systems, and inter-process communication including process scheduling and coordination and process and thread management.

Requirements to Practice

Having a master's degree in computer science provides degree holders with several opportunities for career advancement. Since computer science is such a broad field, earning a certification in a specific area distinguishes students from the crowd. The certifications noted below signify to prospective employers possession of specialized skills in the certification area.

    • Cisco Certified Network Associate: Designed for computer science professionals specializing in network systems, the exam certifies the skills required to install, configure, maintain, and troubleshoot small- to medium-sized networks.
    • Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) A+ Certification: To earn this certification, exam takers must pass two exams in the same A+ series. The cost per exam is $194. CompTIA - A+ Certification is valid for three years. Certificate holders can renew their status by passing the current version of the A+ exam or earning continuing education units.
    • Professional Software Developer Certification: The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) administers this exam designed for computer and information technology professionals with 2-4 years of experience. The exam has four knowledge areas, costs $225 for IEEE members or $296 for non-members, and must be completed in three hours.
    • Systems Security Certified Practitioner: The International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium, Inc. offers this program designed for computer professionals with a security background or those wishing to shift their career to the security arena. The exam costs $249.

Professional Organizations & Resources

Membership in professional organizations provide several benefits, such as networking and mentoring opportunities, discounted rates at annual conferences, and varying levels of career services. Through their association with professional organizations, members keep up with the latest news and research findings that can greatly influence the trajectory of their own careers and the direction of the industry as a whole.

  • Association for Computing Machinery: With more than 100,000 members throughout the world, ACM brings together educators, researchers, and computer science professionals practicing in various fields for several regional and international conferences and lectures.
  • Computing Research Association: CRA ensures its members sponsor different types of events each year, such as a symposium on technology and jobs, and career mentoring workshops.
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society: IEEE has more than 400 chapters all over the world, publishes more than 30 academic journals, and hosts over 200 events each year that provide members extensive regional and international networking opportunities.
  • Institute of Engineering and Technology: IET provides online collaboration opportunities for computer science professionals, technicians, and engineers to share knowledge, develop ideas and content, and grow their professional network.
  • International Association of Computer Science and Information Technology: This association sponsors several international conferences throughout the year. IACSIT also provides continuing education programs for members.
  • Government Computer News: The GCN website contains information about the legislation, policies, and regulations related to the acquisition and use of IT within the U.S. government.
  • InformationWeek: This online resource targets IT decision makers, business owners, and computer science professionals by presenting the latest information on topics such as cloud security, data and analytics, and network infrastructure.
  • Journal of Computer Science and Technology: Published on a bimonthly basis, the journal contains articles, original research, conference reports, and scholarly papers from computer science and technology experts all over the world.
  • Logical Methods in Computer Science: An open-access electronic journal, LMCS features scholarly papers on various practical and theoretical areas in computer science. Topics include algebraic methods, categorical models and logic, domain theory, and semantics of programming languages.
  • Theory of Computing: Another open-access journal, Theory of Computing publishes essays and articles on emerging topics in the field of theoretical computing.