How to Know a Computer Science Master's is Worth It (And Why Alumni Networks Matter)

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Perhaps you've heard that the demand for technology professionals with AI, database and data mining, security and software engineering skills is growing. Or that computer scientists with master's degrees can earn $100,000 or more. Maybe you've hit a frustrating career plateau. Or it could be that going to graduate school simply feels like the obvious next step in your career.

Whatever your reasons for exploring Master of Science in Computer Science, or MSCS, programs, think carefully before you take that next step. You can't answer the question 'Is a computer science master's worth it?' by looking at cost versus earning potential alone. Enrolling in an online part-time computer science master's program will give you skills you'll need to thrive in an increasingly automated world, boost your earning potential and qualify you to step into more senior roles at top technology companies. It's also true, however, that pursuing an MSCS requires a considerable investment of not only money but also time and energy—and that the ROI of this degree can change based on factors such as format, curriculum and university reputation.

It may be that the question you should be asking yourself is not 'Is a computer science master's worth it?' but rather is a specific computer science master's program worth it. An MSCS on your resume can improve your prospects. An MSCS from Case Western Reserve University can empower you to tackle real-world challenges with today's technology and then pivot as discoveries in computer science change the employment landscape. As you research computer science master's programs, think about what kind of impact you want to make.

Why is computer science so important?

Computer science is part of almost every industry, from transportation and manufacturing to education and financial services. Agriculture uses algorithms to increase yields. Doctors and nurses use digital decision support systems to diagnose patients. Nearly everything humans do in the developed world now involves computers in some way. We pay for goods and services using digital wallets. We stash our groceries in WiFi-enabled refrigerators and drive connected cars. We trade stocks, track our health and even order our morning coffee using apps. "Not everything can be digitized," management expert Hermann Simon told the audience during the 2017 Digitize like a Champion event, "but everything that can be digitized will be."

Computer science speeds technological advancement, and technological advancement leads to innovation in computer science. So while there's already considerable demand for computer science professionals such as software engineers, systems analysts, security engineers and computer architects, there's also plenty of room for growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts the demand for computer scientists will increase by 15% in the coming decade, but that doesn't tell a complete story. Consider that demand for database professionals will grow by 10%. Demand for software developers and software engineers will grow by 22%—a figure representing more than 300,000 new computer science jobs. All told, employers will create a staggering 500,000 new jobs for computer and information systems professionals.

Ultimately, the importance of this discipline goes beyond what technology can do for people. Computer science also plays a significant role in the economy. For every new tech job created in a region, employers in that region create five jobs in professional and non-professional sectors outside of technology.

Why earn a master's degree in computer science?

Innovation and demand are driving rapid job creation in tech so the employment outlook in computer science is strong. It's better, however, for professionals with master's degrees. Many people think of Big Tech as a sector in which skills are more valuable than education, but the statistics don't bear that out. About a quarter of all software professionals have master's degrees nationwide. That figure is probably higher in Silicon Valley, Boston, New York and emerging tech hubs where master's degrees are commonplace. You may soon need a graduate degree in computer science or another tech discipline just to stay competitive.

Most graduate-level computer science programs teach hard skills and programming languages, but computer science is a rapidly evolving field and automation is changing how organizations hire for high-tech roles. Employers increasingly look for a mix of hard and soft skills in computer science professionals because more jobs, as the Strada Institute's Robot Ready report puts it, "combine the technical with the human: programming + ethics, AI + emotional intelligence, or logic + judgment." Graduate programs such as Case School of Engineering's Online MSCS help students develop not only advanced technical skills related to algorithms, theory, artificial intelligence, databases and data mining, but also human skills such as communication, intellectual flexibility, teamwork, leadership and persistence.

Finally, there's the wage premium associated with master's degrees in computer science. The ROI of the MSCS versus a bachelor's degree in computer science—covered in greater detail below—is substantial. When Forbes ranked graduate degrees by salary increase, the MS in Computer Science came in second. Master's degree holders in technology and computer science jobs out-earn their peers by tens of thousands of dollars ($104,000 versus $87,000) each year.

What are the highest-paying jobs for computer scientists who have earned a master's?

Top-paying computer science jobs tend to be those with senior, director or principal in the title—in other words, roles usually filled by professionals with significant experience and advanced credentials such as the Master of Science in Computer Science. These include:

  • Cybersecurity Engineer: These professionals identify vulnerabilities in systems and software, and develop solutions to defend against intrusions and data theft. ($106,000)
  • Development Operations (DevOps) Director: The DevOps director oversees the systems development cycle using practices such as automated build and test, continuous integration and continuous delivery. ($170,000)
  • Information Research Scientist: These researchers find new uses for existing digital technology, develop new technologies and solve computing problems. ($123,000)
  • Information Security Manager: These professionals protect data against theft, misuse and tampering. ($117,000)
  • Information Technology Director: Sometimes called Chief Information Officer or Chief Technology Officer, these executives manage IT strategy. ($121,000)
  • Machine learning Engineer: These programming experts design and build software systems capable of learning without human intervention to automate predictive models. ($114,000)
  • Principal Software Engineer: These very senior tech professionals lead large software projects. ($140,000)
  • Security Architect, IT: Security architects are responsible for designing and maintaining secure information technology systems. ($125,000)
  • Senior Database Engineer: These professionals take the lead in the design and development of database solutions that support critical workflows and business processes. ($126,000)
  • Senior Solutions Architect: These enterprise systems experts solve the toughest technical and business challenges using technology. ($135,000) Site Reliability Engineer: These professionals solve infrastructure and operational problems by creating scalable software solutions. ($118,000)
  • Software Development Director: Directors of software development help guide the creation of software applications, platforms and systems. ($147,000)
  • Software Development Manager: These professionals oversee the developers and engineers who work on software projects and map out development processes and timelines. ($126,000)
  • Software Engineering Director: Also called application engineering managers, these professionals provide the technical vision that guides software engineering teams. ($149,000)

These figures are averages and aren't representative of how much an experienced computer science professional with an advanced degree might earn at top-paying tech companies—even in non-senior roles. Software engineers at Microsoft, for instance, can earn more than $180,000. A front-end developer at Netflix can earn more than $280,000.

How much does a master's in computer science cost?

Earning a master's in computer science will positively impact your professional prospects and your lifetime earning potential, but there are up-front expenses to consider. Calculating how much it costs to earn an MSCS—an important part of determining whether a computer science master's is worth it—can be surprisingly complicated.

Tuition is just one factor. Case Western Reserve's 30-credit online computer science master's program costs $2,057 per credit hour, which adds up to just over $61,000 in total tuition. Most MSCS candidates fund their degrees through some combination of financial aid, grants, employer funding, private scholarships and university scholarships, such as Case Western Reserve's $5,000 scholarship for students who apply by the Early Decision Application Deadline.

You also have to factor in fees plus expenses related to books or other materials. If you're looking at full-time MSCS programs offered on campus as well as programs for distance learners, there are additional commuting costs and opportunity costs (what you lose by choosing one option over another) to consider. In Case School of Engineering's 100% online program, for instance, you can continue working and earning income while pursuing your master's degree. In a similarly priced full-time on-campus program, you'll forfeit two years of earnings and advancement.

What's the ROI of a master's in computer science?

There are two ways to look at this question. First, you can look at cost versus earning potential. Given the wage premiums associated with the MSCS outlined above, it's likely you'll earn back the cost of your master's many times over before you retire. The financial benefits of this degree are indisputable. Second, you can look at career advancement potential and personal satisfaction—two of the less tangible benefits associated with this degree.

A Master of Science in Computer Science from Case School of Engineering gives you not only a broader perspective and leading-edge skills but also access to opportunity via a network of accomplished faculty and peers. Case School of Engineering is home to researchers conducting revenue-generating, paradigm-shifting work in computer science, faculty who are leaders in fields such as machine learning and computational neuroscience, and student entrepreneurs who take their ideas to market with the help of the university's Technology Transfer Office.

Perhaps the best way to gauge whether a computer science master's is worth it is to look at student outcomes. Online MSCS candidates at Case Western Reserve build valuable relationships while in the program and go on to work at prestigious companies such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Salesforce, as well as top scientific organizations such as IBM Research and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Does pursuing an MSCS online change the ROI of this degree?

Sometimes. Online degree programs offered by highly ranked institutions typically cost about as much as comparable on-campus programs—at least when it comes to tuition and fees. That's because top universities invest as much in their online programs as they do in programs offered on campus.

Case Western Reserve does not differentiate between its online and in-person graduate-level programs. Online MSCS candidates complete the same advanced computer science coursework with the same outstanding professors and instructors as their on-campus peers. They participate in real-world technology-focused projects and leading-edge computer science research. Class sizes are small, so distance learners get a hands-on, high-engagement experience, and reciprocal peer learning is part of the program. Online computer science degree candidates can join clubs and groups, just like students on campus. They even receive the same robust pre- and post-graduation student support, which means the salary-boosting, career-enhancing properties of a Case School of Engineering Master of Science in Computer Science are the same regardless of format.

Distance learners enrolled in the flexible online MSCS program can save money on the total cost of the degree, however, because they don't have to pay relocation costs, travel costs or commuting costs. Their housing expenditures don't change. They can also, as alluded to above, continue working full time, earning income and accruing work experience. If their positions allow them to apply what they're learning in the classroom, they may get a promotion or raise before they finish the program. And they can graduate further ahead in their careers than their peers who put their professional advancement on hold to go to graduate school.

How alumni networks factor into ROI

Access to opportunity doesn't end at graduation when you earn your MSCS from a university with a well-established and active alumni network. Online master's in computer science graduates at Case Western Reserve become part of an expansive, collaborative network of more than 100,000 alumni located in 70 countries around the world. Members of the Case Alumni Association and the Case Western Reserve University Alumni Association support one another with career advice and support, mentorship and more.

Alumni connections can also confer a powerful career advantage. Case School of Engineering graduates—a group that includes the father of computer programming, Don Knuth, and co-inventor of Gmail Paul Buchheit—work at prestigious technology companies and top research institutions around the globe. A seldom-discussed benefit of earning a master's degree is the lifetime access you'll gain to a network of professionals well-placed and willing to give you a hand up when you need one.

Is a master's in computer science worth it?

Yes, provided you choose a program that aligns with your professional goals at a university with a student-centered online learning environment. You'll learn more about your chosen field than you ever thought possible and connect with peers whose experience will add richness to your academic journey. After graduation, you'll earn more with an MS in Computer Science on your resume, and you'll have the skills and qualifications necessary to step into leadership positions in computer science and tech.

Pursuing a computer science master's online is an intelligent choice if you want to reap the benefits of this degree without sacrificing income, professional experience or personal time. Case Western Reserve's online MSCS provides maximum flexibility for students looking for a leading-edge computer science curriculum, research opportunities and expert career support—all the features that make a computer science master's worth it.

Do you have questions about what it takes to earn a computer science master's online at Case Western Reserve? Enrollment advisors are available via email at onlinemscs@case.edu and phone at 216.859.9922 with answers.

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