7 Questions Every Prospective Computer Science Master's Student Eventually Asks

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As computer science expands to touch nearly everything we rely on, from medicine and supply chains to transportation networks and financial services, the requirements professionals in the field must meet are ever more stringent. Having basic technical knowledge and knowing a few programming languages is no longer enough. Competition in the most interesting—and most lucrative—areas of computer science is fierce, and career advancement requires both hard and soft skills.

The Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) is already the entry-level credential in many computer science subdisciplines—especially for people whose aspirations include senior-level or management positions—and the benefits are substantial. Still, this doesn't mean that deciding to earn an MSCS is easy. Finding the right master's program is essential, given the commitment (financial and otherwise) required.

For driven early- and mid-career professionals who want to take on new challenges in high-paying positions at top tech firms, Case Western Reserve University's Online MS in Computer Science is an excellent choice. Still, it's a choice only you can make. To determine whether an MSCS is for you—and if the Case School of Engineering has the curriculum (and more) that you need—consider what other prospective computer science master's students tend to ask about earning this degree (and earning it online).

Sure, the myth of the millionaire tech dropout persists, but the reality is that innovators and entrepreneurs in technology are more educated than ever before—and the answers that follow will help you move forward with confidence.

1. Is an online master's degree in computer science worth it?

The broadly applicable answer to this question is an unequivocal yes. Whether you earn your master's in computer science online or on campus, the return on investment is considerable. MSCS holders have higher salaries than their colleagues with bachelor's degrees, and various sources report that an MSCS can increase a computer and information systems professional's lifetime earning potential by anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million. When Forbes ranked graduate degrees by potential salary increase, the computer science master's offered the second-largest wage premium.

Where do you hope to be in five to 10 years? Do people with job titles you'd like to pursue typically have a master's in computer science? If so, you will probably need one, too. The same is true if you plan to work in places where master's degrees are common, like Silicon Valley, Boston, New York and even emerging tech hubs like Columbus, Ohio—a city that, according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurship, has "more new businesses that grow to 50 or more employees in their first 10 years than any major metropolitan area in the country."

Pursuing an MSCS online is an intelligent choice for those who want the career boost and need maximum flexibility. Case Western Reserve's Online MS in Computer Science program is accessible no matter where you live. You can take advantage of Case School of Engineering's leading-edge computer science curriculum without moving across the country or spending hours each week commuting to and from classes. Designed with working professionals in mind, MSCS students can continue working full time, earning income, and accruing experience while pursuing their master's degree.

"You don't need to have majored in computer science in your undergraduate studies to qualify for admission."

Think carefully about how not having a master's in computer science might hinder your job prospects. Credentials are essential, and promotions often come down to candidates with very similar work experience. If only one of those candidates has a master's degree, the choice is more straightforward.

2. Who is a good fit for an online master's degree in computer science?

Top-rated MSCS programs often target experienced professionals who work in a range of computation specializations. Many students begin Case School of Engineering's Online MS in Computer Science program with job titles like:

  • Application developer
  • Computer network architect
  • Computing systems analyst
  • Computer systems manager
  • Database administrator
  • Researcher
  • Security analyst
  • Software architect
  • Software developer
  • Web developer

Some want to advance in their current fields, while others are career switchers looking to move into new computer science jobs or specializations. What they have in common is a desire to gain the technical knowledge and soft skills to solve bigger, more complex real-world challenges.

However, keep in mind that you can enroll in an MSCS program without having previous work experience in the above roles or programming. You don't need to have majored in computer science in your undergraduate studies, but you do need to have substantial foundational knowledge of computer science to qualify for admission and to keep up with your MSCS peers.

In particular, students should have knowledge in data structures, algorithms, and at least one of the following:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Computer Architecture
  • Computer Networks
  • Database Systems
  • Operating Systems and Concurrent Programming
  • Programming Language Concepts
  • Software Engineering

3. How long does it take to complete an online master's degree in computer science?

The answer varies by institution. There are two-year online degree programs and accelerated online computer science master's programs that take just one year to complete. Students in part-time MSCS programs with very flexible course schedules may need three or more years before meeting their programs' degree requirements.

Case Western Reserve's 100% online Master of Science in Computer Science program lasts just five semesters, provided students take at least two courses (totaling six credit hours) per semester. Because Case Western Reserve runs academic terms in the spring, summer and fall, the MSCS program can be completed in just under two years. All classes in the online MSCS curriculum are delivered via a blend of self-paced coursework and live virtual classes. Courses aren't interdependent, which means students can complete them in any order.

"The value of a master's-level computer science degree transcends salary."

However, the weekly commitment required to earn a Master of Science in Computer Science online or on-campus may be the more important consideration. MSCS candidates at Case Western Reserve University spend an average of 50-60 minutes in live sessions each week (during which they confer with professors, attend live reviews or complete lab work) and additional time watching recorded lectures. Most also need two or three hours of study time per week per class to stay on top of the material, which means the average weekly commitment is about six to nine hours. That said, some online students need less study time while others need more. Only you know how much bandwidth you have and whether now is the right time to enroll in a master's degree program.

4. What can you do with an online master's degree in computer science?

The MSCS is a versatile degree that opens doors. People often associate this academic pathway with careers in software development, cloud computing or computational research, but earning an online master's in computer science can take you in many other directions. You could become a senior software engineer making $122,000 or a senior software architect making $124,000 after completing an MSCS. You might also have titles such as:

Be aware that the job outlook reported on many websites—that jobs in computer science will grow by 15% over the next decade—is only valid for computational research roles (i.e., computer scientists). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) breaks down job growth statistics for computer careers by function and by discipline, so figuring out how strong your prospects will be in the future requires additional digging. Employers will create more than 500,000 new jobs for computer and information systems professionals between now and 2029, but only 5,000 of those will be for computer researchers. For perspective, they'll create nearly 90,000 positions for computer systems analysts and information security analysts in the same period.

The career outlook for MSCS graduates can also vary quite a bit by geography. For example, in the past 12 months, over 141,000 job listings in Ohio and nearby states looked for candidates with technical skills related to computer science—especially in artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science, software engineering and cybersecurity.

5. How much will you earn with an online master's degree in computer science?

The figures above are averages calculated using self-reported data and are subdiscipline specific, but they can help you estimate how earning an MSCS might affect your earning potential. There is plenty of other data that backs up the assertion that you'll make more with a master's in computer science. For instance, those with computer science bachelor's degrees earn an average salary of about $86,000 per year. The Master of Science in Computer Science is associated with an average salary close to $104,000 per year.

"The ideal MSCS candidate has experience working with data structures and algorithms."

Of course, the value of a master's-level computer science degree transcends salary. For those whose career goals are to become researchers or work in academia, this degree is a necessary stepping stone to earning a PhD in computer science or a related field such as Big Data or robotics. It's also a must-have credential for anyone who wants to work in emerging or niche areas of computer science. Most importantly, pursuing an online master's in computer science builds a robust professional network (in class and via student groups and alumni groups like the Case Alumni Association) that can lead to future opportunities.

6. How much does an online master's in computer science cost?

Most high-ranking online MSCS graduate programs cost between $40,000 and $60,000, comparable to the cost of programs delivered on campus. Case Western Reserve's 30-credit online MSCS costs $1,939 per credit hour, which adds up to $58,170 total tuition. That's a considerable sum, but the ROI of a computer science master's is sizable. The online MSCS offered by Case School of Engineering is a high-touch, hands-on program developed by faculty members at the forefront of innovation and leadership in computer science. Quantifying benefits like these is more complex than subtracting the cost of an MSCS from future earnings, but it is worthwhile when your goal is to choose the best possible online master's degree program.

Additionally, most students don't pay the full sticker price for their degrees. MSCS candidates take advantage 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.

Finally, it's worth noting that, contrary to popular belief, online programs do not cost less than on-campus programs. The best online programs cost more because they require support staff to ensure everything runs smoothly. High-quality online programs also tend to keep class sizes small, so online students receive the same access to their professors as on-campus students.

7. What are the prerequisites for an online master's in computer science?

All institutions approach the MSCS differently. Some online programs welcome students new to computer science. Others only admit applicants with undergraduate degrees in computer science or other STEM disciplines, exemplary GPAs and GRE scores, and years of work experience in technical fields like computer engineering, network security and cryptography. Case Western Reserve's approach falls somewhere in the middle. Case School of Engineering's admissions guidelines are flexible but exacting. Prospective students don't need an undergraduate degree in computer science to apply but should have an academic or professional background in computers and technology that permits them to do the work required in the program.

The ideal online MSCS candidate has experience working with data structures and algorithms and knowledge related to either software engineering, artificial intelligence, computer architecture, networking, operating systems, programming languages or database systems. Some applicants take additional courses to prepare before enrolling. Others gain the knowledge necessary to succeed in the MSCS program by working in STEM fields. If you're unsure whether your background meets the above criteria, consider that the Case School of Engineering admissions committee takes into account academic history, your personal statement (or "statement of impact") and professional goals when reviewing applications.

After reading this far, you may still have questions. Pursuing a graduate degree online can be a monumental undertaking—especially for students who continue working full time while completing their studies. There's no doubt earning a master's in computer science will positively impact your professional prospects and your lifetime earning potential. Still, it's in your best interest to scrutinize all options.

Fortunately, you don't have to do it alone. Case Western Reserve's enrollment advisors are available via email at onlinemscs@case.edu and phone at 216.859.9922 to answer your questions and provide any additional information you need to make the best decision for your career.

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