What Is the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Computer Programmer?

computer programmer major

Do you enjoy working with computers? Are you good at analyzing information and paying attention to details? Do consider troubleshooting technical issues an interesting challenge instead of a frustrating problem?

A career in computer programming could be for you.

Computer programmers write the codes that tell computers what to do. Their work creates:

  • the operating systems that allow computers to run
  • the applications that allow them to complete tasks
  • the games that entertain users

Without skilled computer programmers, we wouldn’t have the smartphones, tablets, or other user-friendly devices we have today. If computer programming sounds like a good career for you, earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science is the place to start.

What Is a Computer Programmer?

By now, most people understand that computers and software programs need code in order to work.  Computer code is a type of language that computers understand. For example, some common computer languages are Python and C++.

Computer programmers understand computer languages. In other words, they understand how to write the code that operates the software in question. The computer programmer is important because most people who use computers don’t read and write code. But the process isn’t as simple as it sounds. Users of computer apps, software, and websites understand how to operate the user interface. This is often visual in nature. However, the user interface would not work if the computer programmer had not written the code to make it work.

In this respect, the computer programmer can be likened to a translator. Because the computer programmer speaks the language of the computer or the software, the end-user does not have to know this language. Instead, the user sees a visual representation of the code. It is only important that the end-user understands how to use the visual representation of the code.

Here’s an example. A video game player can push a button on the video game  to access supplies, like food. The game player does not see the underlying computer code or language that operates the button. The game player only sees the on-screen button and pushes it to get what he or she wants from the game. Because the computer programmer wrote the code that operates the game’s buttons, the game player does not need to know how to write code to play the game.

Best Degree Path for Becoming a Computer Programmer

College for Aspiring Computer Programmers

Aspiring computer programmers can learn computer programming languages independently. They may acquire certifications in specific programming languages or vendor-specific programming products. In fact, some companies looking to hire computer programmers may require their programmers to be certified in particular areas. However, employers often seek workers who have a formal college education to back up the skills they claim to have.

Most professionals in computer programming have a bachelor’s degree, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Some have an associate’s degree. Computer science, which happens to be one of the top 10 degrees for the future, is a popular choice for aspiring computer programmers. Other computer-related majors are also acceptable.

College students in undergraduate computer science programs learn some programming languages, like Java, through their coursework. More importantly, aspiring programmers develop the fundamental skills needed to understand programming languages. This means that they can easily learn new languages in the future, according to the BLS. Also, computer science students learn to debug software programs. They can also get experience writing code through both coursework and internship experiences.

Specific Degrees for Computer Programmers

Most computer programmers have some sort of computer programming degree, usually a bachelor’s degree. However, there are certain disciplines that prepare a person to become a programmer. Most of the time, a person who becomes a computer programmer has studied mathematics, information systems, or computer science. Additionally, there are some kinds of computer programming jobs that are career-specific.

Computer programmers who want to pursue careers in this field will often choose to go to a specialized art school to study video game development. Within this computer programming degree’s coursework, students take classes in computer programming. They might also take classes in:

  • graphic design
  • mythological storytelling
  • theater
  • character design
  • art history

In this respect, the degree that  aspiring computer programmers get prepares them for a specific career, such as working in the video game industry. With this being said, some employers will hire people who don’t have a degree in computer programming. Depending on the demands of the job, the person hired may have a degree in business, accounting, or marketing, for example.

However, the prospective employee still would have taken a number of classes in computer programming. This person might even have completed an internship. During an internship, the computer programmer ideally gained practical experience working with computer programming languages to enhance the skills learned in the classroom.

Best Degree Path for Becoming a Computer Programmer

Education Beyond the Bachelor’s Degree

While a degree in computer science or a related field is sufficient education for getting a computer programming job, long-term computer programmers never stop learning. As technology and programming languages evolve, professionals in this field must keep on top of changes. This is done through their own research or through continuing education opportunities.

Many computer programmers choose to seek special certifications to:

  • enhance their résumés
  • advance their careers
  • increase their appeal to potential employers

Some certifications are related to proficiency with particular programming languages, like JavaScript and Python. Others illustrate familiarity with programming products, platforms, or systems.

Aside from these certificate programs, many computer programmers find that their income improves substantially if they earn a master’s degree. Is it necessary to get an advanced computer programming degree in order to get a raise? According to Northeastern University, it is, or at least, it doesn’t hurt.

Most people understand that earning a degree equals higher pay. In light of this, many people have earned bachelor’s degrees. At one point in history, not as many people had degrees, so a bachelor’s degree was enough to allow a person to advance in his or her career. That is not the case today. At least 40% of millennials have already earned a bachelor’s degree.

Today, a bachelor’s degree alone no longer makes a job candidate stand out from competition. But fewer people have advanced degrees, such as a master’s degree in computer science. The difference in income for people with advanced degrees can be staggering. Earning a graduate-level degree can raise a person’s salary by $30,000 or $40,000 a year. In the computer science industry, this can translate into yearly incomes as high as six figures.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median annual wage for computer programmers is $89,190. The highest 10 percent of these earners, including those holding advanced degrees, earned a median annual wage of $146,050.

Another advantage that an advanced degree provides is a broader professional network. College campuses today are often a student’s first access to a more expansive professional network. Many times, employers will contact an academic department directly to advertise jobs. Sometimes, these jobs have already been advertised to the public. However, often only those in the know, those who are in the network, hear about these jobs. If the only people hearing about the job are the master’s students in a university’s computer science program, the competition for these jobs is dramatically lowered.

Best Degree Path for Becoming a Computer Programmer

Other Necessary Skills

It is a misconception, however, that earning a computer programming degree is enough for the computer programmer to get a job. Earning the degree can and will open doors for the programmer, and it’s often enough to land the programmer a first job in the industry, but it may not be enough for advancement.

Here’s why. Although most computer programmers work by themselves much of the time, they are not creating computer programs in a vacuum. In other words, there will be an end-user for the program. A human being will use the program that the programmer designs. Therefore, the computer programmer must understand:

  • how people think
  • how the program can solve the users’ problems
  • how to anticipate ways the program might be used in a business or personal setting.

The computer programmer may also be part of a team. As such, the computer programmer needs to possess soft skills like:

  • active listening
  • communication
  • critical thinking
  • problem-solving

According to the BLS, there are important qualities a computer programmer should possess to be successful in the industry and occupation. These skills include:

Analytical skills – A good computer programmer showcases strong analytical skills on a daily basis. As the occupation requires, a computer programmer must be able to understand complex instructions in order to create computer code. Being able to synthesize information and apply it to a challenge is a skill that can only be honed through hands-on experience. This experience may be developed both in and out of the classroom.

Concentration – The ability to focus for long stretches of time on the work is an important aspect of the role of a computer programmer. Attention must be focused as the computer programmer writes code and checks for existing errors.

Detail-orientation – While being detail-oriented is an essential soft skill for any occupation, it is particularly important to the role of a computer programmer. The job requires careful examination of code. One tiny mistake can be costly to the entire program. Being detail-oriented allows programmers to focus their attention on creating error-free code.

Strong troubleshooting skills – Since an important aspect of a programmer’s job is to find and fix code errors, having strong troubleshooting skills helps.

Sometimes, the computer programmer can learn these skills in an internship or in college classes. It is critical that the person who possesses a computer programming degree also has a certain number of soft skills. Often these skills are more difficult to develop, because they require a person to work in gray areas. In other words, computer programming might be based on mathematical principles, but human interactions aren’t so black and white.

The Job Outlook for Computer Programmers

According to the job outlook projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of computer programmers is currently on a decline. In fact, projections show employment for this occupation may decline by nine percent over the next eight to nine years. However, job prospects will be best for individuals with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Those with advanced degrees, such as a master’s in computer programming, and specialty knowledge in programming languages will see the best job prospects. Also, individuals who keep their knowledge current by learning the newest programming tools will greatly improve their job prospects.

So, why the decline in hiring computer programmers? BLS expects the hiring by some companies to take place in countries where wages are lower. The trend is ongoing and can create a limited employment growth for computer programmers in the United States. However, there is a high operation cost of managing projects overseas. In fact, sometimes the saving on lower wages is not enough to offset the cost of operation in another country. As a result, some companies are bringing back their programming jobs to the U.S.

Degree options with better job prospects than computer programming include software development and information security. If you’re nervous about the current decline of hiring computer programmers, you might consider a major in a closely related discipline, such as information security or software development. According to BLS, employment for information security analysts is projected to grow 31 percent over the next decade. A favorable job outlook is also anticipated for software developers. In fact, BLS reports a 22% job growth for this occupation over the next 10 years.

BDP Staff
June 2021

Related Resources:

Top 10 Degrees of the Future

5 Top Paying Jobs for Computer Programmers

20 Best Online Bachelor’s in Computer Science

Top 30 Affordable Online Bachelor’s in Computer Engineering Degrees

This concludes our article on the best degree path for becoming a computer programmer.

Brenda Rufener

Julie McCaulley

Carrie Sealey-Morris