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

An image of a computer scientist for our FAQ on What Is the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Computer Scientist

Do you enjoy working with numbers and computers?

Do you like the challenge of using logic to analyze and solve problems?

A career as a computer scientist could be the perfect choice for you

Computer and information research scientists, or simply computer scientists, are professionals in the field of computer and information technology. They design new technological solutions for computing problems in nearly every field and industry. They devise and revise the algorithms that control computers. They create new software, tools, and programming languages. Computer scientists earn six-figure salaries and enjoy favorable job prospects. But they must earn a formal education before they can begin this lucrative career.

How Do I Become a Computer Scientist?

The first step to fulfilling your dream of becoming a computer scientist is to earn an undergraduate degree in the field. Computer science school consists of first earning a Bachelor of Computer Science or Bachelor of Science in computer science degree. An undergraduate degree will prepare you for a career with the federal government, which employs more than 30% of all computer scientists.

Undergraduate degrees in computer science also equip you for various entry-level jobs in fields such as:

  • computer programming
  • software applications
  • web development The bottom line is that if you want to become a computer scientist, you’ll need to complete computer science schooling and earn a degree.

For more advanced roles in computer science, such as management roles or team leadership, computer scientists need advanced degrees. While some roles require master’s in computer science degrees, other positions call for doctorate degrees. A Ph.D. in computer science will qualify you for high-level management and research positions.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Computer Scientist?

Bachelor’s in Computer Science

Bachelor’s degree programs in computer science typically include a lot of coursework related to both mathematics and computers. Students should expect to put their math skills to work in subjects like:

  • calculus
  • statistics
  • trigonometry
  • linear algebra
  • discrete mathematics
  • analytical geometry
  • differential equations

Computer courses might include:

  • Algorithm Design and Analysis
  • Computer Security
  • Computer Systems Architecture
  • Database Administration and Management
  • Data Communication and Structures
  • Design and Artificial Intelligence
  • Ethics and Digital Technology
  • Information Technology
  • Operating Systems
  • Programming Methodology and Languages
  • Software Design and Artificial Intelligence

While earning a computer science degree, you will get to choose from a variety of electives and specializations in areas appropriate to the field. Some undergraduate computer science programs offer areas of focus in:

  • computer networking
  • operating systems
  • software testing

More theoretically minded students may choose areas of interest such as human-computer interaction or information theory. Other students might pursue new or emerging fields of computer science like:

  • artificial intelligence (AI)
  • computer graphics
  • real-time computing

The computer science major can lead to a versatile degree. Computer science bachelor’s degrees prepare students for diverse computer science and information technology careers. As indicated above, many CS graduates of bachelor’s degree programs pursue roles in government. These roles might include:

  • computer systems or information security analysts
  • hardware engineers
  • network architects
  • software developers

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Master’s in Computer Science

Outside the federal government, most computer scientist jobs require a master’s degree or higher. The master’s in computer science typically takes two to three years beyond the bachelor’s degree. The master’s in computer science is typically a terminal graduate degree that focuses on two category areas: theory and systems.

Theoretical courses emphasize topics like:

  • algorithms
  • graph theory
  • numerical analysis
  • theory of computation

Systems courses focus more on architectures and operating systems. Course topics may include:

  • database systems
  • networks
  • parallel architectures
  • software engineering

Graduates of master’s in computer science programs can pursue management-level roles in computer science or earn a Ph.D. in computer science programs.

Ph.D. in Computer Science

Though some jobs are open to graduates of bachelor’s degree programs, most computer scientist positions call for candidates with doctoral degrees, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. One of the best degrees for computer scientists is the Ph.D.

You should expect to spend four to six years in a doctoral degree program after you earn your bachelor’s degree. This will help you attain a research or high-level management position in:

  • academia
  • computer systems design
  • research and development
  • software publishing

To enter a Ph.D. program, you must hold at least a bachelor’s in computer science, or a closely related degree. However, most doctorate programs require an earned master’s in computer science.

A doctorate or Ph.D. in computer science builds on knowledge gained in bachelor’s or master’s degree programs. Early on in your doctoral education, you’ll take various courses in more general computer science studies. After the first couple of years in such a program, you can specialize in a field that interests you. You will complete research in that specialty. Specialty areas might include:

  • Human-computer interaction
  • Language and information technology
  • Machine learning
  • Robotics
  • Software engineering

How Long Does It Take to Become a Computer Scientist?

The time it takes to become a computer scientist depends on the education completed and the occupation you choose. For jobs with the federal government, you need a bachelor’s in computer science. Bachelor’s degrees traditionally take four years to complete. Master’s degrees take around two to three years beyond the bachelor’s degree. Doctorate degrees take between four and six years to complete.

Other Important Qualities for Computer Scientists

Once you know which degree to become a computer scientist best suits you, it’s important to evaluate other characteristics, skills, and qualities needed for the profession. Important qualities for successful computer scientists to have include:

  • Effective communication skills: Communication skills are important to any  career. In computer science, being able to effectively communicate is just as important. Computer scientists must deliver complex and technical information to a nontechnical audience at conferences or meetings. They must present their research in a manner that everyone grasps.
  • Interpersonal skills: As with communication skills, interpersonal skills are important for computer scientists working on or managing teams.
  • Logic: Using sound reasoning and logical thinking when working on algorithms is important to the role of a computer scientist.
  • Mathematical skills: Computer scientists need a strong grasp of advanced mathematical concepts and technical subjects that are connected to computing. Math skills can be honed in the classroom, though students should have a strong background in mathematics before they embark on the major and career.
  • Organizational skills: Computer scientists are researchers. They collect data, work with algorithms, and pay attention to small programming errors that can affect an entire project. To carry out these tasks, you must be a detail-oriented person with strong organizational skills.
  • Strong analytical skills: Computer scientists must be organized in their thinking and tasks to evaluate and determine research results. Strong analytical skills help computer scientists succeed on the job.

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How Much Money Can I Make as a Computer Scientist?

After you’ve completed the proper education for computer scientists, it’s important to evaluate how much money you can earn in this profession. The computer scientist profession is considered one of the highest-paying computer and IT occupations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), computer scientists earn a median annual wage of $126,830. The lowest 10% of earners in this occupation make less than $72,000, and the highest 10% make more than $194,000.

There are some industries that are more lucrative than others for computer scientists. BLS reports five top-paying industries for computer scientists.

  • Software publishers: $145,920
  • Research and development in engineering, life, and physical sciences: $140,000
  • Computer systems design services: $136,950
  • Federal government: $112,930
  • Colleges, universities, and professional schools: $82,220

Three of the top five industries for computer scientists offer higher-than-average wages across the board. Computer scientists working in software publishing, R&D in various sciences, and computer systems design services earn higher wages on average than those working in other fields.

But industry type is not the only factor impacting earnings for computer scientists. According to the Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics published by BLS, geographic location also impacts earnings. Five top-paying states for computer scientists and their reported annual mean wages are:

  • California: $150,830
  • Virginia: $146,830
  • Washington: $143,010
  • New York: $138,190
  • Oregon: $137,760

Larger metropolitan areas also pay higher-than-average wages for computer scientists. In fact, BLS reports the top-paying metro areas for this occupation as:

  • San Jose, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara (California): $170,890
  • San Francisco, Oakland, Hayward (California): $163,330
  • Portland, Vancouver, Hillsboro (Oregon): $150,090
  • Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue (Washington): $147,020
  • Washington, D.C. and Arlington, VA: $146,440

Other top-paying metro areas with annual mean wages higher than $140,000 include:

  • Phoenix, Mesa, and Scottsdale, Arizona
  • LA, Long Beach, and Anaheim, California

But you don’t have to live in a metropolitan area to earn good wages as a computer scientist. In fact, BLS reports that the highest-paying non-metropolitan area for this occupation is Northeast Virginia. In this area, computer scientists see an annual mean wage of $115,230. Take into consideration the lower cost of living in this area than in many major metro spaces and your earnings will stretch even more.

An image of a computer scientist for our FAQ on What Is the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Computer Scientist

What Is the Job Outlook for Computer Scientists?

Now that you’re aware of the computer science degree requirements, you should review the job outlook for this profession. According to BLS, a highly favorable job outlook is expected for computer scientists over the next decade. In fact, employment of computer and information research scientists is expected to grow 22 percent through 2030. This is much faster than the average growth for all occupations. BLS reports the average employment growth for all occupations as eight percent, and  13 percent for all computer occupations.

The highly favorable job outlook results in approximately 3,200 openings each year, on average, for this occupation. Most of these openings will result from the need to replace workers who exit the labor force through retirement or transfer to another occupation.

Other factors that will spur job growth for computer scientists have to do with the nature of the job. Since computer scientists work closely with technology, new advances, which are constantly emerging, will drive demand for computer scientists. The demand for new and better technology grows. As a result, more jobs will emerge for computer scientists.

There is also a growing emphasis placed on cybersecurity. In upcoming years, the demand for cybersecurity will result in increased job prospects for computer scientists with knowledge in this area. Businesses and organizations will continue their fight against cyberattacks. The search for new and innovative ways to prevent potential cyberattacks will result in the need to hire computer scientists.

Other emerging areas for computer scientists include programming languages and data collection. For example, computer scientists who create new programming languages designed to make software writing operate more efficiently will be in demand. Also, with the increasing need for businesses to gather data, computer scientists with data mining knowledge will be in demand.

Work Environment of Computer Scientists

According to BLS, approximately 31% of all computer scientists work for the federal government. The federal government is the largest employer for this occupation. Most computer scientists work full time. Some spend their days in laboratories, while others move to different locations or do most of their work online. As of 2020, BLS reports that computer and research scientists held about 33,000 jobs.

High earnings potential and plentiful job prospects help draw individuals  to this unique and lucrative field. If you’re trying to decide if you want to major in computer science, now is a great time to get started on your computer science degree. Graduates of computer science programs should face a favorable job outlook for the next 10 years, at least.

BDP Staff
January 2022

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This concludes our article on the best way to become a computer scientist.

Brenda Rufener
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