What Is Computer Science?

Required coursework, job prospects, and average salaries for graduates

College students in computer lab
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Computer science is a broad field that touches nearly everything we encounter in our daily lives. Every cellphone app and computer program depends upon the expertise of a computer scientist. The systems that control airplanes, manage stock trades, guide missiles, and monitor health also rely on computer science. Computer scientists build the tools that allow us to accomplish tasks efficiently, accurately, and safely.

Key Takeaways: Computer Science

  • Computer scientists work with software systems to solve problems. Employment opportunities exist in tech companies, finance, government, the military, education, and many other areas.
  • The field draws heavily on math and logic, and majors will need strong skills in those areas.
  • The job outlook for the field continues to be strong, and mid-career salaries are typically in the low six figures.

What Do Computer Scientists Do?

To begin, computer scientists aren't the people you call when your internet router needs resetting or your printer stops communicating with your computer. Such tasks do not require a college degree and specialized training.

In broad terms, a computer scientist is a creative problem solver who works with software systems. While computer scientists may work in Silicon Valley or for a big well-known company like Google or Facebook, the reality is that nearly all organizations rely on the expertise of a computer scientist. A computer science degree can lead to a career in finance, manufacturing, the military, the food industry, education, or non profit work. Below are some of the types of jobs available to computer scientists:

  • Computer Programmer: This is a large area of employment for computer science majors, for nearly all businesses depend on customized software to collect and manage information. Programmers have expertise writing the code that makes software work.
  • Information Security Analysts: Large data breaches are often in the news, and companies can lose millions of dollars and customer trust when their databases are compromised. It's an information security analyst's job to protect an organization's network, systems, and information.
  • Software Developer: This is a high growth field with excellent job and salary prospects. Software developers, as the title suggests, create the applications or systems an organization needs to operate effectively.
  • IT Consultant: Many organizations don't know exactly how technology can help them manage data effectively, so they need an expert to help design and implement systems to meet their needs. This is the job of an IT consultant.
  • Technical Writer: If you have strong computer skills and writing skills, you're blessed with a rare combination that can lead to a successful career conveying technical information to readers in a clear, engaging way.
  • Educator: From grade school through university doctoral programs, schools and universities need instructors with computer expertise. Elementary and secondary education positions are likely to require certification, and college jobs typically require a doctoral degree.

What Do Computer Science Majors Study in College?

Computer science is heavily grounded in math and logic, so majors need to develop strengths in those areas. Majors will also learn how to write code in different computer languages such as C++ and Python, and they need to learn how to use some of the software tools that are essential to the field. Note that a BS program in computer science is likely to require more specialized math and science classes than a BA program. Typical coursework for a computer science major includes the following:

  • Statistics
  • Linear Algebra
  • Calculus
  • Discrete Mathematics
  • Data Structures and Algorithms
  • Computer Architecture
  • Operating Systems
  • Data Management
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Cryptography
  • Machine Learning

Computer science majors often specialize in their junior and senior years. Depending on their area of interest, students might take courses in areas such as such a signal processing, human-computer interaction, cybersecurity, game development, big data, or mobile computing.

Best Schools for Computer Science

Hundreds of colleges and universities offer a computer science major, but the schools below tend to top the national rankings because of their accomplished faculty, rigorous curriculum, impressive facilities, and strong placement records for both jobs and graduate programs.

  • California Institute of Technology: Caltech's impressive 3 to 1 student / faculty ratio means that computer science majors have lots of opportunities to work with their professors and conduct research. Located in Pasadena, California, the school is near numerous high tech companies including Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
  • Carnegie Mellon University: Located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, CMU awards about 170 bachelor's degrees in computer science each year, and the computer science faculty is both large and productive. The university is home to several institutes and departments of interest to computer science majors: Robotics Institute, Computational Biology Department, Machine Learning Department, and Human-Computer Interaction Institute.
  • Cornell University: Located in the beautiful Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York, Cornell is the largest of the eight prestigious Ivy League Schools. Computer science is the most popular major at the university, and each year about 450 students earn bachelor's degrees in computer and information science fields.
  • Georgia Tech: As a public university, Georgia Tech represents an amazing value for in-state students. The school has a five-year co-op option for students who want to gain significant hands-on experience, and the campus's location in downtown Atlanta means many work opportunities are nearby. Computer science is the most popular major at Georgia Tech with about 600 students earning a bachelor's degree annually.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT often tops the rankings for STEM fields in the US and the world, and like many schools on this list, computer science is the most popular undergraduate major. The major has several different tracks for students who have interests in electrical engineering, molecular biology, or economics and data science. Students will also find plenty of opportunities to conduct research for pay or credit through MIT's UROP program, and the school's location in Cambridge, Massachusetts places it near a host of high tech companies.
  • Stanford University: Located in California's Bay Area, Stanford University has connections to numerous companies in Silicon Valley where students can conduct internships, find summer work, or gain employment after graduation. Stanford awards over 300 bachelor's degrees in computer science each year, and the school has notable strengths in areas including robotics, artificial intelligence, and systems.
  • University of California Berkeley: Another Bay Area school, Berkeley's program in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) is home to over 130 faculty members, and it is affiliated with 60 research centers and labs. Faculty members and graduates of the program have founded over 880 companies. The program awards over 600 bachelor's degrees in computer science each year.

Average Salaries for Computer Scientists

Careers in computer science are so varied that salaries also span a wide range. PayScale.com presents the median early career salary for computer science majors as $70,700, and the median mid-career salary is $116,500. Different computer science specialties, however, have significantly different earning potential. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer support specialists have a median pay of $54,760 while computer network architects earn over twice that—$112,690. Other jobs fall in between. Information security analysts, for example, have a median pay of $99,730.

Nearly all jobs related to computer science pay higher than national averages for income, and the field as a whole is expected to grow by 11% in the coming decade.

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Grove, Allen. "What Is Computer Science?" ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-computer-science-5089378. Grove, Allen. (2021, January 29). What Is Computer Science? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-computer-science-5089378 Grove, Allen. "What Is Computer Science?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-computer-science-5089378 (accessed April 13, 2021).