As technology’s effects continue to shape every aspect of life, graduates with a degree in computer science (CS) continue to be in high demand. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job growth rate for software developers, information security analysts, computer systems analysts, database administrators and web developers, is expected to grow much faster than most occupations in other fields.
These are also some of the highest paying jobs.
If a bachelor’s degree in CS leads to high demand and salaries, does this mean that an advanced degree in CS could lead to even greater demand, higher salaries, and increased opportunities for promotion?
Here’s what you need to know if you’re considering going back to school.
How Will an Advanced CS Degree Affect My Pay Scale and Promotion Opportunities?
According to a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average starting salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree in CS is $68,103 USD. The average starting salary for someone with a master’s degree in CS in $82,275 USD.
Akeel Laila is a software architect at ASML (a San Diego-based manufacturer of big machines that help make small computer chips) and earned a Master of Science in CS (Embedded Software Engineering) at Carnegie Mellon University. “As you might expect, pay and promotions are impacted by many factors, such as years of experience and performance displayed on the job,” Laila said.
And he believes that your level of education is also a factor that employers consider. “An individual with an advanced degree, such as a master’s degree, would possess certain skillsets that his or her peers with just a bachelor’s degree might lack — and often, the lack of an advanced degree can act as a brake on how far one can rise in an organization.”
This may be due, at least in part, to the fact that grad students gain not only more knowledge, but also have the opportunity to participate in graduate research projects.
Partho Nath, Engineering Manager at Netomi (a machine intelligence company scaling customer service with Conversational AI in Silicon Valley) has a PhD in CS from Penn State. “Those with an advanced degree in CS can earn substantially larger salaries than those without,” he said.
“Many companies feel more comfortable trusting advanced-degree holders to take on leadership positions, as well as more complex projects, which explains faster upward career mobility.”
In fact, according to Gene Locklear, senior artificial intelligence research scientist at Entrust Solutions (a technology solutions, IT managed services, and staff augmentation provider with offices in Norfolk, NJ and New Orleans, LA), an advanced degree in computer science can result in $30,000 USD more a year.
But, he doesn’t think it is necessarily a requirement for career success. “If you have ambitions to lead a team of programmers or rise to a management position, an advanced degree may be especially useful, though it is not always necessary,” Locklear said.
Will an Advanced Degree Give Me a Competitive Advantage?
There may be certain factors that determine if you’ll gain a clear advantage from having an advanced degree. Mark Herschberg is the CTO at San Francisco-based Averon (which developed the world’s first fully automatic mobile identity verification standard), and an instructor at MIT. He has both bachelor’s and graduate degrees from MIT in EE/CS. Herschberg believes that a master’s degree tends to be valuable in one of these three ways:
- Helps you stand out among a pool of applicants (but in a market with near zero unemployment that's less of a concern).
- If the school has a good reputation it provides a strong signal. If you already have a bachelor’s degree from a good school you have the signal already. This only helps if the graduate program has a much better reputation than your undergrad program. In the US, we commonly see foreign students do this to obtain a degree from a school known in the US.
- If it's specialized work that is less likely to be covered at the undergraduate level. For example, in a job focusing on computer vision or machine learning, as opposed to simply writing code, graduate work in that field helps you stand out and get higher pay for the specialized work.
However, Herschberg said work experience in the area is usually just as important as having a degree. “Generally, the degree will help you get a job, and some of those jobs may be higher paying if they are specialized,” he said. “ However, for a job such as software developer, the graduate degree itself isn't providing much extra value.”
Also, the importance of an advanced degree may vary by company and field. Peter Pezaris is the CEO of CodeStream (a New York-based company that helps development teams build, share, and retain knowledge about their codebase).
Pezaris, who is a serial entrepreneur in the tech space (Glip, Multiply and Commissioner.com), has undergraduate degrees in CS and Applied Mathematics from Carnegie Mellon University. “While I am certain it matters in certain fields — academia, government, etc. — when it comes to companies in Silicon Valley, or for startups in general, an advanced degree is not a factor companies consider as foundational,” Pezaris said.
He believes that your work product is more important than any degree.
“In fact, you can be hired at Google just on the basis of your skills without any degree at all.” He does admit that at comparable skill levels, someone with more degrees may initially command a higher salary, but doesn’t think degrees are a determining factor when companies are considering employees for promotions, etc.
His view is shared by John Li — co-founder of PickFu.com (a San Francisco-based e-commerce SAS crowdsourced survey tool), who has a Master of Science in CS from the University of Washington. “At a macro level, you absolutely do not need an advanced degree in computer science,” Li said. At most mainstream tier 1 tech companies, he believes that experience and soft skills are more important than the degree.
“However, between two specific candidates with exactly the same experience and skills — the individual with the higher degree will get paid slightly better than the one with the lower degree.”
So, if you’re applying for an entry level position, he said it won’t really matter. “However, if you're aiming for a director position or higher, it might be advantageous to show that you're committed to learning in this field, and this is satisfied by having an advanced degree.”
What Advanced Degree Should I Get?
If you decide to pursue an advanced degree, the first thing Herschberg wants you to remember is that CS is not software engineering. “Computer science, in a research setting of a college, is about how systems work; software engineering is about writing code.” The two may be related, but he said they’re quite different.
“It's akin to people who design cars in the R&D group of an automotive company and people who build cars out of kits — the first is more theory based and the latter is about making it work in the field.”
Ok, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, Herschberg said you should choose your advanced degree based on what interests you. “If it's a specialized field like data analytics, it that can lead to new opportunities — potentially with higher pay; however, a general degree like computer science doesn't add much value.”
However, Nath disagrees. “A Master’s Degree in CS has an intense focus on the science behind the engineering, and trains students on how to think when a new problem inevitably presents itself,” he said. “For this reason, I think a Master’s Degree in computer science is one of the more beneficial degrees.”
Li also believes that CS might be the best bachelor and advanced degree to start with. “This is due to the broad exposure that you can receive in multiple fields across technology — data, software, IS, AI, etc. — and from there, you can specialize in what you want — which will help dictate what your passion is.”
Show Me the Money!
If your passion is making as much money as possible, Pezaris has some advice. “Developing software is typically where the most money is made, and if you are a rockstar, you can really make money like a lawyer,” he said. “My view is the best opportunities will be related to combining a Master’s Degree in CS with software engineering, that is, a strong theoretical foundation with practical implementation.”
Locklear recommended computer/network security and software engineering, if you’re getting an MS primarily to increase your earning potential. “On the other hand, if you’re drawn to AI, pursue that; if you’re drawn to the intersection between technology and medicine, choose bioinformatics.”
It's also a good idea to consider the ever-changing world we live in when trying to decide on a degree. Eliza Du, Ph.D. is CEO of Integem (a Cupertino, CA company that provide an AI-based holographic augmented reality platform) and a former director of engineering at Qualcomm.
Du has also been a professor at Purdue University and the U.S. Naval Academy, and holds over 20 patents. She recommended selecting courses that are future forwarding. “For example, instead of choosing data analysis courses, you may want to take AI courses,” Du said.
Fortunately, CS departments frequently open new tracks. “Check those new degree tracks out first, because they often represent the next trend in this area.”
Your School Really Does Matter
Regardless of your major, Du said one decision is vitally important. “Definitely don’t waste your money/energy to buy an advanced CS degree from diploma mills,” she warned. If the school isn’t reputable, the degree won’t provide anything except perhaps student loan debt.
This doesn’t mean you have to attend an Ivy League school, but realize that the school itself plays a vital role when evaluating your return on investment. “Yes, it matters where you go to school, to some extent, because the relationships and the network you develop will likely be sources of ideas and employment,” Pezaris explained.
“Being at MIT or Carnegie Mellon opens some doors to great opportunities, as opposed to a school that does not attract great faculty and is not known for its innovation culture.”
That’s why Locklear recommended choosing a program that is both regionally accredited and accredited by the Accreditation Board of Education and Technology. “Potential employers and professional organizers are not likely to take your advanced degree seriously without this,” he warned.
Here’s What Else You Want to Know
And if you’re considering a program simply to gain knowledge, there may be other alternatives. “For example, if you're doing it to learn, you might be able to learn the material through online courses, books, or other means that cost less,” Herschberg said.
Also, while you want to look at a degree that will provide skills that won’t be obsolete in the near future, this shouldn’t be your own reason for choosing a particular degree. Li advises against choosing a “hot” degree just because it’s trendy. “Choose what you want to specialize in because the best professionals are those who have put the time in, but are also passionate about their field,” he said.
“By focusing on a topic you find interesting, you'll be more driven to put in the effort to master the subject and uncover better opportunities for growth, both in your first job and beyond.”
Project work and internships can also be a tremendous help. “Students that align their degree with a research project and industry experience from an internship will put themselves on the fast-track for success,” said Nath. “The knowledge gained from working in real-life problems is a significant market differentiator.”
Du agreed and recommended practicing and doing hands on projects. “If possible, contribute to related open source communities.” She also recommended sharing your projects publicly. “This will help you gain a reputation and get constructive suggestions from people in the field to help you grow,” Du explained. “And it helps you to build your professional networks and recognition before you even graduate.”
She also recommended that you learn how to learn. Everything you learn will be outdated sooner or later, particularly in technology. “So, it is not just about getting a pass grade in a subject — it’s more about learning how to learn.”
While students often like to jump from undergrad right into a graduate program, this isn’t always the best approach. Before you decide to get an advanced degree, Laila said you should first get to know what a career in CS actually looks like.
“So take a break from school after your bachelor’s, get at least a few years of professional experience under your belt, and then ask yourself where you want to go next,” he advised. "This on-the-job learning will stand you in good stead when choosing your specific master’s program, ensuring it is tailored towards your specific professional goals.”
And there’s another advantage to working first. “Many companies (including ASML) offer scholarship programs to their employees who are looking to earn an advanced degree, helping offset the cost of going back to school,” Laila said.