Computer Science Careers: 2021 Guide to Career Paths, Options & Salary

Computer Science Careers: 2021 Guide to Career Paths, Options & Salary
Imed Bouchrika by Imed Bouchrika
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

In the academic period 2017-18, the number of degrees conferred in the field of computer science was 79,598. More than 40 years earlier, in the academic year 1970-71, only 2,388 individuals received a degree in computer science (NCES, 2020). This increase in graduates shows the growing importance of computer science and its continued relevance.

Today, computer science has become an umbrella major and has its own specializations and concentrations. These lead to the different career pathways available to computer science graduates today. In this article, we explore what options are available for a computer science career.

Computer Science Careers Table of Contents

  1. Why pursue a career in computer science?
  2. Computer Science Career Outlook
  3. Required Skills for Computer Science
  4. How to Start Your Career in Computer Science
  5. How can I advance my career in computer science?
  6. Alternative Career Options for Computer Science

Computer science has four degrees, including a certificate in the subject: associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate. Most jobs in the field require a bachelor’s degree, although there are appealing roles that only need an associate’s degree or even a certificate. There are certifications in various areas of computer science, such as cybersecurity, project management, and data science.

The primary skill that any student of computer science learns is programming. This core skill entails familiarization with one or more programming languages. Among the popular languages used by programmers are JavaScript, HTML, Python, and CSS. Mathematics, of course, is an essential skill in computer science, as computing engages in numerical formulas. Apart from such technical skills, computer science careers require general skills like teamwork and communication.

Below, we look at why a career in computer science is worthwhile, computer science degree requirements, and how to start and advance a career in computer science.

Why pursue a career in computer science?

A career in computer science opens numerous career pathways. With just a bachelor’s degree, a job seeker can get into coding and programming. But the employment options for computer science majors extend beyond that. They can go into technical writing, software development and engineering, systems management, network administration, and even cybersecurity.

There is a high-income potential to be found in the field of computer science, especially for the top computer scientists of the world. The median pay just for computer support specialists goes over the $50,000 threshold. And computer network architects even have a median pay of $116,780 (BLS, 2021).

median pay, computer network architects

Computer Science Career Outlook

Computing is part of nearly everything we do nowadays. Challenges in this field can range from the mundane to the complex. It is also a big part of different innovations, such as the development of an AIDS vaccine and the human genome project (Computer Science Department, 2021).

In general, demand for computer and information technology occupations is predicted to grow 11% from 2019 to 2029 in the US. This advancement is much faster on average compared to occupations in other fields (BLS, 2021). But perhaps it is because of that immense surge in demand that there would be 1.4 million jobs needing to be filled.

In 2019, only 47,906 computer science degrees were awarded. This figure is projected to go up by 8.11% in the coming years (DataUSA, 2021). Such is an optimistic sign though there is still a long way to go before the job gap is filled.

Job RoleProjected Job Growth (2019-2029)Median Pay
Computer and Information Research Scientists15%$126,830
Computer Network Architects5%$116,780
Computer Programmers-9%$89,190

Computer Support Specialists8%$55,510

Computer Systems Analysts7%$93,730

Database Administrators10%$98,860

Information Security Analysts31%$103,590

Network and Computer Systems Administrators4%$84,810
Software Developers22%$110,140

Web Developers and Digital Designers8%

$77,200

Required Skills for Computer Science

Computer science is more than just being able to use a computer. It also entails cloud computing, data collection and storage, and information security (BLS, 2021). A wide array of skills is required of an individual in any of the professions in computer science. Particularly, one has to be learned in coding and programming. There are language requirements in this regard, but it varies from organization to organization. Apart from essential skills, there are general skills, such as teamwork, leadership, and communication. A computer science professional works with a team, thus, making those skills as important as computing skills.

Essential Skills for Computer Science

  1. Programming. An essential part of computer science is programming. There are numerous languages around but the most common and in-demand programming languages now are:
    • JavaScript
    • Python
    • HTML
    • CSS
    • Java
    • SQL
    • NoSQL
    • C#
    • Rust
    • Perl
    • Go
  2. Mathematics. Computing and mathematics go hand-in-hand. They aid computer scientists in dealing with formulas and in solving problems that come up in coding and development (Western Governors University, 2019).
  3. Data analysis. Jobs in information technology and computing require analytical skills. This is why job applicants need to demonstrate that they know and understand the importance of data analysis. It informs critical decisions, thus a computer scientist needs to understand numbers and interpret them accurately (Western Governors University, 2019).
  4. Systems thinking. Computing involves systems and a computer science professional has to understand how systems work. They must analyze, design, implement, and evaluate a computer system, process, program, or component to arrive at the best solution (Champlain College, 2021).
  5. Algorithms. Algorithms may be abstract but they are a foundational skill, according to Ian Gorton of Northeastern University. These are the building blocks of programming and familiarity with these can be attractive to employers. This is because many companies and organizations look for individuals who can create or modify algorithms (Stobierski, 2020).
  6. Cloud-related skills. So many things are in the cloud nowadays. These include data, storage, and security. As such, there are many employers who look for computer science individuals who can help them navigate the complex parts of the cloud (Stobierski, 2020). Among the skills that are related to the cloud are:
    • Cloud platform expertise
    • Services evaluation
    • Integrated environment management
    • Database and network maintenance
    • Data migration
    • Security

General Skills

  1. Project management. For projects big and small, companies assign project managers. These individuals are responsible for planning, budgeting, and assigning tasks (Stobierski, 2020). A job applicant who can show that he or she can oversee a project from ideation to completion will be high in the sights of any employer.
  2. Communication. It is no secret that for any role, communication skill is a requirement. If candidates are able to express themselves in writing succinctly, that is well and good. But they have to be able to do the same face to face. Putting away an electronic device during a discussion and making eye contact are especially important markers of a good communicator (Flavin, 2019).
  3. Teamwork. Computer science professionals often work with a team. And even those who may work alone have to collaborate with other individuals at times to complete a project. Professionals should share their ideas well, collaborate as needed, and understand teammates’ and other people’s perspectives (Indeed Editorial Team, 2021).

How to Start Your Career in Computer Science

A bachelor’s degree can open up myriad choices in the computer science career path. However, getting into a degree program is already challenging in itself. For example, the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (Office of Admission, 2020) requires applicants to have the following:

Logistics Careers Median Salaries and Demand

RoleSalaryDemand
Freight forwarder$43,7707%
Logistician$76,2704%
Transportation planner$87,2602%
Supply chain manager$96,3904%
Purchasing manager$125,9404%
Logistics engineers$76,2703%
Production, planning, and expediting clerk$49,6403%
Airline and commercial pilots$130,4405%
Delivery truck drivers and driver/sales workers$34,3405%
Shipping, receiving, and inventory clerks$35,260-1%
Source: BLS, 2021; O*NET OnLine, 2021

And while advanced mathematics courses are not required, they can still work to the advantage of an applicant.

What can I do with an associate’s degree in computer science?

Computer Programmer

An associate’s degree in computer science or network administration can pave the way for a computer programming job. This role means that a person is responsible for overseeing network and systems administration. It also entails adapting to or specializing in programs or software suites.

Median salary: $89,190 per year

Computer Network Support Specialist

A person aspiring to work around computers can get a job as a computer network support specialist with an associate’s degree. The responsibilities of the job range from security system development to networking problems diagnostics.

Median salary: $65,450 per year

Web Developer

For those who want to work as web developers, an associate’s degree can help land them a job. For this, they need knowledge of coding and of security programs. That means they have to be familiar with at least one programming language.

Median salary: $77,200 per year

What can I do with a bachelor’s degree in computer science?

Machine Learning Engineer

AI and data science in the enterprise field have given rise to the role of machine learning engineer. The main responsibility in this job is to produce the machine learning models developed in a lab. In a nutshell, they are programmers who have an in-depth knowledge of modeling.

Median salary: $120,161 per year

Software Developer

Software developers are the minds behind computer programs and applications. But their job does not end with creating the software—it continues with the maintenance and further development of updates and upgrades.

Median salary: $110,140 per year

Information Security Analyst

A strong grasp of cybersecurity is necessary for this role. This is because information security analysts are responsible for planning and implementing security measures to protect an organization’s networks and systems.

Median salary: $107,310 per year

Can you get a computer science job with just a certificate?

Yes, you can get a computer science job with just a certificate. Typically, roles and responsibilities like customer support, IT and network support, software testing, and writing test software accept candidates with a certificate in computer science. Additionally, it is possible to move on to bigger roles after you have accumulated experience and learned additional skills.

How can I advance my career in computer science?

There are industrial and academic roles that require candidates to hold a degree higher than a bachelor’s. This means they must either have a master’s degree or a doctorate. In some cases, a master’s degree would suffice but certain roles necessitate a Ph.D. If you are looking to take on the challenges of graduate studies, this information may help in your career development plan.

Master’s Degree Requirements

To apply for a master’s degree program, one must have completed a bachelor’s degree in computer science or similar. Certain universities like the Whiting School of Engineering of Johns Hopkins (2021) have prior education prerequisites as well:

  • 1 year calculus
  • 1 semester advanced math
  • 1 semester Java
  • 1 semester data structures
  • 1 semester computer organization

If an applicant is missing a prerequisite, he or she may still be admitted to a master’s program. But to comply, one has to take missing prerequisites at Johns Hopkins or at another accredited institution.

Doctorate Requirements

Those seeking a Ph.D. in computer science or in a related field like AI and Machine Learning and Bioinformatics would have to face stricter selection. The Department of Computer and Electrical Engineering & Computer Science of the Florida Atlantic University (2021) has the following MS to Ph.D. admission requirements:

  • Relevant Master’s degree
  • Programming proficiency
  • Calculus 2
  • Statistics course
  • Knowledge of data structures, operating systems, computer architecture, and algorithm design and analysis

Other factors such as academic performance, background, and professional experience may also be weighed by the admission committee.

Certifications

There are two valuable IT certifications that can take your professional career a long way. These are Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP) and Systems Security Certified Practitioner (SSCP) (Western Governors University, 2021).

Other beneficial certifications in security include ISA Certified Information Systems Auditor, ISACA Certified Information Security Manager, Certified Information Security Professional, and CompTIA’s Security+.

For cloud computing, professionals or job seekers can look at CompTIA, VMware, and Amazon Web Services certifications (Indeed Editorial Team, 2021).

What can I do with a Master’s in Computer Science?

Computer and Information Research Scientist

These scientists are concerned with finding innovative applications of new and existing pieces of technology. They are responsible for finding solutions to computing problems in science, medicine, business, and other areas. A computer and information research scientist also creates and improves computer software and hardware.

Median salary: $145,920 per year

Artificial Intelligence Engineer

Artificial intelligence engineers are schooled in programming algorithms used in developing and training AI models. They source data from different places to complete the job. These engineers are usually found in science, medicine, healthcare, manufacturing, and finance.

Research by AI expert and international consultant William A. Taylor has explored aspects of AI research that engineers can use readily. According to the author, AI has much in common with engineering—both use data guided by rules to achieve an end.

While the term “artificial intelligence” is generally defined as meaning the design of computers to think the way people do, Taylor points out that for engineering purposes, it is more accurately defined as a few software ideas that work well enough to be used. And as AI technology matures, computers will be able to provide actual design help. They will, in effect, serve as design apprentices, offering suggestions and handling actual parts of the design.

Median salary: $164,769 per year

The Booming Demand for AI and Related Talents

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Source: ZipRecruiter, 2020

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Cybersecurity Manager

Because it is a managerial position, it requires a master’s degree although one may rise to the position if he or she is exemplary and has demonstrated what it takes. This role requires the professional to devise strategies to prevent infiltrations or attacks by cybercriminals on an organization’s networks and systems.

Median salary: $134,260 per year

median pay, AI engineers

What kind of job can I get with a doctorate in computer science?

Research & Development Manager

A doctorate degree is desirable if you want to manage a government laboratory or government agency’s research and development portfolio. This role asks the individual to be responsible for researching, planning and developing, and deploying new programs or products.

Median salary: $143,764 per year

Bioinformatics Scientist

Bioinformatics scientists could build a research database where scientists could share biological data for various studies. They could also create tools or programs that can track and analyze patterns of disease across a country or globally. They could also be involved in developing personalized medications and in developing a program for protein analysis.

Median salary: $96,291 per year

Academic

The most common place to find a person with a PhD in computer science is academia. They are professors or instructors in four-year colleges or universities. They could even be advisors of research and development groups in the academic institution they are in.

Median salary: $117,100 per year

Which certification is best for computer science?

The best certifications for computer science are CCSP and SSCP. Although these are cybersecurity-focused, having these certifications can be beneficial even to computer science professionals not in a security position. These demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of security practices, making them trustworthy and reliable.

Other popular and industry-recognized certifications are awarded by CompTIA certifications. There are four series: Core, Infrastructure, Cybersecurity, and Additional Professional. These provide individuals with choices of certifications depending on their current career or career trajectory.

Vendors such as Amazon, VMware, and Cisco have their own industry certifications as well. Microsoft, IBM, and Google have their own certifications, too, although these are mostly focused on their products.

Alternative Career Options for Computer Science

If a computer science career is not your cup of tea despite majoring in computer science, there are many jobs available to you. These roles do not necessarily take you into the tech industry either.

What else can a computer scientist do?

Internet Marketing Specialist

Being a marketer in the digital age requires advanced knowledge of the ins and outs of the internet. A computer science degree can come in handy in this regard. This makes you well-informed of how to accurately and better reach the desired audience.

Median salary: $42,477 per year

Help Desk Support

A computer science degree, whether associate’s or bachelor’s, can help you in a job concerning help desks. With your know-how of computing and programming, you can assist individuals in resolving issues with their software or devices.

Median salary: $53,808 per year

Technical Writer

A technical writer is a professional information communicator. They make it easy to understand complex and technical information. Technical communicators are also the ones behind instruction manuals and how-to guides.

Median salary: $77,920 per year

Source: Glassdoor, 2021; Indeed, 2021; Salary, 2021

Computer Science: A Flourishing Field

Computer science is a flourishing field. The employment outlook, in general, is 11% and this growth is predicted to continue until 2029. Demand for various jobs in the sector is high and quite a few are even above the national average. Moreover, computer science salary is lucrative. There are jobs that pay more than $50,000 a year (the average median annual salary in the US is $51,168 per year, calculated on the assumption of a 52-week work year) (BLS, 2021). Plus, there are professions that breach the $100,000 a year mark.

Since computer science is a broad field, computer science professionals can focus on specializations, too. Because of that, it is important to set career goals early, as some professions in computer science require expertise or familiarity in specific areas.

But if being in the computer industry is not for you in the long run, there are options where a computer science major could come in handy. You can even consider changing track to internet marketing. As more things become entangled with computing, there will be more professional roles where a computer science degree would be beneficial.

Further, it should be noted that there is a gender gap in computer science as well as in engineering. A study by Ehrlinger and colleagues from Washington State University, Florida State University, Prairie View A&M University, and Austin State University touched on the topic.

The authors of the study observed that “women offered more stereotype-consistent ratings than did men of the intellectual characteristics of prototypes in CS (Study 1) and engineering (Study 2). Women also perceived themselves as less similar to the prototype than men did. Further, the observed gender differences in prototype perceptions mediated the tendency for women to report lower interest in CS&E fields relative to men.”

With the right intervention, females’ participation in both computer science and engineering could increase. Through this increase, there could be more talented individuals in these sectors who could contribute to their flourishing.

 

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