Computers have gone from being a novelty to an essential part of life in the span of a few short decades. It’s no wonder so many students now pursue an education in the field.
“Computer science programs have doubled and tripled in size,” says Eelke Folmer, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno. He’s been with the University of Nevada, Reno since 2006 and witnessed firsthand how interest in the department has grown over the years.
While computer science jobs can be engaging and lucrative, they aren’t for everyone. Keep reading to learn how to become a computer scientist and whether this career path is right for you.
How do I know if computer science is right for me?
Having an interest in computers is an obvious prerequisite for working as a computer scientist or in a similar occupation. Beyond that, “We do require a lot of math,” Folmer says.
Computer scientists typically focus on research. They may be involved in developing artificial intelligence, creating new computing languages or improving existing hardware. However, degrees in computer science can lead to a variety of occupations including data scientists, cybersecurity specialists and game developers.
Regardless of which specialty you choose, careers in computer science almost always require collaboration.
“You won’t find a job where you are the sole coder on a project,” Folmer explains.
That means being able to communicate and work as part of a team is essential to being a computer scientist today. “(In some ways,) those softer skills are more important than coding,” according to Folmer.
If you are looking for a position in which you can work solo, this might not be the right career path for you.
How to become a computer scientist
Students who are in high school should take math classes and consider taking computer or technology electives, if offered. However, a knowledge of coding isn’t required to enter a computer science degree program.
Your college courses will cover topics including computer science, data structure, digital design and programming. Many schools also provide the opportunity to complete an internship or otherwise gain hands-on experience in the field.
Students may also pursue research opportunities outside the classroom. The Computing Research Association maintains a website with information about conducting research as an undergraduate as well as tips for those planning to attend graduate school.
At the University of Nevada, Reno, computer science and engineering majors complete a capstone project that spans two semesters. “It’s incredible,” Folmer says. “That’s about the closest thing you can get to a job.”
On Innovation Day, students present their projects, and Folmer notes that many companies come to campus during the event to recruit graduates. Upon graduation, students may enter the workforce immediately or pursue further education.
About a third of computer and information research scientists are employed by the federal government, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Other jobs may be available at computer systems design or research and development firms. Software publishers and colleges may also hire computer scientists.
Education options: How long to become a computer scientist
Some computer scientist jobs require a bachelor’s degree while others will need at least a master’s degree. There are also Ph.D. programs for computer scientists, and those involved in advanced research may need this level of education.
That means that when it comes to how long to become a computer scientist, you should plan on at least four years in college, although it could be much longer if you attend graduate school.
While a computer science major may seem logical for computer scientists, some professionals study a related field such as information systems.
“Some people start out with computer science and then move into an information systems major,” according to Folmer.
Some content in the degree programs overlap although computer science is centered on math and theory while information systems focuses more on practical applications. Either way, you should expect to split your time between the lab and the lecture hall for your undergraduate classes.
According to a 2020 curriculum guide developed the by the professional organizations IEEE Computing Society and Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), students should have competency the following areas, among others, upon graduation:
- Algorithms and complexity
- Software development fundamentals
- Systems fundamentals
- Programming languages
- Discrete structures
- Social issues and professional practice
Careers in computer science
Working as a computer scientist is just one option for those who study this field in college. “With computer science, you can end up with different jobs,” Folmer says.
Careers in computer science include all the following and more:
- Data analyst
- Computer programmer
- Software developer
- Information security analyst
- Computer network architect
Those with work experience may eventually rise to the ranks of managers or executives in their firm.
The Computing Research Association notes that 60% of Ph.D. computer scientists work in industry while 30% find jobs in academia. A smaller number work in the government or start their own companies.
For those who want to improve their skills without committing to an advanced degree, many professional organizations offer courses, webinars and conferences for professional development.
Future of computer scientist jobs
The job market looks good for new graduates with computer science degrees. “We’re not graduating nearly enough students to meet demand,” Folmer says. That means job opportunities should be plentiful.
Computer scientist jobs are expected to grow 21% from 2021-2031, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s much faster than the average for all occupations.
Careers in computer science are likely to evolve in the years to come too. “Computer science, as a field, is really young, and that’s part of what makes it attractive,” Folmer says. “Who knows where it will be in 30-40 years.”
Given how fast technology has advanced in recent years, there’s a good chance that the computer scientists of tomorrow will be working on projects we couldn’t have dreamed about today.
Maryalene LaPonsie has been writing professionally for nearly 25 years and has extensively covered topics including education, personal finance, retirement and investing. Her work has been featured on U.S. News & World Report, Forbes Advisor, Money Talks News, MSN and elsewhere on the web.
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