Computer Science Degrees: Skills and Specializations
Find out what to expect from a computer science degree program, and how to tell if you're suited to the subject, and what careers you could go on to.
While it may be perceived as the preserve of a small group of specialists, we would do well, think Professor Bill Freeman, Associate Department Head of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Professor John Guttag, a current professor and former head of department, at MIT, to acknowledge the wide reaching significance of computer science.
“Computer science is a foundational science, like mathematics. It provides a way to understand something that permeates almost every aspect of modern life. In a modern society every educated person should have some knowledge of the field.”
Professors Liz Sonenberg and Alistair Moffat (Head of Information Systems and Head of the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering respectively at the University of Melbourne) agree: “Information-based tools and devices are now fundamental in education, medicine, finance, communication, and entertainment.
"None of them would have been possible without the creative energy and analytical skills of the teams of creative people that conceived, designed, and built them.
"All of those teams included computer scientists, specialists in algorithms and information; and software engineers, professionals who develop large software systems. Together they have built – and continue to build – a new way of life, the ‘information society’."
Is computer science for you?
Despite its universal significance, like any subject there are those who are better suited to it than others. What kind of person, then, would be a good match for computer science?
“Someone who enjoys solving problems, and who can think analytically, can do well at computer science,” comment Professors Freeman and Guttag. “The study requires mathematical aptitude, but mostly an ability to organize and to think both creatively and logically.”
These sentiments are echoed by Professors Sonenberg and Moffat. “To succeed in computer science you need to be able to think in a careful and systematic way, and you also need to have a strong creative streak, In other words, you need to be able to work with both sides of your brain.”
They add that “an openness to trying new things” is also a prerequisite, given the fast moving nature of the subject.
Both pairs also agree that it is a subject that is international in focus. “Computer science graduates have an internationally recognized qualification – and so can change jobs and countries with ease. This opens up not only great career options, but wonderful lifestyle choices as well,” reflect the Melbourne pair.
The Boston-based duo add that as well allowing you international scope career-wise, it is also well suited to international students: “In many cases, international students can master the mathematics and computer languages used in computer science before they completely master English.”
Choosing a specialization
This is a broad subject area that lends itself to a raft of specializations. The core of the subject at undergraduate level at MIT includes algorithms, programming languages, organizing and retrieving data, and applications, as well as a branch of mathematics known as ‘discrete mathematics’ – the mathematics of countable things.
On top of a selection of core IT subjects which differs in breadth according to one’s specialization, students at the University of Melbourne can choose to major in informatics, computing & software systems, and geomatics (focussing on spatial measurement and analysis), amongst others.
Specializations at the academic level of course translate into options in the professional sphere. And – potential computer scientists will be pleased to hear – demand. “In the UK one in 20 UK workers is employed in the IT & Telecoms workforce and there is further demand.
And in the latest Australian figures available there were more vacancies for ICT professionals than there were for business, finance and human resource professionals,” state Sonenberg and Moffat, citing official government figures.
An undergraduate degree in the subject alone, assert Freeman and Guttag, will stand you in good stead in the employment market: “There are many good jobs available to people with undergraduate degrees in computer science.
There is a strong, long-term need for programmers in small and large companies alike. In addition, an undergraduate degree in computer science provides training in analytical thinking that can be a foundation for careers in other areas that require graduate study, such as management, law, and even medicine.
“The need for skilled computer scientists will continue to grow. As electronic data accumulates and processors are embedded in more and more devices, the need for people who can build sophisticated software will become ever more pressing.”
As Freeman and Guttag suggest, this is not a subject that will become irrelevant any time soon. What, then, does the future hold?
“Increasingly, computers are merging into our physical environments – think of the computing power and connectivity in your phone, or other mobile devices – all creating a massive ‘information space’,” declare Sonenberg and Moffat. “Taming the complexity of how these devices will interact with each other and with us is a challenge for computer science.”
Freeman and Guttag see the academic subject itself becoming more multifaceted, which will have a knock-on effect in the real world: “All sorts of interdisciplinary studies in computer science will emerge, and are emerging now.
"One can study bio-informatics, computation applied to biology and genetics, computational physics, numerical simulations of physical processes, computational finance, modelling and predicting financial markets.”
This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in April 2020