BY Sydney LakeJuly 25, 2022, 1:49 PM
Illustration by Martin Laksman
If you’re a college student studying computer science, you’re already moving in the direction of a pretty fruitful career. The average salary for computer science graduates in 2021 was about $72,000. Compared with other majors, this was the highest salary projection for that class year, according to a report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
But what can take you even further in your career is earning a master’s degree in computer science. The 2021 median pay for computer scientists was $131,490, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which also notes that these jobs typically require a master’s degree in the field.
While there are plenty of in-person computer science programs out there, not all candidates have the flexibility to take classes full-time. That’s where the option of an online master’s in computer science program can be more attractive. In fact, top computer science schools such as Syracuse University, which Fortune ranks as having the No. 3 program in the U.S., offers the exact same curriculum in its online and residential computer science degree programs.
“We provide the fundamental rigor for long-lasting knowledge in the tech field,” Jae C. Oh, Syracuse University Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department chair, tells Fortune. “Their investment in education will pay off multiple folds.”
Return on investment
With starting salaries well over the six-figure mark, computer scientists with an advanced degree make more than any other master’s graduates, on average, according to NACE. By comparison, the median starting salary for MBA graduates in 2021 was $115,000, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s 2021 Corporate Recruiters Survey. Going to any master’s program, however, can be a massive upfront investment. Some top programs can cost more than $50,000 total to attend.
For example, Vanderbilt University, ranked No. 1 by Fortune, costs more than $66,000 in tuition alone. Syracuse’s program costs roughly $52,000 in total, and Rice University (ranked No. 10) costs over $50,000. New Jersey Institute of Technology (ranked No. 5) and Marshall University‘s (ranked No. 6) have price tags of $21,000 and $10,000, respectively.
Many students who enter Syracuse’s program are already making lower-to-mid six-figures, but a master’s degree will increase their pay to the upper $100,000 range, Oh says. Likewise, Craig Gotsman, professor and dean of Ying Wu College of Computing at NJIT, also sees students landing higher-paying roles after graduation.
“Annual salaries can be anywhere between $100,000 and $200,000,” Gotsman says. “After a few years in software development, you can move into team leadership and then into management roles.”
The University of Idaho, ranked No. 7 by Fortune, also reports average graduating salaries of between $110,000 and $170,000. Graduates of the university’s master’s degree program have landed jobs both in the public and private sectors—including Fortune 500 companies—at places like the U.S. Department of Defense, Intel, Micron Technology Inc., and Facebook.
“Whether you want to work at a technical company or build a career in academia, this program prepares you to contribute to the field of computer science in new and novel ways,” Alexiss Turner, a spokesperson for the University of Idaho’s College of Engineering, tells Fortune.
What you need to succeed
First and foremost, officials from various master’s degree programs in computer science agree that students need to have drive, passion, and a goal in mind for how they want to be active in the industry after graduation.
“Students should have some idea of why they are pursuing this degree and what they expect to do with the degree upon graduation,” Paulus Wahjudi, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Sciences and Electrical Engineering at Marshall University, tells Fortune. “It does not have to be entirely clear, but there needs to be a goal that a student wants to achieve and an idea on what they want to do in their career.”
Common career paths for computer science master’s students at top universities include software development, DevOps, cybersecurity, data analytics, computer systems engineering and architecture, among many other adjacent occupations.
“Most commonly, we see STEM professionals enter our program with the intent of switching careers into high-demand, high-salary software engineering, data engineering, machine learning, product management, and cybersecurity roles,” Scott Rixner, a professor of computer science at Rice, tells Fortune. “We look for applicants who have demonstrated that they have the drive, mathematical aptitude, and demonstrated interest in computer science to thrive in a [master’s in computer science] degree program.”
Computer science master’s students at Rice have gone on to land jobs with Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft, he adds.