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Is a Computer Science Degree Worth It?: Experts Respond

Computer science degrees continue to grow in popularity. After hitting a low in 2005, according to U.S. News and World Report, enrollments in computer science programs have increased several years in a row. Additionally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts job growth for computer and information research scientists to hold at 15 percent through 2022.

What's driving this continued growth in the field, and what should prospective CS students plan to do to prepare for their eventual transition into the professional realm? We talked to two CS professors, Dr. Michael Mislove of Tulane University and Dr. Amarda Shehu of George Mason University, to get their perspective on these prescient questions.

Expert profile


Dr. Michael MisloveDr. Michael Mislove is the chair of the Tulane University Department of Computer Science. In addition to serving as chair of the computer science department, Dr. Mislove is also a professor in the Department of Mathematics. He obtained his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Tennessee.

Would you agree or disagree that many computer science students are primarily motivated by a high salary? What else should students consider?

"I disagree. The era of outsized salaries was over at the Tech Wreck in 2000, and then students left the discipline to seek more appealing careers - i.e., ones they wanted to pursue because of basic interest. In the aftermath, computer science undertook to reinvent itself to be more attractive to undergraduates. While the enrollments were dropping, leading departments such as the University of Colorado and Georgia Tech made efforts to lure students back by developing tracks within computer science for students whose primary interest was another discipline, often in the liberal arts.

In the wake of the Great Recession, the tech sector was the first to rebound, and that prompted renewed interest in computer science, not because of high salaries, but because of the chance to find a job. The Great Recession and its aftermath were the first time in the modern era that a college education didn't guarantee a job, so students returned to computer science because it was a leading area for jobs. The ongoing need for workers in the tech sector is the reason for the continued attraction of computer science as a major."

What should a computer science major make sure to do before graduating to prepare for the professional world?

"Students should study how computer science interacts with other disciplines, and how it can be used to solve problems in those areas. Just looking at the changes in our everyday lives shows how much computer science has invaded all facets of what we do-everyone has a smart phone that supports all sorts of functionality, household devices contain embedded systems that allow owners to monitor their activities, the reach of computer science into the health sciences is unprecedented, etc. All of this points to a future in which computers and computer science will be fundamental for much of how society functions, and students who want rewarding careers should not study computer science in isolation, but should also study applications of computer science to other areas.

Getting an internship with a company or in a research lab is really a great way to see firsthand some of the growing list of areas where computer science is having a transformative impact. Students need to be familiar with how such applications arise, and how to cast problems in a related area in a way that computer science can be used to solve them. Of course, students should develop basic skills-programming in Java, for instance-but they also should be able to think more abstractly in order to see the relationship between computer science and other areas. Even business students benefit by this perspective, and we have a number of business undergraduates completing our program."

Expert profile


Dr. Amarda ShehuDr. Amarda Shehu is an associate professor in the George Mason University Department of Computer Science. Dr. Shehu also holds positions in the School of Systems Biology and Department of Bioengineering. She obtained her Ph.D. in Computer Science from Rice University.

Would you agree or disagree that many computer science students are primarily motivated by a high salary? What else should students consider?

"Yes, the decline that computer science departments experienced following the bursting of the dot-com bubble has stopped. In fact, since 2009, most departments are experiencing regular increases in their enrollment, anywhere from 10 to 20 percent. Computer science is booming.

The demand for a technologically savvy workforce is up, and, as it stands, employers cannot find enough graduates. This has created a very nice environment for computer science graduates, in particular, in terms of the ability to get a job fresh out of school and get entry-level positions offering $60,000 or more.

It is fair to say that parents, perhaps more than students, are paying attention to the nation-wide trend in hiring computer science students and are very eager to encourage their children to be smart about choosing their career options. Students surely are also happy to hear that they are likely to get a good job and perhaps pay their student loans fast upon graduation. But I would posit that this is not the main reason why students are attracted to computer science.

We now have a generation that grew up immersed in technology and is already being dubbed the 'iGeneration.' These kids see the reach and impact of automation in their everyday lives. They have a far easier time than previous generations of accepting computation as an essential tool to assist virtually any activity in their everyday lives. We have students who want to program because they are interested in making apps. Some want to become computer scientists to eventually develop games. We have others who are very much interested in making a difference. It is not unusual nowadays to meet freshmen who are already familiar with the importance of interdisciplinary computing and want to use computing to address societal and health challenges."

What should a computer science major make sure to do before graduating to prepare for the professional world?

"Whenever students approach me with these questions, I always tell them the most important thing to do is to get a solid education in computer science and to pay attention to the curriculum. Companies want a curriculum that builds students' analytical and programming skills.

The other piece of information I give to students is to diversify their experiences. This includes pursuing summer internships whether at companies or in research labs. The importance of a good internship cannot be underestimated. Many students build a rapport with a company through their internships and then find it easier to be offered a full-time position upon graduation. Other companies may use such prior experience as an indication of the student's ability to function well in the professional world. Other nuggets of advice are often tailored to specific interests students might have. I do want to emphasize that it serves students well to demonstrate high programming skills and the ability to employ such skills effectively in team projects."

Sources

Interview with Michael Mislove, Computer Science Department Chair, Tulane University. Interview conducted by Michael Kushman, December 2014

Interview with Amarda Shehu, Associate Professor of Computer Science, George Mason University. Interview conducted by Michael Kushman, December 2014

"Computer and Information Research Scientists," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 6, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/computer-and-information-research-scientists.htm

"Computer Science Continues Growth on College Campuses," U.S. News and World Report, July 12, 2012, http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2012/07/12/computer-science-continues-growth-on-college-campuses


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