Is a CS Master’s Worth Anything to Programmers?

Some argue that a master’s degree is “the new bachelor’s.” That is, so many people have bachelor’s degrees that you need a master’s to stand out. There is some truth to that. But is a master’s degree in Computer Science worth it for programmers?

Grad StudentsThere are a number of factors to consider here.

  • What will it cost you? Master’s degrees are expensive. You might pay as much as $40k / year for tuition at a private university. On top of that, there’s the opportunity cost. If you would be earning $80k / year otherwise and it’s a two-year program, you’ll be $200k poorer at the end of your program.
  • What salary increase will it get you? Some companies pay more for a master’s degree. Others don’t. A salary increase of $5k – $10k is pretty typical at the top tech companies.
  • What will you learn? A master’s degree in CS typically involves the standard data structure, algorithms and computer architecture curriculum (albeit at a deeper level than you might get as an undergrad), plus a specialty in some area, such as machine learning. In some cases, a master’s might be the only way to break into a specific field.
  • What recruiting opportunities will it get you? In a two-year full-time program, students on a master’s track usually have the opportunity to take on a summer internship or research positions. This means that when they graduate, they’ll have that extra bit of credibility and experience. Programmers from other countries have also found that entering a U.S. master’s program is an effective way to “break in” to American recruiting channels. Even if you’re applying for companies within your own country, you might find getting a big university name on your resume to be invaluable.
  • How will it pad your resume? Although a lot of companies don’t particularly care about having a master’s degree, some companies see it as a big plus. They might be more inclined to select your resume as a result. This is especially true for students who don’t have an undergraduate degree in Computer Science.

Deciding to get a master’s degree is, ultimately, a personal choice. What’s right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another.

When a Master’s Degree Isn’t Worth It

Consider “Susan:” She has an undergraduate degree from the University of Washington in Computer Science, and is considering applying to a master’s program at UW or an equivalent program. She’s hoping afterwards to land a job at a top tech company. So far, she’s only been able to get jobs with startups and smaller-name companies.

A master’s degree probably wouldn’t make sense for Susan. It might help her to land a job at a top tech company, but she could also do that by working at a startup for a year or two and spending some time developing her skill set through personal projects. If she did it that way, she’d probably be a lot richer in the end.

When a Master’s Degree Might Be Worth It

Consider “Peter:” He has a degree in electrical engineering from a small, fairly obscure university. He realized part way through his undergraduate program that he really wanted to be a software developer. He felt it was too late for him to switch by then, but he took as many programming classes as he could and did a lot of interesting research. He’s been admitted to a full time CS master’s program at Carnegie Mellon. Should he attend?

It may well be worth it for him. CMU is a very strong name, and being affiliated with that sort of program will give him a big leg up in recruiting. Additionally, because he lacks an undergraduate CS degree, he’ll learn a lot and the master’s will prove it to employers.

Tweaks to these situations could change your ultimate decision but wouldn’t change the general principles. For example, if your employer offers partial tuition reimbursement for a part-time program, that reduces the costs for you but doesn’t entirely eliminate them.

When you consider a master’s program, remember that more education isn’t always better. A master‘s degree can help you learn and develop your resume, but it comes at significant costs. You need to evaluate how important the costs and benefits are, and weigh these factors against each other.

Comments

  1. BY Simon R says:

    The question I have, is do I need a bachelors? I graduated from a local community college with an Associates in Computer & Information Systems, with an emphasis on Database. I was immediately hired by the local school district as a QA Analyst, and after 6 months was moved up to Application Developer. At this time I still just have my AAS and about 2 years full time experience as a .net (ASP, MVC, C#) Web App Developer. I have no reason to leave my current job as it gives me a very stable place to learn, and there is room to grow. However, I tested the water a couple months ago by applying for a couple .net developer jobs looking for a BS and 2 – 4 years experience, and I received call backs from 3 out of 4. If it wasn’t for the lack of health benefits (I need them fir my kids), I may have gone ahead with one because they all paid at least $10k annual more than what I get.

    My point is, this quick test indicated to me that I have no need of a BS, and can progress just fine. Obviously I likely wouldn’t get in with the powerhouses, like Google, Intel, etc, but I would be comfortable. Am I delusional? What are your thoughts?

    Note: I would probably pursue A BS anyway for the knowledge, but not for a couple years when I could, financially, do it comfortably.

  2. BY kam says:

    I like your logic Simon R. I think you have exactly the most realistic perception and grasp on what to do currently in your life. It’s easy for anyone to tell you that you need a BS immediately blah blah blah.

    My honest opinion is do what you’re doing right now, save up and if you want apply for those other jobs and see if you can move up. More money is always a good thing. I would say that when you can and have time for it, definitely get your BS degree because in a few years time it will be the standard and the norm. Competition will increase and you will eventually become unqualified for the positions other people are applying for. I think you would only need 1-2 years at a local university to get the little piece of paper saying you have a bachelors and forever be qualified! So keep doing what you’re doing, you’re on the right track. But just be aware you do need to get that degree whenever you have time in a couple years or whenever you decide to do it. Orelse it will come back to bite you in the ars in the end.

  3. BY Thomas E. says:

    Masters or Not?

    In have a Dual Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies and Comparative Religion and an Associate of Applied Science in Computer Programming. If I am interested in moving up, so to speak, would the Masters help?

    • BY Simon R says:

      Thomas – I assume you are talking about moving up in a computer science job? If so, if it were me, I would just get a BS in CS> There are several online programs that will give you a BS with only one year of study, as long as you already have a BS in something. One example is OSU Online (Oregon State). Unless you are looking to move out of programming and into leadership or engineering, I don’t see the point of a Masters. But then again, I’m the guy that didn’t see the point of a BS until Kam spoke sense.

  4. BY Andy says:

    I’m in a very similar situation to Simon. I graduated with a BS completely unrelated to CIS or CS. Since then, I’ve made up tons of math, engineering, and CS coursework, but haven’t obtained a degree. I also was hired as a web developer with much of the same skill set.
    At first I considered an AAS, then found that a BS would only be maybe another semester. Then, I found that an MS would probably be only another semester more than a BS. And the reason is because I can complete a lot of my MS requirements from 400 level courses that I would/could take in a BS anyway.
    Another reason I’m working on an MS is because in my case, if I were to pursue a BS, all of the electives would meet during the day – when I work. That’s a huge difference. However, many of the entry-requirements and degree requirements for MS meet at night.

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