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?
- 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.