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What to expect in a computer science degree program

If you're considering a future in coding, this guide can help you learn what to expect in a computer science degree program.

When exploring a computer science (CS) career, consider time, investment, and course complexity. Expectations in a computer science degree program include analytical thinking, evaluating complex problems, and studying algorithm design.

If you are ready to learn what you can expect in a computer science degree, this CS degree program guide can help. It offers information on degrees, specializations, course length, required projects, internships, and tuition and fees.

What is a computer science degree?

Students in a computer science — sometimes called CS — program learn computational theory, development, application, and design. Courses cover theoretical foundations of computer and web application development. 

CS students can earn an associate, bachelor's, master's, or Ph.D. They often earn specializations, too. With a CS specialization, students can gain pursue niche roles, like IT security or software engineer. 

After earning a traditional or online computer science degree, students can pursue work in roles like web developer, software engineer, or database administrator.

What to expect from computer science courses

For a two-year associate degree, students generally complete a 64-credit program that covers the basics. In a four-year bachelor's program, students take both general education and foundational computer science courses

Students who go on to pursue a master's degree typically earn about 33 credits in 2-3 years. Those who go on to become Ph.D. students spend about 4-5 years and earn 90 credits as well as completing a dissertation.

You will take core classes plus electives that interest you.

Intro-level CS students take classes in calculus I, introduction to linear algebra, probability and statistics, introduction to programming, and ethics and technology. 

These courses focus on application, differential equations, and vector spaces as well as problem solving, algorithm development, and debugging and testing. 

As the program progresses, students select electives in topics like graphical user interface, systems programming, ethical hacking, artificial intelligence, and compiler theory. 

Courses are a mix of theoretical and hands-on.

CS programs integrate both theory and practical application. First, students learn the history and evolution of state machines, computational complexity, program correctness, and cryptography. 

Theoretical CS classes provide greater insights into the construction of computers, efficiency of information systems, and commonly used encryption tools. In theory courses, CS students might work directly with implementation, verification, and programming challenges.

Expect to take math courses.

While earning a CS degree, you are required to take several math and statistics courses. Math is vital for understanding many programming languages. 

You also need a solid understanding of abstract language, differential equations, algorithms, and data structures. 

Entry-level students should expect to take calculus I and II, introduction to linear algebra, and probability and statistics.

Expect to spend time on computer science projects.

CS students tend to have heavy course loads, so they should expect to need more study time for course completion than most degrees. Organizational skills, time management, and scheduling are especially important. 

CS students often learn through projects that introduce them to topics like computer security, scientific computing, and computational efficiency. 

Along with group discussion, students complete open-ended software projects, presentations, independent studies, and group assignments. 

Students may focus on areas like computer architecture and organization, database management systems, and computer networks.

You may want to consider a computer science concentration as you progress through your degree.

After completing core CS courses, students select electives to personalize their CS degrees. Specializations prepare students for job opportunities in specialized areas of the industry. 

Students usually choose specializations that fit their career interests and help them gain required workforce skills. Here are some of the most common CS specializations.

  • Artificial intelligence

  • Computer and network security

  • Game design

  • Human-computer interaction

  • Information management and analytics

  • Networks

  • Programming languages

  • Real-world computing

  • Software theory

  • Systems

You may want to learn and practice skills outside of your degree courses.

While not a requirement, CS students can benefit from practical experience outside of their degree programs. 

By learning how to code, students increase logical and math reasoning skills. With the additional knowledge, students increase their analytical and problem-solving skills. 

Practical experience can also help students practice the easier programming languages, such as Python, Java, and Ruby. 

Internships will allow you to practice what you have learned and gain hands-on experience.

CS internships offer real-world experience. They may come through public or private organizations, such as commercial banks or credit unions, tech companies, or small businesses in need of IT support. 

Interns learn a company's culture and work environment, engage in team events and projects, and advance their career development. 

These opportunities can help enhance students' technical skills, professional networks, and employment opportunities. 

How hard is a computer science degree?

While CS programs are challenging, dedicated and passionate students can succeed. 

To find success with a computer science degree, students should be able to problem-solve and think critically as well as exhibit a joy for learning and taking on challenging design tasks. Successful students spend hours practicing coding, applying theory, and learning the basics of computer networking. It also helps to have prior experience with basic computer skills.

CS programs have rigorous curricula and challenging courses. As you progress, math becomes more intense. 

However, with faculty support, good organization and time management, and resilience, you can be successful. 

How much will I be spending as a computer science student?

While researching CS programs, consider both online and traditional programs. For CS degrees, tuition and fees range from $15,000 to $85,000. In-state students often pay much less than out-of-state students, and online students sometimes pay in-state rates regardless of location.

CS students should also consider bootcamps. The average cost of a coding bootcamp program is $13,500, which is equivalent to three semesters at some four-year colleges. 

When researching programs, be sure to look into perks as well as costs. There are several online schools that provide computers free of charge or at a discounted rate. Others rent iPads and laptops. 

Common questions about computer science degrees

What's the difference between IT and computer science?

Information technology (IT) specializes in network security, database management, and desktop support. CS concentrates on coding, programming, and algorithms. If you're interested in IT, check out the information technology guide

What's the difference between computer engineering and computer science?

Computer engineers are skilled in building and repairing computers. Computer scientists have a deeper knowledge of programming languages and how to manage operating systems and networks.

Does a BA or BS in computer science matter?

Most CS programs focus on science and math, so they offer a BS. If you are interested in a broader education, especially if you might want to take business courses, then consider earning a BA.

Is it possible to get a computer science degree online?

Yes. An accredited online program can provide the same technical and critical thinking skills as a traditional program. The curriculum is typically just as rigorous.

This article was reviewed by Brian Nichols

A head-and-shoulders photo of a bearded white man in a grey suit with a blue tie.

Born and raised in upstate New York, Brian Nichols attended a vocational high school where he focused on computer science, IT fundamentals, and networking. He received his AS in computer information science from the local community college, then earned a BS in applied networking and system administration from a private college. He now lives in Kansas City, where he works full-time as a DevOps engineer and is a part-time instructor in cybersecurity. He's passionate about cybersecurity and helping students succeed. 

Brian Nichols is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.