Careers in Computer Science Specialties and Trends in a Growing Field

The field of computer science has led the way in creating secure, well-paying jobs over the last decade—and that trend is expected to continue. Professionals in the field can pick from myriad established specialties, all with solid employment outlooks and good earning potential, or look to one of the emerging careers in the field. The keys to building a great future in computer science are knowing the available options and laying out a sound plan to get started.

Career Paths in Computer Science

Deciding to pursue a career in computer science is a first step, but because the field is so broad, future professionals will need to narrow down the possibilities. Below is a list of some of the most popular specialties in computer science, along with the job opportunities they lead to.

Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is concerned with the protection of computer and information systems from all types of threats, including theft, destruction and damage, as well as with minimizing the disruption of the functions and services those systems provide. It applies to all aspects of computer systems, including both hardware and software. Governments, the military, banks, private businesses and individuals alike need information safeguarded, making cybersecurity experts in demand.

  • Forensic Computer Analyst

    The job of the forensic computer analyst is to retrieve, investigate and analyze computer-related forensic evidence, which can be admitted in court or other legal proceedings. Tasks include handling hardware such as hard drives and storage devices, recovering information from damaged databases, and seeking clues regarding the identity of perpetrators or other factors in a crime. A bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity or a related subject along with some previous experience is normally required for employment in the field.

  • Information Security Analyst

    Information security analysts (ISAs) are primarily concerned with stopping cybercrime before it occurs. ISAs analyze the security needs of an organization and then design and implement policies and programs such as firewalls and encryption programs. ISAs must remain vigilant in guarding against evolving forms of cyberattacks, modifying and updating programs and policies as needed.

  • Computer Systems Manager

    Computer systems managers are responsible for planning, coordinating and directing an organization’s computer systems and activities. Tasks include overseeing the installation and upgrading of systems, supervising the work of other computer and IT professionals, and keeping abreast of new systems and technologies.

Data Analysis and Management

A computer database is a collection of information organized so that it can be accessed and utilized via a computer program or database management system (DBMS). Data analysis and management concerns techniques for analyzing and applying information stored in databases. Most individuals in data analysis and management enter the profession with a bachelor’s degree in information design or computer science; some larger employers may require a master’s degree in business administration or another related field for advancement into management positions.

  • Computer Systems Manager

    Computer systems managers are responsible for planning, coordinating and directing an organization’s computer systems and activities. Tasks include overseeing the installation and upgrading of systems, supervising the work of other computer and IT professionals, and keeping abreast of new systems and technologies.

  • Database Architect

    Database architects design, implement and test database systems. Their main tasks include determining database requirements to allow for efficient storage and access to information, optimizing queries, developing backup plans and strategies, recommending improvements in system design, and educating other personnel on how to best access and use information stored in a database.

  • Database Administrator

    Although there can be some overlap in job duties with the database architect, the main responsibility of the database administrator (DBA) is to maintain existing databases for companies and organizations, making sure that information is accessible to authorized personnel and secure from unauthorized access. Database administrator is often a general-purpose position, but may be more specialized in larger corporations, where job responsibilities can be divided between systems DBAs and applications DBAs.

Human-Computer Interaction

Human-computer interaction (HCI) is the area of computer science that focuses on the ways that people communicate with their computers in order to make them responsive and useful. HCI combines elements of computer and behavioral sciences to develop hardware and software that allows for more effective and sophisticated interaction between humans and their digital devices. HCI moves beyond basic interface devices like keyboards and monitors to address issues of reasoning and the underlying processes employed in HCI.

  • Software Engineer

    Software engineers apply engineering principles to the creation and implementation of software in both computer systems and applications. They typically work in lab and office settings on both design and development processes. Employers often require their software engineering employees to demonstrate competence in specific programming languages and coding.

  • User Experience (UX) Designer

    UX designer professionals oversee the entire process of systems designs for both hardware and software, working to make the experience of interacting with computers more efficient, effective and enjoyable. Positions typically require a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field, but an associate degree combined with job experience and/or professional certifications may suffice.

  • Web Developer

    Web developers design and create websites. They consult with supervisors and clients to learn the goals for a website, and then design the infrastructure and presentation elements accordingly. Web developers must have strong skills in programming languages as well as knowledge in graphic design and human-computer interaction. A high school diploma or associate degree may lead to entry-level positions, but most employers want candidates with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in computer science, web design or a closely related subject.

Software Engineering and Development

Designing and implementing software is a fundamental task in the world of computer science, and this career encompasses a number of possible jobs, including working with systems and applications software, security and web development. Most employers require job candidates to earn a bachelor’s degree in the field, although career advancement may mandate a return to school to complete a master’s degree program.

  • Software Engineer

    Software engineers apply engineering principles to the creation and implementation of software in both computer systems and applications. They typically work in lab and office settings on both design and development processes. Employers often require their software engineering employees to demonstrate competence in specific programming languages and coding.

  • Computer Programmer

    Computer programmers write the code that makes software work. They typically work closely with software engineers and developers to plan and create models and flowcharts used for writing programs. A career in computer programming normally requires a bachelor’s degree in computer science, but in some cases an associate degree may suffice.

Systems Development and Maintenance

The term “computer systems” refers to the totality of components that make up a system, including hardware, peripherals, software programs and applications, data storage systems and more. Computer systems professionals are concerned with these components both individually and, more importantly, with how they work and interact with each other. Computer systems professionals design, implement and maintain integrated systems for maximum efficiency.

  • Computer Systems Analyst

    Computer systems analysts are responsible for determining an organization’s computing requirements, and then designing the systems to meet those needs. They often evaluate current systems to determine how they can be expanded, updated and modified to meet an organization’s changing needs. Entry-level positions typically require a bachelor’s degree, although some larger companies prefer candidates with an advanced degree, often in business management.

  • Computer Programmer

    Computer programmers write the code that makes software work. They typically work closely with software engineers and developers to plan and create models and flowcharts used for writing programs. A career in computer programming normally requires a bachelor’s degree in computer science, but in some cases an associate degree may suffice.

Outlook & Salary Potential in Computer Science

With the potential to earn six figures after only a few years of experience after college and talented professionals needed throughout the field, computer science is a case study in supply and demand. Indeed, the personal finance magazine Kiplinger recently listed its 10 Best College Majors for a Lucrative Career with computer science and related majors taking the top three spots.

Salary and job growth vary depending on several factors, including employment sector, company size, and geographic location, and rapid advances in computer science make it difficult to predict which specializations will dominate the field in the future. Nonetheless, current indications point to a robust job market for computer science careers both now and for years to come. Below is a look at the 2014 median salary, and the projected growth rate between 2014 and 2024, for several popular computer science occupations:

Computer Systems Analyst Median salary $82,710 Growth outlook: 21 percent
Computer and Information Systems Manager Median salary $127,640 Growth outlook: 15 percent
Database Administrator Median salary $80,280 Growth outlook 11 percent
Information Security Analyst Median salary $88,890 Growth outlook 18 percent
Web Developer Median salary $63,490 Growth outlook 27 percent

Computer Science Salary by State

While lucrative employment for computer professionals can be found in every state, it should be no surprise that the highest salaried positions are located in those states with well-established high-tech industry hubs, as can be seen in the list below:

  • 1Washington: $99,780
  • 2California: $99,450
  • 3District of Columbia: $96,570
  • 4Massachusetts: $94,820
  • 5Virginia: $94,700
  • 6Maryland: $94,670
  • 7New Jersey: $92,610
  • 8New York: $89,110
  • 9Colorado: $88,590
  • 10Delaware: $86,900
  • 11Connecticut: $86,770

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Top Skills for a Career in Computer Science

The list of skills required for computer science professionals is a long one, and includes everything from general communication skills to specific skills in particular coding languages or expertise with proprietary software. The necessary skill set can vary significantly depending on the work environment and particular task at hand, but in general, professionals in computer science will need the following:

Business Skills

A strong understanding of basic economics and business functions has become so important to career success that many colleges and universities today are incorporating business classes into their computer science curricula.

Communication Skills

Good written and oral communications skills are vital for computer science professionals, who must be able to explain things to clients or colleagues who are not proficient with technical terms and processes.

Computer Languages and Coding

Basic coding skills are a foundational requirement for computer programmers and, for many employers, all other computer science professionals as well. The specific computer languages one needs expertise in will depend on the area of practice; for example, an applications developer will likely need experience with C and Java, while web developers will probably need to know JavaScript and PHP.

Keeping Up-To-Date

Most people would not think of keeping up-to-date with advances in their occupations as a professional skill. Given the rapidly changing nature of the computer world, however, staying up-to-date with new technologies, hardware, software, etc., is an absolute must.

Mathematics

Regardless of one’s area of practice in computer science, a solid foundation in math is essential. Computer scientists typically have a strong knowledge base in subjects such as calculus with analytic geometry, statistical analysis, linear algebra, differential equations and elementary probability.

Certifications & Licenses

In most professions, professional certifications are offered by industry organizations (often nonprofits) and indicate that individuals have gained certain skills and experience in a specific area. Professional certification in the computer science field, however, is somewhat different; in addition to industry-wide certifications, there are also many offered by major corporations like Microsoft and Oracle for their own proprietary programs and products. The following is a sample list of some of the best professional certifications currently available to computer science professionals:

Top 5 Certifications for a Career in Computer Science

  • Certified Computer Examiner (CCE)

    The CCE is a vendor-neutral certification for computer forensic professionals, offered by the International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners.

  • Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP)

    Among the most widely sought certifications by networking professionals, the CCNP is a collection of professional-level certifications offered by Cisco in the following eight networking areas: Cloud; Collaboration; Data Center; Routing and Switching; Security; Service Provider; Voice; and Wireless.

  • CompTIA Security +

    One of several certifications offered by the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), the CompTIA Security+ certification is for individuals seeking an overall knowledge of best practices in IT security.

  • Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE)

    The MCSE is collection of certifications including Business Intelligence; Communication; Data Platform; Desktop Infrastructure; Enterprise Devices and Apps; Messaging; Private Cloud; Server Infrastructure; and SharePoint. MCSE certifications are among the most widely recognized and highly respected in the computer science field.

  • Mongo DB Certified Database Administrator (DBA)

    Mongo DB, the NoSQL cross-platform database, offers certification for database administrators, particularly those involved with big data. Associate level certification is currently available, with professional and master level certifications planned in the future.

Emerging Careers in Computer Science

Technology continues to evolve so quickly in the digital world that it’s next to impossible to predict what the future will hold. However, some distinct trends are emerging, creating new fronts in the industry that promise to offer growing employment opportunities for computer science professionals.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Broadly speaking, artificial intelligence may be defined as the science of producing intelligent machines and computer programs, particularly those that can mimic human behavior or thought processes. No longer the exclusive domain of science fiction, AI has found its way into the mainstream of the digital world in a growing number of areas including robotics, gaming, face recognition, and research and development.

Jobs in AI can be found in all sectors of the economy, particularly in private business and in government, where there is a steady demand for skilled AI professionals in the military and in national security. Employment in AI careers requires a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a closely related field, with a growing number of employers seeking candidates with more specialized advanced degrees in robotics or AI itself.

Bioinformatics

Bioinformatics, the use of computer technology to collect, analyze and manage biological data, has been in use since the 1960s. The catalyst for its more recent emergence into the mainstream, however, is the advent of big data and the necessities of managing large, complex sets of data. The employment of bioinformatics today can be found in a variety of fields such as biomedicine (gene therapy, personalized medicine), microbiology (epidemiological studies, antibiotic resistance, biotechnology) and agriculture (insect resistance, improved nutrition).

The number of postsecondary programs in bioinformatics, as well as the closely related field of computational biology, is growing, and jobs in bioinformatics are available in many sectors of the economy, primarily research, education, IT and software development.

Cloud Computing

Cloud computing, often simply referred to as “the cloud,” refers to internet-based computing systems that rely on the use of shared resources to provide efficient access to and use of information and data. The development of widely available, reliable wireless internet access, as well as the advent of big data, has made cloud computing a valuable and in-demand service. With its explosive growth over the past few years, cloud computing has created a number of challenges in areas such as agility, scalability, reliability and security, and consequently the need for cloud architects and cloud engineers is on the rise.

Most jobs in cloud computing require, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information technology or a related field; as the field becomes even more specialized, it’s likely colleges and universities will begin offering a variety of degree programs designed with cloud computing specifically in mind.

Career & Job Resources

If BLS job growth predictions hold, there will be openings for today’s computer science students if they focus on high-growth specializations such as database and software development fields. Those first entering a CS degree program may be looking at help-desk or website building jobs, while graduate students may be aiming toward director or managerial roles. Mega-job sites, networking organizations, and job sites dedicated to technology jobs can help students locate the right role matching the stage of their career, specialty and expertise. There’s also a wealth of volunteer or paid internship opportunities in the financial and technology sectors that build expertise, experience, and lasting career connections.

careers & jobs

  • CareerBuilder

    Job seekers create search agents that pore over listings around the globe in technology and deliver openings announcements to computers and mobile devices. Members can store cover letters and resumes tailored for specific positions.

  • Dice

    With more than 83,000 technology positions listed online, Dice is a key recruiting site visited by major companies (Amazon, eBay, Cisco) and provides jobs-search services for new or experienced computer science professionals.

  • Glassdoor

    This employer/corporate-information site provides job seekers with unique insight into the companies they’re considering. Find postings from current employees about the corporate culture, salaries, and business performance on tech companies and other employers.

  • icrunchdata

    The title tells it all. This jobs site is designed for people who work with big data and analytics. Companies that routinely have hiring staff scour the board include Dell, Intuit, and E*Trade.

  • Indeed

    Over 180 million job seekers, freelance headhunters and corporate recruiters visit this job-search titan every month by computer or mobile apps. The site is an aggregator, rounding up tech openings from other job sites around the country.

  • LinkedIn

    More known as a professional networking site, LinkedIn serves up tailored job openings for each member along with career tips, connections at potential employers, and mobile apps for job seekers.

  • Monster

    For more than 20 years, Monster has been developing its verticals for job aspirants based on their professions. Today it maintains sections devoted to jobs in IT, quality assurance, web design/development, Java, networking, programming, testing and security.

  • Ruby Now

    Ruby developers have their own job site dedicated to career search, Ruby on Rails guides, and podcasts. More than 5,300 job posts are currently on the site.

  • SimplyHired

    Similar to Indeed, SimplyHired culls listings from other job sites and aggregates listing for job searches. It, too, has mobile search apps for job seekers.

  • Tech Careers

    The tech arm of Beyond.com has close to 200,000 engineering and technology jobs currently on the site. Companies including AT&T, UPS, DISH Network, and Coca-Cola find software developers, data analysts, network security and dev-ops here.