How to Choose the Best Master’s in Computer Science Program

Before you select a master's program in computer science, make sure to evaluate the key differences among programs, like curriculum, ROI and flexibility.

Working student catching up on online master's courses while traveling

When researching the best Master of Computer Science (MCS) degree program, many students default to only looking at rankings, admission rates, tuition and duration of the programs. While most top rankings are trusted, objective sources, many emphasize feedback from academics at peer institutions or prominently feature advertising placements. These rankings and accreditations can be helpful when researching institutions, but it is also important to include research that reflects your specific needs and lifestyle considerations like: career goals and adequate preparation for a fast-evolving workplace, flexibility to accommodate your busy schedule, personal learning style, specific content interests, and more.

Finding the best computer science master’s degree program for you requires doing a bit of research. Because all reputable, accredited graduate programs require some commitment of time and money, it's important to consider which program will adequately prepare you for your desired career outcomes, giving you the greatest return on investment ("career ROI").

The best way to evaluate the top computer science masters’ programs is to think critically about what you want to achieve in your life and career in the next 10 to 20 years and evaluate programs based on their ability to launch, advance or switch your career in the direction you want to go.

If you are wondering which master's degree to pursue, consider our 5 recommended criteria for choosing the best Master's in Computer Science for your needs:

1. On-Campus or Online?

2. Relevant CS Curriculum with Real-World Application

3. Access to World-Class Faculty

4. Student Experience: Learning Style, Scheduling Flexibility and Community Engagement

5. Cost and Return on Investment

How Do I Choose Between On-Campus or Online for a Computer Science Master's?

When determining how to pick a master's program, first assess which will better meet your needs: an on-campus or online program? Simply put, which do you need or want more: flexibility or focus?

In an accredited, trusted online graduate program, students have the ability to complete their degrees from anywhere, without sacrificing quality of education. Without relocating, they can attend a quality program part-time while continuing to work and earn a reputable graduate degree from home within 2-3 years. Plus, students avoid additional costs like student housing, on-campus fees, and commuting expenses. These factors--convenience, flexibility, ease, and cost avoidance--have resulted in increased demand for online master's degrees over the past decade, and particularly post-2020.

In Rice's Online MCS, we find ways to offer optional "hybrid" or blended experiences, integrating online students into the campus community and culture outside the requirements of their degree. For example, we host annual events for online graduate students during Homecoming and many of our students travel in to be part of Rice graduation.

On-campus master's programs are a good fit for students who have the ability to leave the workforce for an extended period to focus full-time on school, or who can start their master's soon after college graduation. On-campus computer science and engineering programs typically draw a high number of international students from China, India, Taiwan and other countries who already have a bachelor’s degree in computer science, electrical or computer engineering (although students' bachelor's degrees aren't required to be in computer science or engineering). With a highly selective Admissions process, this creates a rigorous environment and deep learning experience among the best and brightest in their field, who can enjoy the full campus experience and extensive face-to-face interaction between faculty and their peers.

Are Online Computer Science Degrees as Good as In-Person Degrees?

Generally, online computer science degree programs are just as good as in-person degree programs when earned from accredited institutions. The quality of the university may vary, however.

At Rice, our online graduate students earn the same accredited Master of Computer Science degree online that we confer to on-campus students, with no mention of modality on the student's diploma. Online programs can be a valuable, convenient option for those who want or need to remain in the workforce while earning their master’s degrees part-time. Further, Covid-19 shifted perceptions of online working and learning, helping employers and society realize how productive people can be in a collaborative, yet remote, digital environment.

The [online] program is excellent. It combines asynchronous and live sessions, which to me is better than face-to-face because you can absorb the material at your own pace.

– Eric Schumacker, MCS@Rice Graduate, Sr. Product Manager at Amazon. Read more about Eric’s MCS@Rice experience.

Earning a computer science master's degree is often motivated by a desire to switch or advance careers, whether you want access to more jobs, better work-life balance, better employers, more interesting R&D or innovation work, or a higher salary. An online master of computer science program allows you to get the advanced skills you need without putting your career on hold.

The online learning format lends itself particularly well to computer science, since students can share their code and projects on-screen with others, problem solving in real-time. While students must have strong skills in math and programming, preferably with a background in engineering or science, students are not required to have a bachelor's in computer science. This diversity of student backgrounds and professional experiences creates a rewarding educational experience, including many different perspectives and seeing how others approach problem-solving.

For online MCS programs, the curriculum and format can vary widely, even among some of the top-ranked schools. It’s important to compare the online programs for the top computer science graduate schools on criteria such as the curriculum and experiential learning opportunities, format, student experience, faculty, and real-world career outcomes to set you up for success in your future career endeavors.

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Relevant CS Curriculum With Real-World Application to Build Your Portfolio

Across industries, technologies and their many applications evolve at a dizzying pace. For this reason, it's critical that master's students find a program curriculum or specializations that blends timeless computer science concepts and theory, with real-world opportunities to apply their knowledge, like capstone projects or internships.

    In this Quora thread, Alan Kay, one of the world's preeminent computer scientists, explains that understanding "whole systems and processes, rather than [just] hardware or software, or programming languages and operating systems" is what makes a brilliant "generalist in computer scientist" and "vital contributor." Of course, working professionals need to stay current on skills and languages, but breadth and depth of knowledge in vast areas like complex computer systems, data engineering, various types of algorithms, cybersecurity, and the elements that unite all programming languages will cultivate versatility, allowing CS students to adapt and navigate the shifting demands of a decades-long career.

      To develop well-rounded computer scientists and full-stack software engineers, Rice’s Master of Computer Science program focuses on several core CS courses:

      • Python and Java programming
      • Systems software
      • Databases
      • Algorithms
      • Cybersecurity
      • Ethics in engineering

      Beyond these core courses, Rice University currently offers four online computer science specializations that allow students to deepen their CS skills in different areas of tech and engineering:

      • Systems
      • Machine Learning
      • Data Science
      • Engineering Leadership

      So, when shortlisting schools based on each program’s curriculum and determining the best CS program, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

      1. Is the curriculum holistic and broad enough to give me a strong foundation in fundamental computer science concepts like systems and processes, so I can pivot as the tech landscape evolves?
      2. Am I interested in and excited about this curriculum?
      3. Will this program teach me how to learn as a lifelong learner, or does it emphasize memorization and “checking the box” to get through assignments without ample discussion to reinforce understanding?
      4. Does the program provide a Capstone project or internship where I’ll have the chance to work on real-world, practical applications of what I’ve learned, building a relevant portfolio for job interviews and networking?
      5. How often is the curriculum refreshed so I know I am learning the most up-to-date concepts?
      6. Are faculty members thought leaders on subjects they teach?
      7. Does the curriculum provide training that is important to my career aspirations?

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      Access to World-Class Faculty

      While the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) model has improved online access to educational content, prospective online master's students may risk enrolling in a program where they'll be "faceless," or one of thousands, with little to no individualized or personalized attention.

      According to U.S. News and World Report's online master's rankings methodology, “Quality online engineering programs promote participation in courses, allowing students opportunities to readily interact with their instructors and classmates, as is possible in a campus-based setting. In turn, instructors are not only accessible and responsive, but they are also tasked with helping to create an experience rewarding enough that students stay enrolled and complete their degrees in a reasonable amount of time.”

      In any master's program, you should have basic access to responsive and knowledgeable instructors. But a hallmark of any high-quality master's-level education is the caliber of dedicated, world-class faculty who will lead and inspire your cohort, challenging you through probing and extended discourse to solidify your understanding and retention. Active participation, asking questions, real-time problem-solving and other measures of engagement are what lead to the best preparation for a career in computer science.

      What stands out most in my mind is how Dr. Wong stayed up all night with us leading up to the final demo day, helping us debug our final project," recalled Yifan “Eva” Li, MCS Alumni. "He didn’t just sit at a table and wait for us to come to him--he walked around asking questions and making subtle suggestions that helped us check and recheck our code. That night, Dr. Wong showed us what it feels to be an enthusiastic programmer.

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      Student Experience: Learning Style, Scheduling Flexibility and Community Engagement

      When thinking about which online Master of Computer Science program is best for you, consider the holistic student experience each school or program offers:

      • Does it have national recognition and a strong reputation among employers?
      • Is it an effective mix of asynchronous (learn at your own pace) and synchronous (live session) learning to reinforce key concepts and provide flexibility for other commitments, like family and work?
      • Are you one of hundreds learning in a “one-way” manner (more like massive open online courses, or MOOCs), or is the classroom small, interactive and personalized to truly cement knowledge and build community?
      • Will you have access to world-class faculty to easily enable in-depth discussion, answers to your questions, and advice?
      • Will you have access to dedicated Student Advisors to help you plan courses and navigate the experience?
      • Does it offer the same core courses every semester, avoiding unnecessary downtime and graduation delays?
      • Does it offer Career Services to connect you with leading employers and high-demand positions, both in your area and across the U.S.?
      • Does it offer Alumni or Industry events to facilitate networking, ideas, and career connections?

      For online programs specifically, look for MCS programs that offer more than just recorded lectures, asynchronous content and online discussion forums. You should have the option to regularly participate in live sessions, get access to events like Hackathons, and enjoy small class sizes and 1:1 time with your professors and classmates.

      It really stuck with me – Rice taught us HOW to learn. Knowing how to learn is much more important than any of the specifics taught in a class.

      - Ruth Huang Miller, Rice MCS Alumni, Panera Bread Data Scientist. Read more of Ruth’s MCS experience.

      At Rice University, we’ve always believed in small class sizes to give students in the MCS@Rice program more opportunities to engage and interact with their professors, peers, and other computer science industry professionals, including alumni. Students are encouraged to work through the lectures and practice material at their own pace, then to engage with fellow students to debate and work through the most challenging concepts or practical, portfolio-building assignments. Diverse classmates can review and critique each other’s ideas, leading to better, more well-rounded solutions, like how computer scientists are expected to collaborate in the real world.

      See what a best-in-class online Master of Computer Science student experience looks like.

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      Cost and Return on Investment

      While it's understandable that prospective students often jump straight to a program's tuition and fees, it's worth zooming out to 3 considerations when assessing overall value:

      • Career return on investment (“ROI”)
      • Program rigor and reputation
      • Tuition reimbursement, scholarships and financial aid

      Career ROI

      With faster-than-average job growth (21% from 2022-2032) and a median salary of approximately $126,830 per year for master's-level graduates, Computer Science graduate programs are among the best for students' career ROI. Consider your salary today, and then research salary ranges for the following job titles among local or national employers: Computer Scientist, Software Engineer, Data Engineer and Machine Learning Engineer.

      If your master's in computer science will position you as a high-value, high-quality candidate from a reputable school, you may be able to pay back your tuition in just a few years.

      Rice’s professional master’s program in Computer Science (CS) offered the opportunity to explore different cultures and improve my career options. I talked with a friend who had started Rice’s MCS program in 2014 and he gave me very positive feedback. He felt almost all the alumni had gotten ideal jobs after graduation.

      - Shuya Wang, MCS Alumni, LinkedIn Software Engineer. Read more about Shuya’s journey into CS.

      Program Rigor = Preparation

      There's no better return on investment than feeling emotionally prepared for workplace demands. While a less academically-challenging program may be easier on your schedule while completing the program, consider the long-term ramifications of feeling underprepared for the world of advanced tech.

      As is true of many reputable universities, Rice's world-class faculty care about their students, developing close 1:1 relationships and transforming lives through knowledge, discussion and debate. While the coursework is challenging, when students emerge with their degrees, they feel an enormous sense of pride and confidence in their command of the material. Our students also feel part of a close-knit community of alumni, drawing on these relationships for decades after graduating.

      Tuition Reimbursement, Scholarships and Financial Aid

      Remember that, if you stay in the workforce and earn your master's part-time, you may be able to take advantage of your employer's tuition reimbursement policy to partially cover tuition costs. Beyond this, conduct research into scholarships and ask about financial aid that may be available for STEM programs or specific student populations.

      Looking for Master's in Computer Science Programs?

      Rice is a top-ranked CS graduate school and our university's reputation has helped graduates land jobs at top companies across the country including Amazon, Meta, Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, VMWare, Chevron, Liongard, and more. With a high degree of personalized attention and world-class faculty, the MCS@Rice online program is designed to offer each student – no matter their experience level – the opportunity to take their computer science expertise to the next level.

      Master lifelong problem solving with the online MCS@Rice program.

      Demand is surging for computer science skills across industries and applications.

      Get More Information

      Sign up to receive more information on how the MCS@Rice program can help you broaden your career options. Connect with an Enrollment Coach today.