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Data vs. Computer Science Master’s Degrees: Understand the Difference

While computer science has traditionally been a popular graduate degree choice among technical students, data science has seen exponential growth as a field in recent years. So, which degree program should you choose for your master’s degree?

This article outlines the essential information you’ll need to understand each degree, the difference between them, and the insights you’ll need to choose the master’s program—and career—that is right for you.

The Broader Field: What You’ll Learn in a Computer Science Master’s Program

A computer science degree program offers foundational coursework in computer science, logic, and mathematics. Students also choose from various electives that lead to specializations in:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Cybersecurity
  • Distributed systems
  • Operating systems
  • Software development
  • Software engineering

Most computer science degree programs focus on arming students with a thorough understanding of information technology and the theoretical foundation of computer science while providing opportunities to apply theory to real-world problems.

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edX_Icon_LFinstantfeedback With the rise of online master’s programs over the past few years, professionals can now complete a full advanced degree without sacrificing their professional commitments. One such program is The University of Texas at Austin’s (UT Austin) Master of Computer Science Online. In this fully online program, students are able to utilize a flexible schedule to complete coursework without sacrificing the quality of instruction. A former student explained that the online program offers “rigorous, excellent courses with all the added benefits and flexibility of being fully asynchronous and online.”

Dive Deeper: What You Learn in a Data Science Master’s Program

Data science is influenced by computer science, but focuses more on the architecture and analysis of data produced throughout the world.

A data science master’s program exposes students to data science fundamentals, machine learning, data structure, and data visualization concepts. Most programs provide students with projects that help them apply their knowledge to real-world problems.

Geared toward students with a strong background in statistics and mathematics, part-time data science master’s programs give students a solid foundation in fundamentals while allowing them to dive deeper into trending concepts including:

  • Algorithms
  • Big data
  • Business analytics
  • Data analytics
  • Data mining
  • Deep learning
  • Machine learning
  • Natural language processing

Career Opportunities for Computer and Data Scientists

Computer and data scientists enjoy ample career opportunities and lucrative salaries. Overall, job opportunities in these fields are expected to grow 13 percent by 2029, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Common Jobs and Salaries in Computer and Data Science Fields

MS Computer Science*
Job Title* Median Annual Salary*
Web Developer $77,200
Computer System Analyst $93,730
Database Administrator $98,860
Software Developer $110,140
Computer and Information Research Scientist  $126,830
MS Data Science*
Job Title* Median Annual Salary*
Data Analyst $62,000
Business Intelligence Analyst $70,000
Statistician $93,000
Data Engineer $93,000
Machine Learning Engineer
$113,000
Data Architect  $121,000
Data Scientist $130,000
Median Annual Salary for All US Jobs $51,168

*Data gathered from the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021 Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Requirements for Data and Computer Science Master’s Degrees

Both data science and computer science degree programs require students to have a technical background and a strong understanding of mathematics. Each program also requires strong skills in python and other programming languages.

Computer science master’s programs typically require prerequisites, as well. For example, top programs prefer students who have an undergraduate degree in computer science. As these programs are designed to be rigorous, students without a computer science bachelor’s should have prior coursework in:

  • Discrete Math for Computer Science
  • Introduction to Programming
  • Data Structures
  • Algorithms and Complexity
  • Computer Organization and Architecture
  • Principles of Computer Systems

Data science programs focus on further developing data analysis abilities, so students who are proficient in Excel, Tableau, SQL, and basic analysis of large data sets will have an upper hand.

Computer scientists in a master’s program should have technical knowledge in research methodology and principles of computer systems and data structures.

Broad Perspective or Data Specialization: How to Differentiate Programs

Generally, switching specializations and industries is easier with a master’s degree in computer science because the degree broadens your knowledge of the field. This degree is perfect for someone who prefers to be a generalist, with the freedom to change career paths.

A data science master’s degree, on the other hand, is better suited for those who prefer to specialize in advanced data analysis. Typically, data scientists prefer to work with statistics and numbers and use software tools to perform analyses.

layer “... It really depends on which particular courses and skills a student is most interested in learning about.”

“Computer science offers courses in areas like virtualization and systems that are not focus areas for data science. Data science is more specialized and offers more courses in statistics,” Dr. Greg Durrett, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, leader of the Text Analysis, Understanding, and Reasoning (TAUR) Lab and instructor for the master’s program at UT Austin said. “Beyond the factors discussed above, it really depends on which particular courses and skills a student is most interested in learning about.”

Did you know?

layer Newer to each field? Explore career paths and skills in our data science and computer science career guides.

Data or Computer Science Master’s Degree? How to Make Your Choice

Deciding which master of science to pursue can seem daunting. It also requires a deep familiarity with program requirements, courses, and career prospects.

Take the Next Step: Explore a Top Program

To keep exploring careers in data science, check out our data science and analytics career guide. If, however, you’re interested in gaining broad knowledge in computer science and developing skills in programming and managing various tools, you can begin by reviewing the fully online UT Austin Computer Science Master's program.

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