How to Become a Computer Scientist [+ Salary & Career Guide]

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Computers, laptops, smartphones, iPads, and tablets — today we take them for granted, but these pieces of technology have become essential to our personal and professional lives. And the skilled professionals who make it all possible — working behind the scenes to keep pushing the envelope of how we leverage computer technology to improve our quality of life — are computer scientists.

Since computers, smartphones, and tablets are essential to our existence, it is no surprise that there is high demand for computer scientists across all sectors of business, government, and the nonprofit world. Let’s explore this popular position and see whether it might be the right fit for your career.

What Is a Computer Scientist? 

Since many online definitions describe a computer scientist as “a person who has acquired knowledge of computer science,” let’s first define that area of study.

According to Techopedia, computer science is described as “the study of both computer hardware and software design. It encompasses both the study of theoretical algorithms and the practical problems involved in implementing them through computer hardware and software. The study of computer science has many branches, including artificial intelligence, software engineering, programming and computer graphics.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics offers the following basic definition of a computer scientist: “Computer and information research scientists design innovative uses for new and existing technology. They study and solve complex problems in computing for business, science, medicine and other fields.”

Computer Science vs. Information Technology (IT)

You’ve likely heard of information technology, but how does it differ from computer science? 

“The term computer science is often confused with information technology (IT), but these are very different fields,” notes Techopedia. “IT deals with the study of data and data processing, and may also apply to the management of computer systems, particularly in a business setting. Computer science … deals with the more theoretical or academic side of computing.”

What Does a Computer Scientist Do? 

The specific responsibilities of a computer scientist will vary by position and company, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the following duties:

  • Explore challenges and issues in computing, and develop theories and solutions to address these problems
  • Work with engineers and other scientists to solve complicated computing challenges
  • Figure out the needs and requirements of computer systems 
  • Work on new systems, resources, and tools that would help others work with computers 
  • Use data science and machine learning to test different software systems
  • Collect and analyze data; write papers and present findings at conferences or meetings

Employment website Indeed summarizes a computer scientist’s typical duties as follows: 

  • Head product development projects
  • Help advance a system’s computer power and efficiency by improving software or hardware
  • Test and debug software 
  • Work with (and create when needed) programming languages
  • Collaborate with others and lead projects  
  • Work with algorithms, software, and data structure

Where Do Computer Scientists Work?

Since technology is an essential part of every industry, skilled computer scientists are needed across a wide variety of sectors. These include but are not limited to:

  • Software development
  • Banking and financial services
  • Information technology
  • Government 
  • Hospitals and health care
  • Network security
  • Business consulting and services
  • Education 
  • Retail
  • Sports
  • Entertainment

Companies Hiring Computer Scientists

If you’re exploring a career in data science, it’s important to know which companies are hA search on LinkedIn for “computer scientist” yields more than 50,000 job results — with more positions being added every day. Here is a sample of top companies that are hiring for these types of positions:

  • Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
  • Spotify
  • Pfizer
  • Amazon
  • Adobe
  • TikTok
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  • Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • The Walt Disney Company
  • PayPal
  • Zoom
  • Microsoft
  • Major League Baseball 

It’s important to note that you may come across listings for data scientists or other types of positions related to computer science. 

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Computer Scientist Education Requirements

Most, if not all, positions require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field, and many companies posting mid- to senior-level positions are looking for candidates with advanced education — in some cases, a Ph.D. in computer science. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “computer and information research scientists typically need a master’s or higher degree in computer science or a related field, such as computer engineering. Some employers prefer to hire candidates who have a Ph.D. Others, such as the federal government, may hire candidates who have a bachelor’s degree in computer and information technology.”

Computer science certifications are also a good investment that can help advance your career. Some of the most popular ones include:

Tip: Look at job postings and determine the most common educational requirements. This will give you a good idea of what companies are looking for, and you can adjust your career goals accordingly.

Essential Hard Skills for Computer Scientists

Hard skills refers to expertise, knowledge, or experience that is required for a specific job. When it comes to computer scientists, here is a list — courtesy of Indeed and Zippia — of some of the most common hard skills and technical knowledge employers are looking for:

  • Python and R
  • Programming
  • Data analysis
  • Machine learning algorithms
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Software development
  • Cloud computing
  • Network management
  • Mathematical proficiency
  • Troubleshooting acumen
  • Linux
  • Java
  • C++

Essential Soft Skills for Computer Scientists 

Hands-on experience is important, which means being involved in data-related projects is Soft skills are non-technical aspects of your work style and demeanor that demonstrate how you will fit within a company and team. These types of skills aren’t position- or industry-specific and typically translate across a wide variety of roles and responsibilities. Here are some of the top soft skills for computer scientists

  • Good communication. In this type of position, you must be able to explain your data and research to non-technical audiences — both in written and oral form. 
  • Attention to detail. The slightest programming mistake could derail a project. 
  • Interpersonal skills. Since computer scientists will often work as a part of a team, they must be able to work effectively with others. 
  • Logical and analytical thinking. Computer scientists must use an organized, logical approach when it comes to evaluating research results. 
  • Problem-solving skills. Sometimes problems require creative, innovative solutions. 

Computer Scientist Career Paths

The good news about computer science? There are a variety of specializations and roles that can lead to computer scientist positions, depending on your interests, education, experience, and career goals.  

For example, a bachelor’s degree in computer science (or a related field) can lead to positions in coding, programming, technical writing, software development, software engineering, cybersecurity, and systems management. These positions could serve as a solid foundation for your computer scientist career.

Zippia outlines several jobs — software engineer, programmer analyst, consultant, senior systems engineer, technical staff — that could lead to a computer scientist role. In many of these positions, you would have opportunities to become a team leader or project manager, which would solidify the five to 10 years of experience often required for more senior-level computer scientists.

Computer Scientist Salary & Career Outlook 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for a computer scientist is $131,490. This position is also expected to grow 22% between 2020 and 2030, which is much faster than the national average.

Here are some other computer scientist salary averages to keep in mind — but remember that these numbers are dynamic and may fluctuate daily.  

  • Base salary of $108,944/year — Indeed
  • Average base salary of $82,477/year — Payscale 
  • $124,133 total annual pay (with a base pay of $104,318 and additional pay of $19,915 that may include a cash bonus, commission, profit sharing, etc.) — Glassdoor 
  • $104,000 average annual salary — Zippia 

As you can see, there is quite a range, but most senior-level positions are well into six figures. The exact compensation package will depend on a number of factors, including the company and position itself, where the role is physically located, how much education and experience is required, and the specific responsibilities. 

5 Steps to Becoming a Computer Scientist

Are you interested in starting on a computer scientist career path? The journey will differ for everyone, but here is a high-level overview that will guide you toward your ideal computer scientist position. 

  1. Earn a relevant undergraduate degree. Your best bet is computer science, engineering, or a related field. If you have an undergraduate degree in an unrelated field, you can gain relevant computer science experience with an internship, certifications, and an advanced degree program. 
  1. Consider an internship. This is an important step in any field — including computer science. An internship can provide hands-on knowledge and experience and also help you figure out whether computer science is the right fit. Plus, you never know whether an internship could lead to a permanent position. 
  1. Secure an entry-level or mid-level role in engineering or computer science. Consider positions like software engineer, systems engineer, programming analyst, or IT personnel.
  1. Obtain relevant certifications. Not only will they help you advance your career, but they may be required for certain positions. 
  1. Earn a master’s degree in a related field. In many cases, a master’s degree in computer science, data science, data analytics, engineering, or a related field is required. Even if it isn’t, an advanced degree will illustrate your dedication to your career and education — and it just may be the thing that sets you apart from other applicants. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Where can I find a job as a computer scientist?

The short answer — everywhere! Since technology is valuable in every industry, you’ll find computer scientist positions in banking and finance, the government, retail, sports, entertainment, health care, education, and more.

How much does a computer scientist make?

The median annual salary for a computer scientist is $131,490, but the total compensation package will depend on many factors, including the company, the job itself, and how much education and experience is required.

Are certifications required to become a computer scientist?

Certifications are often highly recommended and may be required. Make sure you have the appropriate certifications, education, and experience before applying to a specific job.

Do I need a master’s degree to become a computer scientist?

In many cases, yes — an advanced degree in computer science, data science, or a related field is required. Some positions even required a Ph.D.

This report was brought to you by the University of San Diego’s Master of Science in Applied Data Science, which is taught by experienced data science practitioners and can be tailored to the needs of specific industries and employers.

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