Computer Science

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Computer-Related Study: Quality Questions

Students exploring information technology programs of course need to carefully assess the quality of individual programs as well as the match with their specific interests and needs. Issues related to a program’s currency and real world connections are particularly vital in technology-related fields because of the rate of change—a degree can literally be outdated before it is awarded.

Here are some questions to ask that will help in assessing program strength and fit:

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Levels of Computer-Related Study

Computer work has a reputation for offering career paths where one does not really need formal education but can get by on talent alone—the famous example being Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard University to establish Microsoft. It’s still not uncommon to find programmers, Web masters, and others who learned their art through tinkering on the screen rather than lingering in the classroom, but entry and advancement tends to be much easier for those who can document their knowledge with degrees and professional certifications in addition to hands-on experience. Today most information technology-related positions require some type of formal credential, and in an increasing number of areas graduate study is the standard.

Professional Certification

Especially in the case of information technology support positions, employers often request proof of one’s knowledge through completion of one or more certifications recognized in the industry. Such certifications typically do not have specific educational prerequisites but often ask for several prior years of work experience related to the area of certification. They always (in the case of well-recognized certifications) require in-depth knowledge of the topics covered in certification exams, with certification needing to be renewed every year or every few years as technology changes. Certifications typically focus on hands-on skills and knowledge of particular systems and processes rather than a broad or theory-based knowledge of information technology, and, while sufficient in themselves for many entry-level positions, are often a complement to degree education rather than a substitute.

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Directions in Computer-Related Study

“I want to study computers” is no longer enough to define a student’s goals, even at the undergraduate level. Choices are abundant—and have also evolved so quickly that even the savviest individuals are likely to need an update on how to match academic program options with their specific career ambitions.

Education in IT areas (information technology, including computers as well as other digital devices such as cell phones) began expanding and diversifying rapidly in the 1990s. The many new applications and challenges associated with the Internet, microchip technology, and worldwide reliance on digital devices mean that computer professionals are taking on more varied roles, some more specialized, some more interdisciplinary. One recent task force report on computer curricula concluded that “dozens and perhaps hundreds” of types of computer-related degree programs now exist to prepare such professionals.

Among these, the report defined five base disciplines: computer engineering, software engineering, computer science, information technology, and information systems.

Computer Science

Academic programs in computer science, the original and broadest “computer study” field, are offered by almost all U.S. colleges and universities at every level. At most institutions, computer science programs developed within departments of mathematics in the 1960s or 1970s, then split away within the next decade or two (some remain housed in joint departments of mathematics and computer science, or, less frequently, as a unit within electrical engineering or other departments).

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