How to Become a Computer Scientist

Article reading time: 10 min. | 05. Sep 2023, written by Kobi Cohen
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Computer Science vs Programming

Computer Science vs Programming

Let’s start by defining what is computer science, because that is a discipline that stands at the basis of everything else when it comes to programming, software, and hardware work. For starters, it’s important to understand that computer science is not the same as computer programming; the former is the research-based approach to computer work, and the latter is the practical, day-to-day work conducted in the world of computation. 

So, what does that mean? In practice, you could find your first job as a computer programmer without studying computer science, but only focusing on learning one or more programming languages. This can be done independently through books and online resources, or through boot camps, where you study with others over a few weeks or months, focusing only on the practical, daily work of computer programming – writing code. 

But there’s a major downside to that approach: your career prospects will be limited, and you won’t be able to advance to more senior roles. Granted, programming jobs pay relatively well compared to other jobs, but programmers without computer science and research or development skills are not likely to see their salaries increasing significantly over time. In addition, competition for good programming jobs is fierce, especially for entry-level jobs, and candidates with an academic background in computer science have better chances compared to programmers without such knowledge. 

So, if you're seriously thinking about a real career in tech, you should really consider getting an academic degree – it will pay dividends over time, and even right after you graduate, as the knowledge you’ll have could help you overcome many of the obstacles junior computer programmers have to face. 

What is Computer Science?

What is Computer Science?

Think of computer science as the world of theory working behind the scenes to support, challenge and improve the business operations aspects of computer work. This can be done by conceptualising new hardware forms or by creating new software. The goal of these new developments, from a computer science perspective, is to push for new options in the field – to see what new problems computers can solve with the help of their computational power. 

In many cases, computer scientists will work on simplifying and developing algorithms, the formulas on which tech applications are based. They do so in order to make programmes and applications more efficient and robust, which means they help develop existing programming languages and programmes, or make new ones. 

That’s why computer science career paths are so exciting: the possibilities in this field are endless. Computer scientists combine deep knowledge in mathematics and engineering principles, with a wide range of other skills, according to their passion and interests: design, physics, philosophy, linguistics… That’s why computer science is such a dominant part of today’s world – it really does touch almost everything.

Working as a Computer Scientist

What Do Computer Scientists Do?

Unlike computer programmers, whose work is focused on implementation of existing computer science practices and solving problems so that apps and websites run smoothly, computer scientists look at the bigger picture. Their work is dedicated to solving the challenges that the entire computer science field is concerned with, or to improving the overall structure of software from a holistic and broad point of view. 

The reason why computer scientists are in such high demand is because their skills are unique, and what they do is challenging. They’re expected to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world problems, in order to improve existing technological elements. Think of them as tech architects; instead of building bridges, they try to solve computational problems by building better technologies. 

Computer science careers can be developed either in private companies, research institutions and NGOs or the academic world. Depending on location and situation, computer scientists might focus on a disciplines like artificial intelligence, machine learning or cryptography, and work on developing new computational theories, teaching or leading a group of programmers, or help tech products run more efficiently. 

At the end of the day, people with computer science careers are people who work on solving problems. They build models and develop programmes to help both companies and the tech field at large, which helps them establish a level of authority and expertise which they can leverage into leadership and management roles as their careers progress. 

Computer Scientist vs Software Developer vs Software Engineer

If you’ve been interested in a tech career for a while now or have read other guides for how to start your career in the field, you might be asking yourself now about software development or engineering. What are these roles? How are they different from computer science?  

Don’t worry – this guide covers these topics as well. If you’re looking for information on how to become a software developer, or how to become a software engineering, this next section is for you. 

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Software Developer

So, we’ve already covered what is computer science. But how are computer scientists different than software developers, a term that is often mentioned at the same time and seems to be almost identical? 

Well, the truth is, a software developer and a computer scientist are two different things. Both are popular career choices among students because software developer jobs are also in high demand and pay well, just like computer science careers. 

Simply put, and as obvious as it may sound, software developers are responsible for… developing software. Unlike computer scientists, who deal with the more abstract and theoretical sides of IT, such as algorithm design, software developers focus their efforts on building software that puts these theoretical innovations and standards to use. 

Software developers need to have strong programming skills, along with a good understanding of software architecture. Just learning a few programming languages isn’t enough: software developers need to understand the principles of object-oriented design guidelines, so they can build and maintain flexible and stable software. 

To get a more in-depth sense of what skills and knowledge software developers need to learn, have a look at the course handbook of our Software Development B.Sc. programme. 

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Software Engineer

Now, unlike the road to becoming a computer scientist or a software developer, where a university degree can prepare you well for your first position - how to become a software engineer is a little more complicated. It requires, time, effort, and experience. 

Much like data engineers are senior-level data scientists who chose to focus on data architecture – if you want to find out more about that, you can read our data science career guide – software engineers are often experienced software developers, with strong programming and software design skills. 

That’s not always the case, though. Some software engineers simply study a degree in software engineering, and find their first job in roles where they work on de-bugging, maintaining, or cleaning up software code. 

Regardless of their path, more experienced and successful software engineers find themselves leading software development teams. Their responsibilities are different than your usual team leaders, though – their job is much more technical, and they are often the strongest developers in their team. 

Software engineers perform tests and regular de-bugging for software, trying to extend its life-cycle and optimise it as much as possible. In addition, they need to communicate with stakeholders, other managers and sometimes even directly with clients, in order to understand the needs and expectations of the software and its users. 

Just like with a career in software development, earning a degree in computer science is a great first step towards a career in software engineering. Computer scientists who work in the private sector, and build experience working on software development projects, have not only great computer science career opportunities, but also great software development or engineering ones.

Why Should I Work as a Computer Scientist?

Are you curious by nature, and love learning new things every day? Do you love puzzles and solving tough problems? Can you spend hours analysing things in detail?  

If you answered yes to all of these questions, then very few roles can compete with what computer science career options can offer you. You’ll be constantly on the hunt for solutions to problems, dealing with tough challenges, and tasked with analysing algorithms, code lines and mathematical equations in great detail. 

It’s a challenging and often unglamorous job, but for the right person, it can be a source of great passion, fulfillment, and excitement, with new adventures every day and a real sense of being a part of a large community of like-minded tech fanatics. 

And the best part? There’s always something new to learn, a new project to fulfill and new problems to solve. You’ll never run out of ideas or possibilities. 

Combine that with great salaries, the possibility to work from anywhere in the world, and excellent career prospects as computer scientists are always in great demand, and if you fit the right profile, a career in the field is a really great choice. 

How Do I Know if Computer Science is the Right Career for Me?

Let’s get one thing out of the way first – if you don’t like math, you won’t like working as a computer scientist.  

That’s just the plain truth. Computer science careers require professionals to have a strong mathematical background, and a BSc computer science involves a lot of math courses.

Now, that shouldn’t deter you from building a career in tech. You can build a pretty good basis of programming without having great math skills. But if you want to make the most out of your computer science career opportunities, you’ll have to invest in developing your mathematical skills. 

Ok, now that you know that, what other skills do you need? And what else do you need to consider? 

  • You’ll need to have good communication skills: despite the stereotypes – which are sometimes quite accurate, let’s be honest – computer scientists usually don’t work in a bubble. Whether you want to work in research at a university, or as part of a development team at a start-up, you need to be able to talk to people, teach them, lead them, and report to stakeholders and managers. So being able to clearly communicate your ideas is important. 
  • You’ll need to have strong analytical skills: to succeed as a computer scientist, you need to be a problem solver. If you struggle with having to come up with solutions to problems, or prefer working in situations where you can always rely on others for answers, you’ll have a hard time building a successful career in the field. 
  • You’ll need to think creatively: if you like thinking outside the box, and enjoy coming up with new ways of doing or approaching tasks, you’ll likely thrive as a computer scientist. You’ll need to combine this skill with an analytical side, of course, but if you’re able to do so – well, that’s your superpower right there. 
  • You’ll need to be detail-oriented: just being creative and analytical won’t be enough. You need to also pay close attention to the smallest details, and not let anything escape your careful examination. You’ll be going over endless amounts of equations, algorithms, and lines of codes – and all of it is going to require your attention. 

 Alright, so now that you know what computer scientists need to do, you’re probably starting to understand why they earn so well, and are so in-demand. This job really isn’t for everyone. 

But, if you’re willing to work hard enough, and if you feel like you have what it takes, the goal is completely within your reach. We believe in you! 

Your roadmap to a career in Computer Science

Decided that computer science is your dream career? Fantastic. Now let’s cover how you can reach that goal, and the steps you need to take in order to become a successful computer scientist.

How to Start

What You Need to Know Before You Start

In this part, we’ll break down the steps you need to take to land your first job as a computer scientist, starting from scratch. This breakdown is also useful if you’re wondering how to become a software developer or how to become a software engineer – the differences will be in the skills you’ll need to develop, but the principles remain the same.  

Before setting out on your new career journey, it’s worth considering the knowledge, credentials, and skills you already have. There are a few different computer science career paths, and not all of them require the same thing. 

What you will need, though, is an academic degree. A survey conducted by Stack Overflow, a popular resource for programmers, has found that 75% of computer scientists have a Bachelor’s, or a higher, academic degree.

Not all of them have a degree in computer science, though. Graduates of mathematics, physics, and some fields of engineering all have the ability to develop a career in computer science after some reskilling. 

But if you don’t have a Bachelor’s degree, the numbers indicate that’s the first step you need to take. 

Don’t worry, though – you can learn on campus but also get an online degree and study with a flexible, part-time schedule.

Study Computer Science and learn online or on campus

When it comes to programming, you can absolutely study on your own, using online resources or books. In fact, many programmers do so successfully each year, and start working at entry-level positions or as freelancers. 

But that approach can only take you so far. Without a solid theoretical knowledge, a good understanding of math and algorithms, and a strong familiarity with the concepts of why things are done a certain way when it comes to building computer systems – your career will hit a dead-end pretty fast. 

If you want to lead teams and project, work on greater, more challenging topics, earn better and have better computer science career options, you’ll need to earn a university degree. 

Granted, it takes more time and effort than just learning a few programming languages (which you’ll be doing anyway as part of your studies), but it is the key to a long and successful career in the field. 

Luckily, these days thanks to online universities such as IU, you can study completely online and at your own pace. So even if you’re currently employed, and are looking to make a career change – you don’t have to settle on your future prospects because of time restraints. 

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Build Your Skills - Constantly

Earning a university degree in computer science is a huge first step towards building computer science careers. But it shouldn’t end there.  

Computer science is a field that’s always changing and evolving, and is very competitive. To have a long and prosperous career, you need to stay up to date, learn new skills, and constantly try to improve. 

Now, this might sound scary at first, but you really have nothing to worry about: the same is true for many other jobs these days, and research has shown that professionals who develop new skills regularly have much better career and salary prospects. How much better? Our computer science salary: the 2023 guide page will give you a breakdown of what you can expect to earn as a computer scientist in the US, Germany, India and South Africa. 

If you find computer science interesting, you’ll never run out of new things to learn, and new directions to take your career in. The changes and developments are what makes this field so special, and you’ll never be bored or run out of ways to develop professionally within the field. 

So, from an early stage in your studies, find out what topics you find more interesting, and as your studies progress, try to dedicate more time to them and learn them in-depth. 

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Starting Out: Networking and Internships

Something important you should keep in mind once you graduate and have a degree: in computer science, and the tech world in general, the demand is always higher for experienced professionals than it is for young talent. 

Don’t let this fact bring you down. Yes, finding your first job can be difficult, and yes, becoming an in-demand, experienced computer scientist will take time. But the benefits when you get to that point are more than worth the effort, and there are things you can do to improve your chances even when starting out. 

Just like your efforts to stay up to date and learn new skills all the time will help you be a better computer scientist, so will your efforts to branch out, network and take on as many opportunities as you can. 

So, when looking for your first job, make sure to build your network – in fact, this is where studying at a university really helps. Reach out to your professors, tutors, fellow students, and alumni, get to know them, and find out about interesting computer science career opportunities they might know of. 

Don’t hesitate to take on internships, too. They’re a great way to build your professional network even more, get more experience in how computer science work looks like on a daily basis, and leave a good impression on employers who could give you helpful references for future jobs. 

And hey, internships often turn into full-time work offers, too – so they’re a great first step! 

Move Up the Ladder: Career Opportunities

From here, the rest is up to you. Thanks to your network, your ability to learn new things and the strong foundation you’ve built in your degree studies, you have everything you need to succeed. 

Work hard, challenge yourself, take on new things – and you will be rewarded. As you build your skills and experience further, your computer science career options will grow further, and so will your salary. 

In a few years, you can find yourself leading a research lab on campus, running a team of software developers, or starting a ground-breaking new start-up. There are so many different things you can do with a computer science degree

You chose a great field to work in – one of the best online degree programmes for working adults, in fact - now make the most of it! 

Why Computer Science is a Great Choice

Now that you have your career in computer science roadmap, and you know how to become a computer scientist, let’s summarise and reinforce your decision to go down this exciting career path. You can go back to these points whenever you need extra motivation during your training process, so you never lose track of your goal.

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Computer scientists are the engine that drives technological innovation. Without them, the world’s biggest companies, from Apple to Meta, would never have existed. As the world becomes increasingly more dependent on technology, in vital efforts such as the fight against climate change or viral diseases, the demand for computer scientists will only grow bigger. New computer science career paths are created every day, around the world. 

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Financial benefits

Few fields can compete with the salaries offered to experienced computer scientists. The average yearly salary for computer scientists in San Francisco is well above $100,000, and many places in Western Europe offer very high salaries as well. Thanks to the completely digital nature of this work, computer scientists can work from anywhere in the world – so the access to computer science career opportunities is limitless, regardless of where they are located. 

An exciting career

Name your passion, and you’ll discover that computer science is involved – and that you can make a career out of it. Music fan? You can help build new music production software. Love sports? Help teams perform better by utilising performance predicting algorithms. Computer science is an endless ocean of possibilities, with computer science career paths that you can pursue and move between. New challenges will wait for you every day, and your work could transform business, industries, and the lives of people around the globe.

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Frequently Asked Questions about becoming a Computer Scientist

What is computer science?

Computer science is the research arm of IT, where computer scientists work on expanding the options of what’s possible in the field. It is performed both at an academic level, in universities and research institutions, and at the private level, in companies and businesses where computer scientists work. 

Computer science involves math, algorithms, computer skills and programming languages, and it’s the foundation for new developments in the field, making computers, software, and hardware work faster and more efficiently, and enabling them to tackle new challenges.

What degree is required to become a computer scientist?

Having a background in mathematics, physics or another scientific field can help you find a role as a computer scientist, but the best way to secure your chances is by getting a degree in computer science or software development. 

A survey has found that 75% of employed computer scientists around the world have at least a Bachelor’s degree, so earning a degree is crucial if you want a successful career in computer science. 

What is the path to becoming a computer scientist?

Step one: check your credentials. Do you have a degree in mathematics? Do you have some programming experience? See if you can leverage that into an internship in a tech company, where you can learn computer science skills on the job. 

Step two: Don’t have enough – or any – tech background? Get a degree. Read this guide to understand the differences between computer science, software development and software engineering, and pick the right degree for you. We have a couple of great ones that you can choose from! 

Step three: Like Rihanna said: work, work, work. Study hard, practice your skills as much as you can, experiment with new projects, challenges, and programming languages. 

Step four: Build your network while you study – fellow students, professors, tutors… connect and stay in touch. Be open to internship and junior role opportunities, or even freelance projects, during or right after your studies. 

Step five: Once you have that first work experience down, look for your first entry level job. Build your GitHub profile so it shows your portfolio and everything you can do, write your resumé, and prepare for interviews – if you study at IU, our career office team will help walk you through these steps. 

Once you find your first job, bam – you’re on the right track! Don’t forget to keep learning new things and challenge yourself, and your career will take you to exciting places. 

Can anyone become a computer scientist?

Yes – but it’s not easy. 

Unlike programming, where you can pick up a good base of skills in a relatively short time, the theoretical aspects of computer science take a lot of hard work and several years for most people to develop. 

If you’re not afraid of solving lots of math problems, studying up on algorithms and building strong scientific skills, then yes, you can definitely become a computer scientist – it’s just a matter of hard work, patience and dedication. 

Can you tell me how to become a software developer? Or how to become a software engineer?

For both software development and software engineering, most of the information provided in this guide holds true. The only differences are in what you need to focus on in your studies, and what additional background and experience you need to acquire. 

For these two professions, you should consider earning a degree in software development, and working on software projects in order to build your portfolio and resumé. 

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