Computer science degrees give you the skills for coding and much more – but what will you be learning during study hours? And where does it all lead?
By Ben Skuse
Computer science degrees cover the building blocks of information and computation. Offering both a theoretical and hands-on grounding in the subject, you can expect to gain excellent programming skills, create innovative apps and learn how to design, implement and maintain complex software systems.
Many courses also offer units on some of the most cutting-edge elements of computer science (CS) today, including big data, games, graphics complexity, cloud computing, and even robotics and artificial intelligence. The difference between CS and information technology (IT) degrees is not set in stone and varies between universities.
Generally speaking, the term ‘IT’ refers to the application of software design and development, with more of a business focus, whereas CS is more fundamental. It’s a good idea to browse course information from various universities to see which best fits your interests and abilities.
Surprisingly, you don’t need any programming experience to begin a CS degree. Most universities have a minimum Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) score for entry into CS courses, which can vary considerably, and require you to take maths in your final high school exams.
“Mathematics is the only subject whose study consistently enhances performance across all fields of science,” says Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb. “It forms the basis of most scientific and industrial research and development.”
In addition, reasonable grades in English or English as a Second Language (ESL) for non-native English speakers are necessary. It’s also an advantage in some universities to have studied science subjects in Year 12. Note that special admission pathways are available for students considered to have come from a disadvantaged background and also for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Where you may end up
With the average graduate earning a healthy $53,000 per year in their first full-time job, CS opens the door to a spectrum of possibilities. You could work for a company, start your own business, teach or become an academic.
Graduates are highly sought after by government, large and small tech companies, and any other business with an IT department. In addition, the analytical and problem-solving skills gained from a CS degree are transferable to many other sectors, such as professional services, marketing and banking.
Wherever you want to end up, a broad range of options are available to explore other subject areas and passions during your degree. Katrina Falkner, Head of the School of Computer Science at the University of Adelaide, runs a course that combines CS with education.
“Often this research is a blend of traditional computer science techniques, such as artificial intelligence and visualisation, and education psychology or social science techniques,” she explains. Other potential subjects you could combine with your CS degree include psychology, languages, biology, philosophy, geography and commerce.
With a CS degree, your career can head in any direction. Better yet, you’ll have the chance to change society for the better.
“CS will give you skills that are likely to be in demand in coming decades,” says Ian Chubb. “The future needs fast movers. It needs big ideas. Above all, it needs people who can grasp a complex problem and build the solution required – with talent, creativity and flair.
“Employers will be looking for people with these skills, and learning them gives you a great chance of carving out a long and rewarding career. You’ll have an opportunity to do something meaningful that helps others.”
Katrina Le, who’s in the second year of a Bachelor of Computer Science (Advanced) at the University of Adelaide, originally thought she would like to work in the games industry. Through her studies, however, she can now see her horizons expanding.
“Getting involved in creating software that can help a lot of people in their everyday lives is definitely an opportunity I don’t want to miss.”
“The future needs fast movers, big ideas and people with talent and creativity.”
Work + study = experiences
A great way to make the most of your degree is to do an internship while you study. Adding real-world skills to academic knowledge is great preparation for life after university. Numerous Australian organisations offer internships, from small tech businesses all the way up to government agencies and multinational companies. Here’s just a few:
Internship program: year-round, flexible two-month internships for students from various disciplines.
Vacation scholarships: around 200 third-year university students per year spend their summer holidays working with CSIRO.
Internships are offered across three project areas where you could end up working on maps, apps, geo and social products – and that’s just in the Sydney office.
Intern program: a flexible program of up to 12 months for full-time students completing their final year at an Australian university in an undergraduate or postgraduate course.
Author: Ben Skuse
Ben Skuse is a UK-based former mathematician turned professional science writer, who has written for the Careers with STEM magazines for over 5 years. You can follow him on Twitter @BenSkuseSciComm.