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How good is a computer science degree?

  1. May 6, 2012 #1
    I'm considering doing a computer science degree (in the UK) but recently I've been put off from reading what other people have to say about it. It seems most people think a degree in maths, physics or engineering is much better because with those degrees you can do everything you could do with a computer science degree and more. For example it would seem to be fairly easy for someone with a physics or engineering degree to be able to go into computer science research, or get a job as a software engineer, but it would be very difficult for someone with a computer science degree, to go into physics/engineering research or get a job as an engineer (other than a software engineer).

    Also I've read that computer science is considered a fairy easy degree when compared to degrees like physics, maths or engineering, and therefore doesn't get the same respect.

    I'm posting on this forum as there seems to be some very knowledgeable people about science and engineering. So basically how true are the above points and therefore how good would you say a computer science degree is in comparison to a maths, physics or engineering degree?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 6, 2012 #2
    I think the prevailing view of 'computer science' degrees is that they're not always strictly CS. Sometimes it turns out that a CS degree is more like a software engineering degree, where there is a lot more practical application of the core CS concepts and not so much theory. In the strictest sense, computer science is very heavy on mathematics (in some paradigms, it's regarded as a branch of mathematics). Still, for most software engineers, the math isn't needed, so perhaps this contributes to the stigma (if you can really call it that, CS is still a great technical degree to hold).

    It's probably true that a physicist/engineer/applied mathematician would have an easier time going into CS than vice-versa, but this is probably because of the large amount of prerequisite knowledge of mathematics and foundation-level physics these other degrees require. Still, this kind of works only for some areas in computer science. There are a few fields that require a lot more dedication to be good with at higher levels (think computer architecture or compiler design and programming languages). Also it may be the case that most companies don't require such deep knowledge of certain topics, so it's not focused on very much. Same with typical engineering disciplines too, it seems, but somehow the culture with that has been to keep engineering a very rigorous subject.

    If you're thinking about whether you should or shouldn't do CS in lieu of another more mathematically-based degree, that shouldn't be a concern for you. If you happen to enjoy physics, engineering, or mathematics, then it's probably a good idea to get a degree in that and learn CS concepts as well if you're looking to go that route. The software industry seems somewhat unique in that a lot of people from very diverse backgrounds can break into the field (physics, music, philosophy, hell you'll see some guys who might have been around since high school and never even got a degree).
  4. May 7, 2012 #3
    Thanks for the reply. I wasn't thinking of doing a CS degree instead of maths/physics/engineering degree but rather the other way round. I think I slightly prefer CS to the other degrees but was just concerned as to it's value compared to the other degrees mentioned. So would you say that if you go to a good university then a CS degree is on a similar level to a physics/maths/engineering degree and therefore a respectable degree?
  5. May 7, 2012 #4
    If it bothers you that much [which in my view, it should not!], apply for a joint-honours course. "Mathematics and/with Computer Science" degrees exist. I know that they're available at Oxford (Math&CS) and Imperial (JMC = Joint Maths and Computing). Durham, UEA and Warwick are other ones that spring to mind but do cross-check, for it's been a while since I went on their web pages and I might be remembering things wrong.
  6. May 7, 2012 #5
    Thanks for the reply. I'm certainly considering the maths and CS degrees as they seem a very good combination. The only reason it bothers me is that I would rather do a degree that allows you to go into more areas, as if I develop an interest in another area it would then be simpler to move into that area. Also how the degree is perceived in relation to other degrees is fairly important when applying for jobs, If an employer doesn't think much of the degree you're doing you'll be less likely to get an interview. For example I would imagine for a general graduate job an employer would think more highly of a physics degree than a CS degree, and that's my major concern with a CS degree.
  7. May 7, 2012 #6
    This question doesn't make sense. There are a lot of specialties where CS grads will have a much larger advantage over a non-CS major, perhaps because an employer is looking for some specific domain knowledge (networking, low-level software/embedded systems, possibly other things as well). Actually, even saying that it really depends. If you're a math major but you've written iPhone apps or contributed to some open-source software, you'll be doing much better than a CS grad who has only taken CS classes.

    If you like CS, you should do that. When you do something you like and are passionate about, it shows through your knowledge, and you will want to know more and learn more on your own without being pressured by grades and school. Obviously this is a big advantage, especially when the interviewers start asking you technical questions. However, as a math/physics/engineering major, it's not impossible to bring yourself up to speed in these fields, it will just require more work.
  8. May 7, 2012 #7
    Math, physics, and engineering aren't computer science and you probably can't just transition to it without putting in some work to understand the subject, the same as you would with anything else. And, as was mentioned there are subjects within CS like architecture, compilers, operating systems, networking, distributed computing, parallel computing, etc (all important CS areas) that you likely won't have an advantage in over CS grads if you major in physics or math.
    Last edited: May 7, 2012
  9. May 7, 2012 #8
    I don't know where you get this from. I've never heard such a thing. Indeed, all that I've read and heard, with regarded to so-called "non-soft/respected degrees" in the UK, is that you're fine, so long as you're not doing business or something and CS would probably fall in "hard science/math/engineering".

    What kind of "graduate jobs" are you interested in? Tell you what. Why don't you just e-mail the HR department/rep (or call them up!) and ask them whether it even makes a difference to them? For jobs *not* requiring a very specific set of skills (something where very relevant experience or expertise on a given subject is essential), I doubt anyone would care whether you're a CS or physics grad! Just contact them (a few different companies) and let us know what they think. I'd be curious to know myself.
  10. May 7, 2012 #9


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    I've found that some mathematical students (even ones in advanced programs) struggle with computer science for whatever reason.

    Unsurprisingly though, the engineer types usually do not struggle with using computers and even with programming them.

    I don't think that a CS major would find it easy going into a physics or math PhD moreso because of the amount of content you need to cover and the understanding required: I don't know if it's necessarily harder or not, but you need a specific kind of thinking for the different areas of study. Physics has its own thinking, mathematics its own, computer science and programming its own as well as engineering and getting this in a deep way usually takes time.

    Computer science can be ridiculously hard depending on how it is taught and what you are required to do. Good teachers can make things look ridiculously easy in comparison to what a bad teacher can do to an otherwise easy subject.

    My advice is if you want to get into software development, then start building a portfolio of your projects (both personal and group) and also get to know people and the type of work and people that they look for in new hires.

    Chances are that if you have a good portfolio and have some kind of external recommendation of some sort that holds water, then if you have gained honest understanding through your own portfolio, then you should be ok for the technical part of the interview.

    I personally don't think you'll learn all you need to know just on coursework alone: you will have to do some stuff outside of it.

    Good luck with your future though and if you want to get into software development, I think you will find employment opportunities if you really know your stuff, work in a team, have good communication skills, and actually code (you would be surprised that many people can't actually code even simple things and they have CS degrees: I'm not kidding).
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