Is Computer Science Hard? 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Thanks to higher-than-average salaries, faster-than-average job growth, and fewer barriers to entry compared to similarly high-paying careers like medicine or law, computer science tends to attract many students.

[Featured image] A woman wearing headphones works on her laptop in a computer science class.

But computer science has gotten a reputation for being a hard bachelor’s degree to earn because it combines theoretical and practical subjects, and involves learning how to program.

There’s a good deal of buzz about the high dropout rate for computer science majors (9.8 percent compared to 7.4 percent for business administration majors), but that often-cited data was from a UK-based study from the 2016-17 school year [1]. Computer science remains a popular major, especially for students who enjoy solving complex problems. During the 2018-19 school year, US institutions awarded nearly 88,633 bachelor’s degrees in computer science, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). That’s more than education majors (83,946), physical science majors (31,148), and mathematics majors (26,146) [2]. 

In this article, we’ll review what makes computer science a challenging major, how you can prepare yourself for the unique challenges of earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and alternatives to consider if a four-year degree is not the best option for your needs.  

Why is computer science considered such a hard major? 

Earning a computer science degree has been known to entail a more intense workload than you might experience with other majors because there are many foundational concepts about computer software, hardware, and theory to learn. Part of that learning may involve a lot of practice, typically completed on your own time. Let’s review two of the biggest reasons why some students find computer science hard. 

Learning a programming language

As a computer science major, you’ll likely learn how to program, which means learning a new language. There are many popular programming languages in use today, but the top computer science programs in the US tend to teach Python and Java. 

Let’s use Python as an example: it takes between two and six months on average to learn the fundamentals of Python, and mastering the language can take years. While you may learn about Python in class, you’ll likely need to dedicate extra time to become more proficient. Fortunately, learning one language can make it easier to learn others—and you’ll notice that many professional programmers know more than one. 

Although it’s not necessary to know how to program before beginning your bachelor’s degree in computer science, having some understanding of a programming language can help. If you want to get a head start on programming, consider enrolling in the University of Michigan’s Python for Everybody (Getting Started with Python) on Coursera. You’ll learn the basics of programming with Python using only the simplest math.

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Computer science subjects

Although the specific courses you’re required to take for your computer science major will differ by department, you can expect to take a mix of programming and mathematics courses. Some institutions also require a handful of science courses, such as biology, chemistry, physics, or electronics.

Programming course examplesMath course examples
Computer systems organizationsCalculus
Data structures and algorithmsStatistics
Computer engineeringLinear algebra
Product designProbability

The advanced concepts you’ll encounter in calculus or linear algebra may feel daunting. But don’t let that deter you from majoring in computer science. As part of your electives, consider taking classes like precalculus (or precalc) to help prepare you for the more rigorous math classes you’ll take for your major. If you’d like extra help with math, many colleges and universities offer free tutoring services for students. It’s also a good idea to speak with a college advisor about your concerns and see if they can recommend a strategy to help you successfully complete the major of your choice.   

To get a sense of the courses you’ll need to take as a computer science major, research each of the computer science programs in the schools you’re interested in attending and review their requirements. Knowing what to expect may help you determine how to best prepare for your coursework

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How to make your computer science degree more manageable  

1. Get a head start.

Taking an introductory computer science course may help you grasp important concepts and feel better prepared for more advanced courses once you begin your major. Review your college or university’s course catalog to see what’s offered and if you can enroll during the first or second semester of your first year. 

You can also look into online tutorials or programming courses, such as those offered on Coursera. While most computer science departments don’t expect students to have any prior programming knowledge, you may feel more comfortable—and confident—with a bit of extra preparation.  

[Highlight: If you’d like to become more familiar with programming, Princeton University’s Computer Science: Programming with a Purpose course will introduce you to many programming fundamentals and key computer science concepts.]

2. Manage your time. 

Especially in the early days of your computer science degree, it may feel like there’s a lot to tackle and little time to do so. Get specific and create a schedule, or routine, to help you block off your time for your different responsibilities. Make sure you include time for classes, homework, programming practice, social activities, and rest. Check out these other eleven study habits worth developing.

3. Refine your attention to detail. 

Programming involves looking at code—a lot of code—and catching minute errors buried deep within a long lines of it. Improve your attention to detail (a key skill for a career in computer science) by improving your focus. Use external tools, like lists, to stay organized and on task. Or look for games, like chess or Sudoku, to hone your focus. Programs like Lumosity and Elevate also offer a number of digital games designed to improve focus.   

4. Seek out support.

There will be times when the subject matter you’re learning may seem confusing or difficult. You don’t have to go it alone. Research whether there are tutoring resources you can take advantage of, partner with a classmate or form a study group, or connect with your professor or instructor during office hours to review tricky concepts. Asking questions along the way can make a big difference while also helping you network with your peers and faculty members.   

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Computer science degrees: Return on investment

Studying computer science can be demanding, but earning your bachelor’s degree in computer science has rewards—both personal and professional. 

Skills development

Beyond the core education you should receive as part of your computer science bachelor’s degree, you may also develop important skills to apply your career. The biggest skills those working in computer science use are [3]: 

  • Reading comprehension 

  • Critical thinking

  • Judgment and decision-making

  • Mathematics 

Moreover, many of these skills—such as critical thinking and judgment—are highly valued transferable skills, meaning you can apply them to a number of jobs. 

In-demand industry

Computer science is a growing industry with lots of opportunity thanks to the increasingly digital nature of people’s lives. Currently, there are 2.17 million people in the US working in computer science [3]. Occupations within the field are expected to grow by 13 percent in the next decade, which is faster than average [4]. 

Versatility 

A computer science degree can be quite versatile thanks to the technical know-how you develop as a result of your time in a program. You can pursue roles like computer systems analyst or software developer, or you can pursue a number of related professions in robotics, web development, video game design, cybersecurity, and data analysis. Learn more about what you can do with your computer science degree

Higher salaries

Computer science professions tend to pay well. As of May 2020, the median annual salary for all occupations in the US was $41,950, but the median annual salary for occupations in computer and information technology was $91,520 [4]. All of the jobs listed below require a bachelor’s degree, according to the BLS. 

Job titleMedian US salary*
Web developer$77,200
Network and computer systems administrator$84,810
Computer programmers$89,190
Computer systems analyst$93,730
Database administrator$98,860
Information security analyst$103,590
Software developer$110,140

*Data collected from BLS (December 2021)

Alternatives to a computer science degree

Dedicating four years to earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science can be a worthwhile pursuit, but it may not always be the best option to achieve your short- and long-term goals, especially if you’ve already earned your degree in another subject and you’re interested in pivoting to a career in computer science. In that case, here are three alternatives to consider: 

Bootcamps

Attending an intensive program like a bootcamp can help you learn an aspect of computer science, typically in a much shorter timeframe than a bachelor’s degree. You can attend more general programming bootcamps, where you learn a language, or you can focus on an area like web development, cybersecurity, or data science. Many bootcamps are designed to prepare you for a career in the area of your choice and may feature job placement support.  

Professional certificates 

Whether you’re looking to change careers and have no prior computer science knowledge, or you’re looking to advance in your career and want to develop specific skills in new areas, a professional certificate can help—and add to your resume credentials. Explore a number of computer science certificates on Coursera, including the beginner friendly IT Automation with Python from Google and Full Stack Cloud Developer from IBM

Certifications

Beginners-level certifications are industry-approved training programs that show your competency in a number of areas: IT, a programming language, network administration, and more. While there are more advanced certifications available, if you’re looking for a foundation in an area of computer science, taking and passing a certification can be a faster way to gain important skills than a bachelor’s degree. 

Learn more: Are Certifications Worth It? When to Get Certified in Your IT Career

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

 

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Article sources

1. ComputerWeekly.com. “Computer Science Undergraduates Most Likely to Drop Out, https://www.computerweekly.com/news/252467745/Computer-science-undergraduates-most-likely-to-drop-out.” Accessed December 27, 2021

2. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). “Digest of Education Statistics, 2020, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d20/tables/dt20_322.10.asp.” Accessed December 27, 2021. 

3. Data USA. “Computer Science, https://datausa.io/profile/cip/computer-science-110701..”  Accessed December 27, 2021. 

4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Computer and Information Technology Occupations, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/home.htm.” Accessed December 27, 2021. 

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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