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Certifications vs. the MSCS: Why It's Not Either/Or

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There is more than one way to grow a computer science career. Some professionals start with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science—a degree associated with average annual salaries of $88,000. Others transition into technology after earning a Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS), which correlates with average salaries of $107,000. Some learn new skills on the job as organizations implement technology integration plans. Others reskill in bootcamp or graduate certificate programs. And many professionals pursue certifications in addition to other credentials. 

Stacking computer science certifications is smart even if you already have a bachelor's degree or master's degree. According to recent research from the Linux Foundation, 72 percent of hiring managers are more likely to hire job candidates with certifications, supporting the idea that a mix of credentials can make computer science professionals more competitive. 

On the other hand, the benefits of pursuing an MSCS online or on-campus cannot be overstated. There is a wage premium associated with master's degrees in computer science. And according to Lightcast data, nearly four in 10 computer science job listings ask for or require graduate degrees. 

Earning a computer science master's such as Tufts School of Engineering's online MSCS can speed up your career advancement. The program's industry-driven curriculum consists of 33 credit hours of coursework focused on computer science theory and programming practices. Adding a graduate degree and computer science certifications to your resume can give you the credentials to compete for high-paying, high-profile jobs in crowded markets.

How Do Certifications and Graduate Computer Science Degrees Differ?

Breadth and Depth

Certifications tend to focus on single skills or sets of skills in a sub-field or branch of computer science. Certificate courses or online bootcamps may delve deeply into artificial intelligence or cybersecurity, but they don't give participants a broad view of the digital technology landscape and technology's impact on other industries. Similarly, certification exams are very limited in the skills they validate.

Computer science master's programs, on the other hand, provide students with a broader knowledge base, giving them more professional versatility. In the Tufts School of Engineering online MSCS program, graduate students learn advanced concepts related to algorithms, programming languages, software engineering, and computer security. They also learn some of the most in-demand computer science skills, such as machine learning. And while the overall focus remains broad, there are opportunities to dive deeply into specific topics.

Cost

While certifications cost less than degrees, most certification seekers pay for more than just the examination. Passing many of the top computer science certification exams is extremely difficult. Exam takers frequently pay for prep courses, study guides, and retests, which all add to the cost of getting certified. An exam with a $400 price tag can end up costing thousands of dollars, and most professionals pay for certifications out of pocket unless they are lucky enough to receive financial support from an employer.

Tufts University's online MSCS costs about $56,000 in total tuition. If this figure gives you pause, consider that computer science master's students at Tufts can access scholarships and other sources of financing. The ROI of a computer science master's from a world-renowned institution such as Tufts School of Engineering is high. And upon graduation, students receive more than just a diploma. Tufts’ MSCS curriculum teaches leading-edge computer science skills and concepts, giving graduates what they need to pursue careers in software development, cybersecurity, data science, and other rapidly evolving information technology disciplines. 

Objectives

Certifications and master's degrees advance computer science careers in different ways. Certifications are ideal for professionals who want to showcase specific skills or demonstrate their readiness for particular roles. Many employers prefer to hire job candidates with several certifications on their resumes, and some technology positions are only open to applicants with specific certifications, which serve as proof of expertise. On-campus and online MSCS programs teach skills that move technology careers forward. Graduate programs teach technical skills related to data structures, computer systems, and information security as well as collaboration, creativity, and managerial skills. 

Institutions such as Tufts also offer online computer science master's candidates opportunities to gain research and practical experience under the guidance of leading experts. Tufts’ Department of Computer Science maintains a Piazza board where faculty post internships, job postings, research opportunities, and information about events and auxiliary educational opportunities.

Time Investment

Certifications are typically not time-bound. Learners can prepare for the exams on their own timetables and sit for them when they’re ready. Certification pathways with coursework tend to last a few days or weeks. Earning certifications by taking exams may take a few weeks or months of self-study. 

Enrolling in a computer science master's program involves a more significant time investment—usually about two years—but that's a benefit, not a drawback. Because master’s degree programs last longer, students can delve more deeply into the curriculum and form lasting connections with peers and professors. Graduate students at Tufts receive one-on-one guidance from enrollment specialists, faculty mentorship, career counseling, and membership in alumni networks. Additionally, Tufts’ proximity to Boston helps online MSCS candidates land internships and jobs at top technology companies in the greater Boston area as well as across the globe.

Should I Pursue Computer Science Certifications Online or Invest in an MSCS?

Certification programs and MSCS programs may differ substantially in scope but are highly complementary. Computer science certification exams are often very challenging and require a lot of preparation to pass. Earning an online MSCS at Tufts provides learners with such a strong foundation in computer science theory and practice that they graduate ready to pursue many of the most in-demand professional certifications. Computer science master's program candidates at Tufts also hone organization and research skills that support self-study so they can prepare for future certifications independently.

However, Tufts' MSCS program also does much more. It connects students with local and global communities of accomplished computer science and information technology professionals—something computer science certification pathways typically don't do. Additionally, access to fellow students, faculty, and Tufts' extensive alumni community affords opportunities to prepare for certification exams with others. This can help ambitious professionals sidestep some of the hidden costs of certification, like exam prep courses.

Ultimately, investing in Tufts’ part-time online Master of Science in Computer Science program prepares students for anything they might encounter in their professional lives and for everything they want to accomplish throughout their careers. The hands-on, results-focused program readies graduates for jobs at top companies in and out of tech and gives them the tools to stack advanced certifications on top of their other credentials to keep up in an evolving employment landscape. 

Apply today to earn your MSCS in as little as two years, or attend an admissions event to learn more about how Tufts' online computer science master's program can advance your career—even if you don't have a bachelor’s degree in computer science.