If you want to enter the IT field, having a computer science degree would benefit your career. Nonetheless, many who choose the bootcamp route argue that studying in CS is impractical since there’s not enough “real” coding there. Naturally, the question of how much coding is done in a computer science degree was raised.
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- A computer science degree encompasses both theoretical and practical aspects, covering a range of courses from core programming to web development and computer architecture.
- While coding is an integral part of a CS degree, the depth and focus on practical coding varies by institution, and hands-on, real-world application may be limited in some programs.
- Pursuing a CS degree requires a commitment to self-study and continuous learning outside the classroom, ensuring that the acquired skills match individual career aspirations and needs.
What it Means to Major in Computer Science
A common question among aspiring tech professionals is whether a computer science degree is essential for securing a job in the field. To understand that, you need to take a look at the course structure and see what kinds of topics are covered by the curricula.
Generally speaking, a CS major covers the study of both theoretical and practical aspects of computers and computation. As it is a versatile field, students cover a variety of topics that can prepare them for an extended list of careers starting with software engineering and up to systems administration. The core courses in CS include:
- Introduction to Computer Science
- Data Structures and Algorithms
- Programming Languages
- Software Engineering
- Operating Systems
- Networks and Security
As in most education programs, you will also be given a chance to get some extra courses, for example in in artificial intelligence, parallel computing, or human-computer interaction.
We did a little digging and found that one CS major on FreeCodeCamp shared his experience of being in a 4-year program. We gathered some of the author’s insights into each course so that you too may know what to expect from your education in computer science.
Core Programming Courses: The Foundation
At the heart of almost all computer science programs are courses such as Programming I and II. These foundational courses arm students with essential skills, ranging from basic program structuring to more complex endeavours like developing text-based games. Here key principles are covered, including if statements, boolean logic, loops, class and struct creation, polymorphisms, inheritance, and basic data structures like arrays and vectors. For many future specialists, these courses establish at least 70% of the knowledge needed to venture into professional programming.
Discrete Structures in Computer Science: A Mixed Bag
While intended to accustom you to boolean logic, the Discrete Structures course dives deeper into topics such as logic, set operations, proof methods, recursive definitions, combinatorics, and graph theory. While some argue that the advanced nature of the topics can be daunting for novices, the knowledge you gain here, especially in areas like logic and set operations, can be valuable in real-world programming scenarios. The practical relevance of certain topics might, however, vary depending on one’s specialization within tech.
Data Structures: Essential and Impactful
Data structures lie at the heart of computer programming, allowing for the efficient storage and management of data. Knowledge about arrays, stacks, linked lists, trees, and various other structures therefore not only aids in organizing data but also proves invaluable during technical interviews. Additionally, learning data structures in languages like C will provide you with insights into memory management, further enriching your understanding.
Analysis of Algorithms: Not Just Theory
While the concept of algorithms drives many of the world’s leading software applications, some debate the practical applicability of certain topics covered in algorithm-related courses. Big O notation, nonetheless, stands out as particularly useful, allowing for the evaluation of code efficiency simply by reviewing the code itself. However, the real-world relevance of certain algorithm problems taught might be limited, making the practical takeaways from this course a mix of essential and niche knowledge.
Web Development: Directly Translatable Skills
Introduction to Databases
Databases form the backbone of many software applications. While here you will mostly be learning SQL, a standard language for querying and manipulating databases, the course also usually touches on advanced topics like sharding and clustering. SQL’s importance can vary depending on one’s job role, but its mastery can be a game-changer for those in data-heavy roles.
Software Engineering I, II
Software engineering is vast and encompasses various paradigms and methodologies. Many will find this class a bit scattered, touching on project management styles like Scrum and Waterfall, and diverse topics like testing and accessibility, the real value lies in the exposure to a gamut of concepts.
Computer Architecture & Assembly Language
Delving deep into the world of computers, this course provides a clear understanding of how machine instructions are processed. It will allow you to bridge the gap between high-level programming and the low-level operations happening inside the computer, despite not having direct applicability in their professional life.
Operating Systems & Introduction to Computer Networks
The Operating Systems course will give you a glimpse into crucial areas like socket programming in C. However, not every course’s contents will be directly relevant to one’s daily job.
Computer Networks Course, on the other hand, will give you insights into how the interconnected world of the internet functions is. By understanding networking protocols, you can better troubleshoot and improve the interoperability of software systems across different environments.
What About Coding?
All the courses sound interesting, but do they actually teach you how to code? The question was raised on Reddit, the popular discussion forum, and wasn’t left answered. Those with the experience of a CS major behind their shoulders decided to shed some light on the topic. The first to share were the actual students, with many saying that on a more later stages of education you are already expected to know how to code:
“Coding is very common in a CS degree. However, explicitly “teaching” programming is usually only done in the beginning semesters. Courses with names such as “Programming 1”, “Imperative Programming”, “Object-oriented Programming”, “Computer Science 1” etc. are usually how-to-program courses. What happens gradually is that senior courses just assume that you know how to code and if it’s required for an assignment or project, you generally can handle it yourself.”
“This is almost exactly in line with my own experience. I still really consider myself “self-taught” as far as actual programming is concerned. And I don’t think someone who only followed the required course material would actually come out of the CS degree being comfortable/fluent writing code.”
“Most, if not all, universities won’t give you the needed practical knowledge for your job, but they’ll give you the theoretical basis so that you can choose the niche that you want to work in and easily learn the required skills alone. The software engineering market is constantly changing, so universities don’t really adapt to the current most popular practices, since they’d get outdated pretty fast”
Some noted that computer science programs still have a lot of coding exercises, which are, however, not really tied to real-world applications:
“Hey, champ! You do a lot of coding in a CS degree. But that’s just for assignments, no real-world applications. The purpose is to give you the basic tools to be able to continue learning by yourself while having strong foundations in programming. I felt dumb when I started my first job; but had the tools to get into it, and reach the level of my colleagues. BTW math is always good, besides probably not applying most of it, it always helps you to make the mind shift to problem-solving.”
“There will be hundreds of hours of writing code in any standard CS degree program. It’s not a “shit-ton” of math, either. It’s generally discrete math, calculus, linear algebra, and probability. It’s usually all done within the first year.”
“A good amount but usually less than a degree in Software Engineering which tends to focus less on theory and more on practical applications. The object of a CS Degree isn’t to teach you programming languages in depth. It’s to teach you the knowledge you need to be able to learn programming languages at a deep level. Hence courses like Discrete Math.”
There even was one professor, who taught CS major, who shared their perspective and how he tried to structure their classes to cover most of needed theoretical and practical skills:
“As someone who teaches CS at the college level I really want to chime in and second some things. I teach Computer Programming Concepts 1 and 2 (Essentially Java 1 and Java 2 leading up to Data Structures and Algorithms). I require that each of my students complete 240 small (< 30 lines of code) problems throughout the semester and 8 larger problems (~300 lines of code), along with 8 exam questions that must be proctored. My classes are extremely light on math as I have to assume you haven’t completed all of your math classes before joining my class. Later classes don’t make that same assumption.
Some instructors choose a different route and require significantly less, but I haven’t met any so far that require more. The DS&A course that comes after mine only requires roughly 8 completed problems throughout the semester – but those problems require MUCH more thought and planning. As you go further in the degree the problems get more involved and complex and assume previous knowledge from the prerequisites. These are where the “practical” problems come in as they assume that you already know how to program, they are focusing on teaching you how to solve problems.”
Variability depending on the University
Many Reddit users also pitched in the fact that the amount of coding can vary depending on a specific college or university you go to. The only actual way to know how much coding you will be doing, in this instance, would be to ask around in that community or to look up the curricula for the course:
“Depends on where you study really. My CS classes were heavy on math and theory for many of my courses, while some days we would walk through how to program something together. The majority of my time spent coding was for assignments and projects in my higher-level courses and even then, it didn’t feel like much given that the professors gave us a good amount of time between due dates. My professors also provided a lot of resources and examples which made the assignments the same thing we did in class but with small differences. It all depends on the professors and the institution.”
“Most universities publish their curricula online. The levels of math focus vary, but in any case, pure math is not going to be the majority of your degree. There will be a lot of coding, and there will be even more exploration of the concepts underlying what you take for granted while coding.”
“It highly depends on the school you go to. I just finished the Computer Science degree at Western Governor’s University a few months ago, but I did two fundamental courses at a brick-and-mortar that transferred over, and this is what I had left. 1 course in C++, 2 courses in Java (it’s 4 now), 1 course in Python, 3 courses on databases (SQL), 1 course on web development (HTML and CSS), and I chose to use Python for the capstone since I had to make a machine learning model. Also, the math there wasn’t crazy. Algebra, Statistics and Probability, Calculus 1, and discrete math 1 and 2. As far as actually learning practical knowledge… all I learned was the database stuff everything else I already knew how to do in C# pretty well, so it was just a matter of learning a new syntax. I would say that between all the coding classes, they teach the fundamentals well, but that is about it.”
The Main Outtake
When you decide to enter a CS major, you need to be prepared to do a lot of self-studying and individual practice. Getting into college is a great way to gain the needed basics from professors, but you will also need to put a lot of effort into learning outside the classroom. And, of course, if you want to get a specific skill out of your degree, like coding, it’s better to learn about the courses that are included in a particular CS major in your dream university/college. Don’t hesitate to ask around and find people from that specific institution to make sure that the reality of getting a CS degree will meet your expectations and needs.
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