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EAC / Study in the US / Admission Process / Choosing Fields of Study / Computer Science

The beginnings of the modern computer date back to the 1600's when Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and scientist, developed one of the first mechanical calculating devices. It is only within the past decade, however, that computer technology has become essential in the work environment. Almost every profession is deeply affected by the computer revolution: physicians consult computer-based expert systems to help diagnose illnesses; musicians compose and perform music using computers, and students and professionals in every field use electronic mail to communicate with both colleagues and strangers. With so many applications for computer technology, it is not surprising that the demand for computer professionals has been steadily rising.

Computer science is a broad discipline that involves the study of the structure, functions, and applications of computers and related technologies. At the advanced level, computer science can involve the study of highly specialized subfields such as knowledge engineering, cognitive science, or management information systems.

Students interested in pursuing careers in computer and related fields will find that many educational opportunities exist. Depending on one's professional goals, training for various computer careers can range from vocational education programs in such areas as data processing technology and computer maintenance; to bachelor's degree programs that prepare programmers, database managers, and systems analysts; to graduate programs focusing on cutting-edge research in artificial intelligence, robotics, or software engineering.

Historically, computer science instruction evolved in mathematics and electrical engineering departments, and while many universities have since established separate computer science departments, it is not unusual for computer science programs to be based within departments of mathematics and statistics, electrical engineering, or business. In some cases, each of these departments may offer separate computer degree programs.

The emphasis of a computer science program can sometimes be determined from the title of the program: those with titles such as data processing, management information systems, or information science are usually business- oriented; computer science, software engineering, or engineering and computer science programs tend to be oriented toward science and engineering, and those titled computer and information science usually provide a mixture of orientations.

At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, the titles of computer science and related degree programs may be used differently from one institution to another. Programs often have similar titles, and different titles may be used for similar programs. For example, the course work leading to a B.S. degree in computer science at one university may be the same as the computer science curriculum leading to a B.S. degree in mathematics or engineering at another institution. Some universities offer specialized graduate degrees in computer science subfields such as cognitive science, robotics, and artificial intelligence; however, the same courses may be offered elsewhere as an area of concentration in a graduate computer science degree program.

Prospective students should carefully evaluate each program based on its course offerings rather than by its title or the department within which its courses are offered. When researching computer-related degree programs, it is especially important to look at specific courses and areas of concentration offered by departments of computer science, mathematics, engineering, and business as well as those offered as part of interdisciplinary degree programs.

Advising students about computer science study can be difficult because many gray areas exist where computer science and other disciplines such as engineering, business, mathematics, philosophy, linguistics, and psychology overlap. For example, artificial intelligence has close ties with cognitive psychology and linguistics; computer graphics is tightly linked with fine arts and industrial design, and the student of robotics must understand basic engineering concepts.

Significant overlap also exists among the various computer science specializations themselves, with differences measurable only in level of emphasis. Knowledge engineering, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence, often considered separate areas of study, are all involved in the effort to understand and recreate human intelligence and reasoning. Likewise, computer information systems, management information systems, and information science all focus on the nature and efficient flow of information within organizations. Even the well-established division between hardware and software begins to blur when one considers specializations such as systems analysis, robotics, computer engineering, and other subfields that require in-depth knowledge of all major aspects of computer science.

Because the computing field is so broad and complex and because it always changing, it is advisable for students to obtain a broad base of knowledge that includes training in both hardware and software before pursuing specialized study. While the specializations offered by universities will no doubt change as technological advancements are made, computer professionals with a comprehensive background in computer science will always be in demand.

Undergraduate Study

Four-year US colleges and universities generally offer the bachelor of science (B.S.) although a few institutions award the bachelor of arts (B.A.) degree, and business-oriented computer programs may lead to the bachelor's of business administration (B.B.A.) degree or the bachelor's of management (B.M.) degree. As mentioned above, computer science and related programs may be offered through departments of computer science, engineering, mathematics, business, and others. Thus, the exact title of the degree that one receives depends on the department through which it is earned. Some common computer-related degrees include the following: B.S. in computer science, B.S. in mathematics, B.S. in electrical engineering, B.M., and B.B.A.

B.S. degree programs provide students with a broad base of knowledge and technical skills and are designed to prepare students for either graduate study or immediate entry to professional computing careers. Core computer science courses involve the study of the theoretical foundations of computing; the design and analysis of algorithms; various programming languages, such as BASIC, FORTRAN, C, COBOL, Pascal, and perhaps several assembly languages; operating systems; the design and implementation of data structures; computer architecture; software engineering; and artificial intelligence. Computer science majors are also required to take several courses in calculus, linear algebra, discrete mathematics, and probability and statistics as well as to fulfill various other university-wide requirements in the social sciences, humanities, and the arts.

Business-oriented computer science programs combine courses in business and computer science, emphasizing the organizational application of computer technology. Degree requirements often include course work in calculus, economics, business statistics, marketing, management information systems, COBOL (a business-oriented programming language), computer and business electives, and general education requirements.

Specialization is quite uncommon at the bachelor's degree level, (and is in fact discouraged by the Computer Sciences Accreditation Commission). Rather, students are generally advised to obtain broadly applicable computer-related knowledge and skills. Students are, however, encouraged to take several advanced courses in major areas such as artificial intelligence, software engineering, or programming in their third or fourth years.

Two-year community and technical colleges offer a variety of computer-related programs, including associate of science (A.S.) degree programs in computer programming, data processing, computer science, computer technology, computer maintenance, information science, and electronics engineering as well as one-year vocational programs that train computer operators and data entry clerks. Course credits earned in A.S. programs are often comparable to the first two years of a bachelor's degree program and may be transferable to four-year degree programs.

Students interested in degree programs in computer science should have a solid background in mathematics, including courses in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry as well as excellent oral and written communication skills. Previous computer experience is helpful but not required.

The computer science field is highly competitive. Students can significantly improve their chances of finding a job after graduation by getting hands-on computer experience while still in school. Computing majors often find that on-the-job training obtained through internships or cooperative education programs can build on academic course work. Some universities may offer part-time research or lab assistance opportunities to exceptionally qualified undergraduates.

Another way that students can improve their chances of finding employment after graduation is by taking elective courses in other fields that may be particularly useful in the workplace. Employers often favor students who have taken courses in accounting, marketing, and management.

Graduate Study

For students wishing to pursue advanced study in the computer science field, US institutions offer master of science (M.S.) degree programs, which generally take one to two years to complete, as well as doctoral programs that involve three to five years of additional study beyond the M.S. degree level.

Graduate study in computer science involves in-depth study within highly complex specializations. Computer architecture, software engineering, programming languages, database systems, and artificial intelligence are common specializations offered by US universities, though the areas of concentration vary from institution to institution and according to university philosophy, resources, and faculty interests. Students should make sure that the computing curriculum is oriented toward their specialization of interest. (A number of popular specializations are described in the "Computer Science Specializations" definitions provided as part of this handout.)

Like B.S. programs, graduate computer science programs are not uniformly titled from one institution to another. Computer courses may be offered through university computer science, mathematics, engineering, and business departments. Commonly offered computer-related graduate degrees include the following: M.S. and Ph.D. in computer science, M.S. and Ph.D. in mathematics, M.S. and Ph.D. in engineering, and the master of business administration (M.B.A.). Some universities also offer specialized degrees such as the M.S. and Ph.D. in management information systems, cognitive science, robotics, and computer engineering. It is important to note, however, that the course work leading to a specialized graduate degree may not differ significantly from the course work required for a concentration in the same specialization offered through a graduate computer science department. For example, the curriculum for a degree or concentration in cognitive science might be about the same, whether the program led to an degree in cognitive science or in computer science.

Many universities have also developed multidisciplinary computer programs. Biomedical computing, electronic and computer music, and computer-aided instruction are examples of such programs. Courses in these multidisciplinary programs may be taught by faculty from several university departments.

Applicants for master's degree programs should have excellent mathematical skills and extensive computer experience; however, they need not have an undergraduate degree in computer science. Those with B.S. degrees in engineering and mathematics are regularly accepted into M.S. programs. Those with social science or humanities backgrounds may be accepted into M.S. programs if they can demonstrate exceptional computer knowledge and mathematical ability.

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is required for admission to most graduate computing programs, with the quantitative section of the test being of particular importance. International applicants must also have excellent English language skills; TOEFL scores of 550-575 are generally required for admission to an M.S. program.

Financial aid is often available at the graduate level, mainly because computer science programs are often subsidized by research grants. Teaching and research assistants usually receive tuition remission as well as a stipend.

Doctoral programs in computer science (which lead to a Ph.D.) prepare students for university faculty positions and high-level research careers. Ph.D. candidates take advanced computer courses beyond those required in an M.S. program and are required to prepare a doctoral dissertation that demonstrates independent research in a specialized subject area.

Professional Accreditation

Professional accreditation in computer science exists at the bachelor's degree level only. Over one hundred computer science B.S. degree programs have applied for and received professional accreditation from the Computer Science Accreditation Commission of the Computing Sciences Accreditation Board (CSAC/CSAB). Recognized by the US Department of Education and CORPA (formerly COPA) as a professional accrediting body since 1985, the CSAC/CSAB evaluates and accredits four-year bachelor's degree programs in computer science at regionally accredited postsecondary institutions. To qualify for CSAC/CSAB accreditation, programs must be designed to prepare graduates for professional employment and progressive careers in computer science fields. Programs must meet CSAC/CSAB criteria requirements for faculty, curriculum, laboratory and computing resources, number of students, and institutional support.

Many computer science programs may not be accredited by the CSAC/CSAB because professional accreditation of computer science programs has only been in existence since 1985 and because many institutions choose not to pursue professional accreditation for a variety of reasons. However, since some international governments may not recognize degrees earned from programs that are not professionally accredited, prospective international students should check whether any restrictions apply in their case before applying to a non-CSAC/CSAB-accredited computer science program.

The CSAC/CSAB does not evaluate or award professional accreditation to associate- or graduate-level computer science programs. Computer programs offered through university engineering and business departments may be professionally accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), respectively, rather than by the CSAC/CSAB.

To receive a free list of professionally accredited computer science programs or to find out more about CSAC/CSAB's evaluation criteria, contact:

Computing Sciences Accreditation Board, Inc.
Two Landmark Square, Suite 209
Stamford, CT 06901
Telephone: 1- (203)-975-1117;
Fax: 1-(203)-975-1222;

Short Term Programs

Short-term training courses are at present the most common setting for learning to apply the personal computer to specific purposes. Computer science degree programs tend to focus on multiuser, mainframe computer systems; on programming languages; on the logical and engineering theory involved in how computers work. Short-term programs do not ignore such matters (training can easily be found in C++ or artificial intelligence), but they also include options to satisfy other participant needs and interests.

Training is available for all levels of computer experience, from the person who has never used a computer to the experienced computer professional. Many training participants do not plan to become computer professionals but simply want to use a particular type of software or other computer application more effectively. They might study a particular word processing, database, or spreadsheet software package, for example. Or training might focus on the computer in a particular professional environment -- using computers in teaching, in a library, or in project monitoring, for instance. Some of these courses are designed especially for international participants.

Training for computer professionals also exists, often intended to update participants on new technology or to continue their education in particular areas. Courses here too are available on a broad range of very specific topics, from local area networks to computer security, and from quality management of software development to programming techniques for building expert systems.

Program descriptions generally indicate appropriate background for taking part in the particular course. Job responsibilities and areas of computer expertise are generally most important. English language proficiency is essential to gain from any short-term program.

Computer-related training is offered by colleges and universities (commonly by continuing education offices, summer session offices, or specific schools and departments), community colleges and technical schools, associations, private training organizations, consultants, government agencies, and other organizations. Individuals seeking to learn to use a particular computer system or type of software should also check with the manufacturer to see if they offer or can recommend training.

Computer training is often scheduled for US participants and may be very short (one to five days) or spread out in once-a-week classes over a university semester. International participants should explore whether they can combine several classes or arrange a custom program to create a suitable schedule.

Professional Certification

Several US organizations offer professional certification to those in computer science and related fields. While not generally required by employers, professional certification not only enhances one's professional qualifications, but often provides opportunities to attend continuing education courses and participate in professional seminars.

The Institute for Certification of Computer Professionals (ICCP) is a nonprofit organization that tests and certifies qualified computer science professionals. Currently, ICCP offers two major certification programs: the Certified Computing Professional (CCP) certificate, which is designed to measure the knowledge and experience of senior- level computer professionals, and the Associate Computing Professional (ACP) certificate, which tests entry-level computer skills. To receive certification, individuals must pass the examination and accept the ICCP codes of ethics, conduct, and good practice.

For more information about ICCP professional certification, contact

Institute for the Certification of Computer Professionals
2200 East Devon Avenue, Suite 268
Des Plaines, IL 60018
Telephone: 1-(708)-299-4227;
Fax: 1-(708)-299-4280

Professional certification is also available in a number of specialized computer-related fields. For example, the EDP Auditors Association awards certification to electronic data processing professionals, and electronics technicians may seek certification from the International Society of Certified Electronics Technicians.

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