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The Difference Between an MCS, MSCS and PhD in Computer Science

While all teach computer science concepts, MCS, MSCS & PhD degrees have key differences. Learn about CS programs & which degree can help advance your career.

abstract image of a ladder representing steps of a person's career progression

Advancing your career in computer science—or a related field like software engineering, product management, cybersecurity, or IT—may require an advanced degree to help you reach your full potential in the field. In researching degree options, you’ll have to consider a few different types of graduate degrees: Should I pursue a master’s vs a PhD? Which will best meet my needs: a MCS vs MSCS degree?

Because the duration, cost, prerequisites and curriculum requirements for each degree program can vary, it is recommended that you research and choose the degree type that best aligns with your personal career goals and aspirations. Whether your goal is to advance your career within private industry (for example, a publicly-traded tech company), to advance within academia and research/R&D, or to pursue a combination of both, there is a degree that is right for you.

What is a Master of Computer Science (MCS) Program?

An MCS (or MSE, MCIT, and other topical variations) is a professional, non-thesis master’s degree program in computer science, software, and tech/IT that emphasizes hands-on, real-world experience and projects in a practical industry context for career advancement. These degree programs are designed to develop your practical skills in computer science, software engineering, data engineering, algorithms, big data, cybersecurity and more, preparing you to work in a variety of industries and companies. Because the primary focus of these programs is to help you advance or change careers in industry, a thesis or research component is not required.

For example, in Rice's online master's in computer science program, we tailor a curriculum to help students advance careers in big tech and high-growth digital jobs across industries, from healthcare to energy to professional services. Students are expected to both design and implement complex software systems, both individually and within a collaborative team setting. Students will also learn how to effectively communicate their ideas and solutions to clients and stakeholders, furthering their potential to land lucrative careers in a professional setting.

The required 30 hours of coursework for Rice’s Online Master of Computer Science program typically takes part-time working professionals about 2-3 years to complete (on-campus students often complete full-time in about 1 year).

Master of Computer Science Career Opportunities

From AI and robotics to computer architecture and networks, a Rice Online MCS degree offers ample opportunity for specialized skill development. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, MCS graduates have found career opportunities with top technology companies where they can earn a median salary of $126,830 per year. Master of computer science careers are lucrative and ever-growing and are projected to continue expanding at an above-average rate through 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means an MCS degree can not only offer a career return on investment in a shorter timeframe but also paves a shorter pathway to your ultimate computer science career goals when compared to other advanced degree programs.

Master of Computer Science Program Requirements

To increase your chances of acceptance into a master's like the MCS@Rice degree program, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree (preferably in a STEM/technical field), programming experience, and a 3.0 undergraduate GPA. GPA exceptions may be granted with competitive GRE scores. Your degree isn’t necessarily required to be in computer science. MCS requirements include programming experience in conventional languages, statically typed languages, data structures and basic algorithms, along with basic discrete math and Boolean logic skills. MCS Admissions accepts and reviews applications on a rolling basis.

What is a Masters of Science in Computer Science?

An MSCS is a graduate research degree that requires a thesis or research component. It prepares students to progress in academic research (as a "gateway" to a PhD) or industry. It’s common for an MSCS to require an engaging course load, but also a body of independent research, a thesis, and the defense of that thesis to a panel of Faculty experts.

The course work covers many of the same core concepts that are taught in an MCS program--for example, advanced math and programming skills, along with problem-solving, data engineering with big data, and more. But in an MSCS program, graduate students will focus deeply on a particular topic or area of research in completing their research or thesis requirement. Conversely, an MCS program will culminate with a capstone course or a practical way to apply concepts learned to real-world, industry context. In this way, MCS students may be better equipped to build a well-rounded portfolio for job interviews.

Career Opportunities With a Master of Science in Computer Science

An MSCS degree balances the theory and practice of computer science to prepare students for either professional industry or academic research paths. An MSCS degree can prepare students for a range of career opportunities in areas such as research and development (R&D), innovation hubs or labs, teaching, and more. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, salaries for educator positions range from $80,000 to over $100,000, and the median pay for computer and information research scientists is $131,490.

Opportunities in both of these areas are growing faster than average. That means an MSCS degree can provide a higher career return on investment for research-oriented students who are primarily interested in academic pursuits and educating others in the industry.

In addition, the MSCS can be a valuable stepping stone to pursuing a PhD degree in a more advanced field.

MSCS Degree Requirements

Each MSCS program will have varying requirements for admission. The MSCS requirements for applications usually include a Bachelor of Science degree in a related STEM field. A computer science degree is often not required, but some programming knowledge and math skills are recommended.

While completing the MSCS degree, students are often expected to conduct an independent research program and demonstrate professional skills in both oral and written communication within the field of computer science. Additionally, it is typical for MSCS students to defend their academic thesis no later than 4 years after beginning the program.

What is a PhD in Computer Science?

A PhD in computer science is required for those who wish to become Professors of computer science in an academic or research setting. This degree program requires upwards of four to six years of study and includes an intense research period with a thesis combined with advanced coursework. It is an ideal choice for those who want to pursue advanced research in computer science, and even teach what they’ve studied to other students and colleagues in the industry.

Potential career paths for PhD graduates include:

  • Computer Science Professor
  • Computer Scientist
  • Principal Investigator (PI)
  • Lead, Research & Development (R&D)

Doctorate programs in computer science often include a rigorous course load, along with a thesis and final oral defense. Some PhD programs offer financial aid or partial scholarships, while some are fully funded.

Career Opportunities With a PhD in Computer Science

The primary objective of a Computer Science PhD program is to launch a doctoral candidate further into groundbreaking computer science research, publishing and teaching, usually in a university context. Often, PhD recipients work at universities, thinktanks, nonprofits or government, putting their considerable depth of expertise to work in developing innovative solutions and shaping policy. Research and development (R&D) functions or innovation labs in companies across industries employ computer science PhDs, as well.

Doctoral Requirements for a PhD in Computer Science

PhD students are expected to demonstrate an expert-level understanding of theory and core concepts across a variety of computer science sub-disciplines. Students should be able to problem solve by combining knowledge from different sources and specifically exhibit deep knowledge in their primary research areas. Students are also expected to conduct independent research where they will identify and pose a research problem within computer science, place that problem in context within the established research and literature of the field, and conduct an independent investigation that leads to credible scientific results--then defending those results. PhD students often serve as teaching assistants alongside lecturers or full professors of computer science.

Requiring a lengthy time commitment, PhD in computer science programs often require 90+ hours of required coursework and at least one 500-level research project. A bachelor's or master’s degree is a pre-requisite for acceptance into the PhD program. A background in computer science is preferred, but may not be mandatory.

Additional Computer Science Programs

Other advanced degrees in computer science are also available to strengthen your knowledge and advance your career. For example, there is a Master of Computer and Information Technology (MCIT), as well as other specializations in Computer Science such as cybersecurity and bioinformatics. Certificates in computer science and other specialty areas can be earned through platforms such as Coursera, including those offered through online Rice courses.

Choosing The Right Computer Science Degree

Despite their similarities, understanding the differences between master's and PhD programs—and between an MCS and an MSCS—can help you decide which program is best for your career goals and professional objectives. The table below lists many of those differences:

Differences Between Advanced Computer Science Degrees

Program MCS@Rice MSCS PhD
Average Program Cost Varies by program Varies by program Varies by program
Credit Hours Often 30 credit hrs Often 30-40 credit hrs 60-120 credit hrs
Thesis Requirement No thesis Thesis Thesis
Prerequisites Bachelor's Degree, Transcripts, Letters of Recommendation Bachelor's Degree, Transcripts, Letters of Recommendation Bachelor's or MS Degree, Transcripts, Letters of Recommendation
Entrance Exam N/A GRE or TOEFL GRE or TOEFL
Career & Research Opportunities Software Engineer, Data Engineer, Product Manager, Cybersecurity Lead, IT Director Computer Scientist, Lead of Research & Development Computer Scientist, Principal Investigator, Instructor, Assistant/Associate Professor of Computer Science
Research or Professional Focus Professional / Industry Both Research / Academia

Choosing an MCS program is about more than just the difference between master’s and PhD programs.

Begin Your Computer Science Career

Apply to an advanced Computer Science degree program today to set yourself up for a successful education that aligns with your computer science career goals. Our MCS@Rice program is nationally ranked with world-class faculty who can help you customize your degree and enhance your computer science skills.