How to Choose a Computer Science Specialization

Industry Advice Computing and IT

Jobs in computer science are in high demand. Of the 50 positions on Glassdoor’s list of the best jobs in the United States—which is based on earning potential, job satisfaction, and the number of job openings in 2021—17 of the positions listed are in the computer science and technology field.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for these roles exceeds $126,000 per year. Even more promising is that job growth for computer and information science roles is expected to increase by 22 percent by 2030—more than three times the national average for growth across all jobs. The average unemployment rate for many STEM roles is also well below the national average, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Computer Science Degrees and Specializations

Due to the high demand and required skills for jobs in this field, many employers seek candidates with advanced computer science degrees to fill these high-paying roles. In fact, Burning Glass Labor Insight data shows that nearly four in 10 computer science job listings request candidates that have master’s degrees.

Below we offer a look at some of the most common specializations within this field, the career options that best align with these specializations, and the annual earning potential for individuals within these concentrations.

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Whether you have a technical or non-technical background, here’s what you need to know.


11 Common Computer Science Specializations

1. Artificial Intelligence

Description: Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to a computing system’s ability to solve problems, make predictions, or complete complex tasks. AI applications use emerging technology such as natural language processing, which interprets written and spoken words, and machine learning, which enables applications to make predictions and recommendations.

Skills: Mathematics and analysis, algorithms, predictive modeling

Common Roles: Artificial Intelligence Architect, Artificial Intelligence Researcher, Machine Learning Engineer

Average Annual Salary for AI Skills: $125,000

Learn More: Top 5 Careers in Artificial Intelligence

2. Computer-Human Interface

Description: This specialization considers the many ways that people interact with computers, from websites and mobile phones to voice-enabled speakers and virtual reality. Effective interface development and deployment requires the use of standard libraries to ensure the compatibility and usability of applications across systems.

Skills: Communication, interpersonal skills, attention to visual detail, mapping how people use software and systems

Common Roles: User Experience (UX) Designer, User Experience Researcher, Interaction Designer

Average Annual Salary for HCI jobs: $118,942

Learn More: What is Human-Computer Interaction?

3. Game Design

Description: In addition to the realistic images that make today’s computer games so appealing, the computer science specialization of game design looks at the AI and machine learning that determines how players progress through a game. Game design also considers how the work of front-end designers and back-end developers should come together for a cohesive product experience.

Skills: Attention to visual detail, collaboration, coding, and scripting

Common Roles: Video Game Designer, Video Game Developer, Software Engineer

Average Annual Salary for Game Design Skills: $115,846

Learn More: Tips for a Video Game Design Career

4. Networks

Description: This specialization focuses on how organizations use both wired and wireless networks to exchange information with internal and external stakeholders. Responsibilities include managing bandwidth, traffic, user access, and the security of networks themselves, as well as any devices connected to the network.

Skills: Diagnose and troubleshoot network issues, design network architecture

Common Roles: Network Administrator, Network Analyst, Network Architect

Average Annual Salaries for Network Management Skills: Ranges from $59,865 (Network Analyst) to $121,412 (Network Architect)

5. Computer Graphics

Description: This specialization focuses on two- and three-dimensional images used in a variety of software applications, including games, computer-assisted design, manufacturing, and multimedia publishing. Beyond the concepts of creating realistic images, effective computer graphic design also considers the best way to display those images given limitations such as screen size, system memory, and bandwidth. Job options include in-house, agency, and freelance roles.

Skills: Attention to visual and artistic detail, collaboration, creativity

Common Roles: Mobile Application Developer, iOS Developer, Android Developer

Average Annual Salaries for Computer Graphics Skills: $116,192

6. Information Security

Description: Information security professionals manage all aspects of an organization’s security, including software applications, networks, storage hardware, devices, and so on. This computer science specialization requires a deep understanding of security vulnerabilities and the various methods that internal and external attackers use to exploit them. These roles must also balance security requirements with the need for employee or end-user productivity.

Skills: Communication, threat/vulnerability management, knowledge of security compliance rules and regulations

Common Roles: Security Engineer, Network Security Analyst, System Security Analyst

Average Annual Salary for Information Security Skills: $124,506

7. Data Science

Description: Data science refers to the ability to “mine” large data sets to gain useful information or insight. Organizations benefit most from data science as a practice when a variety of techniques are used to retrieve and analyze data, and when it is used to process large, complex, and sometimes unstructured sets of information, commonly referred to as “big data.”

Skills: Mathematics and analytics, attention to detail, predictive modeling

Common Roles: Data Scientist, Data Analyst, Business Intelligence Analyst, Machine Learning Engineer, Information Scientist, Database Administrator

Average Annual Salaries for Data Science Skills: Ranges from $123,419 (Data Scientist) to $145,549 (Machine Learning Engineer)

Learn More: What Does a Data Scientist Do?

8. Programming Languages

Description: Professionals who specialize in programming languages understand the key differences between common languages such as JavaScript, Python, Ruby, Visual Basic .NET, SQL, R, and C#. This includes knowledge about the types of applications, databases, or other use cases for which each language is best suited.

Skills: Coding and scripting in multiple languages, collaboration

Common Roles: Full-Stack Web Developer, Front-End Developer, Game Developer, Software Programmer

Average Annual Salary for Programming Skills: $105, 240

Learn More: Top 10 Programming Languages to Learn

9. Software Engineering

Description: In addition to application development, the computer science specialization of software engineering focuses on the systems and protocols for using these applications. Professionals in these roles may have a number of different specialties, such as debugging and testing, security and scalability, or the ability of an application to add users or features without a negative impact on performance.

Skills: Coding and scripting, communication, collaboration

Common Roles: Software Development Engineer, Software Engineer

Average Annual Salary for Software Engineering Skills: $119,923

Learn More:  The 11 Top-Paying Computer Science Jobs

10. Systems

Description: This computer science specialization helps an organization make the most of the hardware, software, and services that employees use every day. These products can include home-grown systems as well as a wide range of third-party products. Key concerns in this role include performance, security, and productivity of both the systems themselves as well as the employees working with them.

Skills: Diagnosing and troubleshooting hardware and software issues, patching and updating systems, designing system architecture

Common Roles: Systems Engineer

Average Annual Salary for Systems Management Skills: $122,180

11. Theory

Description: This specialization focuses on advanced mathematical theories and principles that apply to computer science. These theories can include advanced cryptography, approximation algorithms, computational algebra, and randomness. Other theories examine techniques for data and system processing such as distributed computing and parallel computing.

Skills: Mathematics and analytics, predictive modeling and probability, big-picture planning

Common roles: Algorithm Scientist, Machine Learning Engineer

Average Annual Salary for Computer Theory Skills: $102,754

Choosing the Right Computer Science Specialization

A rewarding and well-paying job in computer science is attainable for individuals with an interest in any of the above computer science concentrations. However, mid-career professionals may be hesitant to transition into the field due to common misconceptions about computer science, including that it requires exceptional math skills, or that it means sitting in front of a computer screen all day and night.

It is true that some of the skills needed for a career in computer science are technical. The application development company, BHW Group, notes that reading code, evaluating frameworks, using debuggers, and practicing source control are important skills for anyone directly involved in the process of building software, for example.

However, many computer science jobs require skills beyond writing and evaluating code. According to O*Net Online, these roles also require creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, project or proposal evaluation, and communication with software end-users, management, or leadership staff. Individuals in these positions must also be comfortable working with teams of various sizes, as much of their work is done in groups.

Ultimately, choosing the right computer science specialization comes down to your personal interests and professional goals. Consider some of the if/then scenarios below to see if your specific preferences align well with a particular career path:

  • If you have an eye for visual design and keen attention to detail, then consider a role as a programmer, game designer, computer graphics designer, or UX designer. These roles also require creativity and flexibility for meeting the requirements of internal and external stakeholders.
  • If you have a background in technical training and back-end operations, consider a role as an engineer, system administrator, or network administrator.
  • If you have technical expertise as well as an ability to negotiate diplomatically, consider a role in information security. Another possible role is a DevOps—shorthand for “developer operations”—engineer, a role that helps organizations bridge the gap between speed and stability in the development lifecycle.
  • If you like to analyze data, detect patterns and gain insights that lead to more informed business decisions, consider a career in artificial intelligence, data science, data analysis, or computer theory. Note that these roles also require presenting the outcome of data analysis to key stakeholders in clear language.

Due to the array of specializations within the computer science industry, it’s important to find a career path that aligns with your abilities, technical background, and long-term goals.

Computer Science at Northeastern

Revised in 2021, the Master of Science in Computer Science curriculum at Northeastern is specifically designed to help you identify the computer science area that best matches your career interests, and to continue to develop the technical skills necessary to secure a fulfilling job within that specialization. In addition to the core curriculum, MSCS students take classes from three “breadth areas”—modeled after our PhD program—that enable students to gain a wider range of specialized skills, thus preparing them to work in many roles. Students must take three courses from at least two breadth areas during their studies. 

These breadth areas include: 

  • Systems and Software: This breadth area builds on the use of software to solve practical problems. Students gain broad experiences and knowledge in software engineering processes, system-level programming, programming languages, and compilers. You can choose where you want to build your skills, like writing a small compiler, or designing a web experiment that illustrates web technologies.
  • Theory and Security: This breadth area allows students to gain a strong foundation in the theory of computation and systems security issues. By taking courses focused on security vulnerabilities in software, privacy, and cryptography, students will understand the pervasiveness of security in computer science.
  • Artificial Intelligence and Data Science: This breadth area introduces students to the fundamental problems, theories, and algorithms of artificial intelligence, while presenting techniques in machine learning and data mining. Students can take courses focused on the collection of data, gathering information from data for a variety of applications including games and natural language processing.

With your focused master’s degree, you’ll be prepared to chart a bold future in computer science. Learn more about Northeastern’s Master’s in Computer Science program and explore with path is right for you.


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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019. It has since been updated for recency and accuracy.