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Career Opportunities

Carnegie Mellon University graduation

Computer science graduates at Carnegie Mellon University, shown here, and other schools often have jobs waiting for them upon graduation.

Credit: Daniel Miyamoto

Last fall, Jim Wordelman found himself in an enviable position. At a time when unemployment for recent U.S. college graduates was at the highest level since 1983, Wordelman, a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's (UIUC's) Department of Computer Science, had several job offers from companies that wanted to hire him the following summer. Eventually, he took a job with Microsoft as a developer on its Internet Explorer team. "I did work for the company before and loved it," Wordelman explains. The job also put him in a position to follow his greatest passion: accessibility.

If recent data is any indication, Wordelman's case is not unique among computer science graduates in the U.S. (the job prospects for graduates in the United Kingdom, China, and India are discussed later). In fact, his fellow UIUC CS graduates received an average of 2.4 job offers this year. The mean starting salary: $68,650. "Our undergrads have had no trouble getting positions," says Rob Rutenbar, the department head. "Most of them are doing things like software development. Some launch entrepreneurial ventures."

At Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), the job outlook is equally rosy: 95% of this year's CS students had jobs waiting for them upon graduation. "Companies may be a little choosier, but they are still hiring," says Susanne Hambrusch, a computer science professor at Purdue University, where graduates enjoyed mean starting salaries of $66,875 last year.

According to projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), computing will be one of the fastest-growing job markets through 2018. Employment of software engineers, computer scientists, and network, database, and systems administrators is expected to grow between 24%–32% through 2018. They account for 71% of new jobs among the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. For a discipline that is still struggling with the public perception that its jobs are migrating offshore, such career predictions offer an important counterpoint.

Of the new jobs, according to BLS projections, 27% will be in software engineering, 21% in computing networking, and 10% in systems analysis. Software engineering alone is expected to add nearly 300,000 jobs in the next eight years.

Computer programmers will fare less well, with a projected decline in employment of 3% through 2018. The BLS cites advances in programming tools, as well as offshore outsourcing, as contributing factors to this decline. Nonetheless, the federal agency predicts employers will continue to need some local programmers, especially ones with strong technical skills. And many companies, having discovered that outsourcing is more challenging to manage than anticipated, are turning to domestic outsourcing to complete their programming projects, which is a trend the BLS expects to continue.

"The BLS projections are pretty compelling," says Peter Harsha, director of government affairs at the Computing Research Association (CRA). "We're optimistic."

College students seem to have picked up on that optimism, and are returning to the field after a steep six-year decline caused by the dot-com crash. According to the Taulbee Survey, an annual CRA study that gathers data for North American computer science and computer engineering programs, the number of computer science majors rose 8.1% in 2008 and another 5.5% in 2009. "It's a cautious uptrend," says Hambrusch. At some schools, the surge in interest is even more pronounced: applications to UIUC's CS program were up by 26% this year and increased by 32% at CMU.

The troubled economy has played a role in the uptick. Though the computing industry experienced a wave of layoffs at the height of the recession, it has been hit less hard than other sectors, and employment was up by an estimated 5% in the second quarter of 2010.

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The Coolness Factor

According to a recent study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average salary for this year's crop of computer science grads stands at $61,112. And while it's too early to say for sure, some industry watchers predict an influx of students who might otherwise have majored in finance. Harsha, for example, cites David E. Shaw, a computer scientist turned hedge fund manager who made a fortune in quantitative trading, then returned to scientific research: "He's a model for a certain group."

There is also a coolness factor among a generation of students who grew up with computers and are deeply engaged with technologies like cellphones, Facebook and other social media, and the latest electronic devices from Apple and other hardware companies. "For every popular trend in computing there's a spike in interest," says Harsha, citing a similar boom-and-bust cycle that happened with the rise of the personal computer during the mid-1980s. Also, Harsha says, students may finally have realized that the stereotype of computing as a lonely career in which you sit in a cube and write code is not true.

"We all owe a non-trivial debt to companies like Google and Apple, who do cool work on cool products and don't look like your stereotypical guys in flannel suits," says Lenny Pitt, a UIUC computer science professor.

Mark Stehlik, assistant dean for undergraduate education at CMU's School of Computer Science, has a different historical comparison: the space program of the 1960s, which fueled the imaginations and ambitions of a generation of schoolchildren. "There was such an enterprise built around it," he recalls. Of course, to go to the moon, you had to be a rocket scientist. "And what if rocket science wasn't your thing?" Computer science majors, on the other hand, have a variety of career options to choose from once they graduate. "You can do software development across such a wide range of sectors," notes Stehlik, as nowadays almost every industry has computing needs.

Software engineering alone is expected to add nearly 300,000 jobs in the U.S. in the next eight years.

In spite of recent gains, the supply of CS graduates is still dwarfed by the projected number of jobs. According to the BLS projections, there will be more than twice as many new computing jobs per annum in the next eight years than the current level of 50,000 computing graduates will be able to fill. Nor can computer science departments, many of whom had trouble dealing with the influx of students in the late 1990s, expand as quickly as companies and universities might like. "We currently have about 775 undergrads, and we can add another couple hundred without a problem," says UIUC's Rutenbar. "But we need to do some soul searching if we want to grow larger than that."

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The International Outlook

The job prospects for computer science graduates in the United Kingdom, China, and India vary widely as does each country's educational and economic situations.

According to the United Kingdom's Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), 17% of 2009's CS graduates were unemployed six months later—more than any other discipline. Industry watchers caution that the figure should be taken with a grain of salt, however, since the category includes students who studied softer subjects like human-computer interaction and information development as well as traditional CS majors. "Higher-level things like software and systems design are a different picture," says Bill Mitchell, director of the British Computer Society. "They are very much recruiting these types of people."

Research institutions like the University of Southampton, which placed 94% of its computer science graduates in 2009, echo Mitchell's sentiment. "Companies still need people with really good skills, who have been exposed to different languages and platforms, who are confident and can code," says Joyce Lewis, communications manager for the University of Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science. And while the University of Southampton and other members of the Russell Group—an association of 20 universities that's often referred to as the U.K.'s Ivy League—have no trouble filling spaces in their computer science programs, educators are nonetheless concerned by a massive nationwide drop in interest in the field. "Enrollment has dropped by nearly 60% over the past eight years," says Mitchell, who is working to reform the national IT curriculum and reverse the trend. "Companies tell us they have to bring people in from Silicon Valley."

Recent computer science graduates in China are also struggling with a demanding job market. According to a study conducted by the MyCOS Institute, a Beijing-based think tank, computer science, English, and law have topped a list of majors with the most unemployed graduates for the past three years. In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, computer science was second only to English in the number of unemployed graduates.

Here, too, the figures underlie a more complicated picture. Thanks to governmental encouragement, the number of university graduates in China has risen dramatically during the past 10 years. In 2008, more than six million students graduated nationwide; in 2002, the total number was below 1.5 million. Such increases, education experts contend, were not matched with employment prospects, particularly in technical fields, where market needs are highly specialized. Therefore, students must work hard to distinguish themselves from a glut of applicants. Often, that means earning a graduate degree. "Companies get a lot of applicants, and to make it easier, some use the degree as a filter," says Xiaoge Wang, an associate professor in the department of computer science and technology at Tsinghua University. At Tsinghua, 83% of 2009's computer science graduates enrolled in graduate programs at home or abroad, up from 78% in 2008 and 66% in 2007. "Our students would like to go to companies like Microsoft or IBM, which require a Ph.D. or a master's," says Wang.

One concern in India is the growing lack of educators to teach the next generation of software engineers—a shortage of up to 70,000 teachers, according to some estimates.

In India, the IT industry is doing well after a slowdown brought on by the global downturn. According to the country's National Association of Software and Services Companies, the IT services sector, still the dominant source of computing jobs, grew nearly 16.5% in 2009, and software exports are expected to increase by 14.4% in the current fiscal year. Job placements at the country's top engineering schools are robust, with many students receiving multiple offers upon graduation. One concern, however, is the growing lack of educators to teach the next generation of software engineers—a shortage of up to 70,000 teachers, according to some estimates. University pay scales are low compared to the private sector, and few students pursue the advanced degrees that would qualify them for university positions. As a report published in the International Journal of Engineering Studies explained, "The teaching load of professors in the top research-intensive schools has increased, and talented potential research students are being attracted by high-paying private-sector jobs, or by research opportunities at better-funded institutions abroad." Those students who do pursue advanced degrees, according to the study's authors, often do so to improve their market value in the job market.

* Further Reading

National Association of Software and Services Companies
The IT-BPO Sector in India: Strategic Review 2009,

Solanki, K., Dalal, S., and Bharti, V.
Software engineering education and research in India: a survey, International Journal of Engineering Studies 1,3, 2009.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010–11 edition,

Universities & Colleges Admissions Service
Unistats From Universities and Colleges in the U.K.,

Zhang, M. and Virginia M.L.
Undergraduate computer science education in China, Proceedings of the 41st ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, March 10–13, 2010, Milwaukee, WI.

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Leah Hoffmann is a Brooklyn, NY-based technology writer.

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UF1Figure. Computer science graduates at Carnegie Mellon University, shown above, and other schools often have jobs waiting for them upon graduation.

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