Debunking Common Misconceptions About Computer Science

Industry Advice STEM

As the director of computer science programs and professor of the practice for Northeastern’s Charlotte campus, I love talking to prospective students who are interested in computer science.

Although there are an unlimited number of rewarding career opportunities in computer science, many potential career changers are hesitant about transitioning into the field. Often times, the issue results from misconceptions about computer science. Below, I address the top four misconceptions I’ve encountered from those who want to break into the field and are considering earning their master’s degree in computer science.

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


Misconception #1: I Need to Have Studied Computer Science to Break into the Tech Field.

There are several ways you can enter the tech field, from coding bootcamps and online courses to an undergraduate computer science program. There are additional opportunities, however, for those who don’t have a computer science background but want to break into tech.

At Northeastern, we offer Align—a program for professionals who studied something other than computer science as an undergraduate. The program takes two and a half years to complete, and is tailored to students with diverse backgrounds by creating a unique pathway to an experiential master’s program, which combines classroom study with hands-on, real-world experience.

The Align program starts with two semesters of preparatory courses and is followed by a wide variety of master’s courses, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and information retrieval. After completing two semesters of graduate-level courses, we place students into a six-month, full-time paid co-op, in which they work with an employer and gain experience they can add to their resumé.

Students in Align come to the program with diverse undergraduate majors, such as English, business, marketing, political science, biology, and aerospace engineering. Align students bring a unique perspective to the field since they are able to couple an additional area of expertise with computer science. Employers find the combination of skills that Align students bring to the job attractive. Moreover, technological innovations constructed from diverse experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds benefit everyone.

Misconception #2: I Have to Be Good in Math. 

Computer science does require math, but you don’t have to be a math whiz to be successful in the field. The math you learn in a computer science program has a specific purpose: To support the design and analysis of algorithms. Studying computer science teaches you how to solve computational problems. Those solutions are then encoded as algorithms—or a list of steps—which is one of the fundamental building blocks of computer science.

We experience algorithms every day when we engage in activities that have instructions. Games, recipes, and crafts all become physical representations of algorithms. What’s more, algorithms are at the heart of every piece of code.

When designing an algorithm, the computational problem being solved determines the level of mathematics that needs to be used. Designing algorithms for many computational problems requires no more than high school algebra. Other problems, such as those in machine learning or computer graphics and image processing, require knowledge of probability and statistics, linear algebra, and calculus.

Since computational problems can have many solutions, or algorithms, we need an objective way to evaluate them. Here, mathematics plays a critical role since it provides an unbiased approach to analyze algorithms and select the best one that solves our problem. Discrete math is of particular interest here since it teaches you how to prove things mathematically and gives you the fundamentals for analyzing algorithms.

If you are proficient in high school algebra, then you can succeed in computer science. You can learn the required higher-level mathematics as needed.

Misconception #3: I Don’t Want to Sit in a Cubicle and Code All Day.

Neither do I 🙂 Tech careers come in all shapes and sizes—and only a few of them require sitting at a desk and coding all day. Regardless of whether you work at a startup or large organization, you will be an integral member of a team. Any computer science role is likely to involve the following, adapted from O*Net Online:

  • Analyzing problems to develop efficient solutions involving computer hardware and software
  • Assigning or scheduling tasks to meet work priorities and goals
  • Evaluating project plans and proposals to assess feasibility issues
  • Consulting with users, management, vendors, and technicians to determine computing needs and system requirements

The job responsibilities for those interested in computer science have a much wider breadth than just writing computer code.

Misconception #4: CS is for Men, Geeks, Nerds, and Hackers.

Computer science attracts all kinds of people: women, men, geeks, non-geeks, hackers, non-hackers, nerds, non-nerds, short people, tall people, young, old, middle-aged, “soft” college majors, and “hard” college majors.

Computer science is for everyone—including you.

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