Why study computer science?

By Simon Thompson
April 7, 2009 | Comments: 17

I was asked by the Guardian University Guide in the UK to write something about why it's worth studying computer science at university, and I thought I would share it here ...

Try to imagine a world without computers. There would be no PCs or laptops, and so no
word processing or spreadsheets, no communication using the web, no online shopping or photo enhancement. There would be no mobile phones or digital cameras, because these are computers at heart. There would be no internet or phone system. There would be no modern cars, trains or aircraft: computers control how they work and guide their safety on rails or in the air. There would be empty shops: all their stock is computer-controlled. There would be very few goods: many are made by robots, which themselves are computers. Food would be scarce: supermarkets' distribution systems rely on computers and computers often control food production itself.

Computer science teaches you how to use computers to make the world work as it does. You will learn how to make a computer behave how you want -- this might be making a robot move something from one end of a room to another, it might be making a calculation which saves someone's life in a medical ward, or it could be creating a whole new world through building pictures or sound or building a computer system so that other people can do this.

You will learn how computers work together in building networks like the internet, how teams of people build systems worth hundreds of millions of pounds, and how computers can be made to behave like people, among many other topics. You will also learn about how to work together in groups, and what your professional responsibilities are to your colleagues, clients, and society.

Many of you will join universities' industrial partners on "sandwich" placement schemes, where you work with a company for a year during your degree, putting the theory into practice.

At the end of your degree you will be equipped with lifelong skills that you can use in a whole variety of jobs: from management to consulting, from programming to information systems administration, from IT companies to any company, large or small.

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Hi Simon, I know this is just a blog post but I can't help picturing this being shared whilst amongst a group of O'Reilly readers, non-virtually sitting in a pub, beers in real-life hands, light-heartedly teasing each other mercilessly and wonder what reaction you'd get. I can only imagine the same kind of blank mocking stare you'd get giving a "Why study law" talk at the next legal convention or "Why study medicine" at the next medical conference.

Cheekiness aside, I was actually interested in this article as I'm one of the many people working as a programmer with no formal computer science education. One of those that suffers from the ongoing insecurity that someone will discover they don't have their "papers".

However, aside from being a little erh, junior, for something on an O'Reilly site, it really doesn't explain why we should study for a degree in computer science rather than learn by stacking up on a bunch of books (O'Reilly of course!), read tech sites, etc., like an awful lot of those working in computing do. For example, considering how many figureheads of computing did not themselves study computer science, I wanted to read about the benefits of formal CS training versus self-training, etc.

Hello Simon,
First of all imagining a life without computers makes me shudder. I LOVE technology. I work for a summer computer camp-so we are committed to the same goal. Technology education. We hope that our students will be inspired at a young age to pursue a career in technology. I had one student who was 12 who knew that she HAD to be a computer programmer - she just loved code and solving problems (and was already looking at colleges). One of the benefits I see to formal CS training is simply the social, teamwork aspect of being in a group of like minded individuals. The image many people have of programmers is the stereotype of a hacker down in the basement, a loner with no social skills. This is simply not the case - teamwork is necessary. And it is promoted with formal CS training. My two cents.

I will disagree with the main article and all the comments. I am a computer science graduate and completed my masters too. I cannot even get any job that IT related.

I can hear you saying "Yes but Do you have good grades, or did you really try hard to get a job?" I had first class degree from well known university and completed my masters with distinction and awarded a university medal for achievements. I applied for many jobs, I did some voluntary work, I gained some extra IT certs, thinking might help but still couldnt get an IT job.

What my advice is "Do not study IT, just become accountant or anything but do not study IT". There are hundreds of computer science graduates and all of them looking for a job that doesnt exist.

What work I do now? Working at a restaurant. What I was doing before studies? working at a restaurant. Be honest my knowledge in programming/sq/Unix/Cisco doesnt help much in the restaurants. Can I get you a java class with your drink or how would you like your ospf or EIGRP cooked?

Ata's comment above might be true for him, but if you get a Masters in CS from a reputable uni, and ace your practical project then you have something really meaningful to show to employers.

You won't end up working at a restaurant for the rest of your life, and probably even Ata won't. Entry level IT roles do exist if you're willing to take them up.

Computer Science is very employable, not just for IT jobs but other analytical roles too because of the skills you pick up. There's got to be a reason why someone like Ata is not getting work. But it's not because he studied the wrong subject.

I am currently a high school student and when iI complete my high school studies, I would to study computer science as a degree. I don't know where to begin so I was requesting for your advice.

I totally agree with Ata, there is more IT graduates than we need.

It looks like most people commenting on this blog have no clue about the job market or where IT graduates go.....

i do agree wid atas comment.....as a cs student i cmn to knw all this ...

The benefit of computer science in aviation(the function of a comuteeeer student in aviation).

Dear Ata

It is heart breaking to know that a computer graduate like you are finding yourself in a restaurant doing odd jobs.

Let me give you some smart ideas. Look at websites of big companies. Discover what is left undone in those sites. Improve the sites with fresh ideas.

Once you are done with this, send your sites to the relevant bosses of the companies.

Let me tell you, this will help you earn several times more than what you are getting from restaurant and moreover soon you will find yourself in your own profession.

This is what i do and i make more than US$ 25,000 each month, working from my home office with the help of two of my assistants who do the graphics and writing work for me.

Accountants are no match of what the computer Programmers can earn.

My wishes are with you.

Although a few years old why is there no mention of outsourcing in this article? If you are thinking of studying Computer Science you are probably very smart and clever at mathematics. However, there will be no jobs for you as India and other countries in the developing world churn out top-class Computer Science graduates who can outsmart and undercut you at every turn. Don't count on your national Government to stop outsourcing or onshoring these bright and cheap IT people either. With massive debts to pay off they won't be listening to you, only to the companies they are enslaved to. Now ask yourself, as you contemplate spending 3-4 years studying Computer Science: Who is the greater fool?

I love to study computer science as a course, the reason is to make me to develop the power of critical thinking.

I agree with your message

Computer sci is a very great course coz am into it. Nt yet perfect,nid more knowledge n advice

why study computing in mass communication

I just finishedd my second chool nd am going 4 comp science. Plz I need more light on it on wats re d dueties of a computer scientit

why i study computer science is dat it develop my personal thinking,and makes u know mor ur future.i realy enjoy it,am into it.

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