Laptop, tablet or smartphone, you’re probably reading this guide on a device created using the expertise, theories and skills gained from computer science degrees. But exactly what is a computer science degree?
In a nutshell, computer science degrees deal with the theoretical foundations of information and computation, taking a scientific and practical approach to computation and its applications. Computation is defined as any type of calculation or use of computing technology that follows well-defined models (such as algorithms and protocols) in the practice of information processing (which in turn is defined as the use of these models to transform data in computers).
Computer science is considered by many of its practitioners to be a foundational science - one which makes other knowledge and achievements possible. The study of computer science involves systematically studying methodical processes (such as algorithms) in order to aid the acquisition, representation, processing, storage, communication of, and access to information. This is done by analyzing the feasibility, structure, expression and mechanization of these processes and how they relate to this information. In computer science, the term ‘information’ refers usually to information which is encoded in bits and bytes in computer memory.
Some higher education institutions may use computer science (CS) as an umbrella term to cover various specialist and vocational degrees involving computers and technology. You may also find the term computer science being used to refer to information technology (IT) degrees, although many institutions now distinguish between the two (exactly how and where they draw this line varies). Make sure to check your chosen university’s course details closely.
Top universities for computer science
The QS World University Rankings by Subject includes a ranking of the world’s top universities for computer science. The table can be sorted by location or based on the different criteria used to compile the ranking (including academic reputation, employer reputation and research citations). Below is a regional outline of the top universities for computer science in different world regions, based on the 2013 QS World University Rankings by Subject.
Top universities for computer science in the US & Canada
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) tops the list of the world’s best computer science universities, followed by second-ranked Stanford University. Carnegie Mellon University, Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley all make the global top ten, while Princeton University follows close behind at 11th, the University of California, Los Angeles at 14th, and the University of Toronto (Canada) at 16th. Overall, the US and Canada have a strong showing among the top universities for computer science, with 40 US universities and eight Canadian featured in the top 200.
Top universities for computer science in Europe
The University of Oxford (UK) is Europe’s highest ranking university for computer science, coming in at 3rd in the world. Its historic rival, the University of Cambridge, is ranked 5th while Switzerland’s ETH Zurich makes it into the top ten at 9th. The University of Edinburgh (UK) is ranked 15th and Switzerland features again ranked in 17th place with the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. The UK capital’s Imperial College London at UCL follow at 18th and 23rd respectively. At total of 82 European universities feature among the top 200 computer sciences institutes.
Top universities for computer science in Asia-Pacific
The highest Asian entry in the top universities for computer science is the National University of Singapore (NUS), which is ranked 8th. The University of Hong Kong rounds off the top ten in 10th place, and Hong Kong features again with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) ranked 12th. Australia’s University of Melbourne follows in 13th place, and the Asia-Pacific region dominates the latter half of the top 25: the Chinese University of Hong Kong is ranked 19th, the University of Tokyo 20th, Australian National University 21st, Nanyang Technological University 22nd, the University of Sydney 24th and the University of Queensland 25th. A total of 63 Asia-Pacific universities feature in the top 200.
Entry requirements for computer science degrees
Entry requirements for computer science degrees usually emphasize further mathematics, with some institutions asking for a background in physics. A background in psychology or sociology can provide an added dimension to your studies, as you would have gained an understanding of how humans process information, while other natural sciences may also be helpful.
Undergraduate applicants for computer science degrees will not usually be expected to have formally studied computer science before university. However, it is recommended that you pick up a programming language, to gain an understanding of what is involved. While generally accepted beginner languages include Python and C++, Haskell, Java and Pascal are all languages you may come across during your studies. On the other hand, you may find some institutions discourage students from learning programming beforehand to avoid students learning ‘bad’ programming habits early on.
Some institutions offer joint courses, in which computer science is studied alongside subjects such as mathematics, engineering and computing.