The widespread and increasing use of computers and information technology has generated a need for highly trained, innovative workers with extensive theoretical expertise. These workers, called computer scientists, are the designers, creators, and inventors of new technology. By creating new technology, or finding alternative uses for existing resources, they solve complex business, scientific, and general computing problems. Some computer scientists work on multidisciplinary projects, collaborating with electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, and other specialists.
Computer scientists conduct research on a wide array of topics. Examples include computer hardware architecture, virtual reality, and robotics. Scientists who research hardware architecture discover new ways for computers to process and transmit information. They design computer chips and processors, using new materials and techniques to make them work faster and give them more computing power. When working with virtual reality, scientists use technology to create life-like situations. For example, scientists may invent video games that make users feel like they are actually in the game. Computer scientists working with robotics try to create machines that can perform tasks on their own—without people controlling them. Robots perform many tasks, such as sweeping floors in peoples’ homes, assembling cars on factory production lines, and “auto-piloting” airplanes.
Computer science researchers employed by academic institutions have job functions that are similar in many ways to those employed by other organizations. In general, researchers in academic settings have more flexibility to focus on pure theory, while those working in business or scientific organizations, covered here, usually focus on projects that have the possibility of producing patents and profits. Some researchers in non-academic settings, however, have considerable latitude in determining the direction of their research.
Computer and information research scientists held about 33,000 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of computer and information research scientists were as follows:
- Federal government, excluding postal service - 31%
- Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences - 16%
- Computer systems design and related services - 15%
- Software publishers - 9%
- Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private - 5%
Some scientists collaborate with engineers or other specialists or research scientists in different locations and do much of their work online.
Most computer and information research scientists work full time.
Education & Training Required
Most computer scientists are required to possess a Ph.D. in computer science, computer engineering, or a closely related discipline. For some positions in the Federal Government, a bachelor’s degree in a computer-related field may be adequate.
In order to be admitted to a Ph.D. program, applicants generally are required to obtain a bachelor’s degree with a strong computer science or computer engineering component. Popular undergraduate majors for Ph.D. program applicants include computer science, computer engineering, software engineering, information systems, and information technology. A bachelor’s degree generally takes 4 years to complete. A Ph.D. generally requires at least 5 years of study beyond the bachelor’s degree. Ph.D. students usually spend the first two years taking classes on advanced topics, including computer and software systems, artificial intelligence, digital communication, and microprocessors. Students spend the remaining years conducting research on topics in computer science or computer engineering.
Other Skills Required
Computer scientists must be able to think logically and creatively. They must possess a strong aptitude for math and other technical topics, as these are critical to the computing field. Because they often deal with a number of tasks simultaneously, the ability to concentrate and pay close attention to detail also is important. Although computer scientists sometimes work independently, they frequently work in teams on large projects. As a result, they must be able to communicate effectively with computer personnel, such as programmers and managers, as well as with users or other staff who may have no technical computer background.
How to Advance
After they gain experience with an organization, computer scientists may advance into managerial or project leadership positions. Some choose to leave private industry for academic positions.
Employment of computer and information research scientists is projected to grow 22 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations.
About 3,200 openings for computer and information research scientists are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
The research and development conducted by computer and information research scientists turn ideas into technology. As demand for new and better technology grows, demand for computer and information research scientists will grow as well.
Rapid growth in data collection by businesses will lead to an increased need for data-mining services. Computer and information research scientists will be needed to write algorithms that help businesses make sense of very large amounts of data.
A growing emphasis on cybersecurity also should lead to new jobs because computer and information research scientists will be needed to find innovative ways to prevent potential cyberattacks. In addition, an increase in demand for software may increase the need for computer and information research scientists who create new programming languages to make software writing more efficient.
The median annual wage for computer and information research scientists was $131,490 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $74,210, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $208,000.
In May 2021, the median annual wages for computer and information research scientists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Computer systems design and related services - $161,870
- Software publishers - $152,940
- Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences - $132,810
- Federal government, excluding postal service - $112,310
- Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private - $79,510
Most computer and information research scientists work full time.