Computer Information Systems Degrees: Master, PhD & Online Course Info

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Master's and doctoral degree programs in computer information systems can lead to careers in areas like research and academics. Get the truth about the requirements, courses and career options, as well as find out what you can do with your degree.
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Studying Computer Information Systems: Graduate Degrees at a Glance

Pursuing studies in computer information systems (CIS) can help you learn about computer science and business. CIS workers adapt computing innovations to meet the specific information systems needs of business.

You can prepare for positions in IT management or security, systems analysis and software development systems. Employment for CIS managers is expected to grow by 18% between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Workers often must have a master's, or even a PhD degree, to obtain managerial or teaching positions in this field.

Employers also require candidates to have many years of related work experience to be considered for the high-level jobs. Sometimes employers have difficulty finding qualified CIS job applicants, resulting in an employee's job market.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in advancing to a management or department head position People who want to work in academics or or researcher
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) Computer and information systems manager ($118,000) *
- Chief information technology officer ($230,000)**

- Professor of computer science ($98,000)**
- Computer and information research scientist ($101,000)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years full-time 3-5 years after the master's
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 8-10 graduate level courses
- Master's thesis/research paper
- Master's exams
Most (or all) of the master's degree requirements, plus:
- Roughly 8 more graduate level courses
- Two research courses
- Dissertation prospectus (proposal)
- Dissertation
- Teaching requirement
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in computer information systems or related field Master's degree in computer information systems or related field and relevant job experience
Online Availability Yes Some courses might be available online

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011), **Salary.com (2012).

Master's in Computer Information Systems

A master's in computer information systems can be used by IT professionals who want to add managerial skills to their technical expertise, IT workers who want to deepen their CIS skills, or those who wish to switch to CIS from other related careers.

Students in a CIS master's program may elect to complete a thesis paper that requires intense research and collaboration with a professor. Full-time students may finish in roughly a year, while part-time students may take anywhere from a year and a half to five years to finish.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Employers favor job applicants with an advanced degree and current technical knowledge when filling lucrative leadership positions*
  • A CIS master's can be earned part-time, while you work
  • You can specialize in high-paying CIS sub-fields like security or IT project management*
  • Federal agencies may sponsor personnel who enroll in accredited security graduate courses

Cons

  • Well-paying IT jobs are susceptible to being sent overseas, where wages are lower*
  • This industry is extremely fluid and workers must constantly keep abreast of changes*
  • A graduate degree in CIS requires students to master intensely technical and challenging coursework

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012.

Courses and Requirements

The coursework for a CIS master's program is generally made up of 8-10 subjects, divided between core and elective courses. Common subjects include computer programming languages, advanced algebra, algorithms, database security and human/computer interaction.

Examples of courses you might take at the master's level:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Database and information systems
  • Programming languages
  • IT strategy

Some schools allow master's students the choice of working on a thesis that counts towards one or more elective credits, or working on a hands-on project in lieu of a thesis.

Online Degree Options

Accredited online CIS graduate degrees are available and may be attractive to those who wish to obtain a master's while they work. You can find purely online programs, as well as hybrid programs that combine on-campus visits with online work. Online students watch recorded lectures or seminars and communicate with professors online as opposed to attending onsite lectures. Some schools offer accelerated programs for IT professionals with prior relevant work experience.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

The BLS predicted that certain growth areas would offer opportunities to CIS managers through 2020. For example, the healthcare industry's expected modernization of its information systems should give CIS workers job opportunities. You may decide to pursue elective courses or a concentration in health information systems to stand out to employers.

IT security is another fast-growing degree concentration as industries experience ever-increasing threats from hacking and cyber attacks against their databases. CIS professionals who stay current will have the best opportunities, according to the BLS. Industry groups, such as the International Association for Computer Information Systems, provide networking and learning opportunities for CIS professionals.

Degree Alternatives

Computer information systems has the potential to be a very lucrative career track, especially for those who use an advanced degree to qualify for popular sectors or research positions. However, computer science is a closely related field, devoted to solving problems or meeting needs using computers. Depending on the particular job chosen, it can also be less technically challenging than CIS.

Computer analysts ensure that an organization's computer systems are efficient and able to meet the organization's needs. You could prepare for this position through a Master of Business Administration in Information Systems or another similar program. The BLS predicted that employment for computer systems analysts would grow by 22% between 2010 and 2020, which is faster than the average.

PhD in Computer Information Systems

A CIS PhD program primarily prepares students for careers in academia as university professors, or as researchers in industry labs. While the PhD candidate has coursework and tests, and must maintain high grades to stay in the program, passing courses is not the focus of the program. The focus of a PhD program is on serious research and teaching methodologies.

A candidate must be able to do in-depth, independent research that results in an original dissertation that contributes something new and relevant to scientific knowledge. You will work closely with faculty mentors and sometimes co-author scholarly papers for scientific publications. Sample areas of potential CIS research include robotics, network security and software engineering.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Stipends are available to help with the cost of tuition
  • A PhD is required to become a CIS professor and is an essential step in achieving a tenured teaching position at the university level*
  • A PhD qualifies workers for well-paying and prestigious corporate research positions*

Cons

  • The program is demanding and may require candidates to maintain a full-time commitment and a high grade average to stay in the program
  • Full-time students usually take five years to complete the program; part-time students can take as long as eight years
  • You may be viewed as overqualified for some managerial positions in the field
  • There are currently few CIS PhD programs online

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012.

Courses and Requirements

Doctoral CIS courses are a more advanced study of subjects covered at the master's level, plus intense training in research and teaching methodologies that culminates in writing and defending an original dissertation. Programs require candidates to demonstrate breadth of knowledge of several subject areas, and in-depth knowledge of at least one.

A PhD program is often comprised of several phases. Often, the first phases involves coursework and projects, followed by research and the completion of a dissertation proposal. You will generally spend your last part of the program conducting intense, in-depth research, as well as writing and defending your scholarly dissertation. Sample coursework or seminars may include:

  • Data mining
  • Advanced computer graphics
  • Advanced natural languages processing
  • Bioinformatics

PhD candidates are often left to their own devices during the research phases and must be self-starters. However, they also do much of their work under the supervision of a mentor, and must therefore be able to work well on shared projects when required.

Online Degree Options

There are currently a few online schools that will allow you to pursue a portion of your online computer and information systems studies online. However, the difficulty of conducting mentored research online means that generally, you will need to pursue a campus-based or hybrid program.

Due to the intense research and close collaboration involved in a dissertation program, most universities require candidates to attend onsite. Many also prefer full-time attendance, since even full-time students may take five years to complete the program.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

A CIS PhD identifies its holders as experts in their field. You may conduct research that is published in prestigious scientific journals and have skills that often translate into a very high salary in the corporate research sector. Prospective employees with a CIS PhD may enter a corporation with an automatic promotion.

Students who wish to maximize their potential return from a PhD may choose to do research in lucrative and fast-growing concentrations in the field, such as database security or health care information systems. Alternatively, students who wish to make a name for themselves may focus on a niche subject and become consultants to corporations needing expertise in that area.

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