How a master’s degree in computer science is helping one student shift careers

BY Nicole Gull McElroyJanuary 31, 2023, 1:38 PM
Occidental Square public park in the Pioneer Square district of Seattle, as seen in October 2021. (Photographer: Chona Kasinger—Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The computer science industry, and the overall digitization of our world more generally, are on the bleeding edge of both innovation and explosive growth. Employment for computer and information research scientists is projected to grow 21% between 2021 and 2031, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Plus, the sector is full of ambitious startups that hold the promise of exciting careers and interesting projects. 

Thanks to robust demand for people with these skills, that’s also helped drive growth in related degree programs. In fact, the number of master’s degrees conferred in computer and information sciences and support services has nearly tripled in the past decade, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Sophia Jaghori is one of those master’s degree candidates, and she plans to graduate from Syracuse University’s online program in the spring. She returned to school after teaching middle school math for a year in Afghanistan, followed by three years working as an office manager in the government there. As an undergrad in Afghanistan, she held a secret hope to study computer science. But, she says, that wish was far-flung for any young girl in her country—so she instead opted for coursework in mathematics. It was a field, she reasoned, that also required analytical thinking and focused heavily on problem solving. 

“Mathematics was something I could do. I knew I could study that and become a teacher,” says Jaghori, who is now 34. “I did it because I wanted to work.”

Jaghori’s time teaching math was short-lived, and the move to office work seemed at the time to offer more opportunity, she says. It wasn’t until 2017, at the age of 28, when she and her husband moved to Seattle, that Jaghori was able to begin pulling the thread on a computer science degree. “Right away I started figuring out how I could pursue the field I love.”

Computer science career switchers

While the number of students, like Jaghori, entering computer science from a different industry or career is a fraction of those with bachelor’s degrees and professional experience in the field, it is certainly a possible (and growing) route. If you have a bachelor’s degree in a somewhat tangential field, entering a master’s degree program can be a great way to change course to computer science. Often you won’t be too far behind in catching up on some foundational coursework and you won’t waste time (and money) retreading on a second bachelor’s degree.

For Jaghori not only was she switching fields, she was also adjusting to a new country and language. That meant she needed to establish herself first in some ESL classes before beginning to think about prerequisites in computer science—a process that altogether took nearly two years to complete. Some of the classes Jaghori took included Introduction to Programming, Java 1, and Java 2. In addition, Jaghori says, she reached out to several schools, speaking to professors at each about how someone with her background could make the leap to computer programming.

Fortune sat down with Jaghori, who shared more about her experience switching fields and her advice to other people considering a similar move.

The path to pursuing a master’s degree in computer science online

Fortune: What were the biggest obstacles you felt you faced as you began the path to a career in computer science?

Jaghori: I was in love with computer science. I didn’t even care how long it would take me. But there were a lot of obstacles, a lot of difficulties: being a mom to two kids. Most of the schools I was looking at wanted a TOEFL score. For that, I had to prepare in writing, reading, everything. Once I was able to get a TOEFL score, I could finally get accepted to Syracuse.

What was the best advice you received in terms of the application process?

The best advice that really helped me was from an adviser at the University of Washington. She told me to first evaluate my undergraduate transcript. She suggested I take those prerequisites at any community college to save on tuition.

Why has being online helped you move through your coursework?

I have two boys; one is 11 and one is 9. They need a lot of attention—a lot of care. Right now, I don’t work. Because I’m enrolled as a full-time student, I stopped working to focus on my studies. I’m hoping to find an internship, a part-time job as a programmer. I’m also looking at internships to help me gain experience.

What worried you most about making this switch?

My bachelor’s isn’t in computer science and this program is online. I was worried there wouldn’t be much help for me. It was really stressing me out. I entered the program and everything surprised me. I am able to do this and I was able to get support from my group and my professors.

Finding a community in a master’s program 

How has your math background helped you?

Computer science and math are very related—problem solving. In programming, though, we are writing, but both areas challenge us and make us think deeply to find solutions. There isn’t anything to memorize. There are many ways to solve a problem. In math and computer science, it’s the same.

What are the things you lean on to help you bridge any gaps as you move through this degree program?

Connecting with the other students. When each semester starts, I try to find someone who has similar feelings like me, who hasn’t worked in computer science. I’m asking people questions, talking to them about their ideas and experiences. How have they overcome problems? What helps them? I’m connected with most of the students I’ve been in class with. The professors—they are also responsive. I send them emails and they respond in no time.

What are you enjoying most about your coursework?

For me, writing applications—I enjoy that. When I make it work, and see my work and I’m really looking at the things I’ve done, those things make me so happy. It’s exciting.

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.