Computer and information research scientists invent and design new approaches to computing technology and find innovative uses for existing technology. They study and solve complex problems in computing for business, science, medicine, and other fields.

Duties

Computer and information research scientists typically do the following:

  • Explore fundamental issues in computing and develop theories and models to address those issues
  • Help scientists and engineers solve complex computing problems
  • Invent new computing languages, tools, and methods to improve the way in which people work with computers
  • Develop and improve the software systems that form the basis of the modern computing experience
  • Design experiments to test the operation of these software systems 
  • Analyze the results of their experiments
  • Publish their findings in academic journals

Computer and information research scientists create and improve computer algorithms, which are sets of instructions that tell a computer what to do. Some computer tasks are very difficult and require complex algorithms. Computer and information research scientists try to simplify these algorithms to make computer systems as efficient as possible. These algorithms allow advancements in many types of technology, such as machine learning systems and cloud computing.

The work of computer and information research scientists often leads to technological advancements and efficiencies, such as better networking technology, faster computing speeds, and improved information security. In general, computer and information research scientists work on a more theoretical level than do other computer professionals.  

Many people with a computer and information research science background become postsecondary teachers. In general, researchers in an academic setting focus on computer theory, although those working for businesses or scientific organizations usually focus on projects that may produce profits.

Some computer scientists work with electrical engineers, computer hardware engineers, and other specialists on multidisciplinary projects. The following are examples of types of specialties for computer and information research scientists:

Data mining. Computer and information research scientists write algorithms that are used to detect and analyze patterns in very large datasets. They improve ways to sort, manage, and display data. Computer scientists build algorithms into software packages that make the data easier for analysts to use. For example, they may create an algorithm to analyze a very large set of medical data in order to find new ways to treat diseases. They may also look for patterns in traffic data to help clear accidents faster.

Robotics. Some computer and information research scientists study how to improve robots. Robotics explores how a machine can interact with the physical world. Computer and information research scientists create the programs that control the robots. They work closely with engineers who focus on the hardware design of robots. Together, these workers test how well the robots do the tasks they were created to do—such as assemble cars and collect data on other planets.

Programming. Computer and information research scientists design new programming languages that are used to write software. The new languages make software writing more efficient by improving an existing language, such as Java, or by making a specific aspect of programming, such as image processing, easier.

Work Environment: 

Computer and information research scientists held about 26,700 jobs in 2012.

The industries that employed the most computer and information research scientists in 2012 were as follows:

Federal government 26%
Computer systems design and related services 18
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 13
Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 11
Software publishers 8

Most computer scientists employed by the federal government work for the Department of Defense. 

Work Schedules

Most computer and information research scientists work full time. Those working on independent research may have flexible work schedules.

Education and Training: 

Most jobs for computer and information research scientists require a Ph.D. in computer science or a related field. In the federal government, a bachelor’s degree may be sufficient for some jobs.

Education

Most computer and information research scientists need a Ph.D. in computer science or a related field, such as computer engineering. A Ph.D. usually requires 4 to 5 years of study after the bachelor’s degree, typically in a computer-related field, such as computer science or information systems. During their first 2 years in a Ph.D. program, students take a variety of computer science classes. They then choose a specialty and spend the remaining years doing research within that specialty.

Computer scientists who work in a specialized field may need knowledge of that field. For example, those working on biomedical applications may have to take some biology classes.

For some computer scientist positions in the federal government, a bachelor’s degree in computer science is sufficient.

Advancement

Some computer scientists may become computer and information systems managers.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills. Computer and information research scientists must be organized in their thinking and analyze the results of their research to formulate conclusions.

Communication skills. Computer and information research scientists must communicate well with programmers and managers and be able to clearly explain their conclusions to people with no technical background. They often write for academic journals and similar publications.

Critical-thinking skills. Computer and information research scientists work on many complex problems.

Detail oriented. Computer and information research scientists must pay close attention to their work, because a small error can cause an entire project to fail.

Ingenuity. Computer and information research scientists must continually come up with innovative ways to solve problems, particularly when their ideas do not initially work as intended.

Logical thinking. Computer algorithms rely on logic. Computer and information research scientists must have a talent for reasoning.

Math skills. Computer and information research scientists must have knowledge of advanced math and other technical topics that are critical in computing.

Pay: 

The median annual wage for computer and information research scientists was $102,190 in May 2012. 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 $57,220, and the top 10 percent earned more than $151,900.

Most computer and information research scientists work full time. Those working on independent research may have flexible work schedules.

Job Outlook: 

Employment of computer and information research scientists is projected to grow 15 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations. Computer scientists are tasked with advancing all fields of computing. As demand for new and better technology grows, demand for computer scientists will grow as well.

Rapid growth in data collection by businesses may lead to an increased need for data mining services. Computer scientists will be needed to write algorithms that help businesses sort, manage, and display very large amounts of data. A growing emphasis on cybersecurity also should lead to new jobs, because computer scientists will be needed to find innovative ways to prevent cyberattacks or to track hackers.

In addition, job growth will be driven by advances in robotics, as more advanced robots are developed. Robots are already widely used in manufacturing, and their use is expected to expand in distribution centers and within the military. Computer scientists design the “brain system” of a robot and ensure that the robot does what it is supposed to do. In addition, an increase in software demand may increase the need for computer scientists who create new programming languages to make software writing more efficient.

Job Prospects

Computer and information research scientists are likely to enjoy excellent job prospects. There are a limited number of Ph.D. graduates each year. As a result, many companies report difficulties finding these highly skilled workers. 

For applicants seeking employment in a specialized field, such as finance or biology, knowledge of that field, along with a computer science degree, may be helpful in getting a job.

For More Information: 

For more information about computer and information research scientists, visit

Association for Computing Machinery

IEEE

For information about opportunities for women pursing information technology careers, visit

National Center for Women and Information Technology

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2014–2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh.