A-Z of Degrees

Our weekly series designed to help you pick the right course. This week: Computer Science
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The Independent Online

What do you come out with? BSc or MEng.

Why do it? You've been playing with computers for years and are enthralled with the subject. Plus you've sussed out the job prospects and the rapid career development and fancy earning megabucks.

What's it about? Software engineering. After three or four years you will become a professional software engineer. At Southampton, there's a strong maths component and an emphasis on professional issues - eg law, business ethics - as well as on transferable skills such as communicating well. Kent at Canterbury has a BSc in computer science and a MComp which lasts four years and gives you a year at another European university. At Glasgow you combine computing with two other subjects for the first two years. One of those has to be maths.

How long is a degree? Three; or four years if you are at a Scottish university or you are doing a MEng or you take a year out to work in industry.

What are the students like? Mostly men. At Kent 15-20 per cent are women. At Manchester it's 10 per cent. Southampton has fewer than 5 per cent women. They have their own computers, are highly numerate and don't mind hard work. Some are geeks, but their geekdom is knocked out by being taught transferable skills. How is it packaged? At Manchester, two-thirds is examined and one-third is project work. At Southampton, 60 per cent of the course is examined, 40 per cent course assessed. At Glasgow and Kent the ratio is 80:20.

How cool is it? Still pretty uncool despite large starting salaries, the dot.com revolution and Martha Lane Fox. But it's a popular degree. Manchester receives 2,500 applications for just over 200 places.

What A-levels do you need? At Kent you can get in without A-level maths. Instead, you study extra maths at university. A-level maths is compulsory at Manchester and Southampton. Anything else goes, though Manchester prefers a science A-level.

What grades? BBB at Southampton and Manchester; BBC at Kent; BCC at Glasgow (two of those have to be science subjects) or BBBB at Highers (two of them sciences).

Will it keep you off the dole? Yes. Graduates join software development companies, earning starting salaries averaging pounds 22,000. The best join top-notch firms such as investment bank Goldman Sachs or Andersen Consulting and can earn pounds 35,000 straight from university, more than a senior lecturer. But beware, the hours can be very long. Some prefer to work for small companies.

Will you be interviewed? Yes at Kent and Southampton. Not usually at Manchester, and not at Glasgow.

What do students say? "It's a fantastic course. You get a lot of support from lecturers, so you have a chance to expand yourself. I plan to join the RAF as a pilot or go into industry as a software engineer. This course has strong industry links. There are lecturers who have come from industry." (Nick Worrall, 20, third-year, computer science, Southampton.) "The lecturing on the course is good and the lecturers are approachable. I am planning to do a masters at King's College London next year in neural networks. I have been inspired to do that by the course here." (Mark Howells, 31, computer science, Kent.)

Where's best for teaching? Imperial College, Cambridge, Exeter, Kent, Oxford, Manchester, Teesside, Warwick, Southampton, Swansea, York, Edin- burgh and Glasgow universities all scored excellent ratings.

Where's best for research? Cambridge, Imperial College, Oxford, Warwick, York and Glasgow received a tip-top 5*. Bath, Bristol, Lancaster, Sussex, Manchester, Southampton, University College London, Dundee and Edinburgh received a 5; Aston, Birmingham, Durham, East Anglia, Essex, Exeter, Goldsmiths, Hertfordshire, Kent, Leeds, Loughborough, Umist, Nottingham, Queen Mary and Westfield, Reading, Royal Holloway, Sheffield, Aberdeen, Heriot-Watt, St Andrews, Swansea, Aberystwyth, Cardiff and Queen's Belfast received 4.

Where's the cutting edge? Southampton is big on multimedia, artificial intelligence and software engineering; Glasgow in dis- tributed systems, information retrieval, communication and control systems and human computer interaction. Manchester in bio-informatics (the human genome project) and low power mobile processes: that's making sure mobile phones work. Kent specialises in networks and distributed systems, software and systems engineering and has a computer science education research group.

Who are the stars? Dr Dave DeRoure, currently on secondment to BT, and Dr Mark Nixon, both of Southampton. Professor Steve Furber, Professor John Gurd, high performance parallel computing, and Carole Goble, bio- informatics, all at Manchester. Professor Malcolm Atkinson, information retrieval, Professor Keith van Rijsbergen and Professor Muffy Calder, all at Glasgow.

Related courses: You can do computing with virtually any other subject at Glasgow University - for instance with Latin or Russian.

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