Getting Started

What is Computer Science (CS)?

We like to say that CS teaches you how to think more methodically and how to solve problems more effectively. As such, its lessons are applicable well beyond the boundaries of CS itself.

But CS is also, more generally, the study of information. How do you represent it? With what methods (aka algorithms) can you process it?

Perhaps the most liberal answer, though, is that CS “has no exclusive domain of its own, and that its importance comes from the problems to which it is applied.” And therein lies the excitement. CS empowers you with tools and ideas that can be applied to practically any domain of interest to you, both in college and beyond.

What is CS... Not?

Contrary to popular belief, CS is not really about programming, even though you do learn how to program. Programming languages are tools that Computer Scientists use or create in order to solve problems of interest to them.

Why study CS at Harvard?

"Think of your freedom of choice - of what courses to take, of how to spend your Sunday afternoons, whatever - as a commodity that is precious in and of itself.

"It’s your life, even at Harvard.

"Enjoy it."

- Harry Lewis, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science

At Harvard, computer science is part of a dynamic hub that links to fields such as electrical engineering, physics, chemistry, and biology, and to professions such as medicine and business.

You could see the field as the “planning and building” that fosters the sciences and engineering throughout the campus and informs our digital society. The computer industry - in fact, every part of our society and every type of business - needs a generation of skilled individuals who possess a new way of thinking, a new way of approaching research, and a new way of doing business.

 That means …

  • deploying digital sensors to monitor everything from earthquakes to heartbeats
  • modeling the way the brain works or how global weather patterns develop
  • mining the data from the Human Genome Project to tackle disease 
  • translating radio signals to understand the nature of distant planets and galaxies
  • creating algorithms that automate e-commerce and make buying and selling online a breeze
  • applying technology to solve public issues ranging from e-voting to privacy and security to cyber law.

What’s different about pursuing CS in a liberal arts setting?

What our computer science faculty do, you can do. We emphasize a hands-on, immersive approach.

  • Being at Harvard provides unmatched opportunities to use the latest tools and technologies, such as grid computing; learn about cutting-edge research, from cryptography to sensor motes; and meet world-class thinkers and leaders.
  • Entrepreneurship goes beyond theory - Harvard students have created world-class companies such as Microsoft, and most recently, undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg made facebooking part of the nation’s vocabulary.
  • Computer science is part of a dynamic hub that links to fields such as electrical engineering, physics, chemistry, and biology, and to professions such as medicine and business.
  • If you would like a preview of some of Harvard’s offerings in computer science watch the video podcast of CS 50.

What are some good courses for those who are considering concentrating?

Computer Science 50: Introduction to Computer Science provides an excellent starting point. (Many non-concentrators take CS 50 as a way to learn to think logically and use computers effectively.) If you have completed CS 50 prior to arriving at Harvard, CS 61 Systems Programming and Machine Organization is a good choice for the fall. If you have a strong background in both math and computer science, you may also start with CS 121 or CS 141 (see suggested course plans).

What’s the workload for a typical course like?

Students can expect to spend 10 to 20 hours per week on work for a computer science class (including CS 50). If you see your academic “workweek” as 40 hours, that puts things in perspective.

What programming languages are taught/used?

Computer classes use languages such as Java, Lisp, and OCaml.

Can I "minor" in CS?

Yes. Students may pursue a Computer Science as a secondary field. Students are required to take any four Computer Science courses with course numbers 50 or greater. Students may also count Computer Science 50, 51, and 61 toward this requirement. See Chapter 4 of the Student Handbook.

What are the basic requirements for CS?

Take at least two of CS50, CS51, and CS61; take CS121 and another “theory” course; take four technical electives; and take Math 21a and 21b.

The following publications describe the concentration in computer science and its requirements.

Can I switch from my current concentration to CS?

Yes, so long as you still have time to satisfy the requirements. Even David J. Malan ‘99, who now teaches CS50, didn’t take his first CS course until his sophomore year, when he switched from Government to CS.

Does CS require a thesis?

No, not for non-Honors or Honors, but it is required for High and Highest Honors. See Chapter 3 of the Student Handbook.

Do any CS courses count for Gen Ed?

Yes. To satisfy Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning, you may take CS1, CS20, CS50, or CS171. To satisfy Culture and Belief, you may take CS105. (Note that CS1 does not count toward a primary or secondary in CS.)

Should I concentrate or minor in CS even if I don’t want to be a programmer?

Yes! CS concentrators head off in all sorts of directions after graduation.