Computer science is an important field with a diverse range of applications. In addition to areas like video game programming, it also applies in research sciences such as medicine, consumer product design and even Web marketing. While there are many academic pathways available to computer science majors, there are some fundamental courses that anyone in the field should complete. Here are five of the most common types of classes you will encounter.

1. Introduction to Programming

Computer science departments at institutions like Boston University, Virginia Tech, Caltech and others offer some form of courses that introduce students to programming methods and skills. Although specific programming tools and techniques vary widely, the underlying fundamentals involved in developing, testing, debugging and refining software remain relevant to most programming languages and workflows.

Introductory programming courses are usually targeted at early undergraduates, and they can be very beneficial in helping students decide how they’d like to apply their degrees. Because they draw from varied fields such as gaming, networking and graphics, they’re essential for gaining familiarity with computer science as a whole.

2. Discrete Mathematics

Computer science is a mathematics-heavy field. Although most majors will have already taken math courses such as algebra or precalculus, computer scientists are largely concerned with mathematical structures that vary in discrete, or distinct, values instead of in a continuous fashion. Because modern digital computers employ discrete data, it’s important to understand how this unique area of math applies to common computing structures.

Discrete mathematics courses taken by undergraduates introduce concepts like logic, counting, set theory, relations, functions, graphs, trees and sorting. These topics have further applications in developing algorithms and identifying the most efficient solution to a given problem.

3. Hardware Design and Operation

One of the keys to becoming a good programmer is understanding how the systems you’re programming actually function. While they aren’t usually as in-depth as physics or electrical engineering courses, undergraduate classes that cover computer hardware design and organization are essential to refining your computer science skill set.

Universities differ in their offerings of computer organization and hardware courses, but many students don’t see these classes until their second undergraduate year. While a number of students may only get as far as introductory classes, those who go on to specialize in mobile, microprocessor or embedded systems find the knowledge they gain here invaluable.

4. Language-Specific Programming and Data Structures

Computer science majors typically tend to focus primarily on a limited range of computer languages, such as C, C++, Python or Java. While the fundamentals of programming theory remain similar in many languages, specifics like syntax, object-oriented programming principles, control structures and data types are generally bound by the language you’re using.

Classes that focus on the nuances of different languages are important both as crash courses and foundation-building exercises that might help you translate your work to other languages later on. Many real-world software projects employ multiple languages, so such familiarity also comes in handy in the professional arena.

5. Networking and Web Technologies

Programming for the Web or a private network bears some similarity to standard computer science activities that occur on a single local machine, but there are many important differences. Here, students learn about critical topics like network security, cryptography and the protocols and standards that define network communication, such as HTTP and TCP/IP. Some classes may focus on user interfaces, accessible design and web-specific technologies, such as HTML, CSS, PHP or JavaScript. These courses also incorporate introductions to server hardware and network architecture that make them vital for anyone who wants to go on to pursue network administrator roles.

Where will your computer science degree take you? It all depends on the type of work you decide to do, but mastering the basics is an essential start.