Many people go back to school to pursue graduate-level computer science degrees because they want to stand out from the crowd when applying for jobs. Some students in Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) programs are there not to advance careers, but to launch them.
Fortunately, there are great Master of Computer Science programs for non-CS majors out there. If you've been thinking seriously about going all-in on comp sci, don't let your non-techy background deter you. Do your research with your eyes wide open, however. Enrolling in a master's in computer science program when you don't have a strong CS background can mean having to admit exactly how much you don't know.
"You're going to be pitted against people who already know light-years of computer science stuff beyond your knowledge," wrote one Quora commenter in a thread about what it's like to enter a CS program without a programming background. "People whip out their CS vocabulary of closures, variable scope, block scope, streams, memoize (I swear the first time I saw this I thought it was a spelling mistake), reserved words... so on and so forth. But the ONE THING that people need to remember when starting to learn CS is: don't give up, even when you feel like you don't understand or you don't belong. Everyone was there once."
That's precisely why so many computer science master's programs are willing to at least consider applicants who haven't studied computer science or worked in the tech industry. In this article about master's in computer science programs for non-CS majors, we answer the following questions:
It may come as a surprise, but quite a few colleges and universities don't require MSCS applicants to have a bachelor's degree in computer science.
However, that doesn't mean that incoming students enroll in programs with no computer science knowledge whatsoever. Some schools expect applicants to demonstrate strong quantitative and analytical skills and to have majored in a discipline like engineering, math, or physics.
You won't need a bachelor's degree in computer science to apply to some schools. Still, you'll need to show that you have the skills and knowledge you'd get in an undergraduate CS program. Tufts University’s application guidelines for its on-campus and online Master of Science in Computer Science programs, for instance, don't explicitly state that applicants must have CS degrees—but do require that students "demonstrate core competence as expected from a high quality undergraduate program in computer science" in the areas of:
Students should have a basic foundation of basic coding languages—even low-level assembly and machine code—as well as knowledge of the organization and function of computer systems.
Leverage the power of data and problem-solving algorithms for common computing functions. Universities look for students ready to address computer challenges with a shared language.
These specifically include functional programming and object-oriented programming with inheritance.
These large-scale theoretical topics help students understand what can and cannot be computed, as well as theories behind areas like algorithms, design, and memory.
Finding a school that offers a true master's in computer science for non-CS majors involves more than just performing a simple internet search. Many top computer science colleges and universities technically offer a master's in computer science for non-CS majors. However, when you dig deeper, you'll discover these schools are looking for students with technical backgrounds that overlap with computer science (like electronics or information technology) or who have years of professional experience in computer science.
That doesn't mean students without tech backgrounds or work experience are necessarily shut out of most strong MSCS programs. If they're willing to put in the work to learn programming and undergraduate-level comp sci concepts, they have a shot. Some schools, including Tufts, even offer bridge programs (Tufts has a 10-course post-baccalaureate in computer science that prepares students for the coursework in its graduate CS program).
Most master's in computer science programs for non-CS majors require applicants to submit GRE scores, though there are some on-campus and online master's in computer science programs with no GRE requirements. If the GRE is optional, it's good to submit scores anyway if you're applying to an MSCS program without a comp sci background. Outstanding quantitative reasoning scores will be a mark in your favor when your application is reviewed.
Many CS master's degree programs have a list of prerequisite courses that applicants must pass before they're eligible for acceptance. You can usually find this list in the computer science department's list of application requirements or in the program FAQ. Be aware that you don't necessarily need to take those specific courses. It can't hurt to complete them at the school you're hoping to attend, but you can usually meet this requirement by taking comparable classes at another college or university. Many may be offered at your local community college, likely your most affordable option.
Not at all, which should come as no surprise given that most programs still want to see evidence that incoming students will be able to handle the work. That said, landing a spot in a top computer science school will be a good deal harder without a bachelor's degree in computer science. Computer science programs don't necessarily rule out non-CS majors by default, but they are looking for applicants with proven mathematics, sciences, or engineering knowledge and skills.
Consider Georgia Institute of Technology (Main Campus) with its preferred qualifications that include "an undergraduate degree in computer science or related field (typically mathematics, computer engineering or electrical engineering)." Not meeting that requirement won't lead to automatic rejection, but your application better include some compelling evidence that you belong in their elite program.
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There are master's in computer science programs that are really geared toward non-CS majors and include core classes in computer science fundamentals in the curriculum. University of Pennsylvania offers an online Master of Computer and Information Technology degree that it bills as the "only online Ivy League master's degree in Computer Science designed for students without a Computer Science background."
Other schools, like Tufts, have created mini post-bacc programs designed to get students up-to-speed, either before they apply or after they're accepted. Boston University’s general MSCS program, for instance, accepts students without CS degrees, provided they have extremely strong grades and are willing to complete a five-course sequence designed for incoming students with non-technical backgrounds. New York University has something similar in the form of a two-course program that fulfills the minimum prerequisites for the school's master's degree program in computer science.
It's possible to replicate these prerequisite sequences through extension programs at other schools or by taking (less expensive) community college courses. However, if you're genuinely committed to enrolling in a CS program at a specific school (whether Tufts, NYU, Boston University, or another institution), you can increase your chances of acceptance by completing that school's prereq program. Doing so enables you to cultivate champions among the school's faculty, which can only help come admissions time.
There are very few computer science master's degree programs that explicitly state that they won't consider applicants from non-CS backgrounds. That means you probably don't need a bachelor's degree in computer science to apply to:
The FAQ section clarifies that the school will consider those with a strong CS background—with both introductory and advanced CS courses on their transcripts—but that a standard educational path is not necessary.
Columbia encourages applicants with either a computer science undergraduate degree or one in a related field. If it is the latter, students either should complete the required coursework or explain why their experience makes up for the classes.
While a computer science bachelor's is not directly noted in the list of admissions requirements, Georgia Tech does recommend a strong CS background with programming language knowledge or professional experience.
According to the FAQ section, students are required to complete, "program of study equivalent to that required by the BS in computer science." While the degree name may be something other than CS, students must have completed comparable coursework.
NCSU dedicates a page for admissions requirements of non-CS majors. The program does welcome these students, but only when they've completed a list of relevant math, programming, and data courses.
NYU does not explicitly require an undergrad degree in CS, but its list of entry requirements is extensive. Students must have at least one year of demanding professional experience, strong GRE scores, excellent grades in their transcripts, and excellent supporting application documents.
The Stanford CS master's program is highly competitive, but the FAQ section specifies that you do not need an undergraduate CS degree to apply. It only specifies that you need "strong quantitative and analytical skills."
Steven's encourages students with either an undergrad degree in CS or a closely related field to apply. You will also need a minimum of a 3.0 on your transcripts.
Computer science, computer engineering, or those with a similarly related bachelors are considered for Southern Methodist's master's program. Non-CS students may need to complete additional coursework.
Applicants with degrees outside of computer science are considered on a "case-by-case basis" according to the website. Relevant coursework professional experience must back up a lack of the specific degree.
Tufts advertises a holistic approach to admission for their online MS in Computer Science program, though a strong programming background is recommended.
While there is minimal information about degree requirements, incoming students are required to complete—or have completed—coursework in math and programming.
Keep in mind that just because these schools are willing to consider applications from students who did not major in comp sci doesn't mean that the bulk of students in the MSCS programs in those schools weren't computer science majors. It merely means that you won't be rejected automatically for not having a bachelor's degree in computer science.
On the one hand, you might not have to do anything in particular to prepare to excel in an MSCS program if you enroll in one like that offered by the University of Pennsylvania. On the other hand, even the bridge programs and preparatory course sequences offered by some colleges and universities can't teach all the foundational skills and competencies master's-level comp sci students need to succeed. If you're serious about getting accepted into an MSCS program at a top school, you should brush up on particular subjects.
NCSU accepts graduates from various fields, including "business, other branches of engineering and science, the liberal arts, etc.," and states in its program description that the program's purpose "is not to keep people out of computing or discourage pursuit of a graduate degree. It is just the opposite!" It does, however, require that students take undergraduate courses in:
You’ll explore the role and foundational background of algorithms and how they relate to AI and machine learning.
Analyzing the changes in data is crucial to understanding many branches of computer science. Schools typically require two or three semesters of calculus.
In this course, you’ll study how computer hardware and software communicate within a computer's traditional architecture.
Students explore topics like graph theory, separable and distinct numbers, as well as number sets and nature of proof.
This level of algebra opens up to complex topics like vector spaces and matrices. Its algorithms and similar tools are used consistently in computer science.
Students take at least two semesters on programming languages, particularly those that design code around data or objects.
This course may cover a wide range of computational systems such as memory, security, and file systems.
Students investigate the methods for deciphering and applying common statistical methods to programming and data exploration.
You can boost the chances that you'll be accepted into a master's in computer science program without a bachelor's degree in comp sci by completing a couple of computer science projects on your own time. You'll gain some valuable experience and get a chance to explore your passions, which can help you choose a master's degree concentration once you're accepted into an MSCS program.
Will you struggle to find a job after graduate school because of your non-CS background? Given that plenty of high-ranking full-time and part-time MSCS programs accept students without CS backgrounds, you shouldn't have any issue getting a job after graduation. MSCS graduates are already in high demand, and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that computer and information technology jobs will grow by 16 percent over the next decade. That's a lot of new jobs in many fascinating fields, including data engineering, artificial intelligence, cloud services, robotics, network security, and others.
Maybe the better question would be, 'Is a master's in computer science worth it?' After all, you could try breaking into comp sci by taking online courses, enrolling in a boot camp, or earning one or more relevant certificates. You might even consider going back to school for a second bachelor's degree in comp sci.
What none of those options can do that an MSCS program can, however, is give you the kind of valuable post-graduation career support that a good computer science school delivers. According to the Department of Computer Science at Northern Illinois University, "Even if you have no background in computer science, earning a master's degree (as opposed to a second undergraduate degree) will prepare you for jobs that are often more interesting, command higher salaries, and usually offer a better career advancement path. Time and cost are comparable to a second undergraduate degree."
(This article was updated on December 2, 2021.)
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