If you're considering a master's in computer science, you're probably already aware of the benefits. Computer scientists with an advanced degree typically enjoy better job opportunities and generous pay, with average annual salaries over $100,000.
But will you get into the master's program of your choice? Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) programs are highly selective: the admissions rates at top schools usually fall between ten and 30 percent. Even a highly qualified candidate can sometimes receive the dreaded thin envelope from the admissions department.
MSCS applicants admitted to top programs typically have:
While thinking about potential rejection is painful, understanding the admissions process can help bolster your admissions chances. Read on to learn about master's in computer science requirements. This article covers:
The term computer science covers a broad range of practices—everything from maintaining networks to designing self-driving cars. As society grows ever-more technology-dependent, the need for computer science proliferates across every field.
The University of Maryland - College Park defines computer science as "the study of computers and computational systems." Because computer science covers such a vast expanse of knowledge and practice, individual job descriptions within the discipline can differ drastically.
Computer science specializations may be offered as individual degrees, or as tracks in a computer science program. Popular specializations include:
AI encompasses computer applications that simulate human activities such as visual recognition and speech recognition. Students in the Southern Methodist University AI specialization—a track in the school's computer science master's program—investigate topics like computer vision and expert language. AI has strong ties to machine learning.
According to Stanford University, "Biocomputation is an interdisciplinary specialization focusing on computational challenges and solutions in the biological and medical informatics application areas." Coursework focuses on applying computer science processes, such as computational methods and algorithms, to biomedical practices.
Georgia Institute of Technology - Main Campus offers a computer graphics specialization with core courses in algorithms, complexity, and computability. Elective courses include game design, animation, and geometric modeling.
Also known as human-computer interaction (HCI), this speciality examines the connection between people and technology. The Carnegie Mellon University MHCI curriculum includes graduate courses on user-focused research, user interface, and user-programming capabilities.
Schools with high-quality data science and analytics programs include Syracuse University and Texas A & M University - College Station. Both degrees focus on data mining and parsing. Some schools offer their analytics programs through their school of business or through data science programs at their school of engineering.
The game design specialization at the University of Southern California includes artificial intelligence and computer animation courses.
There is a growing demand for information and cyber security. The Master of Science in Information Security at James Madison University includes security, ethics, law, and forensics coursework. Similarly, University of Tulsa offers a master's in cyber security through its department of computer science.
Machine learning is accomplished with programming and algorithms. The field is closely linked to artificial intelligence; many programs combine the two disciplines. The Columbia University machine learning specialization includes computer vision and AI courses, for example.
The Boston University computer networks specialization "provides students with a broad foundation in information technology and an in-depth understanding of computer data communication and modern networking."
Most MSCS core requirements include programming, though certain schools emphasise it more strongly than others. The curriculum at advanced programming coursework at Stevens Institute of Technology digs deep into C language and UNIX systems.
Software engineers create and run programs and systems. The University of Chicago designs its specialization coursework around advanced programming languages (C++, Python, and Java), computer architecture, and applied engineering.
Systems is a broad designation. The The University of Texas at Dallas systems concentration focuses on networking systems, architecture, and security. Case Western Reserve University offers an MS degree program in electrical, computer, and systems engineering that stresses network communication and security education.
According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there are two branches of CS theory: theory of algorithms—which is application-focused—and complexity theory—which studies algorithm effectiveness and computational classification. Most MSCS programs include theory as a course requirement. It can also be a research field, which may require a PhD.
A master's in computer science is an advanced degree that helps graduates increase their earning potential and job options. While research-focused MS degree programs can lead to a PhD in computer science, most computer scientists end their academic studies at the master's level. That doesn't mean they stop learning; remaining current in computer science requires constant professional development, trainings, and certifications.
A master's in computer science typically continues the education that a bachelor's in computer science starts—though programs for those without traditional computer science backgrounds exist. MS programs typically last two years, rather than four for a bachelor's. The main difference is that graduate programs usually attract working professionals who know what they want to specialize in rather than undergraduate students trying to build a foundation.
PhDs focus on research, emphasising the science part of computer science. MS programs are more application-focused, while PhDs usually lead to positions in academia, research, and upper-level management. You may need a research-centric master's to qualify for a PhD.
Several factors go into the amount of time you'll spend on an application, including the number of schools you apply to and if you retake the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). Though there's no set time, especially considering people usually need to balance work, school, and life, you can expect to spend roughly a year working on applications.
Receiving a decision depends on the way each school is structured. Schools with rolling admissions decide based on when they receive applications. It may take just a few weeks to hear back from a program with rolling admissions.
Once admitted, it usually takes two years of full-time study to earn a computer science master's. Exceptions include accelerated programs, such as the one at Tulane University of Louisiana, which take around a year. Students usually transition into accelerated programs from a four-year undergraduate degree. Part-time programs take longer—between three and five years. Those without a computer science background usually need to complete a bridge program or self-study before applying to a master's. This adds study time, of course.
According to US News and World Report, the tuition cost for most master's programs is between $15,000 and $72,000. For top programs, these numbers can exceed $100,000. Taking advantage of funding opportunities including scholarships, fellowships, and employer funding can help cut the cost of your degree.
The average MSCS earns nearly $103,000 per year, according to PayScale. However, individual salaries can fluctuate drastically. For instance, a principal software engineer earns closer to $140,000 , while a chief technology officer earns over $160,000, on average.
While this section is specific to computer science, you'll encounter similar admissions requirements when applying to any graduate program at an accredited institution. Each program has a unique way of evaluating applications. Researching what a school looks for before applying is essential.
It's standard practice to submit a bachelor's degree transcript. MSCS programs like the one at Rutgers University - New Brunswick require students to show proof of completing undergraduate-level computer science courses—such as data structures, linear algebra, and finite mathematics. Most top schools look for an undergraduate GPA of at least 3.0.
Those who have already completed a master's program must submit these transcripts as well. Schools want to see your entire academic record.
It's standard practice to submit Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores. While having excellent scores certainly doesn't guarantee admission, low scores can be a dealbreaker. Georgia Tech, a top program, looks for scores of 153 (Verbal) and 155 (Quantitative) out of 170, and 3.0 (Analytical) out of six.
Many programs are moving away from required testing, even before COVID, but especially during the pandemic. University of Pennsylvania is test optional, and University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign also don't require scores.
The amount of time you'll spend preparing for the GRE is situation-specific, but it commonly takes a few months.
Submitting a resume and relevant work experience is standard. Not every program sets a work experience requirement, though most students have at least two years of experience—often more. Having a strong resume is an excellent way to showcase your abilities and prove why a program should accept you.
According to Dartmouth College, there are benefits and drawbacks to work experience. Benefits include a deeper understanding of the field and the possibility that an employer will pay for your education. Those who wait may struggle more with the GRE and being in a school environment.
Submitting three letters of recommendation is standard practice. One of the most important parts of any application, it's an opportunity to have others—usually professors or employers—speak on your behalf.
Another aspect of the process that most schools value highly, the personal essay demonstrates how and why you fit in the program. Good personal statements and essays discuss past success and look to the future, showing who you are along the way. It's a difficult task to complete in under 1,000 words—often around 500—but an essential one.
Not every school has an interview process. Columbia requires it on a case-by-case basis. Like the personal statement, this is an opportunity to impress the school and show that your personality fits the program.
International students may require employer sponsorship to obtain or maintain a visa. Employer sponsorship is also a way to pay for school. Occasionally, companies offer tuition reimbursement or even agree to pay for a degree, usually in exchange for additional years of work.
Non-native English speakers need to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). This test demonstrates English proficiency. Like the GRE, you may need to meet a minimum score. For instance, Georgia Tech only accepts TOEFL scores above 100.
Another common responsibility for international students is to demonstrate financial responsibility. Northwestern University asks for proof of tuition, housing, and living expenses for one year.
Master's programs are usually project-focused, providing opportunities to apply knowledge outside of the classroom. Most programs require either a thesis or capstone project to graduate. Other common requirements can include an internship and GPA maintenance—usually above 3.0.
MSCS curricula are split into required and elective coursework. Students who specialize may have two sets of required coursework—one program-wide and the other specialization specific. Additionally, students can usually complete electives for their track.
The typical MSCS core subjects include:
While these are prevalent courses, individual programs can differ drastically, especially when factoring in a chosen track and career goals. For instance, New York University offers "maximum curriculum flexibility, allowing you to adapt your program to your ambitions and goals as well as to your educational and professional backgrounds." Online programs typically have the same curricula as their in-person counterparts.
Electives usually depend on the type of program you complete. For instance, each of the 11 specialization tracks at Georgia Tech has a different set of elective and core courses.
Computational Perception and Robotics specialization electives include:
Computing Systems electives include:
Graduate students usually complete projects as classwork and may collaborate with faculty members. It's an opportunity to mesh your passions with the skills you developed during the program. Examples of recent CS thesis projects from Brown University students include:
Some schools offer a non-thesis option.
Before jumping into a list of the best MSCS programs, it's important to understand that there is no 'best' school. Someone who lives and works in New Jersey, for instance, may have Stevens ranked higher on their personal list than someone who lives in Massachusetts—that person may prefer one of the many excellent Boston schools. HBCUs often foster better learning environments for students of color than primarily white institutions (PWIs), including better mentorship programs and more representative classes.
The point is, even if you get into "the top school," it may not be the top school for you.
Still, knowing the conventional wisdom is a good place to start. The top computer science schools, according to US News and World Report, are:
Online degrees can increase your options to anywhere in the world. Top online MSCS programs include:
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