Online Master's Degrees in Computer Science for Non-CS Majors
October 15, 2021
Some of the top online MSCS programs accept students who didn't major in computer science at the undergrad level. However, even at those schools, admissions officers typically look for students with advanced computing skills.
Earning a master's degree in computer science can certainly bolster your career. Yes, there's plenty you can do in this field without one; still, it's a lot easier to land a top-paying job in computer science or transition into tech research if you hold a graduate degree.
If you work in IT, a computer science master's can provide your ticket into management positions or more technical roles. If you've dreamed of being a part of emerging fields like computational biology, machine learning, or robotics, you may not be able to break in without a Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS).
Unquestionably, an MSCS can be useful. Can you get one online without majoring in computer science in college? The answer is a resounding yes. There are a surprising number of online MSCS programs that don't explicitly require applicants to have majored in computer science at the bachelor's degree level.
Assuming that these programs welcome applicants from a wide variety of academic and professional backgrounds would be a mistake, however. There are impressive Master of Computer Science programs for non-CS majors out there, but they typically expect applicants to demonstrate solid quantitative and analytical skills. They also favor majors in a related discipline like engineering, math, or physics. Barring that, applicants should have relevant professional experience in technical positions.
In this article about online master's in computer science programs for non-CS majors, we cover:
- What are the usual prerequisites for online MSCS programs?
- Where can I find the best online master's in computer science for non-CS majors?
- Are online MSCS programs that admit non-CS majors less rigorous?
- What do students in online master's in computer science programs study?
- Will I have to take a lot of preparatory courses to catch up?
- Should I pursue a computer science bachelor's instead?
What are the usual prerequisites for online MSCS programs?
Let's get the big question out of the way first. Do you need a bachelor's degree to enroll in a computer science master's degree program? The answer is yes, though it doesn't necessarily need to be a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science (BSCS).
However, keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities want to see that you have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in a graduate-level comp sci program. Tufts University, for example, requires that applicants to its online Master of Science in Computer Science program "demonstrate core competence as expected from a high-quality undergraduate program in computer science" in certain areas of computing, including:
- Algorithm analysis
- Assembly language
- Computer architecture
- Data structures
- Theory of computation
Some online computer science degree programs that admit non-CS majors ask applicants to show proof (in the form of college-level transcripts or professional accomplishments) that they can code at an intermediate level in common programming languages like Python and Java. Others require that applicants without an academic background in computer science have work experience in software development, data science, cyber security, or information technology. Most will only consider applicants who have taken and passed certain foundational math and computing courses. The list of MSCS prerequisite classes varies from school to school (more on this below); it can generally be found in the computer science department's list of application requirements or in the program FAQ.
Finally, most online master's in computer science programs for non-CS majors ask that applicants submit recent GRE scores. While there are some on-campus and online master's in computer science programs with no GRE requirements, many colleges and universities are especially keen to see outstanding quantitative reasoning scores in applicants who don't come from a CS background. Even if GRE scores aren't required to apply, it's a good idea to submit them anyway when you're applying to an MSCS program without a comp sci background.
Where can I find the best online master's in computer science for non-CS majors?
The nine schools below are home to some of the top full-time and part-time online graduate programs in CS that don't require applicants to have a bachelor's degree in computer science:
- Columbia University
- Drexel University
- Georgia Institute of Technology
- Johns Hopkins University
- Stanford University
- Stevens Institute of Technology
- Tufts University
- University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign
- Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Keep in mind that while the above institutions will consider applications submitted by non-CS majors, that doesn't mean graduate students in their online computer science master's programs come from a diverse range of backgrounds. Many colleges and universities require—or at the very least prefer—that applicants have a related STEM degree.
Are online MSCS programs that admit non-CS majors less rigorous?
You only have to glance at the graduate schools on the list above to know that many online master's in computer science programs that consider applicants without a CS background are every bit as rigorous as those that require applicants to have a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. While top online MSCS programs don't always rule out non-CS majors by default, they typically still require that applicants have a foundational understanding of basic computer science concepts, the ability to code in various programming languages, and proven mathematics, sciences, or engineering knowledge and skills.
There are less intense Master of Science in Computer Science programs for non-CS majors out there. The University of Pennsylvania, for instance, offers what it calls the "only online Ivy League master's degree in Computer Science designed for students without a Computer Science background." These tend to be in applied computer science, heavily focused on software engineering, database management, and web development. They tend to skip over higher-level topics related to machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics, and computational theory. In many ways, they're analogous to bachelor's degree programs.
What do students in online master's in computer science programs study?
Online masters in computer science programs for non-CS majors cover the same material as graduate-level CS degrees that require an undergraduate computer science background. It's assumed that students know some computer science (whether academic or professional), and so programs tend to skip over basic concepts. Core courses typically dive into higher-level topics like:
- Advanced algorithms
- Computational theory and practice
- Data compiling and network/Internet protocols
- Data warehousing and storage
- Database design
- Operating system analysis
- Network architecture
- Network security
- Software theory
From there, the curriculum may be driven by a student's concentration track. Examples of common MSCS concentrations include:
- Big data
- Computational biology
- Computer security
- Computer systems
- Foundations of computer science
- Game development
- Human-computer interaction
- Information systems
- Machine learning
- Natural language processing
- Network systems
- Software systems
Additionally, master's-level computer science students often have to complete an internship, thesis, capstone course, co-op project, or practicum to graduate, though some on-campus and online MSCS programs (including the one at Tufts University) have made these culminating experiences optional.
Will I have to take a lot of preparatory courses to catch up?
Almost certainly, but some colleges and universities make it easier to meet requirements related to coursework by offering mini post-bacc programs. These programs usually consist of a sequence of three to five core classes designed to give students with non-technical backgrounds a firm foundation in computer science.
Schools that don't have post-bacc computer science programs for non-CS majors are typically precise about what classes non-CS students must take to apply to or prepare for the online MSCS program. Columbia University, for instance, requires that applicants take and pass four computer science courses covering the foundations of the field and two math courses—all of which may be completed at any accredited college or university, including at an affordable community college.
Should I pursue a computer science bachelor's instead?
If you don't have a bachelor's degree in computer science and don't come from a computer science background, you may also be looking at Bachelor of Science in Computer Science programs. A bachelor's degree can help you launch a computer science career. Still, there are some compelling reasons to opt for a master's degree if you can land a spot in a well-ranked online MSCS program.
First, while there are BS/MS programs, these are seldom offered online, and spending five or six years out of the workforce to earn dual degrees may not be feasible. Second, you may not get as much value out of a BS plus an MS as you might think. Undergraduate degree students often have to take a lot of core courses unrelated to their majors, which means you'll spend a lot of time not learning about comp sci. More importantly, there's a good chance that your undergraduate major won't matter once you have a master's degree.
"Almost everyone I know who got a CS degree as one of many has argued that it's often not really worth getting a second CS degree," wrote one Reddit commenter in a thread about master's-level computer science programs for non-CS majors. "So an MSCS is great for non-CS, but BSCS holders usually go for MBA or some parallel field to which the CS knowledge can apply. I worked with a guy who got a PhD in CS and did not touch it in undergrad at all. He was one of those who said it's only worth getting for one degree."
Of course, simply having a master's degree isn't a guarantee that you'll excel in this field. Pursuing an MSCS online is just the first step. You'll still need to forge strong professional connections (which can be more difficult in an online program) and do a lot of learning outside of class. An entry-level MSCS may be sufficient if you want to work in applied computer science doing business-level software development or working with data. If your goal is to work in a very specialized, theoretical or cutting-edge field, however, you may need to challenge yourself even further by pursuing a PhD in Computer Science.
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