How to Get a Master's Degree in Computer Science
Computer science launched the Information Age via powerful technologies capable of manipulating information and automating processes. Today, computing pervades nearly every aspect of modern life: Communications, data management, manufacturing, entertainment, transportation, and design.
A master's degree in computer science puts you on the leading edge of technology development. Graduate computer science programs combine education in fundamental computing principles with applied design training. This combined conceptual and practical approach produces innovative thinkers capable of solving real-world design problems.
WorldWideLearn.com's guide to the master's degree in computer science prepares you to take full advantage of your educational resources. Define your professional objectives before you apply, and use them to guide your choices throughout the program. The steps outlined below help you build a foundation for success in the computer science master's program.
Guide to Master's Degrees in Computer Science
Before you plunge headlong into computer science graduate school, it's important to develop an understanding of what computer science and the master's degree entails. Depending on your career goals in high tech, you may choose to pursue an academic or professional master's in computer science, or opt for a related discipline such as IT or computer engineering.
Computer Science as an Academic Discipline
Computer science is a specialized study of theoretical and applied mathematics with applications in electrical engineering. The discipline emphasizes algorithmic reasoning and computation theory, and has a close kinship with linguistics, mathematical logic, cognitive science, physics, and statistics. A theoretical discipline, computer science complements applied computer engineering disciplines like computer hardware design and information technology.
An advanced computer science degree offers a deep conceptual understanding of computational reasoning and processes. This background prepares graduates to achieve groundbreaking advances in the basic technologies engineers use to develop new products and applications. Insight into the properties of computing technologies can also complement and extend your training in applied computing fields such as software development, IT, and computer engineering.
Academic and Professional Master's Degrees
Computer science master's degrees have evolved to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student body. Today's colleges and universities provide academic and professional master's degrees, offered under the auspices of computer science, mathematics, or engineering departments. Program formats have diversified as well, to meet the needs of working professionals and returning students. You can earn a master's degree online or on campus; through an accelerated program or at your own pace; by day, night, or weekends.
The two primary master's degree types available today include:
- Master of Science: Modeled on the traditional science master's degree, the MS in computer science features a research-oriented program designed to produce academic thought leaders and technological innovators. The academic Master of Science also functions as a prelude to the PhD in computer science.
- Master of Computer Science: The MSC is a professional master's degree designed for computer engineers, software developers, game designers, and other technology professionals who want to expand their conceptual understanding of the tools they apply in commercial design. The degree allows students to focus their curriculum to their professional areas of interest. Many professional MSC programs offer the option to earn a master's degree online.
Specialized study is an important feature of graduate computer science programs. Depending on the master's degree you choose, you may customize your education by selecting elective courses or by developing your own research topic.
The leading computer science associations--Association for Computing Machinery, IEEE Computer Society, and Association for Information Systems (AIS)--divide the computer science discipline into four primary fields:
- Theory of Computation
- Algorithms and Data Structures
- Programming Methodology and Languages
- Computer Elements and Architecture
Within these areas, computer science programs identify the following specializations:
- Artificial Intelligence
- Computer-Human Interaction
- Theoretical Computer Science
- Programming Languages
- Distributed Computation
- Parallel Computation
- Numerical and Symbolic Computation
- Database Systems
- Computer Networking and Communications
- Computer Graphics
Within these specializations, you are likely to encounter additional levels of specificity. Computational theory, for example, encompasses graph theory, logic, automata theory, number theory, quantum computing, computational geometry, category theory, and type theory.
Your particular topic interest can emerge in the course of the program. At the application stage, it's important simply to have a sense of which aspects of computer science spark your curiosity so you can identify programs with resources in your target area.
Graduate degrees in computer science typically lead to careers in academic research or applied R&D.
The academic career track requires a PhD in computer science, after which you are eligible for university professor and advanced scholarly research positions.
The professional career track prepares you for R&D positions, where you pool expertise with engineers and software developers to solve design problems and develop better computer hardware, robotics, computer chips, graphics processors, and other technologies.
For more information about your career options, see the Association for Computing Machinery's guide to computer science careers.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, "Job prospects for computer scientists are expected to be excellent." The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts 24 percent employment growth from 2008 to 2018, making computer science one of the fastest growing occupations.
Plan for a Master's Degree in Computer Science
With your professional ambition as your guide, you're in a good position to research and apply to graduate schools in computer science. Take the following steps to position yourself for academic success:
Find the Right Graduate Computer Science Program
With so many master's degree programs to choose from, it's important to do your research before you apply. The following steps help you narrow down your options and identify the five or six graduate programs that best match your academic objectives.
1. List Accredited Programs
Begin by accessing lists of accredited computer science master's degree programs. Accreditation is the operative word at this stage: only an accredited program offers both the quality and degree credibility to return your educational investment. In addition, accreditation affects your eligibility for financial aid. To find regional and national accreditation authorities, check the U.S. Department of Education's database of approved accreditation agencies.
WorldWideLearn.com's Degrees by Subject search links you to accredited education partners with master's degree programs in computer science.
The Computing Accreditation Commission of ABET is the primary accreditor of computer science programs in the U.S. You can access a list of CAC-accredited programs in computer science using ABET's online search tool.
2. Choose Program Format: Campus or Online Master's Degree?
The rising tide of working professionals seeking a computer science master's degree has inspired a diverse selection of program formats. Choose among:
Online master's degrees. Digital format allows you to earn a master's degree online without putting your life--and career--on hold.
Campus master's degrees. The traditional campus format remains a strong choice for aspiring academics, who rely on access to local facilities, teaching opportunities, and collaborative research.
Accelerated and self-paced formats. These degree programs allow working professionals to work at their own pace, taking courses at night, on weekends, or online.
Your career goals, learning style, and personal circumstances help determine which program format is right for you.
WorldWideLearn.com segments your program research by program format. See Online Degree Programs or Campus Education, or search Degrees by Location for campus graduate programs in your area.
3. Explore Academic Programs
Next, whittle down your list by investigating each program's academic resources. The following factors impact your ability to succeed in your chosen field:
- Degree Format and Requirements
- Computing Facilities
- Employer Relationships
- Career Support Services
- Learning Environment
Your career track influences how you weigh these priorities. Academics require state-of-the-art research facilities and faculty mentors in their field of study. For professionals, a program's employer outreach and career support efforts may eclipse academic resources.
WorldWideLearn.com features an automated tool designed to help you identify schools that match your program criteria. Fill out an online form indicating your preferences, and school representatives contacts you to answer your questions about the program.
School Web sites offer a goldmine of detailed information about the master's degree program. Look for degree requirements, course descriptions, links to faculty bios and publications, and more.
Informational interviews give you a vicarious glimpse into the program experience and the value of the degree on the job market. Seek interviews with faculty, alumni, and current graduate students.
Campus visits are valuable for all students, whether you plan to earn a master's degree online or on-site. Tour school facilities, visit classes, and meet with faculty and admissions counselors.
4. Evaluate Program Quality
Finally, settle on five or six schools that reflect the best return on your investment. You can gauge the educational quality and value of a master's degree program by examining each school's:
- Job placement and salary statistics
- Student background, including years of industry experience
Keep in mind that top schools are highly selective in their admissions--the committee evaluates your application based on your undergraduate performance, work experience, and test scores. Plan to apply to one or two schools that match your profile, as well as a couple 'long shots' and 'safety schools.'
Admissions Departments supply useful data such as average admitted students' GPA and test scores, job placement information, and student demographics.
College Rankings help you gauge the reputation of a program among employers and other academics. U.S. News & World Report publishes the most prominent ranking of Graduate Schools in Computer Science.
Apply to Graduate Computer Science Programs
The application process reverses the research process: now it's your turn to convince admissions committees that you're the right fit for the master's degree program. Take these steps to gain admission to the schools on your list:
1. Complete Prerequisites
Each school mandates eligibility requirements for graduate study. Depending on the master's degree you choose, prerequisites may include:
- A bachelor's degree in computer science or mathematics
- Prerequisite courses in mathematics, statistics, computer science
- GRE, GRE subject exam, and TOEFL (English proficiency test for non-native speakers)
- Work experience
Satisfy these requirements with the help of WorldWideLearn.com's Education Resources Guide, which offers test preparation resources, prerequisite courses, and online learning tools.
2. Prepare Application Materials
The master's degree program application requires an array of supporting materials. A complete application may include:
- Information form
- Academic transcripts
- Letters of recommendation
- Test scores
- Personal statement of research interests
- Financial aid application
In addition, some schools require finalists to interview for admission.
3. Research Financial Aid for Your Master's Degree in Computer Science
Today's computer science graduate students have the option to contain expenses by working while they earn a master's degree online. Whether you choose a campus or online master's degree, however, you may be eligible for financial aid to cover your educational costs.
Take these steps to pursue graduate school funding:
- Meet with financial aid advisors at your top schools.
- Fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This comprehensive form covers most federal aid programs, from Pell Grants to Stafford Loans.
- Research your employer's continuing education programs. Many technology companies encourage students to keep pace with innovation through tuition grants and other education incentives.
- Apply for private scholarships.
- As a last resort, apply for a private student loan.
WorldWideLearn.com's resource page on graduate education funding walks you through your financial aid options.
Build Your Academic Network
Your graduate education entitles you to join a network of academics who share your passion for computer science. Build relationships with your peers and future mentors by:
- Joining Professional Associations. The big two computing associations--ACM and IEEE Computer Society--have local chapters as well as niche groups representing specialized interests.
- Reading Journals. Major computing journals include Computer Science Review, International Journal of Computer Science and Engineering, and Journal of Computer Science.
- Attending Networking Events and Conferences. You can find conferences and events representing every corner of the computer science world. Check the Computer Science Conference Search for an event in your area of interest.
Start networking early, and you can have a strong support system in place when you begin your master's degree program.
A master's degree in computer science prepares you to take on the most fundamental technology problems of the 21st century. To make the most of your two years in graduate school, arrive with a clear sense of your academic priorities and career objectives. This focus lets you seize the opportunities that come your way, and transform yourself into a leading innovator in computing technology.
- Computer Science Conference Search.
- "Computer Scientists," Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-2011 Edition. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Computing Degrees & Careers, Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).
- Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education.
- Graduate Schools in Computer Science Ranking, U.S. News & World Report (2008).
- IEEE Computer Society.
- List of Schools with Computer Science Departments, Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).
- Master of Computer Science (Distance Education), NC State Computer Science Graduate Program.
- Professional Master's Program in Computer Science & Engineering, University of Washington.
- Programs in Computers, The Sloan Consortium.
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