//Can You Get a Master’s in Computer Science Without a CS Background?

Can You Get a Master’s in Computer Science Without a CS Background?

Code.org reports that there more than 475,000 open computing jobs nationwide (as of January 2019), and less than 50,000 computer science students graduated into the workforce last year.

A master’s degree isn’t required to work in this field, but with a limited number of highly skilled workers graduating with advanced computer science degrees every year, having a master’s degree may help you get your foot in the door–and once you’re in, a graduate degree may also help you climb the CS career ladder. But what if you majored in something other than computer science? The good news is programs all over the country, including many online master’s programs, offer non-CS students the opportunity to pursue an advanced degree in this exploding field.

To help you get started in your search, here are a few online graduate CS programs that consider applicants who do not have an undergraduate degree or professional experience in computer science. This is not an exhaustive list, but merely a starting point in your journey.

Bridge Program/Preparatory Courses
Syracuse University* Preparatory courses (6 credits)
Purdue University N/A (major deficiencies are best remedied before applying)
University of Southern California N/A (major deficiencies are best remedied before applying)
Drexel University Preparatory courses (6 credits)
East Carolina University N/A (major deficiencies are best remedied before applying)

*Sponsored Program

Graduate Computer Science Programs for Non Computer Science Students

Don’t let your lack of exposure to computer science hold you back from obtaining a master’s degree. Although some schools do require an undergraduate degree in computer science or a related field (or documented work experience), many programs will consider applicants who may not have any formal exposure to computer science.

Should you go back to school for a second undergraduate degree in computer science?

If you have a bachelor’s degree in a field other than computer science and are thinking of transitioning into the field, you may also be considering going back to school to get a second undergraduate degree in computer science. Although this is certainly possible, it actually makes more sense to pursue a master’s degree rather than work on obtaining a second bachelors.

According to the Department of Computer Science and 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.”

CS bridge programs

To prepare non-CS students for the computational rigor of a graduate-level computer science program, many schools offer bridge programs and/or preparatory courses that emphasize and reinforce the foundational knowledge and competencies necessary to succeed.

For example, our partner Syracuse University offers six additional credits of preparatory coursework for students admitted into the program who do not have prior academic and/or work experience in such areas as programming, discrete math, operating systems, and computer architecture.

Preparatory Courses, Syracuse University (Subject to change)
Data Structures and Algorithms This course covers run-time analysis (big-O analysis), common data structures (Arrays, Lists, Trees, Graphs, Hash Tables, Heaps), recursion, sorting algorithms, divide and conquer algorithms, greedy algorithms, dynamic programming, and computational complexity (P, NP). – 3 credits
Computer Organization & Operation System Design (3 credits) This course covers computer organization topics such as CPU and pipeline architecture, data representation and memory hierarchies, assembly language and instruction sets. Operating system concepts include system calls, processes, threads, synchronization, memory management, Input-output, traps, and file systems. – 3 credits
Engineering & Computer Science, Syracuse University, Earn Your M.S. in Computer Science Online, Complete Your Degree in 15 Months, Learn More

Prepare for success in a graduate-level computer science program

Proficiency in college algebra, calculus and some exposure to programming is recommended to succeed as a non-CS student in a graduate-level CS program. The Department of Computer Science at North Carolina State University, for example, says that it is interested in recruiting graduate students from a variety of fields including “business, other branches of engineering and science, the liberal arts, etc.”

For non-CS students who are thinking of applying to graduate school, NCSU outlines the following subjects that are “necessary for success” as a CS graduate student:

  • Mathematics: calculus (two or three semesters), probability and statistics (typically at a junior or senior level), and discrete math. A course in linear algebra can also be helpful.
  • Programming and algorithmic thinking: two semesters of objected-oriented programming (Java, C++, or the like), and a course in data structures. A course in algorithm analysis /automation theory is worth considering.
  • Computer systems: a course on computer organization, and possibly a course on operating systems.

Remember, these are not necessarily prerequisites for admission as much as they are prerequisites for success. If you feel you have significant gaps in knowledge or education that you would prefer to remedy before pursuing a master’s degree, there are many ways to prepare yourself for the rigors of a graduate-level computer science program. For example, you can study upper-level college mathematics and even get an introduction to programming languages like Java and C++ outside of the classroom using free online resources like Coursera, edX and even YouTube.

Tips for Applying

Choose the right program

The first step is to research graduate computer science programs and identify the best options given your level of knowledge and experience. Look for master’s programs that do not require an undergraduate degree or experience in computer science. It is also important to determine which program aligns with your end-goal: Are you pursuing a master’s in computer science to start a new career, or will you use the degree to become more marketable in your current role?

CS programs have different outcomes, so first knowing why you want to pursue a master’s in computer science will inform the decisions you make the programs you choose to apply to—and in doing so, you may select a program that’s looking for potential students just like you, regardless of computer background or experience.

Potential CS programs

Tell a compelling story

A lack of computer science experience does not automatically disqualify you from being admitted to a graduate computer science program. Instead, admissions departments will want to know why you are pursuing an advanced degree in computer science despite your non-CS background. Programs are looking for motivated, highly-driven students who will take what they learn and apply it in the real world; your admission essay should explain your ability to learn new concepts, so programs feel confident that you have the “mental make-up” to succeed.

Demonstrate your drive

Letters of recommendation are equally as important to help shed light on your potential and convince admissions officers that you have what it takes to succeed in the program. Try to submit at least one letter from a former instructor who can attest to your dedication and drive in the classroom. If asking for letters of recommendation from employers, explain why you are going back to school and ask them to talk about your ability to overcome challenges and obstacles—like those you’ll face as a graduate computer science student without any previous experience.

Consider taking the GRE

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is not required for admission to all graduate-level programs but may be beneficial if you are pursuing a master’s degree in computer science with an unrelated undergraduate degree. For example, the Florida Institute of Technology “highly recommends” applicants with unrelated undergraduate degrees to submit GRE test scores when applying to FIT’s Master of Science in Computer Information Systems.

The GRE is a broad assessment of your critical thinking, analytical writing, verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning skills. In other words, the purpose of the GRE is to help graduate schools decide if an applicant has the mental makeup to succeed at the next level. If you are applying to a graduate-level computer science program with an unrelated background, high GRE test scores may help convince some admissions officers that you have the “right stuff” to graduate with a master’s in computer science.

No Computer Science Background? No Problem!

There is a shortage of skilled computer workers nationwide, and many graduate programs are opening their doors to help prepare the next generation of computer science leaders. Will you be one of them?

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