Can you do a masters in computer science without a computer science background?

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THROUGH Jenna HollanderAug 30, 2022 at 12:27 p.m

Graduates from Los Angeles City College arrive at the Greek Theater where First Lady Jill Biden delivered the keynote address as seen in June 2022. (Photo by David Crane – MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News/Getty Images)

Programming, databases, networks – these topics are the be-all and end-all of the computer science discipline. But not every applicant enters a graduate program with that level of fluency or deep understanding of the subject—and that’s okay, too.

“We’re seeing more and more people wanting to transition from different backgrounds,” says Craig Gotsman, dean of the Ying Wu College of Computing at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). “Some of them are STEM — like mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, civil engineering, biology, chemistry, all sorts of technical subjects but no computer science — and some are even from outside of STEM subjects. We’ve had people from finance, which isn’t quite STEM, business, even as far away as music, English, all sorts of really completely different things. ”

In fact, according to Gotsman, about 50% of applicants for NJIT’s graduate programs in computer science do not have a computer background. And those non-traditional applicants—at NJIT or another university—can still remain competitive in the crowded applicant pool. In fact, multiple skills can only provide a head start.

In computer science, an analytical mindset is crucial

It used to be that if you wanted to earn a master’s degree in any discipline, including computer science, your undergraduate education had to be geared towards it. That is no longer the case.

“Everyone learns differently and faces different challenges,” says Paulus Wahjudi, chair of the Department of Computer Sciences and Electrical Engineering at Marshall University. “Computer science is an area where there is no one right answer. There are multiple ways to solve a problem, and not every solution is perfect.”

An analytical mindset is the key trait that truly differentiates a successful master’s student from his or her fellow computer science students.

“What they need is analytical thinking,” Gotsman says. “You have to know how to dig deep into a problem, analyze it and make decisions like that. Having a good analytical mind is usually a key to success, even if you haven’t done a lot of programming or a lot of math or a lot of software stuff in your past. If you’re used to thinking that way, you’ll probably do well.”

What do computer science master’s programs look for in applicants?

While applicants with at least some experience in computer science or a closely related field are generally sought for master’s programs in computer science, this is usually not a mandatory requirement these days. Rather, admissions staff take a holistic view of an applicant’s background to get a sense of their potential.

“We look at the candidate’s entire record,” Gotsman says, “not just their formal academic credentials and undergraduate transcript, which is a small piece of the pie.”

For example, admissions advisors may want to know if candidates have relevant work experience, particularly in the use of computers, or if they have non-creditable training, e.g. B. Online or offline courses in programming, data analysis or a related subject. For applicants without a bachelor’s degree in computer science, coursework support is one area where applicants can bolster their application.

Little expertise? time to learn

“If the applicant doesn’t have much experience in computer science, then they need to show what they’ve done to show they’re interested in the field and willing to do the work for the degree,” he tells Wahjudi. “We don’t want to accept a student and see them fail halfway through, so anything that can indicate they took the initiative to know the area and the program is a plus.”

This knowledge often comes in the form of boot camps, bridging courses — whether within school or at another institution — or a shorter, less intensive certificate program to give potential applicants a taste of computer science courses without full academic commitment.

For example, NJIT offers a certificate program that acts as a graduate-level mini-degree — which serves as a “way for the prospective MS student to test the waters if they’re coming from the outside and don’t have such a good, strong background in the.” computer science,” says Gotsman.

Ljubomir Perkovic, director of the School of Computing at DePaul University, agrees. “Prospective applicants looking to improve their performance might want to take some undergraduate courses in computer science, for example at a community college, to show they can be successful in computer science courses.”

When it comes to soft skills, motivation and drive should not be neglected

For those considering a master’s degree in computer science who are put off by a career path or tradition, Wahjudi offers a word of support. “Above all, an applicant must have the motivation and the will to learn,” he says. And these qualities can be equally expressed by people with or without a computer science background.

In fact, people from non-traditional backgrounds might have an advantage in terms of motivation as they make a major career change, Gotsman says.

“In terms of the effort they put in, the work, the drive and so on, some of our best students in that regard are the ones who don’t have a computer background,” he says. “They are more motivated to be successful because their whole life depends on it, almost in a sense.”

That’s another reason why master’s students – especially those who start without a computer science background – should not graduate as quickly as possible, says Wahjudi. Rather, these students should be immersed in the experience and education. “Your goal is to graduate with the most knowledge in the various subjects and the best performance in class, because that matters later in the job,” he says.

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