Computer science is one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S.: Employment is expected to grow 11 percent from 2014 to 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—faster than the average of all other fields in the country.
The demand for qualified computer science professionals is also high. By 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer science-related jobs available, and only 400,000 computer science graduates with the necessary skills to fill them, the White House predicts.
It’s no surprise, then, that computer science is attracting a broader group of individuals. Given the industry’s explosive growth and pervasiveness across business, people with diverse educational and professional backgrounds are seeking advanced degrees in computer science.
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“Students may have taken one computer science class as an undergraduate and their interest was piqued,” says Ben Hescott, teaching professor in Northeastern University’s Khoury College of Computer and Information Science. “We also have professionals who may have majored in something unrelated, like English or mathematics, who are looking for a career change. There are others who have found that a computer science degree is useful or necessary to grow professionally.”
Not having a background in computer science shouldn’t deter you from pursuing a master’s degree in the field, Hescott says. Here are four steps you can take to help you succeed.
1. Determine How a Master’s in Computer Science Aligns with Your Career
People interested in Northeastern’s ALIGN Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) program come from a variety of backgrounds, according to Hescott. One worked in media and illustration, for example, but was interested in pursuing a master’s degree to “see under the hood” of the programs he uses and learn how to code—a skill he wanted to integrate into his work, Hescott says.
The ALIGN program caters to graduate students who don’t have a background in computer science and offers a direct path to a master of science degree.
Another student studied English as an undergraduate. She was always interested in computer science, but didn’t see herself pursuing a career in technology at the time.
Hescott has also spoken with potential students who have degrees in mathematics and are working as a statistician or in finance. They use algorithms to predict behaviors and could see how a degree in computer science could enhance their everyday work.
“More and more people are finding that computer science is pervasive in their everyday lives and they’re feeling a connection to it either personally or in their everyday work,” Hescott says.
Determine which one it is for you: Are you pursuing a master’s in computer science to change careers, or will you use the degree to advance and become more marketable in your current career? Understanding your end-goal is an important first step and will inform the decisions you make about the program you choose.
2. Choose the Right Program
Enrolling in graduate school—whether it’s full- or part-time—is a big commitment, Hescott says. Some students decide to quit their job to pursue a master’s in computer science full-time, while others enroll as a part-time student.
“A grad program is challenging and can be done part-time, but more than 50 percent of students at Northeastern decide to quit their job and go full-time,” Hescott says. “You need to ask yourself where you are with the commitment and find a program that supports that. Here at Northeastern, it’s easy to put a toe in the water because you can try it part-time before you make a full commitment.”
Finding a program that works with your schedule and abilities is critical. Take Northeastern’s ALIGN program, for example, which is designed for returning non-majors.
“There’s a difference when you’re sitting in an intro to programming class with adults instead of the general undergrad population with students of differing abilities,” Hescott says. “Being in a classroom that’s designed for adults who generally have no experience in computer science makes for a smoother transition.”
Additionally, seek out a program that aligns with your end-goal. For many pursuing a graduate degree, that means a new job. Look for programs with a strong career services office that will help you with your search.
Northeastern’s co-op program integrates academics with a semester of full-time employment in positions related to your field of study. This opportunity provides hands-on, real-world paid experience, which is especially key for students who don’t have prior work experience in computer science.
“This is a huge differentiator for all our students,” Hescott adds.
Once you’ve found a program that suits your needs and goals, it’s time to apply. Pay special attention to the essay, Hescott says, which sets you apart from other applicants.
“When you’re a returning student and haven’t been in the college environment, the personal essay is really important,” he says. “I want to see your enthusiasm and dedication to the program.”
In your essay, address why you want to be a part of the program and why you want to pursue a degree in computer science; tell a compelling story, Hescott advises. If you don’t have experience in computer science, use this as an opportunity to explain why you’re interested in earning the degree.
“It could be, ‘I’m an English major, but I’m interested in computer science because I find solving problems interesting,’” Hescott says. “Then explain why. That’s a really compelling story you can tell.”
Another key to the application process is your undergraduate transcript. Admissions wants to see that you’re a serious student, which your transcript can indicate, regardless of whether you’ve studied computer science in the past.
“If you looked at my transcript from college, you’d see someone who struggled to adapt to college,” Hescott says. “I came from a small town and went to a big school; I wasn’t prepared for that. But you’d see improvement in my transcript from freshman year to senior year, and that’s important.”
Hescott says you shouldn’t necessarily be worried about a bad grade or two. If you are, however, look for other stories to tell in your personal essay. This might include an example of something you did in your job—a particularly difficult problem you persevered through and helped solve.
“If you took a class here and there part-time after graduating, that would show that you’re an independent learner, a serious student, and someone who’s on the move,” Hescott adds. “Don’t assume that one bad grade will indicate that you aren’t serious or dedicated. As adults we look back and think our transcripts are worse than they really are.”
Letters of recommendation are equally as important to shed light on you as a student and professional. As a returning student, it’s common for many to be from your employers, but aim to receive at least one from a former faculty member who can attest to your dedication and drive in the classroom.
4. Make It Happen
Once you’ve been accepted into a program, it’s time to put in the work. The first step in your graduate school journey is to mentally prepare yourself for what it takes to achieve a graduate degree in computer science, Hescott says.
“One of the biggest wakeup calls for new grad students is finding the time to do homework,” he adds. For part-time students, especially, this can be challenging: You’re keeping a full-time job and need to find time for homework and studying, plus any other personal obligations you already have.
Part-time students in the computer science program can expect around 10 hours of homework per week, while full-time students can expect around double that, Hescott says. Not all of those hours are spent on assignments, however; built into that is time for reflection.
“This may be at the gym or on the train, for example—time to think about what’s really happening in class, and how it informs you and your future career,” Hescott says. “That’s the good thing about the computer science program: It’s very hands-on, very skills-based. When you’re taking a database class, you’re actually building databases.”
While time management is an essential skill for success, it’s important not to get lost in the coursework, Hescott says. Be open to a wide range of core classes and opportunities for specialization. You might find that you’re really interested in machine learning and artificial intelligence, when those areas originally might not have been on your radar.
“There’s a lot of different areas within computer science and, as you’re exposed to them, you should be open to them as areas to specialize in,” he says.
Finally, understand that this journey is a marathon and not a sprint: Be careful not to take too much on inside or outside the classroom to avoid burnout. “Take this class by class, day by day,” Hescott advises.
The computer science field is exciting, always changing, and ripe for opportunities. Achieving a master’s degree in computer science is an important step for students with no background in the field to capitalize on all it has to offer.
“One of the great things I’m seeing with computer science and technology being so pervasive now is people from all these different disciplines returning to college,” Hescott says. “When you take these different backgrounds and add them to computer science, you get something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.”