Can You Get a Master's in Computer Science Without a CS Undergrad?

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Many people are surprised to discover that quite a few highly regarded universities don't require that Master of Science in Computer Science applicants have bachelor's degrees in computer science, or CS, to apply. Southern Methodist University is one of them. Lyle School of Engineering welcomes applications from professionals who want to pursue a master's in computer science without a CS undergrad degree. That doesn't mean, however, that you can enroll in the Online Master of Science in Computer Science with an Artificial Intelligence Specialization (MSCS-AI) program with no computer science skills whatsoever. SMU Lyle School of Engineering's part-time MSCS-AI program for distance learners takes a deep dive into advanced computer science and artificial intelligence, and the admissions committee looks for applicants who can handle the rigors of the program.

Many qualified applicants apply with computer science bachelor's degrees, but some majored in disciplines like engineering, math or physics. Other applicants majored in disciplines unrelated to technology, but have significant professional experience in software development, data science, cybersecurity or information technology. Some applicants don't have academic and professional backgrounds in tech, and that doesn't mean they're automatically shut out. Getting into a master's in computer science program without a CS undergrad degree is possible—it just takes some additional work.

The long-term ROI of a computer science master's degree doesn't change based on whether or not you have a CS undergraduate degree.

There are many ways you can strengthen your MSCS-AI application if you didn't earn a bachelor's in computer science. Your goal will be to demonstrate that you have picked up the skills and knowledge you'd get in an undergraduate CS program via work or self-study so the admissions committee sees your potential for success.

What are the Typical MSCS Requirements?

The typical MSCS application requirements are deceptively simple. SMU Lyle MSCS-AI applicants fill out an online application and submit four or five additional items: transcripts from all post-secondary schools attended, a resume or CV, professional references and a personal statement. Applicants without at least two years of professional experience also submit GRE scores. Dig deeper into the application requirements, however, and it becomes clear that the admissions committee wants to see more than just good grades and work experience.

The ideal SMU Lyle MSCS-AI candidate has a bachelor's-level computer science degree, or a degree in one of the quantitative sciences, mathematics or engineering; a minimum GPA of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale; and at least two years of computer science or tech industry experience. They're familiar with multiple programming languages, operating systems, software engineering and software development, algorithms, information systems and computer systems. They can code at an intermediate level in languages like Python, JavaScript and Java. They have professional references who can speak to their computer science knowledge, work experience, achievements and character. And they're able to explain how the MSCS curriculum's focus on artificial intelligence will help them achieve their career goals.

Applicants without a CS undergrad degree or a tech background may need to write an especially compelling personal statement explaining why they want to study computer science at the master's degree level.

Can I Get into SMU Lyle School of Engineering Without a CS Undergraduate Degree?

Yes, if you have two or more years of professional experience in computer science or adjacent technical fields and demonstrable programming skills. Just be aware that there's a chance you'll receive an offer of conditional admission. It's not a rejection, but rather an extra step on your graduate school journey.

What Is Conditional Admission?

An applicant who receives an offer of conditional admission probably has an undergraduate degree in a discipline other than computer science, some experience in tech-adjacent roles and otherwise compelling qualifications. The admissions committee sees potential in them but needs to verify that the applicant has the foundational skills necessary to succeed in a challenging artificial intelligence master's program. MSCS-AI candidates must be comfortable working with modern programming languages, operating systems, algorithms, information systems and computer systems. Conditional admission is the admissions committee's way of making sure an applicant will be a good fit.

Applicants admitted on a conditional basis may have to take up to 12 credit hours of articulation coursework or take a departmental exam to satisfy the Computer Science Department's competency requirement before they're granted full acceptance. Once an applicant satisfies the additional admission requirements outlined by the admissions committee, their admission classification changes from conditional to regular. Understanding what those requirements are and how to fulfill them is the best way to take full advantage of a conditional admit.

What Is Articulation Coursework?

Articulation coursework provides a clear connecting path between an applicant's previous work and the curriculum of SMU Lyle Online's MSCS-AI. Students entering the computer science master's program without an undergraduate CS degree must provide proof that they can confidently write scripts and software in one of the high-level programming languages (e.g., Java, C++, and Python) and have skills related to the following core areas of Computer Science:

  • Algorithms
  • Computer Architecture
  • Concurrency
  • Data Structures
  • Database Management Systems
  • Distributed Systems
  • Networks
  • Operating Systems

Applicants can fulfill SMU Lyle's competency requirements in a few ways. Some enroll in CS 1341 - Principles of Computer Science, which is a three-credit-hour introductory computer science course offered as part of the university's Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science program. Others take ABET-accredited courses in core CS areas or pursue certificates of achievement from edX. Still others opt to take a departmental exam.

What Is an edX Verified Certificate?

A verified certificate from edX serves as proof that an applicant has completed an online course in one of the computer science areas above. There are more than 600 computer science courses and programs on the site. Some, like Introduction to C++, take just a few weeks while others, like Introduction to Python Programming, take months to complete and explore subject matter in more depth. Whether a course or a multi-course program is the better choice depends on how much a student needs to learn. In both cases, students verify their identities using a webcam and a photo identification card before edX issues the verified certificate of completion.

What Is a Departmental Examination?

Some students who apply to pursue SMU Lyle's master's in computer science without a CS undergrad degree satisfy the competency requirement by taking a departmental exam. Lyle School of Engineering's Computer Science Department administers the exams to promising MSCS-AI applicants on a case-by-case basis. The department handles the scheduling of examinations, and most exams are administered before the beginning of the first semester. The contents of the exam vary but are based on a set of specified readings published by the Computer Science Department. Test takers need to demonstrate their programming abilities and score 70 percent or better on an examination that covers one or more of the core areas above.

Can I Get into SMU Lyle School of Engineering Without Two Years of Industry Experience?

SMU Lyle School of Engineering's Online MSCS-AI is geared toward professionals with two or more years of work experience in computer science, computer engineering or software development. Students with career histories shorter than two years are welcome to apply—especially if they've completed relevant internships or participated in research related to computer science or tech. Some MSCS-AI candidates enter the program after working in adjacent fields like data science, and a select few have academic or professional backgrounds entirely unrelated to CS.

That doesn't mean getting into SMU Lyle's online computer science master's program without a CS undergrad degree or two years of industry experience is easy. Students who successfully apply typically have two things in common. First, they have high quantitative GRE scores. Second, they commit to a course of intensive self-study to satisfy the MSCS competency requirements. These applicants study core areas of computer science on their own time (in boot camps and online classes) and practice programming in Python or Java. More often than not, they submit one or more certificates of achievement from sites like edX or local community colleges that offer undergraduate computer science courses along with their MSCS-AI application.

Are MSCS Programs that Accept Non-CS Majors as Rigorous as Other Graduate Programs?

Absolutely. Some of the best master of computer science programs in the world don't have official degree prerequisites, though it's worth noting that just because some prestigious institutions consider applications from students who did not major in comp sci doesn't mean that the bulk of students in those degree programs weren't computer science majors. SMU's Online MSCS-AI program is extremely rigorous and while it welcomes applications from non-CS majors, there's a reason that some applicants must complete articulation coursework before they're granted regular admission.

Students in SMU Lyle's Online Master of Science in Computer Science with an Artificial Intelligence Specialization complete the following core courses:

  • File Organization and Database Management
  • Algorithm Engineering
  • Operating Systems and Systems Software
  • Computer Architecture
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Machine Learning in Python

From there, students choose from specialization electives such as:

  • Data Mining
  • Information Retrieval and Web Search
  • Knowledge-Intensive Problem-Solving
  • Machine Learning and Neural Networks
  • Mobile Applications for Sensing and Learning
  • Natural Language Processing and Internet Applications

Graduates of the Online MSCS-AI program emerge with the cutting-edge knowledge and skills they'll need to make an immediate impact in their organizations using artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Is Earning a Master's in Computer Science Without a CS Undergrad Worth It?

Perhaps you've wondered if an MSCS-AI is worth it if you don't have a bachelor's degree in computer science. The good news is that the long-term ROI of a computer science master's degree doesn't change based on whether or not you have a CS undergraduate degree. When Forbes ranked graduate degrees by salary increase, it found that a computer science master's offered the second-biggest boost. With an MSCS and a few years of professional experience, you'll have the skills and credentials to step into computer science jobs that pay over $100,000.

The caveat is that if you invest in an MSCS to change careers, the immediate boost to your earning potential might be lower than that of your fellow graduates who have more professional experience. You'll have the same advanced skills and knowledge, however, and you can take steps to even the playing field more quickly. Choosing a specialty-focused program like the SMU Lyle School of Engineering’s Online M.S. in Computer Science with an Artificial Intelligence Specialization may help you earn more faster because you can work in higher-paying niche roles like artificial intelligence specialist and AI engineer. And because it's a part-time online MSCS program, you can start building valuable salary-boosting professional experience before graduation.

Ultimately, a top-tier, specialty-focused graduate-level program in computer science will open doors, regardless of your previous academic background. Apply now and in just 20 months, you'll have an advanced skill set and the knowledge you need to launch a lucrative career in computer science.