What It’s Like to Pursue a Part-Time Master’s in Computer Science

September 20, 2021

Part-time master’s in computer science programs attract many different types of students. There are career advancers —often lead developers, software engineers or systems architects—who enroll to transition into a specialty area or climb the ladder more quickly. There are reskillers who may be information systems analysts, information technology professionals, software developers or otherwise working in computer and software-focused roles. And there are career switchers with non-CS backgrounds looking for ways to transition into more technical roles in their industries. What they typically have in common is that they are employed and want to stay that way while pursuing a Master of Science in Computer Science.

MSCS programs delivered online offer these students an added degree of flexibility. Part-time, online programs like SMU Lyle School of Engineering‘s Online M.S. in Computer Science with a Specialization in Artificial Intelligence (MSCS-AI) attract early- and mid-career professionals looking for a results-driven master’s program to attend without relocating.

Don’t assume that these students are willing to sacrifice quality for flexibility. Most SMU MSCS-AI candidates are ambitious professionals with two or more years of work experience in computer science, computer engineering, software development or related fields. They’ve researched the ROI of a computer science master’s and are ready to invest not just time and money but also energy and effort to earn this degree while still earning money.

Employers have a great deal of respect for job candidates who successfully balanced full-time work, part-time scholarship and personal commitments to earn their master’s degrees.

Whether a part-time master’s in computer science program is the right choice for you will depend on your academic and professional priorities, your learning style and what you hope to achieve in school and after graduation. What you don’t need to worry about is whether it’s a good choice.

Are Part-Time Master’s Programs as Good or Respected as Full-Time Master’s Programs?

There’s often little difference between part-time and full-time MSCS programs, regardless of format. Students take the same courses taught by the same faculty members and do the same project work, but on different timelines. Completing a part-time master’s in computer science program delivered online may involve more independent asynchronous work but the focus of the curriculum will generally be similar or even identical to that of a full-time, on-campus program offered at the same school.

Online classes aren’t easier than on-campus classes. They can feel much harder even when the topics covered and workload are the same. Successful distance learners have exceptional time management skills and a lot of self-discipline. They tend to be organized and highly motivated. They’re also just as comfortable working independently on self-directed projects as they are participating in group work on collaborative online platforms.

Employers and hiring managers know this and often have a great deal of respect for job candidates who successfully balanced full-time work, part-time scholarship and personal commitments to earn their master’s degrees. On the other hand, where someone earns a degree usually matters more than how they earned it. An MSCS from an institution like SMU Lyle is an asset because companies both in and out of tech respect the program and faculty. Consider, too, that the best part-time online computer science master’s programs usually confer the same degrees as full-time on-campus programs. Graduates can tell potential employers that they were enrolled in the part-time, online program or not, as they see fit.

What are the Advantages of Enrolling in a Local Part-Time, Online MSCS Program?

While it’s true that prospective students gravitate toward part-time, online degree programs because they’re looking for the flexibility to continue working full-time while studying—and the opportunity to attend prestigious programs without relocating—many ultimately choose programs at universities within 50 miles of their homes. That’s because there are some surprising benefits to enrolling in a program offered by an institution close to home.

Students in SMU Lyle’s part-time online Master of Science in Computer Science with an Artificial Intelligence Specialization program live and work worldwide. They learn with experts in the field, connect with industry leaders, and network with peers who are as passionate about technology as they are. After graduation, they become part of a global network of tens of thousands of engaged alumni and benefit from Lyle School of Engineering’s reputation as a global leader in engineering education.

Online MSCS-AI students based in Texas, however, enjoy all those benefits and more. Texas may or may not become the United States’ next technology hub, but the state is still home to companies that employ millions of tech sector employees. At any given time, there are thousands of openings for computer scientists, artificial intelligence specialists and other tech experts. And employers in Texas know that SMU graduates have what it takes to create real change.

Being within driving distance of campus also makes it easier for part-time, online M.S. program students to secure internships, attend job fairs, network with faculty and connect with industry leaders. Ultimately, local distance learners who live and work near campus get the same flexible student experience as their faraway peers, plus easier access to career-boosting resources and hiring managers who may themselves be SMU grads.

What are the Requirements to Apply for a Part-Time MSCS?

Every school has its own computer science master’s admission and application requirements. SMU Lyle’s prerequisites and requirements are straightforward and relatively simple. Applicants fill out the online application and submit four additional items: their unofficial transcripts, an up-to-date resume or CV, professional references and a personal statement.

The ideal part-time MSCS-AI candidate has a bachelor’s degree in computer science, one of the quantitative sciences, mathematics or engineering plus at least two years of computer science or tech industry experience. Applicants with an undergraduate degree in a discipline other than computer science and/or less than two years of work experience are welcome to apply but must submit GRE scores with the application. Inexperienced applicants may also need to complete specific prerequisite courses before they’re ready for graduate studies or take a departmental exam as proof of necessary competencies.

The SMU Lyle Online admissions committee looks for computer science degree candidates who are familiar with one or more programming languages, operating systems fundamentals, software engineering and software development principles, algorithms and information systems. More importantly, they look for applicants whose personal statements explain how the curriculum‘s focus on artificial intelligence will help them achieve their personal and professional goals.

What Is the Online Learning Experience Like?

The part-time, online master’s in computer science with an artificial intelligence specialization program at SMU Lyle uses the most advanced educational technology to deliver highly interactive, classroom-like experiences in weekly synchronous sessions and smooth asynchronous access to lesson plans, discussions and other class materials via the university’s easy-to-use mobile app. Flexibility is built into the online student experience, but MSCS-AI candidates don’t miss out on the practical experiences that are the hallmark of SMU’s on-campus programs. Distance learners get face time with their professors, do extensive hands-on work with the latest artificial intelligence tools and connect with their peers during real-time online discussions.

One standout feature of the part-time, online MSCS-AI program is its customizability. There are just six core courses in the curriculum:

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

Graduate students also choose from among following electives to build a course load based on their professional goals:

  • 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

How Long Does It Take to Complete a Part-Time Master’s in Computer Science Program?

Many full-time computer science graduate programs take about two years to complete. Motivated students can complete SMU’s 30-credit hour part-time MSCS-AI in about 20 months by taking just two classes each term, but students who need more flexibility have up to seven years to complete the program. The synchronous portion of the program consists of just one 60-90 minute live session per week, per class. Students can complete almost all the other coursework in the program asynchronously whenever and wherever it’s convenient. After less than two years of flexible part-time study, 82 percent of SMU Lyle’s Online MSCS-AI graduates are not only employed but also equipped to leverage the power of artificial intelligence in their organizations.

Should You Get a Part-Time, Online MSCS?

There are a lot of good reasons to enroll in a part-time master’s in computer science program that’s delivered online instead of a comparable and similarly-priced full-time, on-campus graduate school program. For instance, the ROI of an MSCS changes depending on how you earn it. In both cases, your degree will help you transition into the kinds of mid- and senior-level computer science jobs that pay over $100,000. Forbes even found that the MSCS offered the second-biggest salary boost in its rankings of graduate degrees by salary increase. The opportunity costs associated with on-campus study can alter the equation, however.

Consider two hypothetical MSCS candidates, both of whom are software engineers earning about $85,000 per year. The first enrolls in a full-time program that requires them to take a two-year leave of absence and costs roughly $50,000 in tuition. Factor in lost wages and the full cost of their degree is $220,000. The second chooses a part-time online program and pays the same tuition but earns $170,000 in the same two years. They’re able to pay off their student loans faster and get promoted into an artificial intelligence position soon after graduation.

The student in the part-time program didn’t have to spend months planning and preparing for a cross-country move to attend a top-quality program. Getting to class meant logging into a learning platform, not spending hours each week on the road commuting to and from campus. And they still had plenty of time to focus on family and personal pursuits even though they took multiple courses each semester.

Of course, format shouldn’t be your primary concern when researching graduate-level programs in computer science. Studying computer science online doesn’t mean studying less, and enrolling in a part-time master’s in computer science program doesn’t mean making a part-time commitment. Finding the best possible program that aligns with your interests and supports your long-term goals is much more important. Earning a master of computer science is a big step but it’s only the first step. How much time and effort you invest in your studies is entirely up to you, but how far your degree takes you once you graduate may depend on which program you choose.

If you still have questions about what it’s like to earn a part-time master’s in computer science with an artificial intelligence specialization in SMU Lyle’s online program, you can get those questions answered by connecting with an enrollment advisor via phone or video conference. You can also join SMU Lyle for one of our upcoming online events. When you’re ready, you can start your application.