Coming from an art-school background, I have *none* of the requirements for a CS grad school. Am I hopeless?
December 19, 2008 11:15 AM   Subscribe

How do I start a MS in Computer Science with no applicable background?

My Background:
Throughout high school (mid-late 90's) I was a computer nerd, often blowing off my homework to stay up all night learning about TCP/IP, Linux, OpenBSD, and generally hacking around with the vague intention of doing something computer-related.

After high school I took a job as a phone-monkey for Dell and MSN and after a year and a half doing customer service and tech support I was completely disenchanted. I recoiled at the thought of sitting in a cubicle for the rest of my life, programming enormously bloated software just to further some giant corporation, so knee-jerk enrolled in art school (a second passion) and was accepted. Mistake #1

I was a major in New Media, where I had a blast. Our department was in its first year and was beyond tiny- just eight people. Our teachers had no background in the field, so each of us basically taught our selves with little to no guidance from the professors. Some taught themselves 3d modeling, others more graphic design focused.

I spent the next three years teaching myself Max/MSP, ActionScript, and some minor circuits/sensors/robotics. My focus was on AI, mainly on Genetic Algorithms and Neural Networks for use with music, video, and text processing. I did all of the research myself, as my college was focused on fine arts- it didn't even require a math course at all. Eventually I realized that I was having a blast coding, doing research, and algorithm design to deal with large sets of data; and that I had little interest in the 'artwork' nature of it all.

I left college a semester early to move to New York and learn about the art. Mistake #2. Now I've been here for two years and I realize that the art world is not what I thought it would be and I would desperately like to go back to doing Computer Science research, with a focus on AI and Machine Learning.

I'm a great autodidact and I've spent the past months re-acquainting myself with the field, learning things like Python and SQL, doing some data-mining exercises, brushing up on my math, and making a few projects on the Google App Engine. I'm definitely sure I want to do this.

My Questions:

- Should I take the CS GRE in addition to the regular GRE in order to show I'm committed?

- I have a semester's worth of credits left to full to (finally) get my art degree, and my school will accept CLEP tests and/or CS courses taken at a local school. Should I take the CLEP tests like Discrete Mathematics, Info. Systems & Computer Applications or would it be better to get an 'A' in the actual class?

- After I have my prerequisites taken care of, is it OK to go to a lower level university for an MS, and then go somewhere better If I want to do a Ph.D ? Or is it more common to start off with a Ph.D immediately?
posted by amileighs to Education (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
No graduate program will consider your application without your having earned a Bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university. That is your number one priority, and if you can manage it, do so with classes relevant to the graduate program you wish to apply. I don't think you would have a problem, with your skills, and a degree, being accepted into an MS program. I'm not in the CS field, but I would imagine that you might want an MS related to some area of proposed future research to be competitive for a Ph.D. program, where you really are expected to come in prepared to do substantial and relevant research from the get go.
posted by mrmojoflying at 11:23 AM on December 19, 2008

Computer science graduate school is lots of math. In fact you might only have one programming assignment a semester, depending on the class. I would highly recommend sitting in on a course, or watching the free MIT classes online (or on iTunes U) to see if it is really for you.

And, my experience may be limited, but I don't know of anyone who has a graduate degree in CS who didn't have a B.S. in CS, Math, or Physics.
posted by four panels at 11:26 AM on December 19, 2008

Response by poster: RE: MrMojoFlying

Yes, finishing off these last credits is definitely my first priority- Thanks so much!
posted by amileighs at 11:26 AM on December 19, 2008

UPenn has a Master's in Computer and Information Technology program with people with no CS background. They say they have an outstanding placement record.

I'm not in the field so I'm not sure how outstanding their placement really is.
posted by anniecat at 11:34 AM on December 19, 2008

I was in a similar position once. I liked computers, but didn't have a strong CS background. What I ended up doing was taking classes in a non-degree program at a good CS school close to where I lived. I was allowed to pay for seats in classes that were not otherwise filled by regular students*. I did this for a year, focusing in the fall on classes that covered the CS GRE, which I had bombed previously. I then retook the GRE and did way better. I also got letters of recommendation from my professors in those classes, which I had busted ass worked diligently to do well in.

I then applied to a variety of grad programs. I got into some of the best and was rejected from some bad ones - it appeared random to me at the time, but now I realize that the best schools that accepted me were state schools with larger programs and a need for native english-speaking teaching assistants. I was originally a master's student, but I liked grad school and had a good topic and advisor, so I stayed for a PhD. Now I am a CS professor.

Staying in the same program and transitioning is easier than doing a master's and then moving. Some schools only allow you to apply for a PhD, but if you leave after completing the coursework award a master's.

So, in short answer, I would recommend taking the most important pre-requisites instead of the CLEP. It will better prepare you for graduate work. You can probably get by without it, but it gives you a chance to make sure you like it. I would also take the GRE, but only submit the score if you do well. My experience is that schools would review your application without it, even if they said they required it. I can't guarantee that is always the case, though. I would apply to the place you want to stay - it is more streamlined, and you don't have to worry about transferring graduate credits.

* This was called the Advanced Special Student program, and I was officially an ASS.
posted by procrastination at 11:37 AM on December 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

Listen to mrmojoflying. And fwiw, I have an MS in Computer Science without a BS in anything related. I spent about a year and a half in a probationary period where I caught up on a lot of prerequisites. In the program itself, I did tons of programming and took a lot of math, but my focus was software engineering.

Little or no academic background in CS was quite common among my classmates, but the MS program we were in was geared toward the working professional, and traditional master's students were the minority.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 1:11 PM on December 19, 2008

There's some post-bac CS programs out there like at Portland State, which someone recommended once, for someone with a liberal arts degree.
posted by Kirklander at 1:57 PM on December 19, 2008

I would just take the regular GRE and absolutely kill it.

That's what I did. Your story is kind of like mine. I also got an art degree but had interests in another field. After I graduated I decided that I wanted to pursue my interest in the other field, so I studied hard for the GRE and kicked its butt. And I wrote my application essay explaining that despite not having an extensive background in the field, the small amount of experience i did have, combined with my high interest level would make me a successful student. to my utter shock and amazment, i got accepted. i found out later from faculty that the decision was based mainly on my test score. the good thing about the GRE is the verbal part is a lot of vocabulary, so studying for it is highly effective. the first time i took it, didnt study, did ok. the second time, studied a relatively cheap GRE vocab book for a few months, and my score went up 120 points. (the first time i took it was to get into a graduate art program, so i knew my score wouldn't matter a lot. thats why i didnt prepare at all.)

actually, i'm now in the 2nd year of my masters program and quite honestly i think they probably should NOT have accepted me :) i'll be able to graduate alright, but my inexperience has certainly turned out to be a pain in everyone's ass. i struggled a lot at the beginning. but i tried hard and stuck with it and i am doing okay. if i could do it again, i'd still do it the same way (rather than trying to 'prepare' more.) sometimes you just gotta throw yourself into it and see what happens.

besides, i dont think it would hurt you to apply now. worst case, they tell you to get more experience and try again- which you are already willing to do. but best case, you get in, and don't have to waste the extra time/money preparing. Good luck!
posted by lblair at 2:13 PM on December 19, 2008

Both my wife and I were in very similar positions - unrelated bachelor degrees, into CS master programs. The difference is she went to a conversion master's program, designed for people with no real background - while I hopped directly into a state school's program. Having never really coded before, my very first assignment was pacman. On unix.

Obviously, my program kicked my ass. My wife's, while challenging, had a much more gentle learning curve.

Executive summary: you can do it. Bone up on your math. Look for programs tailored for students from non-traditional backgrounds.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 2:28 PM on December 19, 2008

My university has a two-year Bachelor's degree program in computer science designed specifically for people with non-CS Bachelor's degrees. Would something like this help?
posted by tickingclock at 9:56 PM on December 19, 2008

This is precisely why Graduate Admissions Offices exist. Go to the nearest University with a CS program and talk to them. There may be a path to the Master's for non-CS students. There will be a bunch of undergrad math classes required.
posted by theora55 at 3:31 PM on December 21, 2008

Check out University of Chicago CSPP - masters program that accepts students with a non-CS background. You may also wish to check out the ITP program at NYU, which is much more artsy but incorporates a a lot of technology. Not sure if it would help for computer science grad school, but starting or contributing to an open source project that interests you is a good way to gain cred in the world of software engineering (which is NOT the same thing as computer science, BTW) and verify your interest in the field. If you end up working in the world of software engineering, user interface design, or human-computer interaction, your art background is a definite asset - less so in the world of pure computer science, which is mostly math. Feel free to contact me directly if you'd like more feedback or ideas.
posted by lsemel at 5:50 PM on June 21, 2009

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