Can I go back to school yet?
May 13, 2011 4:25 PM   Subscribe

Given my level of preparation, how reasonable is it for me to hope to get into a funded master's program in computer science? And can you suggest some schools that fund non-PhD students?

I graduated a few years ago from a well-regarded small liberal arts school with a degree in linguistics. My undergraduate GPA was only ~3.5, but it was noticeably better in the last two years than the first two (freshman year, I hadn't learned to do homework yet and got a pair of C-minuses in Calc III and Linear Algebra). Senior year, I took Intro CS and loved it, then took a senior undergraduate-level course on Natural Language Processing, and loved that, too (grades there were A and B+, respectively).

For the last three years, I've been doing QA for a small software company; my supervisor thinks highly of me. This past semester, I took a data structures class at UW-Madison (got an A). In the fall, I'm planning on taking Intro to the Theory of Computing and Intro to Programming Languages and Compilers (both are upper-level undergrad classes), and I'd like to apply to grad school (so at that point I'll have completed 3 CS courses and be midway through 2 more, with plans to take at least 1 more next spring). I'm taking the GRE next month and planning on doing well (the first practice test I took was 720 verbal and 790 quantitative, which is about as low as I would find acceptable for myself).

I'm planning to apply to UW-Madison (which seems like a stretch, but I'm already here, so I figure I might as well) and to schools on the west coast, ideally in Oregon. Am I crazy to try to apply when I will have only completed 3 CS courses? I know that most Madison CS grad students are funded regardless of what degree they're seeking; are there other schools where that's true? Any other advice would be welcome.

Why I don't want a PhD: I don't love academia enough for that, and I don't want to commit that large a chunk of my life.
Why I want an MS: I enjoy classes, and I like learning. I want to be able to devote my time to learning in a more in-depth way than I can while working full time, and it's certainly a bonus that my employment prospects are likely to be improved my the degree.
Why I want funding: I already have a healthy amount of debt from my undergraduate degree, and if possible, I want to avoid taking on any more.

Anonymous because I don't like talking about grades in public.
posted by anonymous to Education (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I got into UW-Madison with roughly that level of qualification and got full funding, although this was over ten years ago, and obviously the economy is worse now, so I assume funding is harder to get. The main issue I ran into, which might bite you also, is that I had to take the subject-specific GRE for CS, and it assumed you'd completed your CS undergrad degree; I hadn't, and a lot of the questions I really didn't have the background to answer or even guess at. So if I were in your position and wanted to up my odds, I'd probably look into waiting a year or half a year to apply, to ensure I had more of the courses completed before starting the app process.

Like most people on metafilter, I wouldn't advise you to take a grad school position that isn't funded, so I would go in assuming you are going to get funding. PhD/Master's shouldn't make a huge difference there; if it does, look, you can always say you're planning on a PhD and drop out with a Master's, but in the CS world they are realistic about people going in, getting an MS and TAing or doing research while they do it, and then dropping out to get an industry job.
posted by inkyz at 5:14 PM on May 13, 2011

Your GRE score is competitive; I think you will get accepted. Usually, the financial aid office will work out a package for you to attend, consists of mostly loans. From what I've seen, grants for master degree are rare (non-existent?). Once you start, there should be TA-ship and RA-ship which will significantly reduce your school tuition (to the tune of 50%) and may give you some stipends. This will help reduce your borrowing (but unlikely to eliminate it entirely).

I don't think there is any "funded" master position in graduate school; simply because your time there is too short, and most of it will be spent studying (which benefits you, not the school). Most universities treat their master students as cash-cow and cheap labor (to TA the undergraduates); and some of them may even prefer non-resident students (because they can charge higher rate). PhD students are different; thye get funded (paid) by their professor because they do research. Each professor has his own research fund to pay for his PhD students; and he got his money from research grants; which are not given to students. The only funded master student I know is from Saudi Arabia, and the King paid his tuition and stipend just for him to go to classes. It's a sweet deal.

An alternative you may consider is to attend the master program part-time while working. Some employer have education benefit that may pay for some of the school cost.
posted by curiousZ at 5:57 PM on May 13, 2011

I'm not in computer science, but I believe curiosZ's information regarding funding to be incorrect. UVA appears to have a funded MS. Columbia appears to offer funding, but makes it clear they don't guarantee it. That's what I got from a quick google. If CS is anything like math, funded master's degrees are out there, but rare.
posted by hoyland at 6:27 PM on May 13, 2011

I don't think there is any "funded" master position in graduate school; simply because your time there is too short, and most of it will be spent studying (which benefits you, not the school).

Not necessarily true, especially in the sciences: I had fully funded M.S. degrees in two separate CS-related programs. The trick is to find thesis-based M.S. program where you are funded with an RA-ship, as opposed to "professional" M.S. degrees that are entirely coursework, and those are frequently paid for by the employer.
posted by deanc at 10:02 PM on May 13, 2011

I got my master's in Ecology fully funded at the University of Georgia, and everybody I knew getting a master's there (including folks in several other disciplines) was fully funded. I've always thought this program sounded really cool and it would fit your background nicely.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:21 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a graduate of the Language Technologies Department in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. One of my job titles is 'Software Engineer' and the other is 'Computational Linguist'.

Many CS programs, mine included, love being interdisciplinary and taking in students from many different disciplines. Taking programming courses is not a bad idea, but what would help you even more would be to engage a medium-sized project, or even multiple small projects that showcase your interest in NLP. This would demonstrate your programming abilities and show your ability to work independently toward a goal. This might make up for your okay (but not great) grades.

This is important because much of the funding for Masters Degrees in CS does not come from teaching, but from project research work. You might meet for a project meeting with your group just once a week and then be expected to be productive on your own in the mean time. Being a useful, self-motivated human being with programming skills is the goal to getting and keeping funding.

Learn python if you learn anything.

Now, most programs will say that they don't guarantee funding for MS students, but that doesn't mean that it's not available. Ph D. students will get first pick, so what might be left is the drudge work, work with difficult professors, or nothing at all. Networking and doing legwork before you arrive will help your odds.
posted by Alison at 5:27 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

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