Needed, Masters in CS
August 30, 2006 5:02 AM   Subscribe

I will begin an academic program for an MS in Computer Science starting Fall, 2007. The upside is that I have a year to prepare, while the downside is that I clearly have some obstacles to overcome, which are that

1) I don't have a single academic reference. I graduated 3 years ago, from a large public UC school, where I did not actively seek face time with my professors. The whole academic experience, in retrospect, seemed a bit sterile and detached. I did not stand out in any way; it was quite easy to be antisocial and even easier to feel unimportant.

2) I haven't taken the GRE though I plan to do so in several months after intense preparation.

3) As an undergraduate, I didn't take school seriously. I decided to take some “liberties” as a freshman and sophomore which led to virtual incapacitation and nearly dropout. After counseling and serious introspection, I was able to pull my GPA from the depths of 1.x back up to a mediocre 2.9 cumulative by the time I graduated, which at the time seemed like a miracle.

4) My undergraduate degree is a BS in Cognitive Science (mostly Psychology + Neuroscience + Anthropology). I aced all of my intro programming classes, but the academic hole was too deep for me to afford changing majors.

5. My work experience is limited. I've taken what I can to get to get by, though there is nothing on my resume that seriously represents my interests. If it matters, I've worked in retail, at PR firm, and at a hotel. These jobs numb my soul and do not offer valuable references (other than references of character).

Finally, the questions: a) What are my options? b) How can I convince admissions that I am seriously motivated, despite screwing up? c) Which programs will take me? d) What kind of job experience should I seek in the year leading up to grad school?

Any other advice and/or words of wisdom would be seriously appreciated. I feel that I have paid for my errors and this realization has made me stronger and more driven than ever. I'd like to move on with the rest of my life, but with realistic goals.
posted by anonymous to Education (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
To get into any graduate school you need at least two of the following three things: good test scores, good grades, relevant experience/recommendations. The bad news is that you have none of these and applications for the fall are probably due in December. You need to start studying for the GRE now and you need to ace the CS subject test. Next, you need to find a local university with an average or above reputation, this may be the university you want to attend next year. Enroll now (classes are just starting) as a non-degree student in a programming course. non-degree students can often bypass enrollment applications. Choose anything at your level and be the best student ever. Talk to your professor after class, visit them at office hours, get A's on everything. Do everything you can to show that you will be an excellent student in their program. You now have someone to write a reccomendation and you will have one good grade to show at the end of the semester. Good luck!
posted by Alison at 5:59 AM on August 30, 2006

The CS subject test will help, but be aware that some of the top schools (MIT specifically, maybe CMU too?) aren't interested in it. I'm not sure how much other schools want to see it either.

Still, if you can do well it would go a long way towards showing your preparedness. Don't underestimate that test, though. It's very broad. I was applying to some CS programs last year, and I have a decent CS background but didn't take it because I hadn't even seen half the material before.

I had a professor in college who did sort of what you did - switching majors after undergrad. He busted ass to nail the GRE CS and managed to get into a good PhD program and is now a well respected professor. So it can be done! Good luck.
posted by heresiarch at 6:14 AM on August 30, 2006

Just so I get my head around this question... you want to get into a masters program for computer science, with no computer science training or experience? I wasn't aware that you could do that. I would think that at the *very* least, you'd need to pick up either a bachelor's in CS, or some serious programming experience. I don't want to rain on your parade, but it seems like a year isn't really quite long enough to prepare for that kind of thing.
posted by antifuse at 6:37 AM on August 30, 2006

Of course, if I had fully read heresiarch's answer, I would have seen that it IS, in fact done from time to time. Doy. :)
posted by antifuse at 6:38 AM on August 30, 2006

Alison's approach is exactly the right thing to do. Run, do not walk, to you nearest university and get in classes there that will prepare you for the CS GRE. You probably need a theory course, an algorithms course, an architecture course and a programming course. Take upper level ones, if you think you can survive. Be prepared to work very hard.

Make sure that your professors know who you are. Going to their office hours, which you might want to do anyway to really do well, will help with that.

When it comes time to apply, be very forthright about your past, and highlight how you have changed and the evidence (good grades in the classes, high GRE scores) to support that.

Apply to lots of schools. I was in the same boat as you at one time, and applied to some top-tier schools, some mid-tier, and some not-so-good schools. I found I was accepted into each category at about the same rate.

If you are a native english speaker, make sure to apply to some big public schools. They have need for teaching assistants for the undergrad classes, and many of the foreign students they take have a hard time with the language, so you have an advantage that way.

Like I said, I was in a similar position as you, and now I am a computer science professor. It can be done, and if you like it, it can be fun.
posted by procrastination at 6:41 AM on August 30, 2006

What Alison said - test scores, grades, experience, recommendations, and "portfolio" are all relevant to a degree depending on what discipline and program you wish to enter and weaknesses in a few areas can be accounted for and perhaps overlooked by strengths in others.

I think it is good advice to consider enrolling as a non-degree student in whatever CS program is available to you. If I were sitting on your admissions committee (and I am not), the fact that you have a 2.9 cum with a steady rise wouldn't be a deal breaker necessarily, nor that you haven't done CS related work out of school.

I would, however, be concerned that you have those things in your past and that you just seemed to decide that grad school was the best option for you. The best way to demonstrate that it indeed might be would be to take 3 or 6 graduate credits in a CS related field from a local program and received strong recommendations and excellent grades. That would provide a strong signal that you really have made an intellectually and emotionally mature decision and are prepared for the disciplined working environment of a MS degree program.
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:47 AM on August 30, 2006

I think you have what it takes. I too took some liberties early in my academic career too. Graduated witha 2.54 after getting a 3.9 my fourth year and around a 3.2 my third year. I have a knack for standardized tests. I did real well on my GMATs. I wanted to go to a top 10 business school, but with my gpa, no extracurriculars, clubs, other than being the rush chairman of my degenerate fraternity I thought it would be impossible.

What I did have was good test scores and a desire to get in. I figured the way in was to talk to the admissions director as my application was not going to speak for who I was at that moment in time. I highly recommend interviewing and expressing your passion for the field and showing how your grades in your last two years indicate more what your talents are than your first two years. I got into all 5 schools I applied to by having an in person interview (or in the case two schools too far geographically to go in person, a phone interview).

You have a great story to tell. An immature teenager who screws up and then realizes the error of his ways and corrects them. It shows a maturity and discipline that most students who have coasted through academia do not have. You have worked in the real world and understand what it is like to be in a dead end job. You have a motivation to succeed in the field and will not be denied. Assuming you test well on the GREs (I would prepare hard for them) you can use the score and your upward sloping grade curve to indicate your ability to do the work. Make sure you are able to articulate why you want to go into computer science and why you have a passion for it.

Aim high and do not be defensive.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:55 AM on August 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

What Alison said. You need to take CS classes, but not just to get accepted but to be able to survive in a graduate program. If you don't have a strong background in subjects like programming languages, compilers, algorithms, discrete math etc, you're just not going to make it. A couple of intro programming classes are not enough background for what they are going to expect of you in most graduate programs. I had all that along with five years of professional experience and grad school still kicked my ass.

I'd say, go talk to someone in the department that you are interested in. Ask them what they're looking for and what they think you'll need to both get in and get out of their program.
posted by octothorpe at 6:59 AM on August 30, 2006

You need to take CS classes, but not just to get accepted but to be able to survive in a graduate program.

Well, I don't know about that. I started a CS grad program at a highly ranked school with almost no CS background (my undergrad degree was in math.) I did struggle a lot with the course requirements, especially hardware, but I'm now a PhD candidate and I should be out of here in a year.

Also, not that many programs care about the CS GRE subject test. I didn't take it at all.
posted by transona5 at 7:04 AM on August 30, 2006

Most CS programs will expect you to be fairly good at math as well. You should keep that in mind.
posted by chunking express at 7:18 AM on August 30, 2006

There are some masters programs in CS which dont require previous experience. University of Chicago comes to mind.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:07 AM on August 30, 2006

GRE: I don't know anyone who has taken a GRE subject test in any field, especially CS. BUT you do have to take the GRE in the not-too-distant future (by November??) to be on the typical time lines for starting a master's program in Fall 2007.

programs: Getting into the very top tier schools overall may be a reach; but your psych/cog sci background can be very relevant in making your applications to those schools stand out from everyone else's applications. If you want, you can also use it to find a program/faculty member with research interests that will take advantage of your past studies.
posted by whatzit at 8:15 AM on August 30, 2006

I started a CS grad program at a highly ranked school with almost no CS background (my undergrad degree was in math.)

Same sort of thing, though. The person asking the question doesn't have a CS or math background.

My question for the asker: Why, specifically, a CS master's? It's great to have a goal like that, but you need to decide whether it's the first goal or a subsequent one.
posted by mendel at 8:27 AM on August 30, 2006

Same sort of thing, though. The person asking the question doesn't have a CS or math background.

My math background really helps for my research, which is in theoretical CS, but it's kind of useless for hardware or software, past some base level of competence. Actually, I missed out on a lot of the math that comes up in CS, and had to learn it all in grad school.

Cognitive science might be useful for AI stuff or joint bioinformatics/CS programs.
posted by transona5 at 9:06 AM on August 30, 2006

At all the US schools I've been around in the last year or two (a UC, a CSU, and a community college), the CS department has been seeing declining enrollment since 2003.

Many departments went on a hiring binge in 1999-2001(ish) and are having trouble filling up all that space. This may help your odds quite a bit.
posted by gemini at 8:55 PM on August 30, 2006

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