I studied Electrical and Electronics Engineering in my bachelor's degree and transitioned into software development right after I finished college. Towards the end of the four years, I had realized that building software is what I love and that is what I would want to do in my career. Writing code and watching it come to life in the form of programs, web pages and games led me to this path that I'm on for the past 5 years now.
# Why a master’s degree?
For me, this has a simple answer - to study the field I’m personally interested in. Towards the end of my bachelor’s degree, I had realised that electrical engineering is not what I’m interested in, and my journey from there has been pretty much self-taught. With a masters degree, I want to get back into the study mood to learn something that I actually enjoy. To be honest, I love learning. And this degree allows me to do it.
Well, learning can be done without a degree as well. And that’s a valid argument - you can do all of OMSCS yourself for free right now. The video lectures are free for everyone. I had tried this a year prior to applying, I was following the syllabus from teachyourselfcs.com. The syllabus was a curated list of subjects you should study to simulate a CS degree. But I failed on the execution. I am more of a “schedule” person and work well under some constraints like submissions and exams. I could not cover topics myself and kept going into rabbit holes of knowledge.
With OMSCS, I can afford to add structure to my efforts. Plus there are added benefits of studying with fellow students. I’ve virtually met a few students back in India, and some here in Berlin and it has been great as most of us are working full-time while doing the program. Many have got their families, and it just brings in several perspectives into why one would pursue this.
That said, this reason is quite a personal one, and should not be considered as a reference while making a decision. I decided to talk to a few friends of mine who have done a masters program and find out why they went for it. This might help you validate your thoughts if you are confused at the moment.
“To get out of my current field of work where I saw limited growth and to secure a better financial position in life.”
“To pivot my career into something completely different from my bachelors and kick start.”
All of the suggestions ahead are based on the fact that you are inclined towards pursuing a master’s degree. There’s a lot of debate regarding degrees vs self-taught education, but it is completely a personal choice. Following writing assumes you want to pursue a degree.
# An online master’s. What?
Deciding to do a master’s program is a good first step. What about an online program? I’m currently pursuing Georgia Tech’s Online Master of Science in Computer Science (aka OMSCS). It is one of the most evolved and affordable online graduate programs out there.
There is natural scepticism around online education, with a lot of players now entering the market just to exploit keen learners wanting to up-skill themselves. Moreover, institutions and organisations have discredited online programs in the past as they did not meet the same vigour of an on-campus counterpart. I find this partially ignorant.
I remember that during my bachelor’s degree, almost all of the work I did was by myself, or with a few friends; us trying to venture the waves of difficult assignments and exams. Yes, the classes did help (or did they?), but they usually supported the eventual self-learning we did. Campuses help build your networks, and that is an important argument.
Going for an online program depends on what you expect out of it. Here, I list down a few important reasons for opting for one according to me (these are oriented largely towards a Computer Science program, but can be applied for other fields as well that can be pursued online):
- You want the eventual outcome of the program to support your career. This means that you are already doing good, but you wish to up-skill or move vertically in your career. If you are at a fresh start, an online program might not be the best option. You’d ideally want to invest in a full-time program.
- You want to switch to a different field in your career. An online program can provide you with the best flexibility for making a smooth shift to a different career path. You can continue with your current work, and prepare on the side for a move.
- You want to learn more in your field of interest. If you yearn for knowledge, an online setup is the best of all worlds. Self-study can help you if you are disciplined enough, and a structure of an online degree will help you a lot.
- You want to earn a degree, but cannot make it to college. Many of us want to learn and get a degree as an accomplishment, and it is a perfectly valid reason. If finances, life commitments or work don’t allow you to go back to college, an online program can make it possible for you to pursue your goal.
- You want an affordable option for a degree. College degrees are usually an expensive affair. Online programs cut out on a lot of not-so-necessary items from the bill and provide a stripped-down version of the program that focuses more on the learning bit.
# OMSCS - A short introduction
OMSCS is an online master’s program offered by the Georgia Institute of Technology, popularly known as Georgia Tech. It is one of the most popular online CS programs out there that provides affordable, quality education with a low barrier to entry. The program structure and content is exactly the same (with a few limited choices) as the on-campus MS program, and hence it adds great credibility and effort for someone who decides to pursue it.
The degree provided at the end is the same that someone receives if they attended the on-campus counterpart, and this is an important factor for several to consider this program.
Official OMSCS website: https://omscs.gatech.edu/
Here’s a list of some key points related to the program that’ll help you know more about it without bombarding unnecessary information.
- 10 courses in all. Like any graduate program, this one requires you to complete certain credit point requirements throughout the course as well. In general, you are required to take 10 courses, 3 credit hours each, to complete the 30 credit hour requirement.
- 2 to 6 years to complete. The program can be completed in a time frame of 2 to 6 years. There are certain specific requirements for gaps that you can take in between, but the program is quite flexible here.
- Similar effort as on-campus. The subjects require a similar amount of effort as in an on-campus program. The program is made possible by reducing the number of courses you take per semester. So if I take 1 subject per semester, it’d take me nearly 3.5 years to complete the program.
- 4 specializations. There are 4 specializations that you can choose from - Computing Systems, Interactive Intelligence, Computational Perception & Robotics, Machine Learning.
- $180/credit hour. You pay as you opt for courses. Each credit hour costs $180 (Spring 2022), hence 1 subject costs $540. You also pay a mandatory fee of $301 (Spring 2022) per semester. Overall, for a semester when you take 1 subject, it costs $841 (about Rs. 63,000). This translates to $8410 (about Rs. 6.3 lacs) for the entire program if you do it 1 subject/semester throughout.
- Regular admission process. The program has a similar admission process to a regular graduate program. You need to submit 3 references and a statement of purpose. GRE is optional, but a test of English proficiency (TOEFL, IELTS) is mandatory. I’ll talk about admissions separately ahead.
If you find this interesting and wish to pursue the program, let’s move to the details about getting into it.
OMSCS has a lower barrier of entry. As compared to a traditional master’s program which usually has several criteria for admission, OMSCS is much more lenient here. These are the latest pre-requisites as per the program website:
- A 4-year bachelor’s degree (US or equivalent). This can usually be in any subject. There are a lot of current students who come from Economics, Biology, Chemistry and many other backgrounds very different from Computer Science.
- An English proficiency test certificate (for non-US applicants). You’ll need a satisfactory score in either TOEFL (usually above 90) or IELTS.
- Previous courses/experience with basic Computer Science topics. You are expected to have a prior understanding of core CS concepts like data structures, algorithms, some architecture and discrete math. This is implicit as there is no fixed rule around this. If you have a bachelor in CS, your acceptance chances are almost 100%. For the rest of us, this proficiency can be proved by taking up some community classes (in the US), or related MOOCs. I would suggest that if you are from a non-CS STEM background, doing a few related MOOCs should strengthen your application. If you are not, then a community class is the best bet. Since this is not always possible outside the US, you can decide to prove your proficiency through your work experience as well. → Links to moocs
- A good and crisp statement of purpose. The admissions team and reviewers should be convinced that you are motivated to pursue this program. At the same time, you should do this in an efficient way keeping in mind that the OMSCS receives thousands of applications (around 25000 in the last 5 years). I’d suggest you take time to write this article. Honestly, it took me a couple of months to bring it to the final form that I submitted. Though I was being a bit paranoid, you should keep aside at least a month for this. While I was writing mine last year, I found a few good ones from past applicants, I’ll link them here with mine.
- Good recommendation letters. You are required to submit 3 recommendations. It is preferred if at least one of the recommenders is your past professor. You can request your leads at work as well, that is what did. I had requested one of my professors, who was also my project guide during my bachelor’s and requested the rest from 2 of my leads. You should talk with the recommenders about what you want to be highlighted in their letters and may also provide a draft template they can use.
The program accepts applications year-round for 2 admission cycles - Fall (August) and Spring (January). You should start preparing your application at least 6 months in advance so that you have sufficient time to gather all documents and prepare your application. Once you have everything, go ahead and apply! Note that you are not required to send anything physically to the university yet.
# After you apply
Having done everything correctly, your application should be successfully submitted. You can use the time until you get a decision to explore more about the program, and know about the community. OMSCS has a strong student community on various online platforms. I found these greatly helpful in getting answers to some specific questions and generally knowing more about the program. Here are the most prominent ones:
- r/OMSCS - The subreddit for OMSCS. This is a great first place to gain a people perspective about the program. You can ask questions, get answers and read past experiences from fellow students. You get honest course reviews, advice and stories from students pursuing this program from around the world. This is also a place to find your classmates and other groups that might be active around you.
- omscentral.com. This is a student-run course review website. It has students-submitted reviews for all OMS courses. Georgia Tech also runs other programs similar to OMSCS in Cybersecurity and Analytics. This website is a perfect place to plan your courses and read how other students found a course. It ranks each course with respect to its difficulty, level of effort and overall rating.
- Several blog posts by past/current students. I loved reading reviews from students who took courses in OMSCS and shared their experiences online. This not only helps in knowing the first-hand experience but also tells you that a lot of people pursue the program out of sheer interest in learning. Here are a few ones I loved:
Take this time to roughly plan your courses, don’t go full in though. You’ll have enough time later as well. You may also want to increase the number of options by applying to other online programs. Here are a few others that are similar to OMSCS in format and quality:
- MSCSO by University of Texas, Austin. This program is similar to OMSCS, but is slightly costlier. I found the course options lesser than in OMSCS, but there are good courses if you want to specialize in certain domains. This is a good alternative. UT Austin also has an MS in Data Science Online program which is a top-quality program if you wish to specialize.
- Online MCS by Arizona State University. Yet another alternative, provided via Coursera. This is much more expensive than the others but worth checking out if your study is sponsored.
- MSCS Online by the University of Illinois. A lesser-known online program, again on the costlier side.
# Getting your admission decision
If things go well, you’ll be accepted into the program and the decision usually arrives 3-4 months prior to the beginning of the first semester. Congrats! You've made it! Take a week to celebrate and appreciate all the work that you put in to get this. You worked hard on your statements, your recommendations and gathering all the required documents for the application. Cheers!
If you did not make it through though, there’s nothing to lose. This program is a good add-on and not a must-have, nothing is usually. What I’m trying to say is that you can always try again if you really wish to, or forget about it as well. There are numerous other, proven paths to gain the same knowledge and expertise. That’s the best thing about an online program.
If you are accepted, there are a few next steps you should take to avoid last-minute arrangements. One important thing is to send the original transcript and degree documents from your previous university. If your university has an option to send these via an official email it becomes easier. Otherwise, you need to send hard copies by post/courier to the university office in Atlanta. Following are the available options, you can find details here.
Email from official university id: firstname.lastname@example.org
Digital document verification services (more information in the link above)
Hard copies by post to
Office of Graduate Studies Georgia Institute of Technology
631 Cherry St., Room 318
Atlanta, GA 30332-0321
Two documents are important:
- Original transcripts. Similar to those that you would have uploaded during the application.
- Original/attested degree certificate. You wouldn’t want to share your original certificate, you should request an attested copy from your university. This is a copy with the university stamp and enclosed in a sealed envelope.
Due to a large number of applicants, this verification of originals usually takes time and might cause some anxiety if the status does not update. The solution is to be patient. They’ll be processed eventually. To ensure that this happens smoothly, try sending the documents well before the deadline.
# My experience with OMSCS so far
I am one semester in and currently starting my second one. The first semester was fun, I took a relatively easy but interesting subject - Software Analysis - and I could successfully complete it with an A. Even with me moving to a new country in the middle of the semester, I was able to find time to complete the lessons and the projects. I will talk about this subject and my review in a separate post later.
I am enjoying the program - the projects are interesting (depending on the subject you take), and require considerable effort on your end. I started off with a good schedule for the semester but towards the end it became more of last minute submissions. But I plan to get back to it. Apart from your lessons, you also have discussion forum where you can ask questions, discuss topics and read through helpful responses to common problems.