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What are the Prerequisites for a Master’s in Computer Science?

Industry Advice Computing and IT

Recent advances in technology have created unprecedented opportunities for innovation, experimentation, and employment in the field of computer science, making it a more exciting time than ever for those looking to work in the field.

“Computer science is the future,” says Ian Gorton, PhD and director of the computer science programs at Northeastern University—Seattle. “There are an enormous amount of challenging and exciting problems that people can work on, [which makes] the field invariably interesting.”

This fulfilling career path offers more than just a series of constant challenges and opportunities, however. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that roles in this sector will grow by 13 percent through 2030, a rate that is much faster than that of the average for all careers. This accelerated growth will also bring with it an estimated 531,200 new jobs in the field for those with the proper computer science training.

The growth in this exciting field has also prompted many professionals to consider a career change. They are seeking to land these coveted roles and successfully carve a path for themselves by pursuing master’s degrees in computer science.

When looking at what this master’s degree has to offer, there is little question as to why.

Below we explore some of the top benefits of a master’s-level education in this field and the prerequisites you’ll need to be admitted into a computer science graduate program.

Is a Master’s in Computer Science Worth It?

Pursuing a master’s in computer science is a strategic career move for aspiring professionals at any stage in their career. Top programs like Northeastern’s are designed to provide the practical training, hands-on experiences, and real-world exposure needed to excel in a variety of computer science roles.

Did You Know: Students in Northeastern’s Master of Science in Computer Science program learn from a faculty made up of industry-leading professionals. As such, they are better prepared to stay abreast of evolving trends, master advances in technology as they occur, and tackle the challenges facing the industry upon graduation.

“About half the courses in Seattle are taught by people who, in the day, work at Amazon, Google, or Microsoft,” Gorton says. “These folks are incredibly knowledgeable…[and] they bring students not only the insight they need for the course but also the business context that they know about from their day to-day-jobs, which can really add value to the courses.” 

Alongside the opportunity for holistic training, there are many career benefits that make a master’s in computer science worth the investment. Some of the most impactful include:

  • Increased Earning Potential: On average, professionals with a graduate degree earn 28 percent more in their lifetime than those with only a bachelor’s degree. In the computer science field, specifically, this percentage can be even greater. For instance, a generalist computer scientist with a bachelor’s degree makes roughly $91,000 per year compared to $105,000 per year earned by those with a master’s degree—a difference of $14,000 annually.
  • A Competitive Edge: 33 percent of organizations across industries are raising their degree requirements when it comes to hiring, opting for candidates with a master’s degree over those with just a bachelor’s. This is especially true in technology-based careers like computer science, where roles require advanced and current training.
  • Access to Unique Career Opportunities: Northeastern’s master’s in CS program offers students the chance to spend time working in and making connections with top companies across industries. By working full-time within a real-world organization, these students learn about the responsibilities of their desired role from the inside, all while observing how a computer science team functions within a larger organization. As an added benefit, many receive offers for full time employment post-graduation from the organization in which they do their experiential learning.

Despite the benefits of earning a master’s degree in this field, many aspiring computer scientists fear that their current background and experience won’t allow them to gain entry into one of these programs, and don’t pursue a master’s program for that reason. Below we explore the common prerequisites for a computer science master’s programs, as well as examine the alternate path to landing a role in computer science that those who might not meet these specific standards can follow.

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Master’s in Computer Science Program Prerequisites 

Most master’s in computer science programs are designed to prepare students for an advanced role within the computer science field. To accomplish this, the curriculum is structured to build off a student’s existing experience and help fill in any gaps they need in order to excel in this work.

There are a series of prerequisites across most programs required to ensure all students are starting from the same level of understanding. Some of the most common include:

  • Programming and coding
  • Writing code in a high-level programming language such as Python or Java
  • Developing and managing data structures
  • Calculus and discrete mathematics

Interested students should also consider taking courses such as Software Engineering, Introduction to Programming, Compilers, Database Management, Object-Oriented Programming, or Algorithms prior to applying for a master’s degree.

Alongside these more practical skills, there are other more interpersonal qualities aspiring master’s students should hone before embarking on a master’s program.

“You need to be analytical and know how to think problems through,” Gorton offers as one example of these skills. “Solving software problems is unlike anything else because sometimes the right answer isn’t very clear, especially in difficult or complex systems. You need to be able to experiment and to appreciate that chance to really explore a problem.”

Perhaps the most common quality among the master’s in computer science students, however, is a desire to learn constantly. “We really try to teach our students to teach themselves,” Gorton says. “They need to know enough that, in the future, they can step into some crazy work environment, and dive in and be productive.”

Computer Science for Career Changers

Though many computer science programs require their students to have a certain background or experience in the field prior to entry, Northeastern recognizes that sometimes the candidates with the most to offer the future of the CS field may not follow a traditional path or meet specific degree requirements.

This is why Northeastern has developed an alternate option for those interested in pursuing a career in computer science without prior background in the industry: Northeastern’s Align MS in Computer Science  program.

Students in the Align program spend their first year covering the core competencies and honing the skills that are considered foundational for a typical master’s in computer science student. Then, at the end of that year, the students meet the master’s standard and continue with intensive graduate-level training from that point forward.

What backgrounds can Align students come from?

Students enter the Align program from a variety of backgrounds that often have nothing to do with computer science. While some may have studied in another STEM sector in their undergraduate careers—such as engineering, physics, biology, or mathematics—others may come from data analytics, business, or social science backgrounds. 

Gorton emphasizes that, while these are among the most common areas of study that students derive from, the Align program is open to individuals of any background. In fact, some students may even enter the program from fully established careers in another field, and use this master’s program as an opportunity to transition into a computer science role. 

As such, each cohort of Align students is unique, bringing with them a series of perspectives and experiences that can help shape their paths forward in exciting and unexpected ways.

What topics are covered within the Align program?

The curriculum of the Align program covers all the fundamentals of computer science, as well as the advanced techniques, practices, and competencies explored at the master’s level.

“We assume when you come into Align that you have very little computer science knowledge beyond the basics,” Gorton says, noting that the first semester is designed to provide the necessary groundwork on which all future computer science skills will be built.

The first semester begins with a basic programming course, in which “we teach students how to write relatively straightforward programs in Python, how to solve problems with well-known algorithms, and how to use data structures to organize the data in those problems,” Gorton says. Alongside this course, students will also take discrete mathematics, in which they will develop a “toolkit of mathematical skills that they’ll need in their careers, including everything from simple algebra, to logic and set theory.” 

In the second semester, students build off this foundation with an advanced programming course focusing on Java. At this stage, they also “learn how to design more complex systems using more modern, contemporary design techniques.”

After this intensive first year, students are able to advance past the basics to standard master’s-level training, covering topics from data structures and algorithms to computer systems and discrete structures.

It is at this stage that students in both the master’s and Align programs can also specialize in a niche area of computer science. At Northeastern, these formal concentrations include:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Computer-Human Interface
  • Data Science
  • Game Design
  • Graphics
  • Information Security
  • Networks
  • Programming Languages
  • Software Engineering
  • Systems
  • Theory

How To Pursue a Computer Science Master’s Degree

Whether you are coming from a computer science or alternate background, Northeastern’s master’s in computer science programs are designed to provide the training you need to get ahead.

Explore Northeastern’s program pages to learn more about the prerequisites for the Master of Science in Computer Science and Align MS in Computer Science programs, or get in touch with an enrollment coach to learn which might be the best fit for you.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on December 4, 2020. It has been updated for accuracy.


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