Can you get a master’s degree in computer science without a computer science background?

BY Jenna DutcherAugust 30, 2022, 12:27 PM
Graduates of the Los Angeles City College arrive at the Greek Theater where First Lady Jill Biden delivered the keynote address, as seen in June 2022. (Photo by David Crane—MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News/Getty Images)

Programming, databases, networks—these topics are the bread and butter of the computer science discipline. But not every applicant enters a graduate program with this level of fluency or a deep understanding of the field—and that’s also okay. 

“We’re seeing more and more people who want to transition from different backgrounds,” says Craig Gotsman, dean of the Ying Wu College of Computing at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). “Some of them are STEM—like mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, civil engineering, biology, chemistry, all sorts of technical subjects, but not computer science—and some even coming from outside the STEM fields. We’ve had people coming from finance, which is not quite STEM, business, even as far away as music, English, all sorts of really completely different things. ”

In fact, about 50% of the applicants to NJIT’s graduate degree programs in computing don’t have a computing background, according to Gotsman. And these non-traditional applicants—at NJIT, or at any university—can still remain competitive in the crowded applicant pool. In fact, a diverse skill set may just offer a leg up. 

In computer science, an analytical mindset is crucial

It used to be that if you wanted to earn a master’s degree in any discipline, including computer science, your undergraduate education had to align. That’s no longer the case.

“Everyone learns differently and faces different challenges,” says Paulus Wahjudi, chair of the Department of Computer Sciences and Electrical Engineering at Marshall University. “Computer science is a field where there is no one right answer. There are multiple ways to solve a problem and each solution will not be perfect.”

An analytical mindset is the key feature that really sets a successful master’s student apart from his or her peers in computer science.

“What they need is analytical thinking,” says Gotsman. “You have to know how to dig deep into a problem, to analyze it, to make decisions like that. If you have a good analytic mind, that’s typically a key to success, even though you haven’t done a lot of programming, or a lot of mathematics, or a lot of software stuff in your past. If you’re used to thinking that way, you’ll probably be doing well.”

What are computer science master’s programs looking for in applicants?

While master’s degree programs in computer science are generally looking for applicants to have at least some experience in computer science or a closely related field, that’s not typically a hard-and-fast requirement nowadays. Rather, admissions staff take a holistic look at an applicant’s background to get a sense of their potential.

“We look at the entire record of the candidate,” Gotsman says, “not just their formal academic record and their bachelor’s transcript, which is one small piece of the pie.”

For example, admissions counselors may want to know if candidates have relevant work experience, particularly working with computers, or if they have non-credit training, like online or offline coursework in programming, data analytics, or a related subject. For applicants without an undergrad degree in computer science, supporting coursework is one area where applicants can work to bolster their application.

Short on subject matter expertise? Time to study up

“If the applicant does not have a lot of experience in the field of computer science, then they need to indicate what they have done to show that they are interested in the field and are ready to put in the work towards the degree,” says Wahjudi. “We do not want to accept a student and see them fail halfway, so anything that can indicate that they have taken the initiative to know the field and the program is a plus.”

Often, this knowledge comes in the form of bootcamps, bridge classes—whether taken within the school or at another institution—or a shorter, less intensive certificate program to give potential applicants a taste of the computer science coursework without a full academic commitment.

For example, NJIT offers a certificate program that functions as a mini graduate-level degree—which serves as “a way for the would-be M.S. student to test the waters if they’re transitioning in from the outside and they don’t have such a good, strong background in computing,” says Gotsman.

Ljubomir Perkovic, Director of the School of Computing at DePaul University, agrees. “Potential applicants who want to strengthen their record may want to take some undergraduate classes in computing, at a community college, for example, to demonstrate that they can be successful in computer science coursework.”

When it comes to softer skills, don’t discount motivation and drive

For those people contemplating a master’s degree program in computer science who are daunted by a career launch or tradition, Wahjudi offers a word of support. “More than anything, an applicant must have the motivation and drive to learn,” he says. And these traits can be expressed equally by those with or without computer science backgrounds.

In fact, people with non-traditional backgrounds may have a leg up when it comes to motivation since they’re making a big change in their career, Gotsman says.

“In terms of the effort that they put in, and the work, and the drive and so on, some of our best students in that respect are the ones who are coming from a non-computing background,” he says. “They’re more motivated to succeed, because their whole life depends on it, almost in a sense.”

This is also why master’s students—especially those entering without computer science backgrounds—should not rush to graduate as soon as possible, Wahjudi says. Rather, these students should soak in the experience and education. “Their goal is to graduate with the most knowledge of the various topics and the best performance in the classroom, because that is what matters later in their job,” he says.

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s degree programs in data science (in-person and online), nursing, computer science, cybersecurity, psychology, public health, and business analytics, as well as the doctorate in education programs MBA programs (part-time, executive, full-time, and online).