In the two years since applying to Georgia Tech’s online computer science master’s program (OMSCS for short), a question I’ve heard from family, friends, coworkers, and recruiters is, “Why OMSCS?” The point of this post is to distill and share a response to that question.
There’s another question embedded in that one, though, which is, “Why get a master’s degree in the first place?”
Why a master’s degree?
Before deciding to apply I think I had a vague, unarticulated feeling that I just wanted a master’s degree. There was no “why”. I pictured myself having one and that vision appealed to me. To an extent I’m still guided by that feeling, but feelings don’t make blog posts.
There are definitely other ways I could spend my nights and weekends that would have a clearer ROI story. The point isn’t just about potential financial upside. If my goal was to convert my freetime to cash I’d probably be doing something else.
As a line-item on a resume, a CS master’s doesn’t hurt. And there are some jobs for which the degree is required. With reported ageism in software and “credential inflation”, it might be in my professional interest to have a master’s. But, again, if my goal was career-oriented there are other, more effective ways to achieve that.
The subject matter I’ve so far studied isn’t itself applicable to my day job. But the program has helped sharpen meta skills: the focus to do deep work on a problem for long periods of time, the confidence to dive into unfamiliar technology, the ability to break a large problem down into more manageable parts, etc.
To date, the classes I’ve taken covered machine learning, supercomputing, and computer vision. I really enjoy learning this material, and I wouldn’t be able to explore it as deeply or as efficiently without the external motivation and guidance of a master’s program. The program provides accountability that I simply wouldn’t have with self-study. There might be people who can do sustained, high-level learning without the pressures of deadlines or grades, but I’m not one of them.
I wanted to prove that I was capable of tackling the challenge. And it helps to combat imposter syndrome. It’s a fun challenge, and I do get a sense of pride when I talk about grad school.
Georgia Tech is a top 10 school for computer science. It has maintained this pedigree even while expanding the college of computing’s reach to thousands of students in OMSCS. The program has been recognized for its excellence. When applying, I read many positive first-hand reviews by current students. And anecdotally, I’ve found the material polished, the work challenging, and the teaching staff engaging.
The degree is identical to GT’s on-site CS master’s – the coursework and degree name are the same, although more classes are available on-site.
It’s affordable. The entire program can be completed for under $7k. On-site master’s programs from top schools charge many times that.
Because the program is entirely online, there is plenty of flexibility. I am able to work a full-time job during the day while watching lecture videos and doing assignments at night and over the weekend. If some other responsibility comes up I don’t need to miss class. The video-based lecture material is also great for being able to revisit tough concepts.
The interaction with other students has been superb. Classes usually have an official Piazza Q&A page set up for student conversations, but the unofficial channels on Slack, Reddit, and Google+ are invaluable. I can’t recall a time I’ve had a question about some assignment or concept and there wasn’t a fellow student online willing to chat about it.
Why not OMSCS?
As I mentioned above, there are limited course options. For example, the Machine Learning Specialization page shows 7 of 28 specialization courses have been produced for OMSCS. That said, the coursework is varied enough to produce well-rounded specializations, and I expect the catalog will continue to grow.
OMSCS is also solely course-based; that is, there is no thesis option. If you want to do independent research as part of your master’s work then this program is maybe not for you. Edit: a current student on Reddit pointed out that the project option is avabile to online students.
While the course is affordable, the lecture material is free on Udacity, so someone driven enough could ostensibly learn everything offered by the program without paying anything. Though they’d be missing out on the graded assignments and interaction, which is where most of the concepts click.
Above, I mentioned that the student interaction was great. While that’s true, I imagine that the bonds from flesh-and-blood collaboration and networking are more robust.
Despite, those points, OMSCS is right for me. I was immediately intrigued by GT’s program when I heard about it. OMSCS is an affordable master’s degree, presented as a MOOC, and from a top university. I’m happy I get to explore this frontier in higher ed. I’m looking forward to continuing the program and to the format’s adoption by other schools and domains.