Masters Degree in Computer Science, Personal Update

I have made some posts here and in more private circles about getting a Masters Degree in Computer Science, so I wanted to give an update. Here’s the tl;dr: I applied to 5 programs, I got turned down by 3, one is still outstanding, and I was accepted to 1. That was my top program, but I decided not to take it because of the high cost.

So, here’s the details for those who care. I applied for 5 masters programs:

  • University of Texas, Computer Science, Fall 2022 ❌
  • University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Computer Science, Fall 2022 ❌
  • University of Pennsylvania, Computers and Information Technology, Fall 2022 ❌
  • Georgia Institute of Technology, Computer Science, Spring 2023 ❓
  • Carnegie Mellon University, Software Engineering, Fall 2022 ✅

I was pretty disappointed to be turned down by so many programs. None of the programs I applied to gave a reason for turning me down, but I have some ideas about what happened.

  • My bachelor’s degree is not in Computer Science or a closely-related field. I’ve got a bachelor’s in Physics from one of the best universities on the planet, which I think shows I should be able to handle some academic rigour. But it’s not directly related to computer science, which admissions teams may have been looking for.
  • I have insufficient academic track record on required courses. I’ve spent much of my career self-educating in computer science, building personal projects, and releasing professional-grade software. But I only have a handful of actual college credits in programming, which might be an issue.
  • I didn’t submit a GRE score. I decided to apply to schools very soon before their application deadlines, and I didn’t think I had time to study for the GRE and come up with a good score. Since the GRE was optional, I skipped it. This may have been a mistake.
  • I came in without a lot of humility. Honestly, I thought that a career in the computer industry, with some pretty significant achievements to my name, would make me a shoe-in for any program I applied to. I don’t feel like I acted arrogant or rude, but I didn’t feel like I had to do hard work to get in. That was a bad way to approach the situation.

So, 3 nos, 1 yes is pretty good, right? Well, that yes was kind of a difficult one. The MSE program at CMU is great; exactly what I need to take my career to the next level. It’s specifically about the science and craft of making software in teams in a larger context, and I think I’d really enjoy it.

The problem was the price tag. The Georgia Tech program is US$7k all in; the MSE at CMU is US$55K, maybe more. I wish I had enough disposable income that a difference of US$50K didn’t matter to me, but I’m not. I’ve got two teens headed to college, and spending $50K of savings on my own education when I am pretty sure I could do most of what I want to do with a much cheaper degree seems kind of irresponsible.

So, last week I turned down CMU. This was pretty hard. I took weeks to decide, argued both cases, and was sure I’d say yes about half the time. I’m used to spending money if I need to do it. But I’m glad I made the decision I did. I really appreciate the people who wrote recommendations for me for CMU. I didn’t waste your time lightly, I promise!

So, what happens next? I still want to get a masters degree. So, I’m going to apply for another round of programs in Spring and Fall 2023. Here’s what I’m going to do differently.

  • Study for and take the GRE. I did amazing on the GRE the last time I took it, right out of college. I think with a couple of months of practice and study I could get a respectable score that would improve my chances of getting accepted.
  • Take prerequisite classes and/or tests. UIUC has a 3-month course with a test at the end that might help my chances there. UT has a whole list of prereq courses. I think a better academic resume might lift my application to the top of the pile.
  • Consider more Software Engineering programs. SE and CS have a complex relationship. Some of the CS programs have SE as a specialisation; other universities I didn’t apply to have SE masters. I think it might be more what I’m looking for and play more to my skills.
  • Don’t apply to programs too expensive for me. I am going to try to keep the price tag down under $20K. I realize that is very cheap for a masters, and an immense privilege to get to spend on education. I want to be able to say an enthusiastic yes to an acceptance.

Once again, thanks to everyone who wrote recommendations for me. It meant the world. I really appreciate your kind words and time.

And thanks to all my friends and family for their encouragement. This story isn’t over yet.

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