What kinds of MS programs exist?

Most CS Departments offer a range of MS degree programs. While the naming, branding, and details of these degrees may vary, the most common types of degrees are the following:

  • Academic MS programs. These are typically research-oriented programs, where students take PhD-level classes following a curriculum that may align with the first 1-2 years of a PhD program. Completion of a master’s thesis, under the supervision of a faculty advisor, is a common component of these programs. In some programs, a student can switch to the department’s PhD program during or after the MS.
  • Professional MS programs. These are terminal degrees intended for students who want to pursue a career in industry. The degree requirements of these programs are often course-based with no research expectations, but may involve completing an internship or a capstone project. They often focus on a specific area (e.g., AI, robotics, security, data science, and bioinformatics) and emphasize skills that advance one’s career. Admission criteria are generally different from academic MS programs.
  • Non-terminal MS degrees. Some PhD programs allow, and sometimes require, students to get an MS degree on their way to their PhD. In those programs an MS degree can only be awarded to a PhD student. Students typically cannot apply directly to the MS programs. The MS-on-the-way-to-PhD option exists in some top CS programs that may not have any other academic MS program.
  • Online MS programs. Professional MS programs of some institutions are delivered online, sometimes with an in-person component. Fewer academic MS programs are fully online. A good online program does not simply stream in-person classes but incorporates learning experiences making online education effective. Online programs are valuable for individuals in the workforce for gaining additional skills. Transferring online course credits to residential graduate programs is not always straightforward.