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. Students take graduate classes to develop more depth in their CS background. The curriculum is often similar to the first 1-2 years of a PhD program. MS students may or may not be required to complete a thesis under the supervision of a faculty advisor. Some institutions have combined MS/PhD programs where you earn an MS along the way to your PhD. Others provide a straightforward path for transfering from the MS to the PhD program. In other MS programs, you will need to apply to enter the PhD program.
  • Professional MS programs. These are terminal degrees intended for students who want to pursue a career in industry or who are already working 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, interaction design, or bioinformatics) and emphasize skills that advance one’s career. Admission criteria are generally different from academic MS programs.
  • Online MS programs. Both academic and professional MS programs can be found online. Some have an in-person component. Online programs can be more accessible for students who continue to work while completing a MS degree or who are tied to living in a particular location. Quality is variable, and transferring online course credits to residential graduate programs may be harder than transferring from traditional programs. A good online program does not simply stream in-person classes but incorporates learning experiences making online education effective. If your ultimate goal is a PhD, consider the quality of online MS degree programs carefully.