Reflections on the Georgia Tech Online MS in Computer Science

I graduated from Georgia Tech's Online MS in Computer Science (OMSCS) at the beginning of May. The program is unique in several ways, and enrolling in it was the best professional decision I've made. Specifically, it helped me successfully transition from being a business analyst to being a software engineer. Now that I've graduated, I'd like to share my thoughts with people who are interested in the OMSCS.

The program's biggest strength is the quality of the courses. The courses are the most important component of any Master's degree (excluding an MBA) and the OMSCS receives full marks. The courses were rigorous, comprehensive, and challenging. I haven't attended graduate school anywhere else, but I completed several graduate-level courses in math and statistics at Yale and thought that most of my courses were at least as rigorous. For a student whose primary goal is to learn rather than obtain a credential, the OMSCS is perfect.

I hasten to add that I deliberately chose courses that would be challenging; if I'd set out to do the opposite I think I could have made it through the program with only a handful of really challenging classes. That brings me to an unexpected strength of the program: all of the courses that are offered have numerous high quality reviews, currently available on OMS Central.

The site is an unofficial effort created by an OMSCS student (and is the evolution of a previous google spreadsheet.) While most universities have some form of reviews available for students to peruse, many courses either have a small number of reviews or have changed instructors since last being offered. Additionally, students in different departments may have different notions of a "hard" class. By contrast, OMS courses have hundreds of students take them at a time and the lectures at least remain constant from semester to semester, so there are numerous well-calibrated rankings with accurate estimates of the work required each week. Over the last half of the program, I was able to consistently select an interesting set of courses each semester while managing my workload. I realize this seems like a minor point, but it had a real impact on the quality of my experience.

One slight disappointment is that the OMS didn't add courses as quickly as I hoped. The two results were that I couldn't take some electives (mostly related to machine learning) that looked interesting, and that most of the specializations have limited options to complete their requirements.

Beyond course quality, the next best thing about the OMS is its flexibility. When I applied to the program, I was working as a business analyst at a start up and expected to broadly continue along the same path. I was interested in CS but doubted I'd ever work as a developer, so quitting my job and moving across the country to earn a traditional MS was out of the question. I also wasn't interested in a part time program that might have lower-quality courses or a weak reputation among employers. Ultimately, Georgia Tech's strong reputation and the program's low tuition made it appealing, but the flexibility made it possible. Indeed, by the time I finished the program, I had changed jobs twice and moved across the country without having to interrupt my studies.

The one aspect of the OMSCS that's still unclear is the reputation it will have with employers. The OMSCS should have as good a reputation as Georgia Tech's on-campus program. Georgia Tech apparently agrees since they award the exact same degree to students in both programs. My diploma doesn't say "online"; it's just an MS from a top-ten CS department. Additionally, GT maintains parity between their two MS programs. For instance, the same professor frequently teaches both online and on-campus versions of the same course at the same time.

Despite that, I see a couple risks that may weaken the program's reputation. First, online programs have something of a stigma around them. With time, though, I think that can be overcome, particularly if OMS graduates go on to be successful. Second, the OMS lets in a much larger range of students than other elite programs. In fact, that's the whole point! The high end of that range is fantastic. I was really impressed by some of the classmates, and the work they turned in dramatically outclassed anything I produced.

At the other end of the spectrum, though, some students really struggled with some of the material. If those students go on to receive degrees without mastering core concepts, that may damage the program's reputation in the eyes of employers who hire them. I don't actually believe that it's easier to get through the OMSCS than other MS programs. Instead, many MS programs rely on the admissions office (i.e. GRE scores) to do a lot of filtering for them. Essentially, even they're easy to get through, they're not easy to get into. The OMS doesn't have that luxury; its administrators will have to be vigilant about making sure the easiest path through the program is still sufficiently rigorous. If they do that, the program should develop the sterling reputation it deserves.

With that caveat, I think the OMS is a really fantastic way to learn advanced computer science. The courses are great, and some of the students are phenomenally talented. I think the program will continue to attract remarkable students. Anecdotally, I've been asked about it by people with impressive track records both in education (Yale, Stanford, etc) and employment (Google, Palantir, etc.) I've enthusiastically recommended it to all of them.