Degree Program: BS/BA + MS
Concurrent BS/MS & BA/MS Programs
What is it?
The BS/MS and BA/MS programs are designed to allow you to work on a master's degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering or Computer Science at the same time you are completing your bachelor's program. In most cases it is possible to complete both degrees in five years or less. Some students are able to complete both degrees in four years.
What are the benefits?
The benefits of a BS/MS or BA/MS are many including better job prospects and efficient use of your college experience. Studies show that newly employed computer engineers and computer science graduates holding a master's degree have the potential to make almost 50% more than engineering candidates with only a bachelor's degree and no experience. Job candidates with a master's degree generally stand out in a field of applicants more so than similar candidates with a BS and no experience. For students whose bachelor's degree is not in CS or ECE, the master's degree can provide entry into these lucrative fields.
In the shorter term a BS/MS or BA/MS program is an efficient use of your college time. Individuals who wait for completion of the BS or BA to enter a MS program usually take two years to complete the MS. Most candidates will complete the BS/MS or BA/MS in less than five years. The time it takes to complete the program is partially based on the amount of Advanced Placement credit you brought to the University and partially based on a carefully constructed curriculum that balances your course load and course requirements to ensure that you will complete the requirements for both programs in a timely fashion.
Who is eligible?
Any Northwestern undergraduate enrolled in the Weinberg or the McCormick School is eligible. Students in the undergraduate EE, CE, or CS/CIS programs are especially encouraged to consider the programs, as are McCormick and Weinberg students more generally. Students in McCormick with a 3.5 GPA at the time of application are automatically admitted, but all students with a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher are welcome to apply. Students do not need to be a computer science, electrical engineering or computer engineering major to enter the program. It is possible to major in math, physics, or even sociology and still apply for this program. Admittedly, some majors may need more planning in order to be sure that a student has the appropriate foundation to undertake graduate study, but all serious students are encouraged.
What is required?
You can be formally admitted to the BS/MS or BA/MS program once you are within four courses of completing your undergraduate degree. Although you do not need to be a computer science, electrical engineering or computer engineering major to be admitted, the MS programs will expect a level of substantive competency equivalent to completion of the following courses.
- MS ECE with a focus on Electrical Engineering – EECS 221, 222, 223, 224, and 225 (www.eecs.northwestern.edu/overview-of-our-undergraduate-programs/electrical-engineering)
- MS ECE with a focus on Computer Engineering – EECS 205, 303, 311, and 361 (www.eecs.northwestern.edu/overview-of-our-undergraduate-programs/computer-engineering)
- MS CS –with a focus on Computer Science – EECS 101, 111, 211, 213, 310, 311 (www.eecs.northwestern.edu/overview-of-our-undergraduate-programs/computer-science)
We should note that core requirements for specific programs evolve and you should verify the program requirements and course offerings on the departmental website following each listing above. You should also be aware that even if you have not completed these background courses, it is possible to acquire this background as part of pursuing the MS degree, although it may take more time.
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How do I find an advisor?
Your graduate advisor should be a faculty member in EECS who specializes in an area of study in which you wish to specialize. You may discuss your interests with the graduate director who can answer questions and then direct you to an appropriate faculty member. You may also visit faculty web pages to read about their current research interests and find links to their recent publications in order to determine which faculty member might share your own interests. Faculty web pages may be accessed via http://www.eecs.northwestern.edu/people/faculty/; simply click on the house icon pictured under each faculty member's phone contact. Once you have identified a faculty member or two whose research interests you, you should meet with him/her to discuss your plans.
How early should I start to plan?
Sometime in the later part of your sophomore year or early in your junior year you should talk to the director of graduate studies in EECS [currently Prof. Chris Riesbeck (CS), Prof. Hooman Mohseni (EE), and Prof. Gokhan Memik (CE)] about your intentions and you should start looking for a graduate advisor.
Sometime during your junior year you should formally apply following the steps below.
- Pick up an “Application for Admission/Combined Degree Program” from Dean Bruce Lindvall in Tech L261 or from the EECS Graduate Office (Tech L351), or
- Solicit two letters of recommendation from faculty members. Letters of recommendation can be e-mailed by faculty members to Dean Lindvall. Letters of recommendation are not necessary if you have a GPA of 3.5 or higher at the time you apply.
- Request an official (paper) transcript from the Northwestern Registrar. You are applying for admission to The Graduate School so you must submit your official undergraduate transcript. You should have the transcript sent directly to Dean Lindvall. & p;
- Meet with your undergraduate advisor to compile a list of the courses you need to complete your BS or BA degree.
- Meet with your graduate advisor to discuss and plan your course of study for the MS.
- Complete the course listing on the reverse side of the Application. The course listing should reflect all courses necessary to complete both the BS/BA and the MS. Please note that you may not use a course that is required for your BS/BA as one of your courses for the MS; in other words you may use a course to fulfill requirements for the BS/BA or the MS but not both.
- Have your undergraduate advisor review and sign your application.
- Have the director of admissions in EECS review and sign the application. (Currently, Prof. Hooman Mohseni (EE) or Prof. Gokhan Memik (CE) should sign the application. If they are not available, please see Prof. Chris Riesbeck).
- Once you have completely filled out the front of the application, you have your course plan completed, you have your undergraduate advisor's signature and the director of graduate studies' signature, you may return the application to the Dean Lindvall (Tech L261). Once the BS/MS or BA/MS application is approved by the Undergraduate Engineering Office, Dean Lindvall will deliver the application to The Graduate School.
- Once your application is approved by The Graduate School they will mail you an official letter of admission which will specify your quarter for admission.
Please be aware of the following deadlines! If you are applying for admission to the BS/MS for:
- Fall, the deadline is August 1
- Winter, the deadline is November 15
- Spring, the deadline is February 14
When do I apply?
Once you have completed 24 hours of coursework you may submit a Letter of Intent. (The Letter of Intent is no longer required). The BS/MS, BA/MS application is submitted the quarter prior to your being within four courses of completing your undergraduate degree. It is important to note that the earlier you start planning the easier it is to tailor your course selection to allow you to complete both degrees in a timely fashion. You may take up to three graduate level courses prior to your formal admission to the Graduate School and have those courses count towards your MS requirements (assuming you are not using these courses to meet your BS requirements).
What is required to complete the MS?
The general requirements are that you satisfactorily complete 12 courses (that means pass each course with a B or better) and pass a MS exam. Three of the courses must be 400 level courses. Beyond the general requirements, however, there are three options available for the MS program: coursework, project, or thesis. The coursework option requires you to complete 12 substantive courses and pass MS exams. The project and thesis options require you to complete 10 substantive courses and 2 courses designated as “research” or “thesis” courses during which you will engage in active, independent research with your graduate advisor.
Can I count work completed as an undergraduate, before admission to the MS program, towards the MS?
Yes, but this is a qualified yes. You can apply up to three graduate courses taken prior to admission to the Graduate School towards your masters if and only if you are not using those same courses to fulfill requirements for your BS/BA. In other words a course can only fulfill requirements for one degree (the BS/BA or the MS) not both.
What is the difference between undergraduate and graduate level courses?
There are two answers to that question. First, graduate level courses are formally defined as those that the graduate school has accepted for graduate credit. In EECS, this includes all 400+ level courses, and most 300-level courses.
The second answer is that graduate courses are more rigorous than undergraduate courses and they will require more work from you. Graduate courses will require more reading, more discussion, and more writing than you find in most undergraduate courses. Undergraduate courses are designed, generally, to ground the student in the basic foundations of a discipline. Graduate courses are designed to prepare the student to contribute to the future direction of the discipline. Consequently, undergraduate courses spend time making sure that students understand and can apply the fundamental building blocks of electrical engineering, or know how to select or design an appropriate data structure. Graduate courses, by contrast, will delve into theory, examine cutting edge research or programs and discuss the implications of the research, and engage the student in independent research. For example, many 400+ level courses are based around reading original, cutting edge research papers and working on research ideas. Graduate studies will challenge your critical thinking skills and your creativity.
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Should I do an MS in CS or ECE?
This depends on your interests and your career or research goals.
If you are already in the EE or CE undergraduate program, the choice of an MS ECE will let you acquire considerably more depth (and thus market value) in these areas. On the other hand, the choice of an MS in CS will broaden the range of positions for which you are suitable.
If you are already in the CS undergraduate program in McCormick or in the CIS undergraduate program in Weinberg, similar reasoning also applies: An MS in CS will give you added value by giving you considerably more depth in your specialty, while an MS in ECE will give you added value by broadening your expertise.
If you are in another undergraduate program at Northwestern, either master's degree will considerably broaden your expertise and thus marketability.
Generally speaking, the MS in ECE has a greater focus on hardware, while the MS in CS has a greater focus on software.
In making your decision, you may also want to consider the research by the various faculty and the various EECS research divisions. Once you find the division that interests you the most, it becomes easier to choose. The EECS research divisions are listed below.
- Solid State and Photonics (SSP) – The dominant focus here is in Electrical Engineering. The MS ECE is best for interaction with this division.
- Signals and Systems (S&S) – The dominant focus here is in Electrical Engineering. The MS ECE is best for interaction with this division.
- Computer Engineering and Systems (CES) – This division focuses on all of Computer Engineering and the Computer Science field of Systems (including Networking and Security). Both the MS ECE and the MS CS work great for interaction with this division.
- Computing, Algorithms, and Applications (CAA) – This division focuses on the Computer Science field of Theory. The MS CS is best for interaction with this division.
- Cognitive Systems (CSD) – This division focuses on the Computer Science field of Artificial Intelligence. The MS CS is best for interaction with this division.
- Graphics and Interactive Media (GIM) – this division focuses on the Computer Science field of Interfaces. The MS CS is best for interaction with this division.
If you are unsure where your specific interest fall, your graduate advisor and the director of graduate studies will be happy to discuss options based on your specific goals.
Should I do a course, project, or thesis-based masters?
The MS program has three options you may choose from in order to complete the degree. Your long range goals as well as your academic strengths should determine the path you choose. The coursework option gives you the opportunity to take a greater number of traditional courses. If you have no interest in a Ph.D. or in conducting research after completion of the Masters, this is probably the best path for you. If on the other hand you are interested in pursuing a Ph.D. at some point or you are interested in obtaining a research position within a company, then you might want to consider the thesis or project option.
The project option requires you to complete 10 traditional courses and 2 research courses during which you will design and complete a research project under the guidance of your graduate advisor. You will write a final project document as part of your work. The thesis option requires you to complete 10 substantive courses and 2 thesis courses during which you will design and complete an original research project under the guidance of your graduate advisor. Your final product will be a master's thesis document. The thesis path is highly recommended for those who may be interested in pursuing a Ph.D. at any point in the future.
It is important to point out that a project-based master's requires substantial effort on the part of your graduate advisor, and a thesis-based master's requires even more. For this reason, project-based and thesis-based master's can be selected only at your graduate advisor's discretion. If you are interested in either a project-based or thesis-based masters, please talk to your graduate advisor or the director of graduate studies as early as possible.
Can I change the courses I want to take after I submit my application?
Yes, you may change your courses, but you must submit any changes to Dean Lindvall who will forward your notice of change to the McCormick registrar, The Graduate School, and to the director of graduate studies in EECS. These individuals will review the changes to make sure that the proposed change will not adversely affect your progress towards the respective degrees.
Can I change from coursework to the project or thesis option once I have started my MS work?
Yes. However, you must convince your graduate advisor to agree to advise the project or thesis, or find another advisor who is willing to do so.
Are there sample curricula and timelines I can look at?
The links below illustrate course proposals that have been used to complete the BS/MS. The time it will take you to complete the program is dependent upon how well you have managed your undergraduate degree and careful planning in structuring your master's plan. Student's who enter the University with several AP credits can, with planning, complete the degree in four years. Students who switched majors and had little or no AP credit will probably take five years. The course outlines below may help you determine your own position:
- Computer Engineering major pursuing a MS in Computer Science
- Biomedical Engineering major pursuing a MS in Electrical Engineering
How long will it take to complete the program?
The answer is it depends.The time it will take you to complete the program is dependent upon how well you have managed your undergraduate degree and careful planning in structuring your master's plan. Students who enter the University with several AP credits can, with planning, complete the degree in four years. Students who switched majors and had little or no AP credit will probably take five years.
What does it cost?
The quarterly tuition for the BS/MS or BA/MS is the same as the tuition for a BS or BA. The bottom line is that if you plan well and complete both degrees in five years you will pay for an extra year of college, but you will have two degrees (two diplomas). If you entered Northwestern with AP credit it is possible to complete both programs in four years, but you should talk to your graduate advisor to make sure you have a plan that completes all of the requirements for both degrees.
Can I get financial aid?
Undergraduates are eligible to receive NU Scholarship assistance up to the equivalent of 12 quarters of enrollment. It may be possible that some of the courses for the master’s degree could be taken before you complete your undergraduate degree. You should contact Donna Tobias, McCormick Registrar, or advisor to see when your undergraduate degree will be awarded and if you have room to take some graduate level courses. You may also want to contact Bruce Lindvall, assistant dean for graduate studies, about the BS/MS program. There is no scholarship assistance for the MS portion of the program. As a graduate student, however, you will be eligible for Federal Direct Student Loans. The Student Financial Services Office (firstname.lastname@example.org) will be able to counsel you about your eligibility.
If you have questions regarding your undergraduate financial aid please contact the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid at email@example.com. Ken Brown in the Office of Student Financial Services works with McCormick graduate students.
What if I decide I don't want an MS?
This is your choice and it will not affect your BS or BA degree. Once you complete the BS/BA requirements, you will be awarded the BS/BA. You should know, however, that the Graduate School allows you five years to complete the MS. If you simply want to complete the program as a part-time student or if you want to take time off, you should discuss your options with your graduate advisor and file the appropriate paperwork so that you will be able to complete the program at a later point in time. More generally, realize that the Graduate School's five year window gives you plenty of time to consider your options.
What is the difference between MS and PhD?
Completion of the Ph.D. degree in CS or ECE signifies that you have become an effective, independent researcher. Ph.D. degrees are required for faculty positions in academia, and top research positions in industry and government.
Unlike the MS degree, which typically takes one to two years to complete, a Ph.D. degree can take four or more years to complete. A major component of the Ph.D. process is a multi-year, original, individual research project that leads to a doctoral dissertation, and a defense of that dissertation before a committee. A doctoral dissertation is essentially a book about one's original research.
If I start an MS, can I switch to Ph.D. later?
The short answer is yes. An individual applying to a Ph.D. program with a Master's degree in hand usually has an advantage among the pool of candidates. Programs vary, but usually students with a MS will have fewer course requirements toward the Ph.D. That said, if you find yourself contemplating a Ph.D. prior to completing the masters requirements, you can talk to your graduate advisor concerning your options.
How can I get more information?
The McCormick School has additional information about the BS/MS program available on its website. Dean Lindvall holds quarterly information sessions about the program; you may also meet with him on an individual basis. In addition you may also talk to the director of graduate studies in EECS or your undergraduate advisor or an EECS faculty member you are close to about your interest in the program.