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Undergraduate
Combined BS (or BA)/MS Degree Program

McCormick’s Combined BS/MS Program allows undergraduates to pursue a bachelor’s degree (BS) and master’s degree (MS) simultaneously, shortening the time required to earn a master’s degree. It is also available to Computer Science students in Weinberg, resulting in a BA degree from Weinberg and an MS from McCormick.

With careful planning, students may commence work on their master’s degree before completing their bachelor’s degree. For some students, it may be possible to earn both degrees at the same time, in just four years.

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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 science graduates holding a master's degree have the potential to make almost 50 percent more money 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 electrical engineering or computer engineering, the master's degree can provide entry into these lucrative fields.

In the shorter term, a BS/MS or BA/MS degree 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 fewer than five years. The time it takes to complete the program is partially based on the amount of AP credit you brought to Northwestern 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.

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Eligibility Requirements

Any Northwestern undergraduate enrolled in the Weinberg College or the McCormick School of Engineering is eligible to apply. Students in the undergraduate computer science and electrical and computer engineering programs are especially encouraged to consider the programs, as are McCormick and Weinberg students more generally. You do not need to be an electrical engineering, computer engineering, or computer science major to be admitted. Students in McCormick with a 3.5 GPA at the time of application who have completed the prerequisite courses are typically admitted, but all students with a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher are welcome to apply, once they have completed the prerequisite courses.

You are eligible for admission to the program once you are within four courses of completing your undergraduate degree. You are required to have completed the appropriate set of prerequisite courses prior to being accepted to the MS program. The prerequisite courses are listed below.

  • MS in computer science: COMP_SCI 111, 211, 212 (formerly EECS 310), 213, 214 (formerly EECS 311).

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Finding an Adviser

Your graduate adviser should be a faculty member in the department 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. Once you have identified a faculty member or two whose research interests you, you should meet with him or her to discuss your plans.  

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When You Should Start to Plan

Sometime in the later part of your sophomore year or early in your junior year you should talk to Bruce Lindvall about your intentions, and you should start looking for a graduate adviser. Sometime during your junior year you should formally apply (see below).

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Applying

*Note: before applying, please contact Dean Bruce Lindvall for an application fee waiver*

Undergraduate Students with 3.50 GPA or Above

  • Apply online using the CollegeNet admissions portal. This is an abbreviated version of the application used by external graduate applicants.
  • Obtain a copy of your unofficial transcript (can be obtained from within CAESAR). Please upload your unofficial transcript to the BS/MS application. Letters of recommendation are not required for students with a GPA of 3.50 or above.
  • Meet with, Chris Riesbeck, MS program director, to develop the MS study plan necessary for application to The Graduate School. 
  • Meet with your undergraduate adviser to compile a list of the courses you need to complete your BS or BA degree. 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.

Undergraduate Students with GPA Below 3.50

  • Apply online using the CollegeNet admissions portal. This is an abbreviated version of the application used by external graduate applicants.
  • Obtain a copy of your unofficial transcript (can be obtained from within CAESAR). Please upload your unofficial transcript to the BS/MS application.
  • Meet with Chris Riesbeck, MS program director, to develop the MS study plan necessary for application to The Graduate School.
  • Meet with your undergraduate adviser to compile a list of the courses you need to complete your BS or BA degree. 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.
  • If you have a combined GPA near 3.5, and have demonstrated that you are in good standing in the courses that are of direct relevance to the MS program that you are considering, you need to meet with the MS program director to discuss your application. Two recommendation letters are then needed to support your application to The Graduate School.

Students will be notified via email once an application decision is rendered.

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

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When to Apply

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.

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Requirements to Complete the MS

The general requirements are that you satisfactorily complete 12 courses. 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. The project and thesis options require you to complete 10 substantive courses and two courses designated as “research” or “thesis” courses during which you will engage in active, independent research with your graduate adviser.

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Counting Undergraduate Work Toward an MS

Yes, but you may not use those same courses to fulfill requirements for both your BS/BA and MS. In other words, a course can only fulfill requirements for one degree (the BS/BA or the MS) not both.

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Undergraduate Courses Versus Graduate Courses

There are two components. First, graduate level courses are formally defined as those that The Graduate School has accepted for graduate credit. In CS, this includes all 400+ level courses and most 300-level courses.

Second, 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 computer science. 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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Choosing a Master’s Program in Electrical Engineering, Computer Engineering, or Computer Science

This depends on your interests and your career or research goals.

If you are already in the ECE or CE undergraduate program, the choice of an MS EE or CE 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 suited.

If you are already in the CS undergraduate program in McCormick or in the CS 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 EE or CE 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 EE or CE 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 CS Research Interest Groups. Once you find the area that attracts you most, it becomes easier to choose. The CS research interest groups are listed below.

If you are unsure where your specific interests fall, your graduate adviser and the director of graduate studies will be happy to discuss options based on your specific goals.

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Course, Project, and Thesis-Based Master’s Options

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 PhD or in conducting research after completion of the master's degree, this is probably the best path for you. On the other hand, if you are interested in pursuing a PhD 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 two research courses during which you will design and complete a research project under the guidance of your graduate adviser. You will write a final project document as part of your work. The thesis option requires you to complete 10 substantive courses and two thesis courses during which you will design and complete an original research project under the guidance of your graduate adviser. 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 PhD 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 adviser, 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 adviser's discretion. If you are interested in either a project-based or thesis-based master's, please talk to your graduate adviser or the director of graduate studies as early as possible.

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Changing Courses After Submitting an Application

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 CS. These individuals will review the changes to make sure that the proposed change will not adversely affect your progress toward the respective degrees.

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Changing Coursework to Project or Thesis Option Once You’ve Started MS Work

Students may do this; however, you must convince your graduate adviser to agree to advise the project or thesis, or find another adviser who is willing to do so.

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Sample Curricula

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. 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. The course outlines below may help you determine your own position:

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Completing the Program

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.  

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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 adviser to make sure you have a plan that completes all of the requirements for both degrees.

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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 the McCormick registrar or your adviser 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 (student-financial-services@northwestern.edu) 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 undergradaid@u.northwestern.edu. Ken Brown in the Office of Student Financial Services works with McCormick graduate students.

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Deciding You 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 adviser 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.

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Differences Between MS and PhD

Completion of the PhD degree in CS signifies that you have become an effective, independent researcher. PhD 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 PhD degree can take four or more years to complete. A major component of the PhD 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.  

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Switching to PhD Later

An individual applying to a PhD program with a master's degree in hand usually has an advantage among the pool of candidates. Programs vary, but usually students with an MS will have fewer course requirements toward the PhD. That said, if you find yourself contemplating a PhD prior to completing the master's requirements, you can talk to your graduate adviser concerning your options.

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For More Information

Visit the the McCormick School of Engineering website for more information.