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MSc in Computer Science FAQ

Thinking of doing the MSc Computer Science at Birkbeck, University of London? Some questions answered.

Is the course suitable for me?

The course is designed for someone who already holds a degree in a non-computing subject and now wants to obtain an academic and professional qualification in Computer Science.

The course is suitable for graduates wishing to embark on a career in the information technology industry, as well as those already working in IT who wish to update their skills. As well as gaining a broad knowledge of computing, students acquire programming skills and have the opportunity to go more deeply into certain areas of current research.

The course is not suitable for someone who already has a degree in a computing subject.

When does the course start?

The course starts once each year at the beginning of October. It is not possible to join the course at any other point in the year.

Do I need any experience of computers?

Some aptitude for computer programming is essential for success on the MSc. You may have done some programming at work or during your previous studies, or you may be new to programming. Your precise computing experience is only important if you are applying with a qualification other than the normal entrance requirement.

We ask all applicants to sit a short programming aptitude test at interview - details are sent when inviting applicants for interview, including a sample test.

We forward a short introduction to computer programming, to applicants invited for interview. (This document is also available here: aptitude test notes in Python). This enables you to prepare for the aptitude test if you have not done much programming before.

Do I have to supply an academic reference?

For applicants with the normal academic qualifications, the College requires at least one positive reference. If you have gained your first degree in the last two or three years, it might be most appropriate to approach your university for a reference. But if it is some time since you left university or if there is some difficulty about obtaining an academic reference, then you may supply a reference from someone else - perhaps a current or recent employer or anyone else who knows you well and can testify as to your suitability for the MSc, in terms of motivation, aptitude and ability to complete successfully a course of post-graduate study.

If you have some problem in obtaining a reference, make your application anyway and, if you are called for interview, discuss the question of references with the admissions tutor.

Does the class of my first degree matter?

The normal entrance requirement for the course is a UK Second Class Honours degree, or overseas equivalent. We do offer some places each year to applicants with other written qualifications. In such cases we look for relevant computing work experience, for example as a computer programmer. Such applicants would typically have two years experience if holding a Third Class degree, four years experience if holding a Pass degree, or five years experience if holding a non-degree qualification such as an HND. Applicants with non-standard qualifications will normally be expected to provide two references.

I have an Arts degree/I haven't done maths for years. Is that OK?

The subject of your first degree is not important. Many of our students have an Arts background. They do just as well on the course as those with a Science background.

The course makes few assumptions about your previous studies. In particular, you are not required to know any mathematics beyond GCSE (previously 'O' level). There is theoretical material in the course but we teach you what you need to know.

What is covered on the course?

The aim is to give a broad coverage of Computer Science while requiring a standard of work appropriate for a postgraduate degree.

The topics covered include (object-oriented) programming, database and knowledge management including SQL using Oracle Database 10g, the Internet and the World Wide Web, computer architecture, information systems design, operating systems including examples from Unix/Linux, software engineering using UML, and the representation and querying of data on the World Wide Web using XML, as well as options on research topics.

For further details of the topics covered in the current year, see the Programme booklet (PDF) .

Within this broad coverage, two emphases are apparent. First, there is greater coverage of software aspects than hardware aspects of computing. Second, there is an emphasis on commercial and business information processing applications, with examples generally being taken from those areas rather than scientific applications.

As a part-time student, when do I come for lectures?

You can follow the course by evening study or on a day-release basis.

Evening students come for lectures on two or three evenings each week. An evening consists of two lectures of 1 hour 20 minutes each. The first lecture starts at 6pm and so finishes at 7.20pm. There is then a 20 minute break for coffee. The second lecture starts at 7.40pm and finishes at 9pm. It is likely that evening students' first-year lectures will be on Monday, Wednesday and (for part of the year) Friday. The second-year lectures are likely to be on Tuesday, Thursday and (for part of the year) Friday.

Day-release students come for lectures on one day each week and one evening as well. Daytime lectures start at 11am and finish at 5pm. It is likely that day-release students' first-year daytime lectures will be on Thursday, with evening lectures on Monday. The second-year daytime lectures are likely to be on Tuesday, with evening lectures on Thursday.

Details on the current time table can be found in the Programme booklet (PDF) .

Most of the daytime lectures in a particular week are also given during evenings of the same week. It can be useful for a student who normally comes for lectures by one mode of study to occasionally come to the other lectures. For example, a student who normally comes to daytime lectures may one week be required to be at work for some reason. The student could come to the corresponding evening lectures in that week instead. We cannot guarantee that daytime and evening lectures will stay precisely in step, but they generally do so sufficiently closely to make this swapping possible.

As a part-time student, what other time do I need to devote to the course?

In addition to attending the lectures, you will need to spend time doing programming and other exercises, assimilating lecture notes, reading books and research papers and so on. The time you need to spend will vary, but will perhaps be on average another evening per week as well as half a day at weekends.

You can get into the department at any time including weekends, so you can do the work needed whenever suits you best.

What computing facilities will I be using on the course?

For much of the practical work on the course you can use the department's computing labs with networked PCs running Windows which connect to Unix servers. Your files are availble over the internet if you want to work at home.

Other facilities include laser printers, high speed internet connection via JANET and an extensive list of supported software. You can get into the department at any time including weekends, so you can do the work needed whenever suits you best ( Further information about computing facilities ).

Access to other computers within the University can be arranged if you wish to use a facility elsewhere, perhaps for your project work.

I have my own PC (or am thinking about buying one). Will it be useful on the course?

A number of students do use their own machines. If, for example, you have a C++ compiler on your PC you can download the files you need to carry out the C++ programming exercises or take them home on a USB memory stick. Some students also use their own machines for their project work or for producing their project report.

However, you will not be at a disadvantage if you do not have your own PC. There is normally no problem in coming into the department at any time and making use of the machines here.

Do I have to sit exams to get the degree?

Yes. There are written University exams in each of the two years on the year's course topics. Your performance in them all counts towards the award of the degree. The exams are held usually in late May or early June, and are only held in the daytime, so you will need to get time off work for them.

Does the award of the MSc or PGDip depend solely on written exam performance?

No. For the PGDip, a student must also complete a set of required coursework exercises to a satisfactory standard. For the MSc, a student must complete the coursework and also carry out a project. Coursework exercises related to the taught material are set in each year. They include programming assignments and class tests.

What do I do on my project?

Your project is carried out under the supervision of a staff member, and should represent around 30% of your overall effort for the degree, in other words about the equivalent of 3 months full-time work. Most part-time students do the bulk of the project work in their second year.

You are encouraged to come up with your own ideas for your project. It must have a substantial computing content, and be predominantly of a practical, problem-solving nature. For example, some students choose to implement a system that enables them to investigate further some topic taught on the course which has interested them. Students sometimes choose to do projects related to their full-time employment.

Whatever you do on your project, you write up a project report explaining what the aim of your project was, how you set about it, what problems you ran into, what you finally implemented, what's good and not so good about it, what you would have done given more time... and so on. The project report is subsequently examined.

How does the part-time course relate to the full-time course?

The lectures are the same - lectures are given during the day for day-release students sitting alongside full-timers, and again during the evening for evening students. The coursework requirements are the same. The exams are the same - an examiner marking an answer to an exam question does not know whether it is from a full-timer or part-timer. The project requirements are the same. Apart from the obvious difference that the part-time course takes two years while the full-time course takes one, it is the same course, and the degree, for those who get it, is the same degree.

What are the requirements for Postgraduate Certificate, Postgraduate Diploma and the Master of Science degrees?

Fof a PGCert a student must pass the 30 credit programming module and two additional compulsory 15 credit modules. To gain a PGDip it is necessary to pass all the compulsory taught modules and one optional module. To gain an MSc it is necessary to submit a satisfactory project in addition requirements of a PGDip.

How does the course relate to the British Computer Society exams and qualifications?

Holders of the MSc obtain automatic exemption from certain parts (Certificate/Diploma and Diploma Project) of the British Computer Society's Examination, which when accompanied by an appropriate period of suitable industrial experience qualifies the holder for Membership of the British Computer Society (MBCS).

What are the fees for the course?

The fees for the current academic year are shown on the Fees page. Some increase for the following year is to be expected. "International" status is a question of residency rather than nationality; British nationals who have been abroad for some years may find themselves assessed at the international rate. If you are a prospective international student, or think you might be, consult International Student Status. Students may pay the fees at the beginning of each term, or by an initial payment followed by direct debit monthly payments over eight months.

This course sounds like a big commitment. Will I be able to cope as a part-time student?

It is a big commitment and you need to be quite honest with yourself whether you are prepared and able to make that commitment. Attending lectures, doing exercises and generally keeping up with the course is likely to take about 15 hours each week during more than 20 weeks of the taught course each year, plus revision for exams and further work in the vacations. You need to be very organized to be able to carry on week by week while still coping with all the pressures of your work and personal life.

On the plus side, the Department and the wider college exist for the needs of part-time students - you have access to staff, computing facilities and wider facilities such as the college library during evening hours. The department is open to you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week throughout the year to enable you to come and study and get on with your work for the course whenever suits you best.

The key to coping and being successful on the course is to keep up with the course on a week by week basis. If you regularly attend lectures, making sure you understand the material covered, complete exercises by the set deadlines and so on, you have every chance of successfully completing the course. If, however, you find yourself not attending some lectures for whatever reason, not completing exercises by the deadlines, and generally getting behind, the intensive nature of the course makes it very difficult to catch up again.

What is the likelihood of being offered a place on the part-time course?

We try to interview as many applicants as possible, and at present aim to offer places for about 40 students to start the course each year. We process applications from February to September, but applications in the earlier part of this period are more likely to be successful.

How do I make an application for the part-time course?

We begin considering applications in February each year for entry the following October. (See How to apply for more information). Please include a detailed, up-to-date CV with your application.

I have a question not covered by the above.

If the answer to your question is not elsewhere on our website, please contact Liam Simmonds.