by Brian Tomasik
First written: Oct. 2014; last update: 15 Mar. 2015

Summary

I applied and was accepted to the Georgia Institute of Technology Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMS CS) late 2014. Following are the two short essays I wrote as part of the application.

Introduction

OMS CS has negligible direct cost: slightly more than $7000 for the whole degree, or maybe a bit more if it's done slower than average. Some doubt how credible the degree will be, but most commentators are optimistic, since on a resume the degree is indistinguishable from that earned by residential students. GA Tech is #9 in CS according to US News and #6 for AI specifically. The admission rate is ~17%.

Essay 1: Background

Please describe your background (academic and extracurricular) and experience, including research, teaching, industry, and other relevant information. Your space is limited to 2000 characters.

When I first began my undergraduate education, I knew almost nothing about computer science. Initially I planned to major in math. During my second semester of college, a friend wisely encouraged me to take introductory computer science because, she said, “You’re going to need to know this regardless of what you do.” I took her advice. Soon I became intrigued by the power and elegance of programming.

I continued taking computer-science courses, and a year later, I discovered machine learning, which seemed like a beautiful amalgamation of my passion for math with my newfound interest in computers. I decided I might want a career in machine learning, so I created a “directed reading” course on the topic, together with another student. I also emailed several machine-learning professors to inquire whether I could do summer research with them, and I ultimately joined Lyle Ungar at the University of Pennsylvania. The work with his team led to an ECML publication and my senior undergraduate thesis. I published two other machine-learning conference papers based on work in my senior-year courses.

When it came time to apply for jobs, I looked specifically for those with a machine-learning focus. I asked Microsoft if I could interview with the search engine Bing for this reason, and I gladly accepted their offer. During my four years in the ranking division, I learned many new practical skills and academic insights, but I also gained deeper appreciation for the process of software and what it means to work in an organization.

I also became more aware of the unity of computer science and the importance of understanding many components of systems -- not just the learning algorithms. This has been one of my motivations for applying to the OMS CS program: to broaden my understanding of computer-science fundamentals at the same time as I continue to deepen my knowledge of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Essay 2: Statement of Purpose

Please give a Statement of Purpose detailing your academic and research goals as well as career plans. Include your reasons for choosing the College of Computing as opposed to other programs and/or other universities. Your space is limited to 4000 characters.

My career has revolved around computer science from two different perspectives: firstly as a software engineer at Microsoft and secondly as an academic researcher writing about the philosophy and social implications of computer technology. In both cases, I realized that I would benefit from a deeper understanding of the subject of my work -- including both computer-science fundamentals like operating systems and networks, as well as topics more specific to artificial intelligence, including computer perception and natural-language processing.

Following graduation from OMS CS, I intend to go back to industry, probably specializing in machine learning and data science. I may return to Microsoft (probably working in a new division, such as the cloud data platform), or I may move to Google, Facebook, Amazon, LinkedIn, or various other companies where Big Data also plays a critical role. I look forward to having a deeper understanding of the theory and best practices behind the technologies I will use and develop. In the long run, I may also return to my academic writing, where I will benefit just as much from a deeper insight into how computing systems work, what this tells us about the nature of cognition, and what implications these technologies have for humanity’s future. I think it’s great that OMS CS has a “Specialization in Interactive Intelligence” that includes some philosophical content in addition to “hard” engineering.

I’ll be honest: One of my reasons for choosing OMS CS is the price tag. Given that Georgia Tech is also one of the top-ranked graduate schools for computer science (9th in US News, and 6th for artificial intelligence specifically), the package is very compelling. I laud Georgia Tech’s innovation in creating this program. I hope the experiment succeeds and is replicated in other departments and by other universities.

Another benefit of OMS CS is that it allows me to study half-time, so that I can continue managing my startup nonprofit institute before I fully transition it to its future owners. Once this is done in the next year or two, I will be able to finish my Master’s degree more rapidly and then return to a role as a software developer and data scientist.

Finally, I’ve also been impressed by the caliber of the OMS CS program. When I asked one of my former advisors for his thoughts, he said “There are certainly plenty of excellent faculty” at Georgia Tech. Needless to say, Sebastian Thrun is one of the big names in machine learning, and I still remember a lecture he gave in 2007 on self-driving cars. In addition to discussing technical aspects, Thrun highlighted the significant societal benefits that such cars can bring, such as saving thousands of lives per year from crashes. This was one of several factors that first ignited my interest in machine learning -- an interest that I hope to continue developing during the OMS CS program.