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My background: I'm currently 1 year out of my undergrad in psychology and I currently have a job working on a educational grant project at a university. I've lost some interest in the field of psychology as a whole and I'm considering going back to school for computer science. When I expressed this interest to an adviser at my old school she mentioned that I might be interested in a post bachelor comp sci certificate. The certificate is 30 credits and can probably be done in about half the time that another bachelors could be completed in. I asked her if any of the graduates of the certificate program had had any trouble getting into graduate school with said degree and she said no. However, I believe there is probably more to this than she let on considering that it is her job to promote this program.

Question: I'm wondering if anyone has any experience with these type of certificates? I know that I will have a more complete computer science education with an undergrad but I'm wondering if it is completely necessary. All said and done I would like to get a masters in computer science because it seems like the smart career move. Will I be limiting my job potential by only having a certificate and a bachelors in an unrelated field? Is graduate school really possible with just a certificate? My dream job would be working for a company in research and development for human to computer interfaces. I also have a fleeting passion for gaming and music production, but I consider these to be more hobbies than serious career interests.

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There are two issues: whether it will be a formal barrier (i.e., you'll be screened out before anyone ever looks at your application carefully) and whether it will impress people.

For graduate school applications, there's no way you'll be officially screened out for this reason. There are several programs aimed at encouraging post-baccalaureate certificates to help women enter computer science. They attract excellent students, so grad schools are happy to see these applications; furthermore, if any grad school ever turned down applicants with such a background just because they had no "real" degree in CS, they'd be in big trouble on gender equity grounds. So you have nothing to worry about there: grad schools are aware of these certificates and willing to consider applicants with them.

Of course, there are still issues of people's personal reactions, for example how rigorous or extensive they think the program is. It presumably depends on the program, and also perhaps on which courses you take within the program. If take you challenging courses and do well in them, ideally do some sort of project with a faculty supervisor, and get strong letters of recommendation, then you should be in good shape for grad school applications. As a sanity check, you should ask about the placement record of previous students in the program: without some reason to think otherwise, you can expect you would end up somewhere in that range. If they all do well, that's a very good sign; if some but not all do, then you need to make sure you end up in that top group.

As for industry, CS hiring is much less credential-driven than some branches of engineering (where there are more regulatory or liability issues). If you can demonstrate talent and skill, then nobody will really care what your degree is in (except sometimes for research jobs that require a Ph.D.). There are some tricky issues: for example, some of the top tech companies get enormous numbers of applications and have to filter them rather brutally. However, even there the filtering is more often by prestige (did you get impressive grades at a top university) rather than the field the degree is in.

  • +1 for "If take you challenging courses and do well in them, ideally do some sort of project with a faculty supervisor, and get strong letters of recommendation, then you should be in good shape for grad school applications." but also +1 for "ask about the placement record" – JeffE Apr 10 '12 at 18:50
  • It is good to hear that grad school is definitely possible with this type of degree. I think in the end this is the route I'm going to head towards. My sense is is that companies would be more concerned about a masters degree in CS than my undergrad degrees. – Gabriel Jessee Apr 10 '12 at 23:47
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I am a retired software engineer from a well known company in U.S. Your dream job is to work for a company in R&D for HCI. My advice might be useful for you.

In the old days, the HR department of those companies received hundreds of paper resumes everyday (I carried bags of job application letters for an HR staff before. Don't ask me why I did that, just guess.) Now, they receive hundreds if not thousands of e-mails per day.

The way they filter the job applications is by looking for key words. When they have an HCI job vacancy, they look for computer programming experience, psychology and others. So, your major is important for your future job hunting.

Now, your question, do you need a degree or a certificate is good enough? In my opinion, a degree is always preferable unless you cannot afford to it.

Many companies do not recognize those certificates. They would wonder why you didn't get a degree. Is it because you were not good enough? or some other reasons. You would be filtered out. Remember, they receive hundreds of e-mails everyday. By the time they read all of them, it's 5pm. When they see you have a CS degree, a psychology degree and some working experience, they'll call you for an interview.

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It depends largely on how "strict" the employer in question is regarding qualifications. Some companies—particularly larger corporations—don't have the ability to recognize that the certificate might be equivalent to a bachelor's degree. Then, you really need to be able to demonstrate that you have the requisite credentials, and it's hard to "mix and match."

However, smaller employers are generally able to make those distinctions. However, the issue with these faster-paced programs is that you might not have the same breadth of experience as someone who has the bachelor's degree; the four-year degree holder may have internships and other work experience that will make them a more suitable candidate.

In general, though, you are right to be skeptical of what sounds like a "sales pitch," and do your own homework to make sure that it's recognized. One way to do this would be to contact some companies in the area and see if they've had any experience hiring graduates of this program. (You could also ask the sponsor of this program to identify some contacts for you—with the obvious caveat that you'll be getting the "success stories.")

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