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I was accepted into a Masters program (MS in Computer Science) at a nice university that has research groups working on the things I want to research (natural language processing).

However, looking through their course catalog, it seems they don't actually have any courses directly focusing on NLP. I like almost everything else about their program except for the lack of courses, though they do have courses in machine learning and related concepts.

Is it a bad idea to go to a school that doesn't have courses related to my exact focus?

  • Do you have an advisor yet, or a potential advisor that you've touched base with who is working in your target area? – Mad Jack Mar 28 '17 at 20:38
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    You might want to ask directly of professors you've talked with, or graduate school administrators. Many programs have special topics at the graduate level that are not in regular course catalogs can vary according to what each professor decides to teach. You can also ask a coordinator to put you in touch with a graduate student who is currently working in NLP or with a professor working in your desired area, and one of them should certainly know about the class situation. – BrianH Mar 28 '17 at 21:24
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    Helpful comments so far! You should definitely write to some people working in your target area to find out how other students have addressed this problem. If there are groups working in it, there must be some way of getting the foundation. – aparente001 Mar 29 '17 at 3:37
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    @BrianDHall: It's not so much that special topics courses aren't in the course catalog, as that the catalog description has an information content approaching zero. Which is a good approximation of the guarantees given concerning the special topics available in any semester for which registration hasn't started yet (and even those offered for registration may be subject to cancellation in the first couple weeks of classes). – Ben Voigt Apr 15 '17 at 20:45
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I don't think it's necessarily a problem. At the graduate level, you're expected to learn things in many other ways besides formal courses: self-study, informal seminars, independent or supervised research, individual discussions with faculty or other students, thesis work, etc. Likewise, you'll have evidence of your learning in other forms besides course grades: published papers, your thesis (if it's a thesis-based program), recommendation letters from supervisors, etc.

So this isn't necessarily a red flag. However, it is worth bringing it up with prospective advisors or others in the program: "I want to work in NLP. What opportunities exist for building skills and doing research in this area?"

One note is that besides being accepted to the program, if you want to work in a particular research group, the faculty leader(s) of that group will have to agree. And there could be obstacles unrelated to your abilities - too many students in the group already, not enough funding, etc. So if you are really tied to working in this particular area, then before deciding to attend the program, you should talk to the group(s) that work in your area of interest, and find out if it is feasible for you to work with them.

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Ask if they have some kind of "joker" courses (i.e., "Special topics in XYZ", can be taken several times for credit, contents to be arranged), and see if you can persuade somebody to teach it (might take gathering enough interested students, or just ask the professor nicely). Be warned, this will probably turn out more of getting some hints dropped in weekly meetings, studying on your own, get graded for some longueish term project, than "regular classes".

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