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Why I chose to get my master's degree in computer science online – Fortune

Going back to school for a master’s degree is often a way to advance to higher-paying roles. In computer science, a graduate degree can open the door to six-figure salaries, and that extra degree leads to a $30,000 pay bump, on average, as Fortune previously reported. Money isn’t the only reason people choose to pursue a master’s degree in computer science, however, 
For Sam Hays, the idea of carving out time to connect with others who shared his curiosity for technology and the role it plays in business and innovation was appealing. After more than 20 years of working in information technology and with a long established skillset as a computer scientist and systems architect, Hays enrolled in the online master’s degree program in computer science at Vanderbilt University in 2020. 
“I value education and there’s always new stuff to learn,” Hays says. “I’d been thinking about a master’s for a long time and then maybe a doctorate.”
The online format of the program was also an important factor, says Hays, who lives in Colorado Springs with his family. Enrolling in a more intimate program meant increased opportunity for connection and collaboration with his cohort. 
A relatively small program is intentional on Vanderbilt’s part, says Jules White, associate dean of strategic learning programs at the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering. “Early on, our goal was to extend the Vanderbilt model,” he says. “We aren’t looking to have 10,000 people in the program that we haven’t met. We have a really stellar body of students right now.”
For Hays, that aspect of the online model only strengthened the program’s benefits and helped to further inform his decision to enroll at Vanderbilt. “I was interested in being around other people that are big fans of this kind of computer science,” he says. “I’ve worked a lot of places. The amount of people you could have a coffee or a beer with after work and talk about real cutting-edge problems was really limited. For me, it’s the love of the science…I wanted to work with people that were similarly interested. Folks choosing to go back and do more school work were probably those folks.” 
Hays sat down with Fortune to share a bit more about his experience and offer his best advice to students interested in a similar path.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 
Fortune: What was your schedule like while you were studying at Vanderbilt?
Hays: I was a software engineer at the time when I first started. I was writing software all day. I have two children—one of whom, though, is in college. When I first started, he was studying data science but then he switched to psychology. Some of my evenings were spent discussing his work with him. I [also] did some consulting on the side. It was a pretty busy schedule.
Fortune: What was your course load like?
Hays: When I first joined two-and-a-half years ago, you had the option of one, two or three classes. I ended up going with two classes. The advisor was pushing for three but I didn’t believe, given my obligations, I could reasonably do that. I would say at the heaviest workload, I might have been putting in 20 hours a week.
Fortune: How has being a part of the Vanderbilt community informed your career and life?
Hays: At first blush I’d tell you, everything sort-of felt like I had more or less expected it to feel. I have done a bunch of online classes through Coursera and MIT. I was used to the cadence of those kinds of things. The material was good. There were some professors I felt were pretty exceptional. 
There are definitely folks in the program that seem to be in it for the love of the game. Those are the folks I became friends with. Certainly, the faculty; I have good relationships with the faculty. And I’ve now built a relationship with Vanderbilt, in general. I teach a cybersecurity class there now. I’m building good relationships.
Fortune: How would you characterize your cohort?
Hays: There were folks that were pretty young that maybe worked for a few years. There were folks like myself with 20 years of experience; lifelong learners. I remember having side channel conversations, particularly people who came without computer science degrees and instead maybe math degrees. There is a lot of assumed knowledge in the program and they had to catch up. I didn’t expect that. It was a pretty wide range. There were folks that were a little out of their depth and I saw a lot of them really turn it around.
Fortune: How has your time at Vanderbilt informed your path forward?
Hays: Recently, I ended up taking a new position as systems architect at another company. Now I’m still building software, building systems and helping to drive this company’s technology stack forward. I’m also actively working on my Ph.D. now. Maybe when I do that, there might be something I look to change in my career. I’m also teaching. I’ve been in the cybersecurity space for a long time and now I do some instruction at Vanderbilt.
See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s degree programs in data science (in-person and online), nursing, computer science, cybersecurity, psychology, public health, and business analytics, as well as the best doctorate in education programs and MBA programs (part-time, executive, full-time, and online).