I Got Out!

Reflecting on my time as an international student in Georgia Tech's OMSCS.

Recently I graduated from Georgia Tech's Online Masters of Science in Computer Science program remotely from Australia.

After completing my undergraduate degrees in Engineering and Business towards the end of 2018, I decided that I was interested in continuing my studies and specifically learning about Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and algorithms. My undergraduate engineering course also did not include a formal data structures and/or algorithms class and in a combined degree I had no free electives to explore these interests and gaps.

I was always interested in the OMSCS program since hearing about it during its pilot year. I decided to enroll both due to those earlier interests and because I was interested in being part of what I felt was a revolutionary program in EdTech.

Application Process

The OMSCS is known for having minimal admission requirements and accepting as many students as possible, the application process was largely hassle free as a result. Having to write short essays and secure recommendation letters was a bit different than the process I was used to. Undergraduate admissions in Australia are highly standardised and are based on a rank (the ATAR) that is calculated from scaled standardised test marks.

Some students from Australia get rejected from the OMSCS program due to completing standard 3 year undergraduate degrees like a Bachelor of Computer Science. For the OMSCS a 4 year degree or equivalent is required and non-negotiable, allegedly due to accreditation requirements that Georgia Tech must meet. Australian students need to take an honours program (either embedded, or an honours year) to have a degree that is equivalent to a US 4 year degree. Luckily, by completing a double degree and having an embedded honours in my engineering degree, I met these requirements.

Graduation works quite differently in the US compared to Australia, in the US you are able to "walk" for graduation before receiving the results for your final subject, following an audit of your completed subjects done prior to your final semester. In Australia, the ceremony is held up to 6 months after your final exam with eligibility to graduate automatically determined but an audit done after completion of your final exam.

As I wanted to start the OMSCS the semester after graduating, there was a short window between my final results being released and the deadline to submit my official documentation to Georgia Tech. As I had not yet received my official testamur or graduated, this lead to some confusion with admissions due to this process difference, the documents I was able to procure, and specifically if my degree was "earned" or "completed".

This was cleared up with an official letter from my undergrad institution accompanying my transcript confirming that all components of my degree was finished, that I had been approved by the faculty board and was eligible to graduate. This was slightly stressful, but ultimately it would have only delayed the start by a single semester in the worst case scenario.

Completing The Program As An "International Student"

The OMSCS program is very diverse and I would meet colleagues of many backgrounds that were completing the program across many countries. Despite this, the student body is still primarily USA based.

This is rarely an issue, the most significant issue was the terminology differences covered earlier that nearly delayed my admission.

There are some considerations and differences with my undergrad however.


Deadlines are generally set in the Anytime-on-Earth timezone, or Atlanta time, but the LMS used by Georgia Tech, Canvas, allows a local timezone to be set which made this easy to track. Being in Sydney, I was at less risk of a late submission if I went off dates provided in class but I had to be careful if I was exploiting the time difference. Daylight savings occurred at different times and was flipped which meant sometimes the difference between Sydney and Atlanta could change by up to 2 hours across the semester.

I personally avoided courses that required group assignments, both for timezone reasons and because I had done many in my undergraduate programs. This was easy to do as OMSCentral (now in the process of being replaced) and the OMSCS sub-reddit provided information about what courses had group assignments, and very few courses do.

Office hours usually accommodated multiple US time-zones and preferences which meant at least one was acceptable for Sydney time, but I usually watched recordings (when available) or did not attend if they were ad-hoc QA sessions. Some classes asked students about time-zones and location and used these when planning office hours.

The time-zone difference was most apparent when enrolling into courses, where I would often have to wake up in the middle of the night to secure the next semester's subject. This occurred about 7 times across the program for me, so was not really an issue. I believe Summer enrollment has been split now so new students might have to enroll with up to 10 separate time tickets across the program.

As an international student, you need to be prepared to give up public holidays to complete assessments. This occurs for a few reasons, first the holidays or their significance don't necessarily match up with the US and even if they do there is a different culture around holidays in the US - particularly religious ones.

As an example, my last exam was completed over the weekend of Easter and this was normal to American peers, while in Australia there would have been requests to shift assessments. This was an interesting difference as the US has much higher rates of religious participation than Australia, but presumably has a more secular history and stance politically.


The grading/marking system is very different in the US compared to Australia, and this permeates through the whole program. I believe the Australian grading system is closer to the UK system, and perhaps other commonwealth countries.

This is not an OMSCS-specific phenomena so it is perhaps deserving of its own blog post. But in short, the US grading systems has a comparatively narrow range of marks for most students which impacts marking rubrics to compensate.

To give an example, an average mark in Australia for passable work would likely sit around 60-70% and a 100% (or even 85%+) was an accomplishment to be proud of. In the US however, this average would instead usually sit on the border between a B and A at around 85-95%. If a course deviates from this system (perhaps employing a curve), it was often accompanied with a lot of tension about grading, transparency and fairness.

I was prepared for this difference in grading as I had to translate my GPA into a US equivalent, and found that our second highest grade (distinction, generally >= 75%) mapped to an A in the US (90+). I did not however expect this difference to result in such wide differences to the overall experience.

Inability To Become a Teaching Assistance (TA)

Finally, a big limitation of completing OMSCS as an international student is that as I am not a US resident, I was ineligible to become a Teaching Assistant (TA, "tutor" in Australia) for any classes.

I believe this restriction is due to Georgia Tech receiving US government funding and having hiring conditions based on this. This is an opportunity I would have liked to have available, but it's one that only a small number of OMSCS students take up. Most subjects (except Graduate Algorithms, the class I would most like to TA for) had sufficient TAs and class sizes so it's understandable that there is little incentive for Georgia Tech to try to provide this opportunity to international students.


Finally, the graduation ceremony is run shortly after the completion of the final course - often before all results are received. With Graduate Algorithms, some students had to decide if they should walk before receiving their final (optional) exam that determined if they needed to repeat the subject. This timing and uncertainty means that even West Coast US students often sit out graduation. From the other side of the world with pandemic restrictions still active, it was just not practical to organise a trip to the Atlanta campus while completing my final subject. Students that want to walk can delay walking to the following semester however.

The graduation ceremony is streamed on YouTube for anyone that wants to follow, but I feel this was more for the family and friends that could not make it to see students that were walking.

A few weeks after graduation I am waiting on international delivery of my testamur, this is outsourced, even within the US, to a third party company called Parchment. As potential graduates can walk before final results are submitted, I believe students walking cannot receive their certificate in person.

This is a bit different to Australia where degree framing companies are on campus and are busy selling expensive degree frames to students that just walked. Instead, official frames can be bought on Amazon. With exorbitant shipping fees, I will instead try to source a high quality frame locally.

Recognition Of Credentials

Upon learning that I was completing a program overseas, many people would ask if the program is "recognised" or "accepted" in Australia. The short answer is yes, while the longer answer is that this does not really matter.

US based programs would not qualify for me student concession discounts and similar in Australia, but neither would part time study which is the primary mode recommended for this program. In this way, the program is not "recognised" or equal to Australian programs.

But beyond that, the utility of a computer science postgraduate degree in Australia is largely informal. In my opinion, it is the learning rather than the credential that is the most valuable part. There is no formal registration of software developers, and if there was my undergraduate degree would satisfy any requirements - so this was not a consideration for me.

Recruiters are used to hiring developers that have studied overseas. Georgia Tech is one of the top STEM colleges in the US, and by extension the world, so any hypothetical lack of "recognition" would also affect the many skilled migrants in Australia, which just does not make business sense.

Finally, Georgia Tech may not be as well known to Australians, but the reverse would be true if I ever moved abroad which I think is a positive.

Would I Do It Again?

At the end of my undergraduate degrees, completed primarily while working full time, I was growing tired of commuting from work to university for evening classes and having to coordinate group assignments with full time students, so the OMSCS was appealing.

The OMSCS is an extremely affordable program delivered online, but it is still a very rigorous program that demands a significant investment of time. I estimate that I spent roughly ~2-3000 hours or so across the program, with 10 semesters of 16 weeks long (12 for summer) and most subjects demanding between 10-20 hours - often front or back loaded, but almost always requiring constant attention and effort across the semester.

After finishing the OMSCS, I am now more mindful of the frequent assessments and the impact of extra workload at times when work or life is busy. So I would not personally rush to enroll in another course work masters like an MBA in the short term.

But nevertheless I have no regrets and feel my time spent in the OMSCS was worthwhile - I would definitely recommend it to anyone considering postgraduate computer science study. If nothing else, it is the cheapest way to dip your feet back into university.

While the OMSCS lectures can be found online, the real value in the OMSCS program are the proprietary parts and pressures that come with a formal program - assessments, Ed/Piazza discussions with peers and staff about the content or assessments and supplementary material like office hours.

Most of the duration of my time in OMSCS was during the COVID-19 pandemic, so I believe I would have been online even in an on-campus program. So I am glad I was in a program specifically designed for it.

In a following blog post I will cover the subjects I completed for my Machine Learning specialisation.