Note: This post can now be found in Forbes!
Recently, someone on Quora asked what the difference was between a BS and an MS in computer science from a recruiting perspective. My answer ended up with > 200 upvotes, so I’m reproducing it below:
In my experience, an MS degree has been one of the strongest indicators of poor technical interview performance.
There are multiple confounding factors at play here. In my analysis, I didn’t bother to separate out an MS degree that comes out of a combined BS/MS program (e.g. MIT’s prestigious MEng) from an MS degree from Bumfuckshitsville, Indiana. I also didn’t separate an MS in CS from an MS in some other, related field (e.g. “Information Systems Management”, more on that below). With perhaps the exception of the combined BS/MS programs from top schools (which tend to have stringent undergrad performance criteria), though, I’d be surprised if separating this stuff out made too much of a difference. Whereas MS degrees used to be a means for departments to begin vetting future PhD students, I believe that the purpose has, in some ways, shifted to be a cash cow for the university in question. Stanford’s admissions bar for an MS CS degree is significantly lower than their undergrad admissions bar. Schools like CMU do things like open a satellite Silicon Valley campus where they offer an MS in “Information Systems Management” (which to naive hiring managers sounds impressive until they interview a few people with this degree) and rake in all the moneys.
Part of the problem is that CS fundamentals instruction tends to happen in undergrad computer science courses. If your undergrad degree was in some other field, you can get through an MS in CS without ever taking an algorithms or data structures class. Or you could take a graduate-level algorithms class where the grading curve is going to be different because a good portion of your classmates have never done any programming either. A lot of MS courses I’ve seen on people’s resumes seem to involve taking some machine learning toolkit and using it out-of-the-box on some data set. Is this interesting? It can be. Does it show that you know how to make hard, unexpected design decisions or write code that’s not brittle? Probably not.
The other thing is, if you already have an undergrad CS degree, employers may wonder why you chose to go back to school rather than working (unless you’re going into academia, which is an entirely different animal and out of scope here). A possible line of reasoning might be, “Hey, if this person were really good, he’d be working already instead of waiting out the recession or whatever.”
So, let’s say that you weren’t in a position to get into a top undergraduate program. One tempting option is to try to get an MS from a top computer science school to legitimize yourself on paper. If you actually are passionate about programming, I would urge you not to do that. Although you will look more legit on paper, many startups are catching on to how useless an MS degree can be. Until the market catches up, an MS will probably get you an extra $10K in your base salary. However, keep in mind that you’ve just taken 2 years out of your life and paid some amount of money (how much you pay depends on whether you can TA while studying). Instead of going back to school, take a few months to build something really cool. Teach yourself things. Take Udacity and Coursera classes and potentially use their career placement services. Work with a recruiter whose recommendation will help you get a first round interview even if you don’t have a pedigree. Once you start working, raises you get will quickly make the initial 10K boost pretty insignificant (especially given the opportunity cost and potential tuition expenses).
So, to answer the question: BS >>> MS (if they’re from the same school, assuming you have to choose one or the other)
 There are exceptions. If you don’t really love programming but want a coding gig for the stability/income, this could be a good option. Also, if you’re a foreign student looking to turn your MS into a work visa, this could be a good option as well (though you’ll want to distinguish yourself somehow from all the other foreign students trying to do the same thing).
Note: This post was adapted from an answer I wrote on Quora.