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This is very old!

This was written in 2016. I've cut out a bunch of things which are outdated, and I'm just leaving the very general advice. OMSCS was a long time ago and I hope you have as much fun as I did.

How OMSCS Works

Georgia Tech's OMSCS might be online, but these are campus level of difficulty Master's courses. Georgia Tech does a good job reinforcing its reputation while offering these distance courses.

Prepping for the Semester

Classes typically have a list of recommended skills and background listed on the appropriate OMSCS page. Read this and get an overview on the main stuff.

Do not avoid classes or specializations because you don't know a particular programming language. It baffles me that people do this and it physically pains me whenever I see a Reddit post of someone trying to do this. If you stop learning new languages and tools, you will make yourself obsolete. Play around on HackerRank or set up a test environment and learn about the language your class uses before class starts. OMSCS is an engineering program, and engineering is applied program solving. In computer science, the most direct way of doing this is by writing computer programs.

Time Considerations

Since this is a Master's level program, expect to put in a Master's level of work. I know a guy in a different program at a different school who describe his program as, "I did almost nothing and got a 4.0". This is not that program.

I plan my class schedule around major life events. When I was getting out of the Navy, I still took a course, but I picked one which had been reviewed to be easier on the commitment side of the spectrum.

It turns out that changing jobs and trying to find a place to live while working full time and taking only 3 credits is incredibly difficult. During my 9 credit semester and also when I was taking High Performing Computing Architecture, I did pretty much nothing else on nights and weekends during that semester other than schoolwork. However, because I planned the semester when I would have that much time to invest, I managed to get everything done.

If you have a major life event (wedding, baby due, job change, etc.) I would recommend taking 1 class less than you would otherwise think you could handle. I would also examine the level of difficulty of course I would be picking with a lot more scrutiny.

Some courses are known to be "take only this course in a semester", such as: computer vision, CCA (when it existed.), machine learning, and HPCA. There are others. If you search for, or ask about your desired scheduled on the OMSCS Reddit, you will get a lot of helpful suggestions about if you are taking too much.

Lectures

As expected, there are lectures for each class. Accompanying this is typically some sort of "recommended schedule" so you stay up to date with the knowledge required for your assignments and projects. Some classes require you to actually complete all of the online quizzes and others don't. If your class doesn't, I like to download all the lectures from the Udacity page so I can watch them repeatedly without interfering with my Comcast data cap and dealing with internet buffering. While working on projects, I typically listen to the lectures in the background. Over, and over again. I've also found that a downloaded lecture on VLC is quicker to search than the online lectures.

Typically the "recommended schedule" has a list of the number of hours of video each week, which will help you in your pacing. If not, a student will typically create one. Keep in mind that assignments will only add onto this time for lectures.

I take notes during the lecture and treat it no differently than if I were in the classroom. While I listen to the lectures while doing projects, I first actually watch the lectures and take notes and do the quizzes. It takes more time, but since I am a super strong visual and auditory learner, so I retain it better. In the end, I believe that it saves me time.

Class forums

Students post really useful things like IDE recommendations, useful 3rd party libraries, documentation links, and (when allowed) unit/integration tests. Professors/TAs will post assignment updates and clarifying information. Typically, asking a question at least one day before an assignment is due will get you an answer. Also, it seems like TAs and Professors respond better if you are asking questions early and being active. The earlier the better, and you can definitely tell if you are ahead or behind on an assignment based on the number of posts and the amount of general activity.

When you get stuck or tired of an assignment, just check the class forum posts. There's probably a missing requirement or clarification you need that someone else has asked about that has already been answered. Or, you might need to be the person who asks for clarification.

Foster the community, since your fellow students will be awesome. I would call out names here of awesome folks I've gotten to work with, but there's too many names and not enough space to list them here.

Submitting Assignments

After you submit, you can go onto and download the documents/files you submitted. I download what I submitted, create a clear environment and make sure my code works (my own unit tests pass) and that it's the right version of the appropriate documents.

Getting Stuff Done

Virtual Box and VMs

Most classes provide a completely packaged virtual machine (VM) which will run on VirtualBox or a similar platform. This saves you the headache of trying to set up your own environment to work on assignments for class. However, these will to be significantly slower than working on your computer normally.

If you are willing to spend the time to create your own environment, doing that will speed up your ability to work on projects. This is typically what I have done. However, I also maintain a VM ready and test my code on my native machine and the VM. git (see below) integrates very well with this workflow, as it only requires a git pull on the VM from the repository to bring everything there back up to date.

Linux and Command Lines

If you are scared of a command line, during the semester for some courses is not the time to try to "figure it out." You don't need to be a bash expert, but if you're not at least familiar on the surface with basic Linux tools (git, grep, less, find, etc.) for most classes, you are in for a hurtful awakening.

If you have never programmed on Linux and your class requires it, you should also at least attempt it before the semester. Windows users can conveniently do this by downloading an appropriate Linux image and running it with VirtualBox. Mac users can just do a spotlight search for "Terminal" and they are good to go. Technically Mac provides BSD-style commands/programs, but most of it is the same or very similar to Linux/GNU style commands/programs.

Windows users can now take advantage of a partial Linux experience using the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL). Cmder is a good alternative which comes with a lot of things bundled.

IDEs/Editors

Know the basics in at least one command line text editor. I use Vim, but it takes a while to get familiar with. Once you do, it can be quite powerful. There are Vim reference cards you can print, in addition to there being a lot of in-depth help built directly into the program. If you don't have this experience, often a group of students figures out how to get an IDE to perform well enough to be useful on the VM.

I'd highly recommend trying out JetBrain's IDEs, and seeing if they offer the student version for OMSCS. I keep a full subscription because I do a variety of hobby and professional work and find it well worth the price. These IDEs work well on Linux and Windows.

Visual Studio Code is a free alternative which is very popular and available for all platforms. This is what I'd recommend on Windows if you're not using a JetBrains IDE or need a general purpose editor.

I'm not out to create a laundry list of editors--these are the three I'd recommend.

Source Control

If you post a public source control repository for a class, you can, and probably will, be prosecuted for honor code violations. Additionally, it prevents you from losing your work when your computer hard drive inexplicably dies days before an assignment is due. Bitbucket, GitLab and Visual Studio Team Services (recommended by Bill M.) are also alternative options.

If you have no idea what git or source control are, I highly recommend learning git for free online. It will make you more productive and also more attractive for a job as nearly every company uses some form of source control. There's nothing more frustrating than not working under source control, and not being able to track down a bug because you don't remember all the places you've change since the last time something worked. As you get more advanced with git, there are really good tools to learn.

Every project I've started begins with creating a private repository. After this, everything that I do for that project goes into source control. Everything. EVERYTHING. I really hope my point is clear. PUT EVERYTHING IN SOURCE CONTROL. Bookmarks of websites or other resources get put into a resources.md (md is for markdown). The unit (and sometimes integration) tests that I write. The assignment specification and other documents and resources provided for the assignment. My code goes in source control, as do my report's LaTeX files (see below section on LaTeX). The only thing you shouldn't put in source control is any file that you can generate from another file (e.g. JavaDocs, Sphinx Docs, .pyc files, C++ *.o files, things created by CMake, etc.) and you should have these on your .gitignore anyways.

If you are on a group project, you will almost undoubtable use git.

If you are working by yourself, you should just use git anyways.

LaTeX (Mac and Linux)

If you are really crafty, you can merge the "source control" and the "command line" recommendations above by doing your reports in LaTeX. Think of LaTeX as HTML or Markdown for documents, but it can create PDFs. It's not trivial to do so, but it helps when you add things to a report to be able to have a history of your document and be able to verify the changes. git diff is built into my workflow, even that around documents, so I always check my work to see that I'm putting in my source control repository only the things that I expect should have changed.

I have a template LaTeX document with specific customized commands and reuse that document as a starter for all my reports.

Tad M. recommends trying Markdown for simple things viewed on Github. Pandoc is an option to convert Markdown to PDF. I've never looked into this before, but since Markdown has more natural syntax, I might be trying that in future semesters. Abhishek T. and Adam A. recommend Knitr which supports Python. Jupyter Notebooks are another alternative that I've used which lets you put executable Python inline with your report and generate images generated by Python inline, while exporting to PDF.

Makefiles (Mac and Linux)

Makefiles are a really easy way to manage file dependencies and set up commands that you run over and over again (bash scripts and aliases are the other option for routine complex commands).

I set up Makefiles to do lots of things listed above. Building pdfs and don't want to retype that command to build it again? Add it to the Makefile. Want to rerun your code and rebuild your pdf from LaTeX with the new images when you update your project. Make your PDF make rule depend on your source files! LaTeX really takes the cake away from MicrosoftWord or MicrosoftPowerPoint, or OpenOffice, or Apple's Pages here. Since LaTeX only consists of text and hence doesn't embed the resources in the document, you can have your code generate new output and then rerunning LaTeX will cause those new resources (i.e. images) to be updated in the newly created PDF.

Unit Test

Unit testing is pretty ubiquitous for development these days. It is nice to have unit tests set up so that I can run a quick make command (or run the "test" button in an IDE) to get a good picture of where I stand and that I don't have a test which has discovered I have broken anything. When you have tests a button press or a make command away, there's no excuse not to use them, especially when you have the time.

One of the first things I do in any new programming environment is to figure out how to get unit testing working. In Java you have JUnit and in Python you have unittest (yes, that's 2.7 documentation because that's the Python version I've used in every class) or nose.

I do a lot of unit and integration testing as anyone can do very silly mistakes in code sometimes, especially late at night on pressure to hit a deadline. I had a ridiculous time in Pandas dealing with similar functions that return different types depending on how they're called. Unit tests help you think through the problem and design your code to be modular.

Assignments

Start early! Since I am a tortoise, I typically start the day the assignment comes out, and I slowly plod along through assignments and finish them through sheer force of will.

Read the specification at least three times from beginning to end before you do anything. I forget which class posted a link to this paper, and it's not a directly translation for specifications, but the idea of reading at incrementally lowering levels of abstraction has validity. While in a rush due to personal schedule constraints, I lost about 10% on a recent assignment because I "didn't have time" failed to read the specification completely and sufficiently.

"If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes think about solutions." - Albert Einstein

Develop a schedule and milestones from the specification, noting that you should expect to spend about 80% of your time, on the last 20% of the project.

Schedule

Keep a bedtime. Eat dinner with your family. These things are important and can be integrated into your life if you make time for them. You do need to set aside a schedule of when you are planning to work. I find that my most productive times are when the rest of my family is asleep. The general quietness helps me concentrate. Additionally, I also tend to get very little done during the afternoons on the weekend, so use them for family activities.

Sometimes the best bridge between hope and despair is a good night's sleep. - a really smart fortune cookie

Consistence of doing things over time is worth 1000 times more than trying to do everything at once. There is simply too much to do it all at the end. The work you get during the semester is like butter on bread, it's just asking to be spread out. Work a little bit every night and keep an eye on where you are on an assignment versus the due date.

Proctored Exams

I really like to build things, and I've already taken many, many exams for certifications/qualifications in the Navy so I try to avoid them by taking project-based class. Sometimes, they are unavoidable, so you need to take proctored exams.

All of the proctored exams systems are terrible by definition: You are going to be very stressed when taking each exam, so expect to be frustrated with the exam system. Check your hardware and software and do any "setups checks" with the exam software that are offered as soon as it is available and ask for help if your system doesn't work early on Piazza.

Block out at least 2 (I use 3) times as much time as you expect the exam to take, and read the instructions about the proctoring thoroughly. Exam set up tends to be time consuming with identity verification, and waiting for a proctor often taking quite a bit of time. Before exams for Mac users: Disable Mac notifications by holding Option and clicking on the notification button in the top right of the full screen menu (the little outline button will turn gray when disabled). Also, ensure that you close all other programs and follow the proctoring directions to the letter.

Take the exam from a place with good internet. I don't know why some proctor software thinks I want to see the proctor in 1080p, but some of them use very high resolution video of the proctor (in addition to you, but that part makes sense). This eats your connectivity, so you often need pretty good connectivity to take exams (in my experience). From Romeo C.: "[Georgia Tech] ha[s] moved away from ProctorU which works with a live proctor; ProctorTrack just saves a video while you take an exam, and its algorithms automatically flag your session for revision if something seems odd." I've gotten to use both: ProctorU took a while to set up but was nice to have someone to answer questions or concerns about the proctoring process; ProctorTrack never replied to any of my concerns before, during or after my exams when I had issues with them.

Know what materials, notes, and calculator, you are allowed and not allowed to use. One Proctoring service prevented some students from using allowed notes!

If they complain about materials that you are allowed to use, ensure that you voice your opinion and have them try to contact the professor. In extreme scenarios where the Professor and TAs could not be contacted, proctors have let students take exams with the allowed notes anyways and took a record of what materials they used and sent it to the Professor.

Have a good time

You are trying to make yourself better by going to a graduate school. It's going to be hard, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun. If you approach your graduate life like drudgery, it will be happy to oblige and become that drudgery. If you view it as a fun and creative time and keep a relaxed pressure on your work, you will find yourself having a fun and creative time.

Build rewards into your process. I've always thought this was silly until I actually started doing it.

The "A"/"B" method.

Let's say you just want to get done with graduate school in the minimum amount of time. You want to take the summers off so you get a break, but still want to get done quickly in 5 semesters. Enter: the "A" "B" method. The idea of this is to take 2 classes per semester and go for an "A" in one class and a "B" in the other. The idea is to not stress yourself out too much trying to get an "A" in both classes, while still finishing the program as quickly as possible. Keep in mind that to safely pursue this methodology, you should probably go for the "A" in your specialization because you need to get at least a "B" in that course, and go for the "B" in the class which you see as being easier or not in your specialization. This way, if you get a "C" the class will still count.

WARNING: Note that if you try to pursue this method, you will likely lose much of your competitiveness to get into PhD programs because you are sacrificing your GPA. Also, you will probably get less out of your courses by taking multiple at a time.

I hope that covers it

If you have any other questions you want added onto this, just post below or send me a message and I'll answer what I can.

Also, send in material if you have things I didn't think of that helped you and I'll add them with appropriate attribution.

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