Computer Science PhD

Why Choose a Doctorate in Computer Science?

Professionals holding doctoral degrees in Computer Science have distinct advantages. If interested in becoming a tenured professor, a Ph.D. is a requirement. Large companies often start those with Ph.D.’s at higher levels immediately upon hiring, and it’s common for top ranking positions to be reserved for doctoral degree holders only. Computer scientists with doctorates can also start their own companies based on their research and teach at the undergraduate and graduate level. Many industry research labs require Ph.D.s to work in them at all; there’s a distinct barrier for entry into high ranking positions due to the immense level of technical knowledge and skill required to oversee large projects and teams.

With the rising need for technical expertise, Ph.D.s are becoming a far more common prerequisite to employment. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 15.3% jump in the number of jobs in CS requiring a doctorate degree by 2022.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 15.3% jump in the number of jobs in CS requiring a doctorate degree by 2022.

A Ph.D. in Computer Science is not only a lucrative degree, it also allows for more independent, creative input into projects. More freedom to design products, implement change and inspire students and employees is possible with a Ph.D. than without one. Statistics have also shown that salaries are higher and unemployment rates are lower for those with a Ph.D. than those with lower levels of education.

Earning a Ph.D. in Computer Science opens doors to working at high levels within academia and allows for more independent, design-based work.


Earning a Ph.D. in Computer Science builds on prior knowledge, education and experience in the field. It typically takes 4-5 years to complete, and involves independent study and research in a focused area of interest. A doctorate program includes coursework and research that culminates in a final dissertation.

To enter a Ph.D. program, you must have completed at the very minimum a bachelor’s degree in the field, and more likely a master’s degree. You must also provide GRE scores and letters of recommendation to be accepted to the program. Most schools also require qualifying exams.

Students who enter these programs are generally those seeking to enter a highly specialized field of CS, or those who hope to teach at the college level. Previous academic success in lower level degrees is a must. Doctoral students desire to increase knowledge in a specific area of the industry through additional study and research.

  • 4-5 Years
  • 72-90

Technology has incorporated itself into the fabric of our society. Computer science is now part of virtually every field. Because of this, Ph.D. programs are diverse and interdisciplinary degrees are common.

Students wishing to pursue a Ph.D. in Computer Science can devote their studies to general CS, or choose a specialty area. The following are a few of the options available:

  • Ph.D. in Computer Science
  • Ph.D. in Algorithms, Combinatorics and Optimization
  • Ph.D. in Human-Computer Interaction
  • Ph.D. in Software Engineering
  • Ph.D. in Computational Biology
  • Ph.D. in Language and Information Technologies
  • Ph.D. in Machine Learning
  • Ph.D. In Robotics

U.S. Ph.D. Graduates in CS, 1970-2010


2015-16 (projected) 1,929
2010-11 1,588
2005-06 1,416
2000-01 768
1995-96 869
1990-91 676
1985-86 344
1980-81 252

Source: NCES Digest of Education Statistics

Online Ph.D. in Computer Science

Online options for computer science doctorate studies continue to grow. Considering the nature of the material, it’s no surprise that CS courses were among the first to be offered in an online format from prestigious institutions such as MIT and Stanford. As popularity and demand increase, more schools are offering distance learning.

Because studies at this level are fairly independent, completing the required credits through an online program integrates well with the process.

Advantage: Individualized Pacing

Online programs offer the advantage of working at your own pace. Because the research and dissertation process varies greatly by student, this format can be especially conducive for doctorate-level work.

Advantage: Growing Prestige of Online Programs

The Taulbee Survey predicts that more than 1,900 Ph.Ds in Computer Science will be awarded to graduates from 2015-16, more than ever before. This represents an 8.2 percent increase from 2010-2011. Among those departments reporting both this year and last year, the number of total doctoral degrees increased by 5.2 percent. Considering the origins of fully online coursework, it’s no surprise that computer science degrees are among the most popular and highly regarded programs offered online.

Computer science courses were some of the first to be offered online with the arrival of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and other open-access learning platforms, which became popular around 2012. Some of the nation’s most prestigious universities, including Stanford, MIT and Harvard, pioneered the MOOC industry and currently offer singular courses in computer science, many of which are free, through Coursera and other open-source platforms.


At this level of study, you will be choosing a specialty that you’re passionate about. Programs vary greatly in the types of specializations offered. Be sure the online program you are considering has a strong offering in your area of interest.

Common Coursework for Online Programs

As you review online programs, it’s important to consider the kinds of research each school can support. You will need an advisor whose area of research coincides with yours. For example, if you definitely want to delve into robotics, find out if this is feasible with what the school can offer and finance. Research interests and area of specialization will largely determine the direction of a student’s Ph.D. program. However, most institutions require some form of the following:

  • Mathematical and Theoretical Foundations coursework
  • Computer Systems coursework
  • Artificial Intelligence and Applications coursework
  • Teaching requirement
  • Thesis proposal
  • Dissertation

Average Annual Tuition, 2012-2013

Type Tuition
Public $10,408
Private, Nonprofit $23,698
Private, For-profit $14,418

Source: NCES


Accreditation is the most powerful indicator of a program’s quality. Regardless of enrollment level or area of study, all degree seekers should confirm their prospective school’s accreditation status before enrolling. This is particularly true for students in specialized subjects like computer science, where individual program accreditation is often as important as school-wide accreditation.

School Accreditation

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) does not directly accredit schools. Instead, the government enforces universal standards for accrediting bodies. All accreditors must be officially recognized by the ED or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) to be considered official.

U.S. colleges and universities can receive two types of institution-wide accreditation: national and regional. Unless you are enrolling in your courses at a vocational or technical school, regional is the only school-wide accreditation you need to consider. Regional accreditation is much more common: more than 85% of the nation’s degree granting institutions are accredited regionally. Regional accreditation ensures three things about a given program:

  • The school has earned the most widely recognized accreditation status in the country
  • Credits are transferrable to other regionally accredited schools
  • Students can qualify for federal financial aid and corporate tuition reimbursement plans

Employers, graduate schools and professional organizations may not recognize your computer science degree if your program is not accredited. Worse, you may not get the quality education you need to compete for positions in the field once you graduate.

You can confirm the accreditation status of any post-secondary school in the country by searching the ED’s database.

Program Accreditation

Program accreditation matters more than regional accreditation for most technical programs. If you’re earning your BA in computer science, for example, you shouldn’t worry about program accreditation as long as your school is regionally accredited. On the other hand, if you’re seeking a bachelor’s of engineering with a concentration in computer science, you should absolutely confirm program accreditation.

While many fields rely on multiple agencies to evaluate programs, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) is the only recognized U.S. accreditor of undergraduate and graduate programs in applied science, computing, engineering and engineering technology. ABET maintains four commissions responsible for accrediting specific program areas and degree levels:

  • Applied Science Accreditation Commission
  • Computing Accreditation Commission
  • Engineering Accreditation Commission
  • Engineering Technology Accreditation Commission

Over 3,400 programs at 700 colleges and universities have received ABET accreditation since 1932. You can find ABET-approved programs through their accredited program search.

Remember: unaccredited or falsely accredited schools that attract students with low-effort, high-cost programs are considered diploma mills for a reason. They sell degrees, not education. Protect yourself and confirm a school’s accreditation status before you apply.


Applying to a doctorate program is a fairly intensive process, and it might be intimidating. It can also be costly; you’ll invest a lot of time and money in the application forms and fees. To make the best use of your resources, follow the guidelines below.

  1. Research the research – As mentioned, you want to ensure the program is a good fit for your interests. Know what area you plan to study and find out which schools have strong potential for research in that area. In addition to reviewing literature on the school, if possible, contact current students or alumni and speak to potential advisors.
  2. Pick your six – Don’t narrow your options so much that only acceptance from your favorite school will do. Alternatively, don’t apply to every school you find in hopes that one will take you.
    • Choose two stretch schools. These schools are a bit of a reach. They are prestigious, might reject you, but would be exciting to get into.
    • Choose two mid-range schools. These should be competitive, but not as much of a stretch as the first two.
    • Choose two sure thing schools. These are programs that you’re fairly certain will accept you and will provide a solid education if options one through four do not work out. Of course, all six must fit your needs regarding specialization and research.

Apply for college

Know what area you plan to study and find out which schools have strong potential for research in that area.

General Admission Requirements

At this level of study, competition can be steep. Students must demonstrate previous success to be considered for admission, especially at the more prestigious institutions. Minimum test scores and GPA vary by school, but the general standard is high. Most Ph.D. programs require the following:

  • Bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution
  • GRE scores – minimums vary by school
  • Minimum GPA – varies by school, 3.5+ is common
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language – often required for international students. May be waived if student has completed more than one year of previous studies in the U.S.
  • Application – includes fee, usually around $70
  • Letters of Recommendation – preferably from those in the academic community

Direct Admission & Qualifying Requirements

Direct admission holds students to higher standards and offers advantages for those who qualify. Students receive access to higher level courses, labs, facilities and research assistantships. Specific requirements for direct admission vary slightly by school, but generally include high GRE scores.

School admission requirements also generally differ based on previous degrees earned. Those who have obtained a Master’s in Computer Science are held to different standards than those who enter directly from a bachelor’s program.

In addition to general or direct requirements for acceptance into a Ph.D. program, students must pass qualifying exams. These typically include both a written and oral exam, which must be passed to remain in the program. The written exam demonstrates mastery of theory, systems and programming, and the oral exam tests ability to research. Passing these requirements qualifies students to pursue their specializations.

Scholarships and Financial Aid

Doctorate studies can be funded in a variety of ways. Students may seek funding from scholarships, grants and fellowships offered by their university. State-specific programs and grants also generally have opportunities for financial aid.

However, the most common ways of funding doctoral studies come in the following forms:

  • Teaching Assistantships are working positions at the institution which involve fulfilling teaching duties in exchange for a stipend and/or tuition remission. Many schools require students take on assistantships as part of the doctorate program.
  • Graduate Student Research Positions are similar in arrangement to teaching assistantships, with duties focused on research rather than instruction. Common tasks include data analysis, experimentation and preparing publications for professors.
  • Fellowships are agreements in which students receive financial support in the form of tuition and stipend, with no obligation to fulfill TA or GSR requirements.

The amount of fellowships, TA and GSR positions can vary from year to year for each school. This will depend on department funding, grants awarded to the school and the number of students applying for assistance.

It is fairly common to be “fully funded,” in which case your studies are completely financed for you. This is why it’s so important to thoroughly research potential schools. Looking into small and lesser-known schools both nationally and abroad may help you find a program that will fully-fund your Ph.D.

The amount of fellowships, TA and GSR positions can vary from year to year for each school.

It is also important to research external sources of funding beyond the institution itself. Government agencies and technology corporations that specialize in the area you plan to research can be great funding sources. They may award fellowships if your work coincides with their goals.

Funding at this level is typically based on merit rather than financial need.

Sources for Doctorate Funding

Concentrations and Careers

Obtaining a Ph.D. in computer science opens doors to high level positions offering more responsibility and creative freedom than those available to professionals with less education. Typically, graduates can expect to work in one of three sectors: academia, government agencies or scientific organizations. Within these fields, there’s demand for teachers, researchers and computer and information research scientists.

The roles of teacher and researcher will be familiar to former doctoral students. Computer and information research scientists invent and design new computer technology and find new uses for current computing systems. There’s a range of specializations within this role, which include:

Database Administrator

Work with data in all stages including acquisition, modeling of algorithms, evaluation and implementation.

Application Scientist

Develop technical application content, collaborate internally and externally for product development and at times assist with the marketing of applications through data presentation and publications.

Software Engineering Researcher

Innovate new systems through systems research, design and development and performance analysis.

Applied Research Manager

Manage activities related to research and development of platforms and products. Develop core technologies, compose algorithm structures and find solutions to problems. May work with patent attorneys to secure intellectual property.

Data Mining Engineer

Work with other researchers and engineers to obtain insight and solutions from data. Provide analytics and reports.

Imaging Hardware Researcher

Work with research, production and development of imaging products. Collaborate with experts in video processing, computer graphics and image processing on products such as image-signal processing software, stereo and multi-camera systems.

Computer Scientist; Systems Security

Participate in systems security research, including large-scale threat analysis, data privacy and network security.

Computer Scientist; Software and Systems Engineering

Design, develop, document and test software at high levels of expertise, often at high security clearance levels for corporations or government agencies.