Doctorate in Software Engineering


Updated September 21, 2023

A doctorate in software engineering can lead to a rewarding, lucrative career. Explore software engineering Ph.D. programs and learn what to expect. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Credit: Maskot / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Tech-minded individuals who enjoy academia and research can pursue a software engineering Ph.D. and impact the software industry positively. These experts work as strategists and pathfinders in the software development field. In university settings, they instruct future tech professionals.

Software engineering doctorate graduates hold leadership positions in the ever-growing computer and technology industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an 13% job growth rate for computer and information technology occupations from 2020-2030.

Software engineering doctorate graduates hold leadership positions in the ever-growing computer and technology industry.

This page details what to expect from software engineering Ph.D. programs. Read on for details about the admission requirements, specializations, and degree costs.

What To Expect From Software Engineering Ph.D. Programs

Software engineering Ph.D. programs prepare students to create new infrastructures, conduct academic research, and manage the software development industry. Program graduates work as applied research leaders, entrepreneurs, and professors. Individuals best suited to software engineering doctorates want to research topics at their highest conceptual level or work in management.

Doctorate in software engineering degrees typically take 4-5 years to complete. This includes coursework, comprehensive exams, and the dissertation process. Ph.D. in software engineering classes teach enrollees theory of software design and improvement. Through dissertation research and defense, students also explore software development concepts.

Admission Requirements

Ideal candidates for software engineering Ph.D. programs hold bachelor's or master's degrees in computer science. Field experience can also play a significant role in the admission process, as many schools prefer candidates with industrial, government, or other professional employment history.

This terminal degree requires students to have an in-depth understanding of software engineering and desire to engage in research. Prospective students may increase their chances for acceptance by demonstrating practical software engineering experience through internships, job history, and past studies.

Prospective Ph.D. in software engineering students should also prepare to provide the following:

  • Official transcripts demonstrating a minimum 3.0 GPA
  • GRE test scores
  • Letters of recommendation
  • A statement of purpose
  • Relevant publications or past research

Degree and Specialization Options

As with many doctorates, a Ph.D. in software engineering requires students to specialize their studies. Narrowing to a subfield allows doctoral candidates to ask specific, refined questions in their research. Students may select from several software engineering specializations, including:

  • Database Management: The study of database management through data collection, manipulation, and analysis. This specialization prepares enrollees for careers as database administrators and analysts.
  • Software Architecture: The study of software systems and structure. This specialization prepares graduates for careers as software architects, organization leaders, and postsecondary instructors.
  • Risk Management: The study of software risk and mitigation through defect analysis. This specialization prepares graduates for careers as high-level risk managers and postsecondary instructors.

Top Online Programs

Explore programs of your interests with the high-quality standards and flexibility you need to take your career to the next level.

Comparing Similar Degrees

The technology industry offers several avenues for high-level graduate studies. The most popular terminal degrees include a Ph.D. in software engineering as well as the degrees listed below:

  • Ph.D. in Computer Science: This degree comprises the advanced study of algorithmic processes, theory, and computation.
  • Ph.D. in IT: This degree involves mastery of data, networks, technical communications, and information.
  • Ph.D. in Data Science: This interdisciplinary degree explores algorithms, visualization, and data systems.
Degree Focus Admission Requirements Length Course Load
Ph.D. in Software Engineering Research-based design, testing, and development of software products Bachelor's degree in software engineering or related field required, master's degree preferred 4-5 years 75-90 credits
Ph.D. in Computer Science Independent and creative development of computer science theory and products Bachelor's degree in computer science required, master's degree preferred 4-5 years 72-90 credits
Ph.D. in IT Applying data-driven knowledge to enhance computer and network security and usability Bachelor's degree in a related field required, master's degree preferred 4-6 years 90-120 credits
Ph.D. in Data Science Developing mastery of programming, statistics, data analysis, machine learning, and artificial intelligence Bachelor's degree in a related field required, master's degree preferred 5 years 75-90 credits

While the timeline and credit load for these graduate degrees are similar, the degrees' focuses and outcomes differ. Tech professionals hoping to advance their careers by earning an advanced degree should consider what impact they hope to make on the industry.

Follow the links in the table above to learn more about the different Ph.D. programs and what careers and salaries they offer.

Popular Software Engineering Courses

Ph.D. in software engineering programs generally take 4-5 years to complete and include coursework, research, and the dissertation. Students complete most coursework in the first two years, while the following 2-3 years focus on research and writing the dissertation.

Course offerings vary across software engineering Ph.D. programs. However, learners can expect to learn about algorithm applications, maintenance and testing, networks and systems, and research methodology to apply to their doctoral dissertations. Typical classes students might encounter include:

  • Algorithm Applications: In this course, enrollees expand their proficiency in data structures and algorithms that inform software development. These courses cover product-based and technical aspects of algorithm applications. These skills aid graduates with software architecture and design at the highest levels.
  • Maintenance and Testing: Software maintenance and testing classes teach learners to enhance, improve, and migrate deployed software. Students explore this pivotal stage in software engineering so they can apply maintenance and testing to their own projects. These courses help learners work toward their dissertations and future careers.
  • Networks and Systems: These courses focus on advanced network and system administration concepts, scripting techniques, and Layer 7 protocols such as DNS. Candidates apply these skills to real-world scenarios to prepare for work in supporting internally hosted monolithic applications, running cloud services, and servicing containerized microservices.
  • Research Methodology: In this class, enrollees learn empirical research methods. These courses also focus on organizational issues, project management, and human behavior. Students master research methods including controlled experiments, case studies, and surveys to use in their future software engineering careers.
  • Dissertation: In the final years of the software engineering Ph.D. program, candidates identify problems or potential improvement points within the field. Then, they complete dissertation research and conduct experiments under faculty supervision. Finally, students write about their findings and defend it before a committee.

How Much Will a Ph.D. in Software Engineering Cost?

Graduate degrees like a software engineering Ph.D. vary in cost due to factors like instruction style, school prestige, public or private status, and student state residency. The average graduate tuition and required fees in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in 2017-18 came to $18,947.

Students can typically save money on doctorate in software engineering programs by studying at public, in-state schools. Online programs can offer lower tuition, greater flexibility, and fewer time constraints. Learners can ensure their programs prepare them for careers in the field by confirming they hold accreditation with ABET.

Prospective graduate students can also take advantage of financial aid like scholarships, fellowships, assistantships, grants, and loans to finance their studies. Follow the link below to learn about scholarships and financial aid focused specifically on computer science degrees.

Why Get a Software Engineering Ph.D.?

Society's growing dependence on technology means many industries use software systems, and those systems need constant maintenance. High-level software engineering researchers solve problems associated with complex, large-scale software systems. Earning a graduate degree in software engineering helps professionals stay on the cutting edge of tech research.

Additionally, Ph.D. candidates can pursue their own specific research ideas to solve defects and vulnerabilities they identify in various subfields of software engineering. Upon graduation, students may use their research to create new products, create a start-up company, or work to improve the industry through teaching.

Earning a graduate degree in software engineering helps professionals stay on the cutting edge of tech research.

Software engineering Ph.D. programs open doors to careers as industrial researchers, entrepreneurs, and university professors. Other careers for graduates include:

  • Software Engineer: Software engineers design software for various user needs across industries and sectors.
  • Database Administrators: Database administrators create, troubleshoot, and manage data platforms.
  • Network Administrator: Network administrators design and maintain area networks and data communication systems.
  • Systems Analysts: Systems analysts implement software, liaise with users, and optimize user experience with programs.

Read More

Choosing the Right Software Engineering Program

Selecting the right software engineering Ph.D. program takes careful research. Keep the following educational factors in mind as you begin your school search:

  • Accreditation: Independent accrediting agencies ensure degrees from postsecondary institutions hold academic merit. Schools should hold accreditation through regional agencies. Programs may have subject-specific accreditation with an organization like ABET.
  • Available Concentrations: Software engineering Ph.D. programs may offer several specializations, but opportunities vary by school. Learners should research potential programs that offer their desired concentrations.
  • Research and Lab Opportunities: Since software engineering doctorate programs focus heavily on research, candidates need access to quality databases, materials, and lab resources.
  • Staff Credentials: During the dissertation process, doctoral students work closely with faculty. Finding programs with faculty who work in a student's desired subfield often benefits the final dissertation.
  • Cost and Financial Aid: Because graduate degrees are expensive, students should consider accredited online programs, which can offer quality education at a lower cost. Graduate students can also take advantage of fellowship and teaching assistant opportunities.

Explore Related Programs

Learn More About Software Engineering

How to Become a Software Engineer

How to Become a Software Engineer

This source offers insight into the steps, education, and experience needed to become a software engineer.

Salary and Career Outlook for Software Engineers

Salary and Career Outlook for Software Engineers

Follow this link to learn about the potential salary figures and projected job growth for software engineers.

Day in the Life of a Software Engineer

Day in the Life of a Software Engineer

Learn about the daily tasks and responsibilities associated with software design, maintenance, and troubleshooting.

Software Engineering Degree Programs

Software Engineering Degree Programs

This source explains the different levels of software engineering degrees and their program requirements.

Software Engineering Certificates

Software Engineering Certificates

Follow this link to learn about the options for professional certification in the software engineering field.

Questions About Getting a Doctorate in Software Engineering

How long does it take to get a Ph.D. in software engineering?

Earning a Ph.D. in software engineering can take 4-5 years. Program completion times depend on course requirements and the dissertation process length.

What job can I get with a Ph.D. in software engineering?

Graduates from software engineering Ph.D. programs can seek employment across the tech industry, but they can also work as research leaders, entrepreneurs, and university professors.

How much do you make with a Ph.D. in software engineering?

According to PayScale, as of August 2021, professionals with a Ph.D. in software engineering earn an average base salary of $103,000.

Should I get a Ph.D. in software engineering?

Software engineers with a doctoral degree can impact the tech industry through advanced research and product development. They also earn high salaries and benefit from a wide variety of employment opportunities.

Recommended Reading

Take the next step toward your future.

Discover programs you’re interested in and take charge of your education.