Computer Science PhD

Why Choose a Doctorate in Computer Science?

Professionals holding doctoral degrees in computer science hold distinct advantages. For example, tenured professors must possess their Ph.D. Large companies often start those with Ph.D.s at higher-level positions immediately upon hiring, and it's common for employers to reserve their top-ranking positions for doctoral degree holders only. Computer scientists with doctorates can start their own research-based companies, or teach at the undergraduate or graduate level. Many industry research labs require workers to hold doctorate degrees, as well, due to the advanced level of technical knowledge and skill required to oversee large projects and teams.

With the rising need for technical expertise, employers are increasingly including doctoral degrees in their minimum hiring requirements. In fact, the U.S. 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.

An online Ph.D. in computer science proves a lucrative degree and allows for more independent, creative input into projects, along with more freedom to design products, implement change, and inspire students and employees. Employees with their doctorates tend to enjoy higher salaries and lower unemployment rates than those with lower-level degrees.

Earning a Ph.D. in computer science opens doors to high-level academic positions, and allows for more independent, design-based work.


Overview

A doctorate in computer science builds on prior knowledge, education, and experience in the field. The degree typically takes 4-5 years to complete, and involves independent study and research in a focused area of interest. Doctorate programs include coursework and research that culminate in a final dissertation.

To enter a Ph.D. program, you must hold at least a bachelor's degree in the field, though a master's degree is usually preferable. Doctorate applicants must also submit GRE scores and letters of recommendation.

Students who enter these programs generally want to enter highly specialized computer science fields or teach at the college level. They must demonstrate academic success in prior college programs, and a desire to learn more about a specific area of the industry through additional study and research.

  • 4-5 Years
  • 72-90

Computer science plays a role in virtually every field of industry. For this reason, Ph.D. programs are diverse, and many students pursue interdisciplinary degrees.

Students wishing to pursue a Ph.D. in computer science generally take 4-5 years to complete the degree, which usually requires 72-90 credits. Learners can devote their studies to general computer science or choose a specialty area, such as one of the following:

  • Computer science
  • Algorithms, combinatorics, and optimization
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Software engineering
  • Computational biology
  • Language and information technologies
  • Machine learning
  • Robotics

US Ph.D. Graduates in CS, 2008-2015

2014-15 1,998
2013-14 1,982
2012-13 1,834
2011-12 1,698
2010-11 1,588
2009-10 1,599
2008-09 1,580
Source: NCES

Average Annual Tuition, 2017-18

Type Tuition
Public In-State, Two-Year $3,570
Public Out-of-State, Four-Year $25,620
Public In-State, Four-Year $9,970
Private Nonprofit $34,740
Source: CollegeBoard

Online Ph.D. in Computer Science

Online options for computer science doctorates continue to grow. Considering the nature of the material, it's no surprise computer science courses were among the first offered in an online format from prestigious institutions such as MIT and Stanford. Doctorate studies require independent work, which integrates well with the online learning format.

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 proves especially conducive for doctorate-level work.

Advantage: Growing Prestige of Online Programs

The Taulbee Survey estimates more than 1,834 graduates earned Ph.D.s in computer science in the 2016-17 academic year — more than ever before. This represents a 1.2% increase over the previous year. That said, the total number of doctoral degrees awarded in the 2016-17 academic year increased by 5.2% over the previous year.

Computer science courses represented some of the first 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. These universities now offer singular courses in computer science, many of which are free, through Coursera and other open-source platforms.

Specialization

Doctorate students should choose specialties they feel passionately about. Specialization options vary between doctoral programs, so prospective students should make sure their online program offers concentrations in their area of interest.


Courses in an Online Ph.D. in Computer Science Program

Required major courses vary by school, depending on each institution's resources and faculty. This makes each program unique. College and university faculty acquire specialty areas of study, and typically teach courses related to those topics. Required courses may also root in the school's longstanding traditions, based on department history and resources. Common courses for doctoral programs in computer science may include:

  • Fundamentals of Chemistry: In this introductory course, students acquire the basic problem-solving skills and foundational chemical knowledge to pursue more advanced training. Degree-seekers typically attend lab- and classroom-based sessions that explore atomic bonding, lab safety, lab research documentation skills, states of matter, acids and bases, and nuclear chemistry.
  • Revolutionary Molecules: This history-based course helps students understand the trajectory of organic chemistry over time. Instructors typically focus on key topics such as moments of discovery in the chemistry, and their development and significance. Students also engage with hands-on experiments in basic lab settings. Most courses require a final paper, based on original historical and lab research, which demonstrates your mastery of the course material.
  • Environmental Chemistry: This laboratory-focused course explores basic and advanced chemical concepts, including polarity, volatility, and solubility. Students spend most of the course considering new and historical case studies, which demonstrate how chemical behavior relates to the environment, pollutants, and toxicology. Degree-seekers develop the ability to predict environmental behaviors and chemical structures.
  • Physical Biochemistry: This survey course examines the physical methods chemists use to investigate biological systems. Learners understand foundational theories that account for chemical behavior and properties of amino acids, peptides, proteins, pyrimidines, and nucleic acids. Students also employ kinetic, spectroscopic, and thermodynamic analytical perspectives.
  • Nuclear Magnet Resonance: This combined lecture and laboratory course on the principles of fourier transform and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Learners examine magnetic fields, magnetization and rotating frames, pulse sequences, two-dimensional perspectives, and nuclear Overhauser enhancement. Chemistry students learn to apply lecture material to their lab work and original research papers.

Concentrations Offered for an Online Ph.D. in Computer Science

Forensic Science

This degree prepares students for work as forensic scientists through intense study in biology, chemistry, and physics. They often take classes in pharmacology, statistics, and computer modeling. Sometimes referred to as criminalists, many computer scientists with a concentration in forensic science work as crime investigators and evidence analysts, collecting DNA and other evidence for examination in a laboratory setting.

Careers this concentration prepares for: Detective, criminalist, analytical chemist, scientific laboratory technician


Biochemistry

Students focus on the chemistry of living things, ecosystems, biomolecules, immunology, genetics, and enzymology. Learners take courses in laboratory and classroom settings. Some degree-seekers focus on a specific area, such as diseases, nutrition, agriculture, clinical pathology, or cardiac biochemistry.

Careers this concentration prepares for: Biochemistry scientist, laboratory manager/scientist, protein biochemist, professor


Nanotechnology

Professionals in this area of science study, analyze, and build experiments at the atomic and molecular levels. Specialists in nanoscience or nanotechnology study small and microscopic, synthetically produced material. Virtually every scientific field uses aspects of nanotechnology to further academic research and product development in medicine, cancer treatment, heat generation, electronics, and other consumer product areas.

Careers this concentration prepares for: Systems engineer, testing analyst, research engineer, data analyst, product developer

Career Paths for Computer Science Ph.D. Graduates

From professors and information consultants to games developers, graduates with a Ph.D. in computer science may choose from a wide variety of careers. Virtually any progressive field involving computer technology uses trained professionals to handle programming, technology development, and data analysis. These professionals should be organized, tech-savvy, and able to work in teams or independently. They should boast excellent written and spoken communication skills, a motivated self-starter mentality, and the willingness to learn new skills as the field progresses. Reliable and well-trained professionals with these traits and an online doctorate in computer science can find satisfying work with high earning potential.

College/University Professor of Computer Science

Professionals in this position work at colleges and universities as lecturers and researchers. They work with undergraduate and graduate students in specialty areas of study. Professors also teach required courses offered by their home department. In many cases, professors mentor students, serve on thesis and dissertation committees, and participate in faculty organizations on campus.

Median Annual Salary

$91,590

Projected Growth Rate

15%

Electrical Engineer

Engineers in this field work with a variety of technology in virtually any type of industry. Engineers act as hands-on problem solvers, and specialize in areas such as product development, commercial and industrial equipment, scientific applications, computer software, computer networks, construction, and manufacturing. Many professionals work for telecommunications firms or engineering companies, or hold positions in the federal government.

Median Annual Salary

$95,060

Projected Growth Rate

9%

Computer Hardware Engineer

These professionals design, develop, and test different types of technology such as memory devices, computer networks, routers, circuit boards, and other hardware. Some computer hardware engineers work for large companies, such as General Motors, to develop technology used in vehicle manufacturing. Other professionals hold research positions at universities, laboratories, and private companies.

Median Annual Salary

$115,120

Projected Growth Rate

8%

Computer Network Architects

Sometimes referred to as “network engineers,” these workers design and construct communications networks, primarily through local area networks (LANs) and wide area networks (WANs). They also manage tasks related to computer hardware upgrades in homes and businesses, including routers, adapters, network drivers, and monitor systems. They typically work at computer hardware and software design firms, telecommunications agencies, and educational organizations at the state, local, and private levels.

Median Annual Salary

$104,650

Projected Growth Rate

13%

Software Developers

These professionals act as the creative minds behind software development and design. They design, test, and create software for customers, businesses, and local, state, and federal governments. These workers stay up-to-date on technological advances to help improve their programming and final products. They typically work at computer systems design firms and software publishers.

Median Annual Salary

$103,560

Projected Growth Rate

24%

Ph.D. in Computer Science Salary Outlook

Annual earnings for graduates with a Ph.D. in computer science can vary greatly between professionals. Geographic location, training, and experience significantly affect employees' earning potential. According to PayScale, the highest-paying computer science jobs include software development manager, security architect, computer network architect, information technology manager, and data modeler. Software engineers make the highest overall median salary, at $122,524, while security architects make the highest median late-career salary, at $144,000. The chart below displays salary information for those the five highest-paying positions in the computer science field.

Job Title Overall Median Salary Entry-Level Salary Mid-Career Salary Late-Career Salary
Software Development Manager $121,515 $104,000 $117,000 $133,000
Security Architect $120,162 $95,000 $118,000 $144,000
Computer Network Architect $116,944 $85,000 $107,000 $127,000
Information Technology Manager $85,450 $59,000 $76,000 $99,000
Data Modeler $81,739 $70,000 $100,000 $113,000

Accreditation

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 often proves 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 official accreditors must hold officially recognition from the ED or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

U.S. colleges and universities can receive two types of institution-wide accreditation: national and regional. Because national accreditation typically applies to vocational and technical schools, most computer science students deal with regionally accrediting agencies. More than 85% of the U.S.'s degree-granting institutions hold regional accreditation, which ensures three things about a program:

  • The school has earned the most widely recognized accreditation status in the country.
  • Credits should transfer easily 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 English, for example, you shouldn't worry about programmatic accreditation as long as your school holds regional accreditation. On the other hand, if you're seeking a bachelor's in 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 the board's 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 Program

Applying to a doctorate program is a fairly intensive and often intimidating process. It often proves expensive, as well; 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.

Research the Research: As mentioned, you want to ensure the program fits your interests. Know which area you plan to study, and find out which schools demonstrate 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 advisers.

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. Instead, choose two stretch schools, or institutions that prove prestigious and competitive, but would be exciting to get into. Choose two mid-range schools, as well, along with two sure-thing schools, which you are fairly certain would accept you and provide a solid education. All six institutions must fit your specialization and research needs.

General Admission Requirements

Competition often proves fierce at the doctoral level of study. Students must demonstrate previous success to qualify for admission, especially at more prestigious institutions. Minimum test score and GPA requirements vary by school, but standards are generally 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, though 3.5 and higher is common.
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language — often required for international students. Students who have completed more than one year of previous studies in the U.S. may be exempt from TEFL requirements.
  • Application — includes fee, usually around $70.
  • Letters of recommendation — preferably from others in the academic community.

Direct Admission & Qualifying Requirements

Direct admission holds students to higher standards and offers advantages for qualifying applicants. These students receive access to higher-level courses, labs, facilities, and research assistantships. Specific requirements for direct admission vary by school, but generally include high GRE scores.

School admission requirements also differ based on each applicant's previous degrees. Those holding a master's in computer science might meet different standards from those who enter directly from a bachelor's program.

In addition to general and direct admissions requirements for Ph.D. programs, students must pass qualifying exams. These typically include both a written and oral exam. The written exam demonstrates mastery of theory, systems, and programming, while the oral exam tests students' research abilities. Passing these requirements qualifies students to pursue their specializations.


Professional Organizations

Professional organizations function as important tools for building connections, gaining access to research documents, and keeping current on happenings in your area of study. These membership-driven organizations incur annual dues in return for access to online resources including job boards, email lists, discussion forums, and career development services. Most organizations also hold at least one annual conference. In most fields, these meetings provide valuable opportunities for members to meet their colleagues, find like-minded individuals in the field, and seek prospective employees or employers.

Association for Computing Machinery: ACM members receive access to online resources, publications, and career development resources. The association's website contains over 2 million pages of related research materials, bibliographic citations, and article abstracts, plus a digital library. ACM boasts 170 computing conferences based on special interests and categories.

Computing Research Association: Founded in 1972, the CRA provides access to online and in-person communities of like-minded professionals in the industrial, governmental, and academic areas of the computer science field. The association offers four divisions: catalyst, women, education, and evaluation, each of which connects members with special interest groups and underrepresented groups within the association. Members gain access to online resources including job boards, email lists, discussion boards, and a digital library.

IEEE Computer Society: As the world's largest computer science membership organization, IEEE sponsors over 200 technical conferences and events annually. The organization generates 17 scholarly journals, 13 computer science magazines, and regularly updated, cutting-edge computer science information through its myComputer application. Members receive access to online discussion communities, job boards, career development modules, and information about annual meetings.

The Institute of Engineering and Technology: Professionals can access career advice, grant and scholarship information, and discussion forums through the institute's website. Members of IET can take advantage of its extension job search technology, updated information sections on electrical standards and codes, and teaching resources.

AAAI: AAAI sponsors annual conferences, career workshops, and symposia. Members gain access to AAAI's online library, including full-text journal and magazine articles. The organization also offers a job board for computer science positions across the field.

Scholarships and Financial Aid

Students can fund their doctoral degrees in a variety of ways. They may seek funding from scholarships, grants, and fellowships offered by their university, or through state-specific programs and grants.

However, financial aid for doctoral studies most commonly comes from the following sources:

  • Teaching Assistantships: These working positions at the student's institution involve fulfilling teaching duties in exchange for a stipend or tuition remission. Many schools require students take on assistantships as part of the doctorate program.
  • Graduate Student Research Positions: Similar in arrangement to teaching assistantships, these positions focus students' duties on research, rather than instruction. Common tasks include data analysis, experimentation, and preparing publications for professors.
  • Fellowships: In these agreements, students receive financial support in the form of tuition and a stipend, with no obligation to fulfill work requirements.

Available aid depends on department funding, grants awarded to the school, and the number of students applying for assistance.

It is fairly common for doctoral students to gain “full funding,” through which their studies are completely financed. Considering small and lesser-known schools, both nationally and abroad, may help you find a program willing to fully fund your Ph.D.

The availability of fellowship, teaching assistantships, and graduate student research positions may vary from year to year at each school.

Applicants should also research external sources of funding beyond the institution itself. Government agencies and technology corporations that specialize in your prospective area of research may prove great funding sources. They may even award fellowships if your work coincides with their goals.

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