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A doctorate in computer science is the highest degree in the field of computer and information technology. Doctoral programs teach students to conduct scientific studies of computation, coding languages, and algorithms -- the step-by-step procedures that make computers perform tasks when converted into a programming language.
Programmers use algorithms as the foundation of familiar software, such as operating systems, internet browsers, and smartphone applications. More specifically, modern-day innovations work by leveraging algorithms to match Uber drivers to passengers, calculate delivery routes for UPS, and detect credit card fraud.
As the need for tech innovations expands, the demand for employees with advanced knowledge of computer science similarly increases. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 15% growth in computer science research jobs from 2019-2029, much faster than the average for all occupations.
This page contains descriptions of some of the top doctoral programs in computer science. It also details information about choosing the right doctoral program in computer science, how to gain admission into a Ph.D. program, and available jobs and salaries for graduates in the field.
Why Get a Doctorate in Computer Science?
Computer science is the scientific study of computational processes, programming languages, and algorithms. Unlike computer engineers, computer scientists do not usually design or build computer hardware, such as computer processors, hard drives, or video cards. Rather, these professionals write code, design algorithms, and study the informational processes and procedures that make computers function.
Employment opportunities vary by degree level. Computer scientists with associate, bachelor's, or master's degrees tend to perform programming-related tasks, such as writing or testing new code for software products.
Graduates with doctoral degrees perform innovative research, such as devising new algorithms and computational theories.
The computer science discipline has yielded groundbreaking innovations, such as the first personal computer, the internet, and the smartphone. Many learners pursue a Ph.D. in computer science because they aspire to discover new technology to revolutionize our daily lives.
Below, we consider some additional reasons for pursuing a doctorate in computer science.
- High Salaries
- A doctorate in computer science can open the door to a lucrative research or design position. The BLS reported a median annual salary of $122,840 for computer and information researchers as of 2019 — almost quadruple the national median for all occupations.
- Virtually all industries need computer scientists capable of devising innovative solutions to technology problems, making a doctorate in computer science a highly versatile degree.
- Flexible Work Schedule
- Doctoral degree-holders commonly work in research positions with universities or corporate research and development departments. Employers typically allow their top researchers to schedule their own work hours, as long as they meet research expectations and other job duties.
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What To Expect From Computer Science Doctoral Programs
To obtain a doctorate in computer science, students need to take around 75 graduate credits, including 20 dissertation credits. Most programs allow enrollees to transfer 30 credits of prior computer science graduate coursework, which may help cut costs and limit time away from the job market.
Degree length varies by program format. A typical Ph.D. in computer science takes around five years to complete. However, learners with a prior master's in the field can finish in 3-4 years. Most reputable universities also offer part-time tracks, which can add a few years to the degree timeline.
While undergraduates in computer science spend a lot of time writing code, doctoral students typically dive into advanced topics, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and computer vision. Postgraduates specializing in systems coding take intensive programming classes and address design challenges, such as building networks, routers, and operating systems.
Doctoral Admission Requirements
Admission into a doctoral program in computer science typically requires a bachelor's or master's in computer science, although some programs may accept applicants with associate degrees in computer science and bachelor's degrees in other fields.
A doctoral program candidate must submit an online application package. Typical application materials include a CV, transcripts, letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose, a writing sample or design project, and GRE scores.
Most doctoral programs in computer science do not require a specific GPA or minimum GRE scores, but prospective students should aim for GRE scores in the low 90th percentile or higher and unweighted GPAs of at least 3.0-3.5. Admissions departments may consider applicants with low GPAs if they demonstrate improvement over time.
Computer Science Degree and Specialization Options
Computer science students at the undergraduate and master's levels learn to design algorithms and develop computation theories. Doctoral programs then build on students' previous education, allowing them to dig deep into their specializations within the computer science field.
Computer science doctoral students graduate with a thorough understanding of computer science theory and research, often specific to a narrow area of study.
These learners may specialize in automated algorithmic process management, advanced embedded systems, or any of the three popular concentrations detailed below:
Popular Doctoral Program Courses
Course availability varies by school. In most Ph.D. programs, each student needs to complete around 50 credits, including qualifying exam credits, before starting their dissertation. A typical curriculum contains mandatory classes, electives, and concentration seminars. The following list provides examples of popular courses in doctoral computer science programs:
The Doctoral Dissertation
A Ph.D. in computer science culminates in a dissertation, a lengthy research project that addresses a theoretical problem in computer science. Some programs allow a student to complete three related research papers instead of a traditional dissertation.
Learners conduct dissertation research in close consultation with their supervisors and dissertation committees. Most computer science programs require students to pass a qualifying exam before beginning the dissertation.
After completing the dissertation, the supervisor organizes an oral defense. Doctoral candidates present their dissertation research, and the dissertation committee and 1-2 external examiners take turns questioning the examinee.
How Much Will a Doctorate in Computer Science Cost?
The cost of a doctorate in computer science depends on factors like state residency, degree format, and available funding.
While most universities charge higher out-of-state tuition than in-state tuition, they often provide online programs at a reduced cost, regardless of state residency. The total cost of tuition for an online doctoral degree in computer science can range from $27,000-$60,000.
That said, most doctoral programs offer tuition waivers and/or stipends in exchange for part-time work as teaching aids or research assistants. Schools often guarantee such funding to doctoral students for at least a portion of their time studying.
The following links provide additional information on financing options, such as grants, financial aid, and student loans.
Jobs and Salaries for Doctors of Computer Science
While graduates with bachelor's or master's degrees qualify for entry-level jobs in computer science, corporate research positions and university and college professorships normally require each candidate to possess a Ph.D.
BLS data indicates a median salary of $122,840 for computer and information research scientists, along with a projected growth rate of 15% from 2019-2029. A graduate with a Ph.D. in computer science earns a higher salary than those who only have master's or bachelor's degrees. Considering all occupations, the median annual salary for hires with doctoral degrees reaches around 30% higher than the national median for those with bachelor's or master's degrees.
The following section includes information about potential careers for graduates with doctorates in computer science.
University Professor of Computer Science
University professors of computer science at the assistant, associate, or tenured level conduct research in computer science, serve on committees, and teach computer science courses. Other duties include presenting at conferences, publishing work in peer-reviewed journals, and supervising Ph.D. students.
Computer Network Architect
Computer network architects design and build data communication networks, such as intranets, local area networks, wide area networks, and cloud infrastructures. Typical job duties include researching novel networking technologies, creating layouts for data communication networks, and upgrading hardware and software.
Computer and Information Research Scientist
Computer and information research scientists invent and design new approaches to computing and find novel uses for existing technology. Typical responsibilities include inventing new user interfaces; solving complex computational problems for bioscientists, engineers, and geoscientists; and conducting experiments to test software systems.
Software developers design and test systems and applications for computers and handheld devices. Typical job duties include designing new software, testing software performance against specifications, and implementing and updating systems and applications.
How To Find the Right Computer Science Program
Prospective doctoral students in computer science should consider several factors before applying to programs. The most important factor is accreditation. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes six regional accrediting bodies. Regional accreditation pertains to the college or university as a whole. Attending an accredited university guarantees that the school meets rigorous educational standards.
Programmatic accreditation ensures that specific degrees within schools meet strict standards. Prospective computer science students should select a program that carries programmatic accreditation from ABET.
Candidates should also determine whether the faculty's research interests align with their own. Ph.D. students eventually need to complete dissertations under the supervision of faculty members, and faculty can only properly supervise doctoral students in their focus areas.
Finally, potential students who plan to complete traditional on-campus degrees should give priority to Ph.D. programs that offer tuition waivers and graduate stipends.
Should You Get Your Ph.D. in Computer Science Online?
Long before COVID-19 drove many colleges and universities to move classes online, distance learning saw a significant rise in popularity. Online learning offers unbridled convenience and flexibility, which may appeal to working professionals and those who cannot commit to several years away from family or friends.
Most reputable online learning programs provide a learning experience that simulates the on-campus college experience. Many online programs provide lectures, labs, and alumni events in real time, enabling learners to participate in discussion and networking opportunities.
The prevalence of discounted online degrees enables online learners to obtain doctoral degrees at a reduced cost. Most programs offer tuition-waivers and stipends to on-campus learners, but these wages may not allow students to live comfortably, depending on school location and family commitments.
Top Computer Science Doctoral Programs
Our list of doctoral programs in computer science was culled from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and links to each school's website for more information. Take a look at these institutions to help make the next move on your educational path. All schools on this list hold regional accreditation from one of the following accrediting bodies:
- Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
- Southern Association of College and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
Frequently Asked Questions About Computer Science Ph.D's
What is the average Ph.D. in computer science salary?As of 2019, doctoral degree-holders in computer science in the field of computer and information research made a median annual wage of $122,840.
What can you do with a doctorate in computer science?With a doctorate in computer science, you can work as a software engineer, a computer network architect, or a virtual reality tech artist, among many other options. Generally, people with doctorates in computer science work in innovation, design, and research, developing next-generation technologies.
How do you get a Ph.D. in computer science?To earn a Ph.D. in computer science, each student needs a bachelor's degree and around 75 graduate credits in a computer science program, including about 20 dissertation credits. Most programs require prerequisites in computer science. A graduate with a computer science master's or graduate certificate can apply their graduate credits toward their Ph.D.
Is a doctorate in computer science worth it?A doctorate in computer science can open the door to some of the highest-paying positions in the computer profession. Most reputable schools offer tuition waivers and stipends ($20,000-$30,000 per year) to on-campus Ph.D. students. Programs typically provide online tuition discounts, as well.
What's the difference between a computer science Ph.D. and a DCS?The two degrees cover similar information and share comparable requirements, but the DCS requires just three years, while a Ph.D. may take four or more. A Ph.D has more strict dissertation requirements and generally carries more prestige.
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