Frequently Asked Questions for Current Doctoral Students

This FAQ is intended primarily for current CS@CU doctoral candidates (including MS/PhD students as well as PhD and DES). These questions and answers may or may not be of interest to others, including prospective applicants.

Send corrections and suggestions to

Black Friday - separate FAQ
who ya gonna call?
mice
registration
foreign student registration
summer registration
tuition and fees
physical residency during residency units
registering for courses
summer courses
CVN courses
pass/fail and R grades
recording courses in mice
taking non-CS courses
importing courses taken elsewhere
MS "special considerations" vs. PhD "imports"
courses previously taken at Columbia
comps
teaching and TAing
previous teaching and TAing here and elsewhere
candidacy exam
thesis proposal
dissertation and defense - separate FAQ
MS "along the way"
MPhil
leaves of absence - see BF FAQ
leaving without a doctorate
research vs. departmental advisors
changing advisors
absent advisors
more coming ... send suggestions to

 

Who do I ask about doctoral registration, program requirements, getting office space, computer accounts, etc.?

You should talk to the Doctoral Program Administrator. This person is an administrative officer charged with the day to day mechanics and logistics of administering the doctoral program. He/she is the person most doctoral students (and their advisors) should go to with questions about registration, housing, SEAS or GSAS paperwork, mice, Black Friday, etc. The Doctoral Program Administrator can also direct you to the right person to obtain office space, computer accounts, a copier code, a front office mail box, etc. (chances are these have already been arranged for all incoming doctoral students). However, the Doctoral Program Administrator is not the right person to see about your stipend, tuition or other financial issues (see below).

The current Doctoral Program Administrator is Ms. Jessica Rosa.  Her office is 450C (inside the front office complex), phone 212-939-7007, email .

Who do I ask about my stipend, tuition exemption, payment of university fees and other financial matters?

Ms. Cindy Walters should be contacted regarding stipend, tuition exemption and the payment of student fees.   Mr. Elias Tesfaye handles business/travel expense reimbursements and purchasing. All other financial matters should be directed to the Departmental Administrator, currently Ms. Patricia Hervey.

Who do I ask about TAing or teaching?

Prof. Dan Rubenstein is the current TA czar; he is assisted by a student TA coordinator. Contact regarding all matters concerned with TAing.  It is rather rare for a doctoral student to teach as the instructor of a regular course, as opposed to assisting with instruction as a teaching assistant, but is permitted for students with impeccable teaching credentials when needed to fulfill the educational mission of the department.  Contact the Academic Committee Chair, currently Prof. Adam Cannon, for further information.

Who do I ask about PhD program policies, e.g., waiver of a program requirement?

PhD program requirements are never waived.  However, the PhD Program Chair (also know as the PhD Chair or "phdczar") is the person to contact about policy issues.  This is currently Prof. Gail Kaiser.  Send email to .

But during admissions I was contacted by Prof. Someone Else.  Isn't that person the PhD Chair?

The PhD Admissions Chair is a different position than the PhD Program Chair.  Further, the PhD Committee is not the same as the PhD Admissions Committee, although any given year there may be some overlap.  The PhD Committee is charged with the long-term governance of the doctoral program, whereas the PhD Admissions Committee is concerned with admissions and any corresponding financial awards offering during the admissions process.  In general, consult with the PhD Admissions Chair prior to enrollment and the PhD Committee Chair (phdczar) thereafter.

What is MICE?

MICE (which in this case is a singular noun, not plural) is a web-based database system for departmental records of various sorts, including but not limited to doctoral program records. You may login to MICE at https://mice.cs.columbia.edu/, using your regular departmental (Unix) userid, but a different password (which will be emailed to you on your first access to MICE, and you should then change this password as soon as possible from within MICE). Note that your departmental userid (and password) may not be the same as any lab or group userid you may have been issued, e.g., for use on PCs.  Your departmental userid may also be different from your university userid, also known as your "uni", which is used for various university-related computer and web access outside the department. Note that the registrar's student records website, SSOL (Student Services OnLine), is not the same as MICE; however, MICE automatically imports some information, most notably course registrations and subsequent grades, from SSOL.

Most personal computers and workstations in the department are equipped with a mechanical or optical mouse.  If you spot any of the furry variety of mice anywhere around the department, however, immediately inform the Departmental Administrator.

Do I need to register?

In almost all cases, yes. You need to register at the beginning of every semester.  The only exceptions are 1. during an officially approved leave of absence, and 2. in some (but not all) cases you may not need to register your very last semester or possibly even last few semesters if there is a significant delay between distributing and defending your dissertation (see the separate FAQ for defending students for further information regarding this special case).

How do I register?

Click here for information about the registration procedure.

What should I register for?

MS/PhD students who have not yet completed a master's degree acceptable to GSAS for "advanced standing" (not all outside master's degrees are acceptable) should normally register for exactly 15 "points" every semester (fall and spring semesters, that is, summer term registration is handled differently), until the MS en course degree has been completed.  If you are funded through the university, e.g., as an appointed TA, GRA, fellow, etc., advance permission of the PhD Chair is required to register for any number of points other than 15.  If you have outside funding, you should register for the number of points determined by your funding source. However, note that a minimum of 12 points per semester is required to maintain full-time status, needed for foreign student visas and other purposes. Specific courses to register for are discussed below.

PhD students who have completed a master's degree acceptable to GSAS (including but not limited to the MS/PhD here) should in most cases register for one (1) residence unit (RU) each fall or spring semester (see here regarding summer term) until a total of six (6) RUs have been accumulated, as well as fifteen (15) points per term until a total of thirty (30) points have been accumulated beyond any points used for attaining the MS.  GSAS grants advanced standing of two (2) RUs for an acceptable master's degree, whether completed here or elsewhere, so you must complete four (4) RUs while enrolled in GSAS. The advanced standing will not be approved until sometime during the first semester enrolled in GSAS. Note that an RU is considered the equivalent of 12 points and is sufficient to maintain full-time status, e.g., for foreign student visas - but see the "gotcha" here. Specific courses to register for are discussed below; it is not technically required to register for any courses while registered for an RU (or ER - see below), but you may need some courses to fulfill the breadth requirements.  You can complete the entire 30 points requirement in two semesters by registering for 15 points per semester in COMS E9911.

Students who have already completed six (6) RUs and are funded by appointments or fellowships through the university must register for "extended residency" (ER) every fall and spring semester thereafter. Students who have already completed six (6) RUs, do not plan to enroll in any courses, have completed all other doctoral program requirements besides the dissertation distribution, defense and deposit, and are not supported by or through the university, may instead register for "Matriculation and Facilities" (aka M&F) if this is permitted by your external funding source.  Self-funded students should register for M&F whenever allowed, since M&F costs considerably less than ER.

I have completed the requirements for the MS degree, and have been approved for graduation, but the degree will not be conferred until a couple months into the semester.  Should I register for points or for an RU?

You should register for an RU. Except sometimes for foreign students, see the "gotcha" below.

I am a foreign student.  Is there anything special I should be aware of regarding registration?

Most foreign student visas require registration with full-time status during the fall and spring semesters (usually not summers).  MS/PhD students must register for at least 12 points to be considered full-time.  For PhD students beyond the MS, registration for an RU, for ER or for M&F are all considered full-time.

However, there is an interesting little "gotcha" that occurs sometimes (not always) during the first semester of RU enrollment. GSAS normally will not approve your advanced standing until sometime in the middle of that semester.  In the meantime, your RU registration won't be considered official, and ISSO (International Students and Scholars Office) may imagine that you are not registered full-time and thus report you to the immigration authorities.  Needless to say, that could be very bad.  It may be wise for foreign students to register for 15 points of COMS E9911 during the first semester they would normally register for an RU, and then convert this to RU registration (the registrar is apparently willing to do this) only after advanced standing has been granted. Contact the Doctoral Program Administrator for further information.

Small additional fees may be charged for some foreign students, look here for SEAS (MS/PhD) and here for GSAS (PhD after MS).

Should I register for summer session?

If you are funded through the university during the summer, you may need to register for one or both summer terms. Contact the Doctoral Program Administrator in advance regarding the requirements for your summer registration.

I'm paying my own way (or my parents, significant other, employer, etc. is paying).  How much do each of these registration categories cost?

The most recent tuition and fees for various categories of SEAS students are given here.

The most recent tuition and fees for various categories of GSAS students are given here

Summer session, if enrolled, costs approximately the same as a regular fall or spring term in both schools.

Does registering for residency or extended residency mean I have to be physically present on-campus all semester?

In almost all cases, yes (during waking hours, that is, whatever hours those may be for you - but we prefer students to sleep at home).  The vast majority of students should plan to be on-campus full-time, utilizing department-supplied office space, during the semesters in which they register for points, residence units or extended residency, and most do so until at least the distribution of the dissertation, sometimes continued through the deposit.  All students funded through the university as fellows, GRAs or TAs should be resident full-time on campus during each appointed semester, including summer if appointed during the summer. However, as long as tuition and any other requisite fees are paid, and the advisor approves (both research and departmental advisor, if different), and the PhD Chair concurs, in rare cases some students may conduct some of their academic activities from afar.  However, you should be aware that consulting and various other outside activities that take you away from your advisor's group or lab are unlikely to be acceptable to your advisor. Further, the department does not officially recognize any concept of part-time students, thus you will be required to advance in your degree progress at the same pace as full-time on-campus students.

Do I need to register for any courses and, if so, what courses should I register for?

Students registering for M&F can not enroll in any Columbia courses, not even basket weaving.  Students registering for an RU or ER may, if desired, enroll in any number of courses, but are not required to enroll in any courses. (The university, however, places restrictions on enrolling in courses outside SEAS or GSAS, e.g., in the professional schools.)  However, the faculty in general as well as most advisors frown on an ER student enrolling in courses, assuming the student has already completed the breadth requirement, since this takes time away from research - so be sure to check with your advisor in advance (both research and departmental advisors, if different).

Students registering for 15 points must, by definition, register for 15 points of courses.  Up to 6 (or, in rare cases, up to 9) of these points are in regular lecture courses, almost invariably at the 4000 or 6000 level, and usually offered by (or cross-listed with) the Department of Computer Science.  If you have not yet completed the breadth requirements, these points should, in almost all cases, be devoted entirely to fulfilling the breadth requirements. It is desirable, but not required, to complete the core prior to choosing electives. Note you cannot receive credit towards the doctoral breadth requirements for taking a Columbia course that has already been deemed equivalent (or nearly so) to an "imported" elective, nor can you receive any Columbia points for importing that course. Although relevant courses taken at Columbia prior to enrolling in the doctoral program, e.g., as an undergraduate  here, automatically "count" towards the breadth requirement (if graded B+ or higher), they probably do not count towards the 30 points required for the "MS along the way" (aka MS/PhD) and advanced standing in GSAS. (If your prior points were not "needed" for a prior degree here, it is possible in some cases that they could be applied to the MS/PhD; contact the Doctoral Program Administrator if this pertains to you.)

Click here for information about the administration of comprehensive exams in lieu of courses.  You do not need to register for a course in order to take the corresponding comp exam, but you do not receive any Columbia "points" for passing comp exams (that is, you do not receive any points towards the 30 graduate points you need for the MS/PhD). Click here for information about importing electives from other institutions, which also do not provide any Columbia "points".  There is no such thing as "transferring" points or credits from another institution into the doctoral program.

If you are considering taking a course at the 3000 level or below, discuss this first with both your advisor (both research and departmental advisors, if different) and the PhD Chair before registering. If you are considering a 4000 level or above course that is not offered by (or cross-listed by) the Department of Computer Science, you must have the prior permission of your advisor - and it would also be wise to ask the PhD Chair, in advance, if the intended course will "count" for the breadth requirement. 

The remainder of the 15 points, beyond the up to 6-9 points of regular graduate-level lecture courses per semester, should be registered in COMS E9911 Graduate Research II.  Although some versions of the bulletin may state a maximum of 12 points in E9911 per semester, you can in fact register for up to 15 points in E9911 each semester (with, usually, a maximum of 15 points total across regular lecture courses and E9911). Contact the Doctoral Program Administrator if you run into any difficulties registering for 15 points of COMS E9911 (but keep in mind you may register for a maximum of 15 points total across E9911 and any courses).

Do not register for any of the undergraduate or graduate project courses - COMS 3998, 4901, 6900, 6901, 6902 (or analogous numbers in other departments) - since none of these "count" for doctoral students (including MS/PhD students). Also do not register for COMS E9910 Graduate Research I, which is intended only for certain "terminal" MS candidates - although if you did so accidentally in the past, it probably will still "count" towards the 30 points for the "MS along the way".

COMS E9910 and E9911 credit cannot be used to fulfill any portion of the doctoral program breadth requirement.

Do summer courses count towards the core and/or electives requirements?

If the course would qualify when offered during the academic year, then yes the same course qualifies during the summer provided it is taught by a regular faculty member or adjunct. However, you (and your advisor) should recognize that additional tuition may have to be paid to take a summer course, and it would almost certainly be less expensive to take the course during the academic year when you normally must be registered full-time "anyway".

Do CVN courses count towards the core and/or electives requirements?

Taking a course on-campus that happens to be concurrently offered by CVN (taped as it happens) qualifies.  Even taking the course through CVN off-campus while that same instance of the course is being taped on-campus may be acceptable under some circumstances, although frowned upon.  However, CVN "re-runs" (pretaped courses) are not permitted for doctoral students. There is, however, a loophole whereby CVN re-runs taken prior to first enrolling for the doctoral program, e.g., while enrolled as a special student or for the "terminal" MS or professional degree, would still qualify towards fulfilling the later doctoral requirements. See the rules about CVN re-runs here.

I plan to register for COMS W4xxx or E6yyy on a "pass/fail" basis (or for "R" credit) .  Will it still "count"?

No. All courses intended to be applied to the doctoral breadth requirements must be taken for a grade, with a "B+" treated as the minimum passing grade. Further, courses taken on a pass/fail (or R) basis can not be applied to any SEAS graduate degree, including the "MS along the way", the professional degree, and the DES.  (Pass/fail but not R courses are permitted by GSAS, but not terribly germane since you need to register for residency or extended residency units in GSAS, with course points optional, or for M&F, where you can not register for any courses anyway.) However, courses taken pass/fail do "count" towards the points needed to maintain full-time status (which is required for all students appointed/funded through the university and for foreign students). It is not clear to this author whether or not R registration (which means exactly that, R designates registered for the course) applies towards full-time status. Note that an IN (incomplete) grade may revert to an R if not fulfilled and changed to a letter grade by one year after the initial assignment of the IN grade (or, worse, it may revert to an F).

I am taking COMS W4123 this semester, but it does not show up in my record in mice.  Should I do anything?

It depends. Mice imports data from the registrar's database about the courses our doctoral students are taking sometime during the middle of the semester.  If its still early in the semester, just wait a bit.  If its getting near Black Friday, then yes you should manually add the course to your record.  It will not hurt to manually add it in any case, but if you think you are taking W4123 and the registrar doesn't, your addition will most likely disappear when mice syncs up with the registrar's database later on.

I think I am taking COMS W4123 this semester and the registrar doesn't. What should I do?

Does the instructor of COMS W4123 think you are taking the course?  If not, better get that straightened out first.  Then use the registrar's add/drop form, signed by the instructor and your departmental advisor (or the PhD Chair), to add the course. If it is past "add date", ask the Doctoral Program Administrator for assistance.

I am taking COMS W4123 this semester and SSOL (Student Services On-Line) shows that I am registered for the course. I tried to add COMS W4123 to my mice record, but its not in the drop-down menu to choose from. What do I do?

Send email to the Doctoral Program Administrator requesting that the course be added to the mice drop-down list.  It would help to give the URL of the specific mice page with the menu you're concerned with.

I would like to take a EE or IEOR course.  Will that count towards my doctoral program electives?

Probably.  The course must be graduate level, meaning numbered 4000 or above. Your advisor (both research and departmental advisors, if different) must approve that the course should "count" as an elective.  Once you obtain this approval, you should add the course to your record in mice.  If the course is not already listed as one of the menu choices, contact the Doctoral Program Administrator to ask that it be added to the list. You will need to provide the course number from its bulletin entry (e.g., ELEN E6789), the relevant semester (e.g., Fall 2005), the full name of the course matching its bulletin entry (e.g., Optimal Stochastic Multipartite Parabolemic Lightwave Signals), and the name and email address of the instructor. In order for the course to actually count towards your electives, however, you must receive a B+ or higher in the course (with at least an A- average across all courses treated as core or elective).

I would like to take a graduate course in Icelandic Poetry.  Will that count towards my doctoral program electives?

Probably not, unless Icelandic Poetry is very strongly related to your doctoral research (e.g., funded by a NATO NLP grant). Your departmental advisor must approve the course as an elective, and also be willing and able to justify this approval to the full faculty (if asked, and someone will certainly ask at the next Black Friday when your mice record, including all classes taken, is displayed on the huge screen at the front of the room). However, if your registration permits you to enroll in courses (points in SEAS or RU or ER in GSAS), you can still take the course "for fun". Better make sure this is ok with your advisor, though, since he/she may have in mind other things for you to spend your time on. (See the policy on "outside activities".)

I've heard it may be possible to "import" courses that I took in a previous degree program.  What do I need to do?

You are permitted to "import" courses from previous institutions in lieu of one or more (in some cases up to all 5, see below) doctoral program electives.  These must be conventional lecture courses, not seminars, projects or exams, and equivalent to 4000 or 6000 level 3-point lecture courses at Columbia.  Only courses offered by a Computer Science or equivalent department qualify (e.g., Computer and Information Science and Engineering might be ok, but probably not Electrical Engineering unless it has a well-known strong Computer Science contingent that just hasn't gotten around to splitting its own department yet).  The minimum grade is B+,  that is, you cannot import any courses in which your grade was lower than B+. It is important to realize that you do not, however, receive any Columbia University "credit" for the imported course - this only counts towards fulfilling the doctoral breadth requirement.  The official import policy is stated here.

You need to find out who is the instructor in charge of the course that you wish to substitute, or the most relevant faculty member if there is no clearcut corresponding course.  When in doubt, contact the PhD Chair for guidance.

You will typically be asked to supply that faculty member(s) with your prior course's bulletin description and syllabus, a pointer to the course website (if any), the title and author of the textbook(s) used and chapter(s) covered (or a reading list if "articles" were used), possibly also your own exams, assignments, projects, etc. All of these must be in English, or validated English translation. You must also be prepared to show your transcript indicating the grade and credit awarded in the course. The faculty may in some cases contact your former institution(s) to inquire further about the course and your work in that course, or give you a "pop quiz" on the material they deem most significant.

Under what circumstances can I indeed import all five of my breadth requirement electives from another institution?

All students who entered directly to GSAS, with a prior master's degree, can import all five electives - presuming the imported courses meet all other requirements of course. Students who initially enroll in the MS/PhD program in SEAS, without a prior master's degree, will need to take at least one or two of the breadth electives here at Columbia. This is because you need six (6) breadth requirement courses or exams taken here at Columbia, imports do not count, to complete your MS.  (However, the requirements for MS/PhD completion are different for students who first enrolled prior to Fall 2008.)

I originally enrolled as an MS student, and 4115 (or 4118, 4231, 4701, 4824) was waived under "special considerations".  Why doesn't this count towards the PhD program?

The entire doctoral program core must be taken here at Columbia. The courses may be taken prior to enrolling for the doctoral program, but they must be taken here.  The MS program does not have such strict requirements, not surprisingly since its a "lesser" degree.

How do I import courses taken while previously an undergraduate (or MS) student here at Columbia?

You do not need to "import" such courses.  All graduate lecture courses taken in the Department of Computer Science at Columbia prior to formal enrollment in the PhD/DES (or MS/PhD) program automatically qualify for the breadth requirement, provided that the grade received was B+ or higher (averaging at least A- across breadth requirement courses).  Further, appropriate non-CS courses approved by your advisor (your doctoral advisor(s), that is, not your registration advisor for some prior degree) also qualify automatically - you do not need to "import" them. It is quite likely in the non-CS case that the course will not automatically appear in your mice record, however, so see the discussion above regarding current non-CS courses as to what to do to add these courses to your mice record.  In any of these cases, these points usually do not "count" towards the 30 required for the "MS along the way" (there may be an exception for students who did not "need" these points for their prior undergraduate degree here, contact the Doctoral Program Administrator for assistance if this applies to you).

What are "comps"?

Exams and/or courses fulfilling the doctoral breadth requirement are often referred to as "comprehensives" (or "comps") for historical reasons. Most frequently the term refers specifically to the exams, as opposed to the courses.  Every "core" topic offers a comp exam near the end of every semester. A very few "elective" topics offer a corresponding comp exam some (but not necessarily all) terms, also near the end of the term.  Additional information is available here.

What materials are available to help me study for comps?

A syllabus is posted for every comp exam, usually within a week or so after the first faculty meeting of the relevant semester.  In most cases, the comp exam syllabus is the same as the syllabus for the correponding course that semester; if the course is not offered that semester, then the syllabus from the most recent offering of the course is normally used.  In rare cases, a different syllabus is defined specifically for the comp exam.  In that case the syllabus will be linked to from the doctoral program website, and may also be obtained from the Doctoral Program Administrator.

Supplementary materials may or may not be posted, at the discretion of the faculty member offering the comp exam that semester.  Some instructors may provide (e.g., via a link from their website) copies of old comp exams - possibly but not necessarily including answers as well as questions, the same materials available to students taking the corresponding course, etc., but they are not required to do so.

I have outside funding.  Why am I required to be a TA?

The department requires every doctoral student to fulfill two "teaching units", independent of funding source.  The teaching requirement is founded on both pedagogical and financial bases.  You are free to waive the corresponding one-semester TA appointment, that is, the funding, but you cannot waive the mandatory teaching units.

Additional information about PhD TAs, such as how to apply for a position, can be found on the taczar website.

I already taught or TA'd while enrolled as an undergraduate or masters student here at Columbia in the Computer Science department.  Does that fulfill the doctoral teaching requirement?

Maybe. It depends on whether you were funded as a grader (small stipend) or as a teaching fellow (tuition remission plus slightly larger small stipend). 

Most undergraduate or MS students called "TAs" are considered by the university to be "graders", and they are funded on the casual payroll rather than as appointed TAs.  Their duties are often substantially different than doctoral students fulfilling the teaching requirement. 

However, those very few MS students who are funded as appointed TAs (also known as "MS teaching fellows") should be assigned approximately the same kinds of duties as PhD TAs - and in this very specific case, yes any teaching units accumulated while an MS student will indeed apply to the doctoral teaching requirement should the student later enroll in the doctoral program. However, you must explicitly "import" these teaching units during your first semester enrolled in the doctoral program, by adding them to your record in mice.

I completed the doctoral teaching requirement as an MS Teaching Fellow.  I heard that PhD Students are funded by the department during the semester they complete their last TA Unit.  When will I get my funding from the department?

You already did, you received departmental funding as as appointed TA during the semester(s) you were an MS Teaching Fellow. 

I already taught for 15 years as a full Professor at the Frobozz Institute of Technology, prior to enrolling in the doctoral program here.  Its seems that any pedagogical basis for a teaching requirement would have already been fulfilled. Why do I need to teach or TA again?

Teaching or TAing elsewhere does not "count", as stated here. We are unable to evaluate teaching or TAing activities at other institutions. Further, presumably your teaching at Frobozz was in some field other than Computer Science or a strongly related field, otherwise it is unlikely that you would now be seeking a doctorate in Computer Science.  The pedagogical basis for the requirement is concerned specifically with instruction in Computer Science.

Note also that the teaching or TAing work must have been done during the academic year (not summer), in a regular on-campus course (not CVN pre-taped), as well as in the Computer Science department at Columbia University (not in some other field, not at some other institution) - and thus would be under the supervision of the regular Computer Science department faculty.

What is a "candidacy exam"?

The candidacy exam is essentially an oral exam in your research "area", normally scheduled for a two (2) hour block of time.  It begins with a 30-minute presentation by you (the student), describing your own organization and critical assessment of the literature (from a predefined "syllabus", see below) pertaining to your "area", that is, the likely "area" of your future thesis topic.  The presentation part should not be interrupted by questions, except for "points of clarification".  The presentation is then followed by up to 90 minutes of questioning by your candidacy exam committee.  The questions normally seek to evaluate the breadth and depth of your understanding of the material from the syllabus, but may in some cases also examine the relationship between that material and other topics or work that was omitted from the syllabus but should be familiar to anyone conducting doctoral research in the "area". Following the question period, the committee "deliberates" privately (usually for about 15 minutes) to decide whether you passed or failed the exam.

In the case of a "pass", the committee signs a candidacy exam form, which you should bring to the meeting, and this form is returned to the Doctoral Program Administrator and thence to GSAS.  (Make sure you make a photocopy!)

The official description of the candidacy exam appears here.

What happens if I fail the candidacy exam?

You get (up to) two tries at the candidacy exam.  Failure to pass on the second attempt would normally lead to automatic termination from the program at the end of the relevant semester, but your advisor can (optionally) appeal to the full faculty for another chance. The full faculty may or may not grant the appeal.

My advisor chose not to appeal for a third attempt at the candidacy exam.  Can I appeal myself?

No.  Technically, you could change advisors and your new advisor could appeal, but do you really want to go through that ordeal again?  If you could not pass the candidacy exam on the second try, chances are you will also have difficulty with the thesis proposal later on.

When should the candidacy exam occur?

You must pass the candidacy exam prior to proposing your thesis. There is no particular minimal time interval defined to occur between the candidacy exam and the thesis proposal, e.g., both could occur the same day (although this author cannot imagine any advisor or student submitting to such torture).

The candidacy exam is typically done during the semester following completion of the breadth requirements, or the sixth semester, whichever comes earlier, but there is no requirement that you attempt the candidacy exam prior to your sixth semester. The number of semesters here counts from first enrollment in the doctoral program, whether MS/PhD, PhD or DES.  Failure to pass the candidacy exam by the end of your sixth semester may result in being placed on probation or (in rare cases) terminated from the program, but your advisor (not you) may petition for an extension at the Black Friday meeting.

How is the candidacy exam committee formed?

Your research advisor (and/or departmental advisor, if different) are automatically members of your candidacy exam committee, and are responsible for soliciting the additional member(s).  The committee must consist of at least three (3) persons, but there is apparently no rule restricting the maximum size to three.  The additional members may be anyone holding a doctorate or equivalent in a field related to the "area" of the candidacy exam; there is no requirement that these persons be affiliated with Columbia or the department.  This "related to" notion is often broadly construed to include all of Computer Science (and possibly other fields such as Electrical Engineering and/or IEOR), but it is better in most cases to constitute a committee whose members are all experts in the chosen "area", if possible (this may not always be possible in a very novel "area", e.g., invented by the advisor or student).

How is the syllabus for the candidacy exam determined?

The syllabus should consist of 20-30 technical papers in some cogent "area" (a textbook chapter, but usually not an entire book, would count as a paper for this purpose). The papers normally include a mix of fairly recent work as well as earlier seminal articles.  Typically the syllabus is specified by your research advisor with input from you (the student) and the other committee members, and all the committee members must approve the syllabus prior to scheduling the exam.  Sometimes the syllabus is specially tailored for a particular student; in other cases a lab or group (e.g., the databases group) has defined a standard syllabus to be used by all students in the group. It should be possible for you to read all the papers as well as prepare the candidacy exam presentation working approximately half-time for one semester.

Who may attend my candidacy exam?

Other students and faculty, family and friends, etc. may be invited to attend the presentation.  There is no strict rule regarding who may be present during the questioning period following the presentation, but typically any audience will be asked to leave. This is up to the chair (normally your departmental advisor) of the candidacy exam committee.

When should I propose my thesis?

When you are "ready". In any case, the proposal cannot occur until after the candidacy exam has been passed, and is typically scheduled for your 7th or 8th semester in the doctoral program.  The numbers of semesters here count from first enrollment in the doctoral program, whether MS/PhD, PhD or DES.  The department's official policy is given here and the GSAS official policy is here. Note that GSAS "normally expects" the thesis proposal to occur within six (6) months of completing the MPhil, but there does not seem to be any penalty for missing this deadline.

GSAS, however, requires the student to apply for (and presumably qualify for) the MPhil prior to the deposit of the thesis proposal at the GSAS Dissertation Office; there do not appear to be any timing rules associated with the "prior to", so it seems a minute earlier would suffice.  In practice, the department permits students to indeed propose the thesis before completing the MPhil requirements (all degree requirements except the proposal, dissertation and defense).  This is most likely to occur when a student is otherwise ready to propose but has not yet completed the breadth and/or teaching requirement(s).

What is involved in doing a thesis proposal?

The thesis proposal consists of both a written document, and a presentation (seminar) and "defense" of that document.  The written document consists of about 30 [machine printed] pages of "core" material, followed by an arbitrary number (perhaps zero) pages of appendices. Note that the dissertation committee is expected to read only the 30-page core, and some or all committee members may choose to ignore any appendices.

The seminar consists of 45 minutes presentation by you (the student), uninterrupted by questions except for "points of clarification".  Note this presentation is to be given in its entirety by you, not by your advisor nor by a fellow student!  The presentation is followed by an arbitrarily long period of questioning by the committee (typically about an hour, but no minimum nor maximum time period have been defined).  Finally, the committee "deliberates" privately (usually for about 15 minutes) to decide whether you passed or failed the proposal. The entire presentation, defense and deliberation often takes more than the two (2) hours implied here, however, so best to block out 2.5 to 3 hours.

In the case of a "pass", the committee signs a thesis proposal form, which you should bring to the meeting, and this form is returned to the Doctoral Program Administrator and thence to GSAS.  (Make sure you make a photocopy!)

What happens if I "fail" my thesis proposal?

This case is not well-defined.  In this author's experience, the form is not signed and the proposal presentation/defense is deemed "not to have happened" for GSAS purposes.  However, within the department records are maintained of thesis proposal failures. You try again, usually during the following semester.  The candidacy exam rule is likely to be applied - a maximum of two attempts, unless the advisor appeals and the full faculty agrees to allow another attempt.

How/when is the thesis proposal document distributed and presentation/defense scheduled?

Your advisor (or both your research and departmental advisors, if different), should read and approve the thesis proposal document in its entirely prior to distribution to other committee members.  The document must be distributed to all committee members at least two weeks (14 days) before the presentation/defense.  It is wise to first distribute the document and receive feedback from all committee members, and only after that schedule the presentation/defense. The document may be distributed in either hardcopy or electronic form, but you should ask each committee member which format he/she prefers.

How is the dissertation committee formed?

The dissertation committee consists of three (3) members. The committee members are solicited by your advisor(s), not by you. Both your research advisor and your departmental advisor, if different, should be committee members.

GSAS allows the committee to consist either of three "inside" members, or of two "inside" members plus one "outside" member.  Although the official GSAS policy (here) states that all three must be Columbia GSAS faculty, in practice one (the "outside" member) may be affiliated with Columbia in non-professorial rank, or not affiliated with Columbia at all, e.g., from another academic institution, industry or government.  Note this may mean, in some cases, that the research advisor (if different from the departmental advisor) is deemed the "outside" member of the committee.  It has been frequent, but not universal, practice in this department to indeed include an "outside" member on the dissertation committee. In any case, all three committee members must hold the doctorate or equivalent in their field, which should be strongly related to the thesis proposal topic.

In most cases, all three members of the dissertation committee will also serve on the defense committee later on, but this is not strictly required. See the separate FAQ for defending students wrt constitution of the defense committee.

Who may attend my thesis proposal seminar?

Other students and faculty, family and friends, etc. may be invited to attend the presentation.  There is no strict rule regarding who may be present during the questioning period (the proposal "defense"), but typically any audience is asked to leave. This is up to the chair of the dissertation committee, usually your departmental advisor.

I entered the PhD program without a masters degree.  How do I qualify to receive an MS?

The requirements for the "MS along the way" are  1. 30 graduate points taken at Columbia acceptable to SEAS and 2.  six (6) breadth requirement courses or exams taken here at Columbia (not imports) - of which at least four (4) must be core.   The core and elective courses to be included must actually be passed at the PhD level, that is, B+ or higher in each individual course - with an overall average of A- or higher. 

Note that the 30 SEAS graduate points and the core plus electives requirement are somewhat independent in either circumstance.  It is possible that you might complete some or all of the necessary core and electives through a combination of courses included in a prior degree program here and/or imports from elsewhere, neither of which counts towards the 30 points.  In this circumstance, you may take up to the entire 30 points (15 points per term) in COMS E9911 Graduate Research II

Additional MS/PhD (aka "MS along the way") information is available here.

What is an "MPhil" and why would I want one?  I already have an MS.

MPhil is the abbreviation for Master of Philosophy.  It is an "en course" degree offered by Columbia's GSAS and some analogous graduate schools elsewhere. You must complete the MPhil prior to or at the same time as the PhD, and after the MS.  (The MPhil is not required for DES candidates, and in fact DES candidates should never enroll in GSAS at all, since that registration will not "count" towards the DES.) GSAS describes the MPhil here.

A PhD student qualifies for the MPhil after he/she has completed six (6) residency units (RUs), thirty (30) points beyond the master's degree, and all other requirements for the doctorate except for the proposal and dissertation.  Said other requirements include all ten breadth requirement courses or exams, teaching/TAing and the candidacy exam.

It doesn't look like I'm going to finish the PhD program, but I already have an MS.  Is there some other Columbia degree I qualify for?

You may possibly qualify for the professional degree, that is, the "Computer Science Engineer" or CSE degree.  Further information about CSE requirements is available here. If you have completed all PhD program requirements except the thesis proposal and the actual thesis, you may qualify for the MPhil, "Master of Philosophy", see above.

I am currently advised by Dr. Fu Bar in the Mumblety Peg Center for Institutional Studies.  Now I hear I need a "departmental advisor".  What is this about?

Dr. Bar can remain your "research advisor".  However, all doctoral students must have an advisor who is a regular faculty member in the department.  If your research advisor does not happen to be a regular faculty member in this department, then you in addition need a "departmental advisor" who is.  The departmental advisor is typically arranged by your research advisor, but you also have say in this, discuss with your research advisor.  Your departmental advisor represents you at Black Friday meetings (although your research advisor is also supposed to attend), so make sure to meet with your departmental advisor shortly before each Black Friday meeting. Additional information is available here.

I'm not really interested in my advisor's project.  What should I do?

Discuss the problem with your advisor.  If you find it difficult to approach your advisor about this, you might want to discuss your concerns first with the PhD Chair and/or the Department Chair. You may possibly want to change advisors.  However, there are special concerns regarding students funded as graduate research assistants (GRAs), in particular you cannot start working for another faculty member while your old advisor is still paying you (unless of course your old advisor agrees to this). Look here for further information.

My advisor left the faculty.  What do I do?

Your previous advisor can continue to be your research advisor, if agreeable to both parties.  However, you will also need a departmental advisor, a departmental faculty member who is still here, in that case.  If your previous research advisor is not agreeable to continuing in the capacity, then he/she should have helped you find a new advisor before leaving. If that is not the case, then you must contact prospective advisors pronto.  Also consult either the PhD Chair or the Department Chair asap. In most cases you will be granted only one semester to find another advisor, or face termination from the program.  You should contact directly any specific faculty members working in your area(s) of interest, look here for the faculty's "research interests". Please do not send a "form letter" to a half dozen or more faculty, since these will usually be ignored. Carefully review the background, interests, and current directions of faculty members before contacting them - and then explain your qualifications and experience specifically relevant to their research programs.  Request an interview - but do so far in advance, do not just "show up" at the faculty member's door expecting him/her to be available. 

If your advisor leaving also means that you have lost your funding, then obviously you will need to explain your situation to any prospective new advisor.  He or she may or may not be in a position to offer you a GRA.  If you are a native English-speaker and have received excellent evaluations in previous TAing or teaching here at Columbia, you might be able to obtain an appointed TA position.  Contact the taczar for further information.


Last updated on May 16, 2012.