Program Requirements


For presentation purposes, the PhD program requirements are divided into general requirements that are applicable throughout the program and milestones that must be fulfilled during the program. The same program applies to students pursuing the Doctor of Engineering Science (aka DES or EngScD), except there are some minor differences in registration details. (The CVN-only DES also has identical requirements, except that the Teaching/TAing and Community Service requirements are omitted, and the students are not resident on campus. See the CVN DES program page for further information.)

General Requirements:

Directed Research

The primary focus of the PhD program is research, with the philosophy that students learn best by doing - beginning as apprentices and becoming junior colleagues working with faculty on scholarly research projects. All students spend at least half-time effort on research, usually under the direction of their advisor(s). Students are expected to participate in departmental and laboratory activities full-time on-campus throughout the program, except possibly for summer internships elsewhere. Therefore the department does not consider the admission of part-time students. Study for the MPhil, a GSAS prerequisite for the PhD, is full-time only. 


Every student must have an advisor throughout the program.  Most students arrange a research advisor (who will in most cases later become the thesis advisor) during the admissions process prior to enrollment, and work closely with him or her on directed research from their first day in the program. A few students are assigned only a nominal departmental advisor initially, and then arrange a research advisor during their first year, normally by the end of their first semester. Some students have two joint advisors.

Community Service

The Department of Computer Science takes pride in maintaining a well-developed sense of community, and sees as an essential part of its PhD degree program the preparation of its students for this important aspect of their future careers.  It therefore strongly encourages its students through their advisors to contribute a year of service to the department's professional, operational or social needs, preferably in their first two years in the program. A list of community service positions normally held by PhD students is available in mice.


Breadth Requirement

While the directed and thesis research provides depth, it is also important to ensure breadth across the subfields of Computer Science.  The core consists of four topics (analysis of algorithms, computer architecture, programming languages and translators, and operating systems), each of which may be satisfied by an examination or a specified course. A student must also complete six elective topics approved by the advisor. Some or all of the electives may be waived on the basis of courses taken elsewhere, but the entire core must be fulfilled at Columbia.


Success as a computer scientist depends not only on the ability to generate and explore new ideas but also on the ability to communicate those ideas effectively. For this reason, students are expected to develop and exercise presentation and teaching skills as part of their education.  All students are required to fulfill two "teaching units", which may involve a combination of teaching assistant and/or instructor positions.

Candidacy Exam

The candidacy exam is an oral exam based on a syllabus prepared jointly by the student and his/her candidacy committee. Admission to candidacy (passing the exam) certifies that the student has demonstrated a depth of scholarship in the literature and the methods of the student's chosen area of research, and has demonstrated a facility with the scholarly skills of critical evaluation and verbal expression.


The degree of Master of Philosophy is conferred by GSAS upon a student who has fulfilled satisfactorily all PhD milestones except the proposal and dissertation (i.e., breadth, teaching, candidacy). The MPhil also requires two Residence Units of advanced standing (completion of the MS here or elsewhere), plus four additional Residence Units earned in GSAS, and a total of 60 credits beyond the undergraduate degree (generally 30 of these will have been attained for the MS). All work for the degree must be completed within three years beyond the MS (or four years counting any time enrolled in SEAS). See the GSAS requirements for the MPhil.

Thesis Proposal

In the thesis proposal, the student lays out an intended course of research for the dissertation.  By accepting the thesis proposal, the faculty agrees that the proposal is practicable and acceptable, that its plan and prospectus are satisfactory, and that the candidate is competent in the knowledge and techniques required, and formally recommends that the candidate proceed.  GSAS imposes relatively few restrictions on the thesis proposal, but does specify the formation of the dissertation proposal committee.

Dissertation and defense

The doctoral dissertation and defense is typically completed during the fifth or sixth year in the program. Some very highly motivated students, particularly in theoretical areas, may finish in less time. GSAS imposes a maximum time-to-degree limit. Other GSAS rules and regulations, including formation of the dissertation committee and excruciatingly detailed dissertation formatting requirements, are available from the Dissertation Office. A latex template for the dissertation is here. Some defense hints can be found here.

[Note: The concept of "Pass With Distinction" was abolished after the May 2012 commencement.]

Sample Thesis Outline


 Last updated on January 22, 2014.