Doctoral Program Requirements

All PhD students are expected to be full-time on-campus during every fall and spring academic semester from initial enrollment until the dissertation has been distributed to their defense committee, except during leaves of absence approved by the university.   PhD students receive full funding (tuition and stipend) from either a Graduate Research Assistant (GRA) position provided via their research advisor, or an internal or external fellowship.   New PhD students are not funded as Teaching Assistants.  Students are not required to be on-campus during the summers, and are often encouraged by their advisor to accept summer internships outside Columbia sometime during their progress through the doctoral program.


A total of ten courses are required.  All ten courses must be completed by the end of the fifth semester, at the pace of two courses per semester.

A small number of courses offer “cumulative final exams” that may be taken by PhD students in lieu of or in addition to enrolling for the course.  These courses are announced mid-semester, with the exams offered at the end of the semester.  Passing the exam (B+ or higher) will satisfy the corresponding PhD program course requirement.  However, students cannot receive Columbia credits for a course completed  via exam, only for regular registration for the course; see below for other ways to fulfill the Columbia credit requirements.


The minimum passing grade for PhD students in courses and cumulative exams is B+ (i.e., a B grade is considered failure).  The average grade across all courses must be A- or higher.  If a student receives lower than B+ grade, or has less than average A- across the ten courses, additional courses (beyond the baseline ten courses) must be completed to fulfill the course requirements.


Analysis of Algorithms is the core of Computer Science, which unites the many disparate sub-fields.  All PhD students are expected to have completed an acceptable graduate or upper-level undergraduate lecture course in Analysis of Algorithms, with grade B+ or higher, prior to entering the program. This does not count as one of the ten courses.

However, students are sometimes admitted without a previous Analysis of Algorithms course, but then must complete COMS W4231 at Columbia, with grade B+ or higher, by the end of their first year in the program.  COMS W4231 is then treated as one of the ten required courses, so can satisfy either the Theory distribution requirement or serve as an elective.


PhD students must complete at least four graduate lecture courses from the approved distribution course lists, including at least one from each of Artificial Intelligence and Applications, Systems, and Theory areas, and the fourth from any of these three approved lists.

The currently approved distribution courses are as follows:

Area Approved Courses
AI & Applications All COMS 47xx courses except { COMS 4721 and COMS 4776 }
All COMS 416x and COMS 417x
CBMF 4761 
Systems All COMS 41xx courses except { COMS 4121, COMS 416x and COMS 417x }
All COMS 48xx courses
COMS 4444
CSEE 4119, CSEE 4823, CSEE 4824, CSEE 4840, CSEE 4868
EECS 4340 
Theory All COMS 42xx courses
CSOR 4231

These approved lists consist entirely of regular 4000-level graduate lecture courses offered by the Computer Science department (in some cases jointly with other departments).  Regardless of course number, no courses named “xxx for Data Science” or labeled “Data Science only” are acceptable.  No 4995 topics courses, 5000-level or above courses, seminars, project courses, courses offered by other departments at Columbia besides Computer Science, or courses taken at other institutions may be applied to the distribution requirement.


Completion of the Analysis of Algorithms prerequisite together with all four distribution courses constitutes completion of “the qualifier”.  The department does not have a qualifier exam. This definition of “the qualifier” is relevant only when a PhD student needs to fill out external forms, e.g., for applying as a student volunteer and/or for student travel funds for a conference, or applying to attend a doctoral symposium at a conference, where the form asks whether the student has completed the qualifier.


In addition to the four distribution courses, PhD students must complete six elective graduate lecture courses approved by the student’s advisor.

Additional courses from the approved lists, beyond the four needed to satisfy the distribution requirement, may be taken as electives.  Any other 4000-level or 6000-level graduate lecture courses offered by the Computer Science Department (or offered by Computer Science jointly with other departments) may be taken as electives, including 4995 and 6998 topics courses.  Project-only courses, such as COMS W4901 or COMS E6901, are not acceptable as electives.

At most two of the six electives may be technical (STEM) graduate lecture courses offered by other departments at Columbia.  None of the six electives can be non-technical courses, e.g., offered by the business school. In other words, at least four of the six electives must be Computer Science courses and the other two must be offered by a SEAS department or a STEM A&S department (e.g., Statistics). Typically all six are Computer Science courses.

Some or all of the six electives may be imported from previous schools for students who enrolled in the PhD program with a prior masters degree.  However, students who enrolled for PhD without a prior masters degree may import at most four electives from a previous institution since two electives offered by the Computer Science department, in addition to the four distribution courses, must be taken at Columbia to complete the MS (see MS Leading to PhD).

Only Computer Science graduate lecture courses offered by a Computer Science department at a prior institution for credit towards a graduate degree in Computer Science can be imported.  The at-most-two non-CS STEM graduate lecture courses must be taken at Columbia.  No undergraduate courses can be imported or otherwise applied to the PhD course requirements except for the Analysis of Algorithms prerequisite, and all imported courses except the prerequisite should have been completed during the past five years. Further details are available here.

Course imports are not treated as “transfers” and do not grant degree credit (Columbia points), so students must substitute another course towards the university’s degree credit requirement. The department offers credit in the COMS E9911 research course for the purpose of fulfilling the 30 points required for masters beyond the undergraduate degree, for students who enroll without a prior masters degree, and the additional 30 points required for the PhD beyond the masters degree.



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 (those funded by fellowships rather than GRAs) may be assigned only a nominal departmental advisor initially, and then must arrange a research advisor during their first year, normally by the end of their first semester.  Some students have two or more joint research advisors.

In almost all cases, the research advisor is a tenured or tenure-track faculty member appointed in the Computer Science Department at Columbia.  In rare cases the research advisor may be a research scientist in the CS department, an officially approved “affiliated” faculty member in another department at Columbia, or a former CS faculty member who has left the department and/or the university, in which case the student must also have a “departmental advisor” who is a tenured or tenure-track faculty member whose primary appointment is in the CS department.  The departmental advisor is responsible for reporting to the faculty on the student’s progress through PhD program milestones, but is not responsible for directing the student’s research nor the student’s funding.


The primary focus of our doctoral 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 PhD students are required to spend at least half-time effort on research under the direction of their advisor throughout the program, normally full-time after completion of courses and TAing requirements.  Students are also expected to participate in departmental and laboratory activities full-time on-campus throughout all fall and spring semesters of the program until the dissertation has been distributed to the defense committee.   


The candidacy exam is an oral exam based on a syllabus prepared jointly by the student and his/her candidacy committee. Admission to candidacy (i.e., 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 candidacy exam should be completed by the end of the sixth semester or earlier, typically the semester after completing all courses, and must be completed prior to the thesis proposal.

More detailed information, including the permitted composition of the candidacy committee, is here.


In the thesis proposal, the student lays out his or her intended course of research for the dissertation.  If the student passes the written and oral components of the proposal, the thesis proposal committee signs a form to recommend that the candidate proceed.  The proposal should be completed by the end of the eighth semester.

The university’s permitted composition of the dissertation proposal committee and other requirements for the proposal are specified here.  Additional department-specific requirements are here.


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.

Various forms and instructions for filling out the forms, composition of the dissertation committee, handling of remote participants in the defense, revision and deposit of the dissertation, and many other topics, are available from the GSAS Dissertation Office.

The Application for the Dissertation Defense form should be submitted by the student to the department, and then by the department to the university, as soon as the (exactly) five committee members have been finalized, even when the defense has not yet been scheduled.  This form must be received by the department at least four weeks before a defense takes place.



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, all students are required to develop and exercise presentation and teaching skills as part of their doctoral education.  Students are required to fulfill two “teaching units”, together the equivalent of a one-semester TA appointment, which may involve a combination of teaching assistant and/or instructor positions, and can be spread over two semesters with approval of the student’s advisor.  The teaching requirement should be completed by the end of the sixth semester.

More detailed information is here.


The Department of Computer Science takes pride in maintaining a well-developed sense of community, and sees as an essential part of its doctoral program the preparation of its students for this important aspect of their future careers.  It therefore strongly encourages students to contribute a year of service to the department’s professional, operational, or social needs, preferably during their second and/or third year in the program.

A list of community service positions normally held by doctoral students is available in mice.


The en-course degree of Master of Philosophy is conferred upon a PhD candidate who has satisfactorily fulfilled all milestones except the proposal and dissertation. This includes all courses, candidacy exam, teaching/taing, and community service. The MPhil also requires completion of six Residency Units (RUs) and sixty graduate points beyond the undergraduate degree.  Two RUs and thirty points of advanced standing are granted for completing the masters degree.

See the university requirements for the MPhil.

Last updated on March 10, 2019.