Doctoral Program Requirements

For presentation purposes, the PhD and DES doctoral program requirements are divided into general requirements that are applicable throughout the program and milestones that must be fulfilled during the program.

The “distance learning” (CVN) Doctor of Engineering Science (DES) variant of the doctorate has identical requirements to the on-campus doctoral program listed below, except that Teaching/TAing and Community Service are omitted, and the students may be part-time and not resident on campus.



The primary focus of the 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 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 except for CVN “distance learning” students. Study for the MPhil, a GSAS prerequisite for the PhD, is full-time only.


Every PhD and DES 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 or more joint advisors.


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 its PhD and on-campus DES students to contribute a year of service to the department’s professional, operational, or social needs, preferably during their first two years in the program. A list of community service positions normally held by doctoral students is available in mice. CVN DES students are not expected to contribute community service.



Analysis of Algorithms is the core of Computer Science, which unites the many disparate sub-fields.  All PhD and DES students are expected to complete an acceptable lecture course (graduate or upper-level undergraduate) in Analysis of Algorithms, with grade B+ or higher, prior to entering the program.  Students who have not already satisfied the Analysis of Algorithms prerequisite prior to enrollment must take COMS W4231 at Columbia by the end of the first year in the program.

[Instituted by full faculty vote April 23, 2014, modified by full faculty vote September 16, 2015.]


While the directed and thesis research provides depth, it is also important to ensure breadth across the many sub-fields of Computer Science. The distribution requirement tasks PhD and DES students to complete a total of four graduate lecture courses, including at least one from the approved lists for each of the Artificial Intelligence and Applications, Systems, and Theory areas, and the fourth from any of these approved lists. Every PhD and DES 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 distribution requirement must be fulfilled at Columbia.  (Course waiver does not grant degree credit, so students must substitute another course towards the degree credit requirement.)

[Modified by full faculty vote April 4, 2014, effective for incoming students starting in Fall 2014 or later.]

Completion of the Analysis of Algorithms prerequisite together with all four distribution courses constitutes completion of “the qualifier”.

[Added by full faculty vote, September 16, 2015.]


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, PhD and on-campus DES students are expected to develop and exercise presentation and teaching skills as part of their education.  Students are required to fulfill two “teaching units”, which may involve a combination of teaching assistant and/or instructor positions. CVN DES students are exempted from the teaching/TAing requirement.


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 PhD or DES 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 must be completed prior to the thesis proposal.


The degree of Master of Philosophy is conferred by GSAS upon a PhD student who has fulfilled satisfactorily all PhD milestones except the proposal and dissertation (i.e., prerequisites, breadth, teaching, candidacy). The MPhil also requires completion of six Residence Units and a total of 60 graduate units beyond the undergraduate degree (including the 2 RUs and 30 units of advanced standing obtained after completing the MS degree). All work for the degree must be completed within three years beyond first enrolling in GSAS (or four years counting any time enrolled in SEAS). See the GSAS requirements for the MPhil.


In the thesis proposal, the PhD or DES 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.  The formation of the dissertation proposal committee is specified 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. GSAS imposes a maximum time-to-degree limit for PhD students. SEAS imposes a maximum limit for DES students, which may be different. Excruciatingly detailed rules and regulations, including formation of the dissertation committee, handling of remote participants in the defense, and filling out the numerous forms, are available from the Dissertation Office. A latex template for the dissertation is here. Some defense hints can be found here.

The Application for the Dissertation Defense should be submitted by the department as soon as the five committee members have been finalized, even when the defense has not yet been scheduled.  This form must be received from the department at least four weeks before a defense takes place. Failure to adhere to this policy may result in the defense application being rejected. Dates and deadlines for the defense and deposit can be found here.




Last updated on August 11, 2016.