Advising Policy


Traditional doctoral student advising involves a single faculty member in the academic department, who is responsible for all aspects of a student’s progress in the degree program. However, in this era of cross-disciplinary research interests and the establishment of multi-disciplinary research centers and institutes, it is sometimes desirable for a student to be advised by a research scientist, by a faculty member outside the department, or in rare cases by an individual outside the university (including but not limited to a person formerly affiliated with the university).

Nevertheless, the Department has a responsibility to ensure that every student is affiliated with a member of the Department’s “regular faculty” who can fully and consistently represent the student in his or her interactions with the Department and the University. Thus we recognize two distinct roles, research advisor and departmental advisor.


Each doctoral student (MS/PhD, PhD, or DES) must have a mutually agreed upon “research advisor” who supervises the student’s research, including but not limited to the candidacy exam, thesis proposal and dissertation, as well as academic progress through the program’s other requirements. Co-advisors (two or more research advisors) are permitted and indeed encouraged, where both separately and jointly take full responsibility for the research and academic progress of the student.


Every doctoral student (MS/PhD, or DES) must also have a mutually agreed upon “departmental advisor” who is a current member of the “regular faculty” of the Department of Computer Science at Columbia University. When the research advisor is indeed regular faculty, then the research advisor is automatically the departmental advisor.

A separate departmental advisor is designated only when the research advisor is not a member of the department’s regular faculty (which is why this role is called the departmental advisor). In these cases, it is preferred (although not required) that the departmental advisor be tenured. Such a departmental advisor may optionally serve as a co-advisor with respect to research advising.

The departmental advisor is obligated to keep current with the academic and research progress of the student throughout each semester, and represent the student during the semi-annual student reviews (“Black Friday“). It is expected that the departmental advisor maintains regular personal contact with the student, rather than just relying on email updates or academic records. Further, the departmental advisor is expected to consult with the research advisor (if different) both before and after each Black Friday – although all research advisors shall be invited to all Black Friday meetings and are expected to attend.

Our main motivation in introducing the notion of a departmental advisor, in addition to the conventional research advisor – again only for those cases where the research advisor is not “regular faculty” – is to ensure that every student has an advisor who satisfies three conditions:

  1. The person regularly and routinely participates in “Black Friday” meetings – and not just dropping in for his/her own students or sending in email notes, but is actively aware of the general way things work, what good CS students accomplish, etc.
  2. The person is familiar with the CS doctoral program requirements and process and, at least as importantly, with some of the general reasoning as to why we do things in a certain way (“departmental culture”).
  3. The person can and does participate in decisions about the program, e.g., by participating in program decisions in faculty meetings, the PhD committee, etc.

Further, in the case where the departmental advisor is not the same as the research advisor, the two people shall co-sponsor the thesis proposal and dissertation committees (note: this is a GSAS requirement).

It is important to note that faculty members who take on the responsibility of serving as departmental advisor (but are not also the student’s research advisor) are not incurring any financial responsibility for a PhD student’s support.


It is desirable in some cases for new students to choose their advisor(s) after becoming accustomed to the department and familiar with the research programs of several faculty members and labs. First year PhD students are thus not required to have a research advisor until the end of the first year.  (Note DES students cannot be admitted without a prearranged research advisor.)

New students who do not enter with a pre-arranged “regular faculty” advisor (whether or not there is a pre-arranged non-“regular faculty” research advisor) shall be assigned a nominal departmental advisor at entrance. The departmental advisor relationship is formalized before or during the first Black Friday following enrollment. In some cases this may be delayed until (but no later than) the second Black Friday at the student’s and/or prospective departmental advisor’s request. A research advisor, if different from the departmental advisor, must also be designated by the second Black Friday – preferably by the first.


PhD (beyond first year) or DES students (throughout the program) who find themselves without either a research advisor and/or a departmental advisor, for whatever reason, should discuss the situation as soon as possible with either the Director of Graduate Studies or the Department Chair. In most cases, the student will be obliged to find a mutually agreed-upon research advisor and a mutually agreed-upon departmental advisor (not necessarily the same person, if the research advisor is not “regular faculty”) within a reasonable period of time set jointly by the DGS and Department Chair (or if this situation occurs at or shortly prior to a Black Friday meeting, by the full faculty in attendance at that meeting). In all such cases, a nominal departmental advisor may be appointed on a temporary basis.


PhD and DES students may optionally select (or change) their own secondary advisor, independent of the research advisor and/or departmental advisor, who must be a “regular faculty” member who normally attends “Black Friday” in person, and who agrees to discuss the student’s Black Friday results, progress through the program, and other issues as they arise. The secondary advisor serves no other purpose than as a “second opinion”, and does not incur any responsibility for the student’s financial support or research/academic supervision.


The research advisor is obligated to review, edit if necessary, and approve the Black Friday letters for all of his/her advisees soon after the Black Friday meeting (or within a time period determined at Black Friday, e.g., when a milestone is scheduled for early in the following semester).  The research advisor, the departmental advisor, if different, and the secondary advisor are cc’d on this letter, which is nominally signed by the Department Chair on behalf of the full faculty.  In the event that the research advisor has not approved a letter in a timely fashion, then the letter may be approved by either the departmental advisor, if different, or by the Director of Graduate Studies.

Last updated on July 20, 2016.