Program 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 normally consider the admission of part-time students.

[Change notes: Moved from leadin paragraph to a bullet point (and thus an explicit requirement); then reformatted as headed sections rather than bullets.]


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.

[Change notes: Revised to match reality, e.g., must have an advisor, may have 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.

[Change notes: Removed link that pointed to instructions for phdczar and dpa, not students. Revised blurb to follow those instructions (more or less). Added mice link.]

English Proficiency

A score of "level 10" on the English Placement Test (EPT) offered by Columbia’s American Language Program (ALP) is required for any foreign student whose undergraduate degree was not awarded by an institution in a country where English is the "official and spoken language". In other words, if you were required to submit TOEFL scores for admission, you will also have to pass the EPT. The GSAS policy is specified here and the SEAS policy is specified here.

[Change notes: Expanded to explain relationship to TOEFL.]

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 five topics (analysis of algorithms, artificial intelligence, 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 five elective topics, three of which must be distributed across the three main areas of Computer Science (one each in AI, Systems and Theory). The other two electives may be taken in any area, or from outside Computer Science. Some or all of the elective requirements may be waived on the basis of courses taken elsewhere, but the entire core must be fulfilled at Columbia.

[Change notes: Revised to not worry about when imports are waived, since the first semester rule was flagrantly ignored, and emphasize that core must be done here.]


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.

[Change notes: Expanded to mention oral exam, syllabus and committee.]

Thesis Proposal

In the thesis proposal, the student lays out an intended course of research for the dissertation.  By accepting the thesis proposal, the student's dissertation committee 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 according to the prospectus and under the supervision of the dissertation 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. Remaining enrolled beyond the sixth year in GSAS (or seven years counting any time enrolled in SEAS) requires special approval. Excruciatingly detailed dissertation formatting requirements are given here. A latex template for the dissertation is here. Some defense hints can be found here.

[Change notes: Removed registration detail, its on the registration page, and clarified GSAS 7 year rule.]
Last updated on September 13, 2008.