Doctoral Program Requirements

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.  New PhD students are not funded as Teaching Assistants.  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.  Students funded as GRAs are required to obtain approval from their advisor for any activities outside their advisor’s research beyond those required to fulfill the doctoral program requirements.   Students are often encouraged by their advisor to accept summer internships outside Columbia sometime during their progress through the doctoral program.   The policy on outside activities is here.  



Analysis of Algorithms is the core of Computer Science, which unites the many disparate subfields.  All doctoral 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.  Sometimes new doctoral students are admitted without a prior Analysis of Algorithms course.  Those students are required to complete CSOR W4231 during their first or second semester in the program.  

Further details about course requirements is posted here


A total of ten distinct courses are required.  All ten courses should be completed by the end of the fifth semester, at the pace of two courses per semester.   An undergraduate Analysis of Algorithms course that satisfies the prerequisite does not satisfy the breadth requirement, only graduate lecture courses can be counted towards the breadth requirement.  B+ (“PhD pass”) is the minimum acceptable grade for doctoral students in all courses.  A grade of B or lower is considered failure and does not count towards the course requirement.  The same course may be repeated until the minimum B+ grade is obtained or a different course substituted. The average grade across all courses applied to the course requirement must be A- or higher.

Further details about course requirements is posted here


Doctoral 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 (not CSOR 4246)

Further details about course requirements is posted here


In addition to the four distribution courses, doctoral 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. Most other 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.  At most two of the six electives may be graduate lecture courses offered by other departments besides Computer Science. 

Further details about course requirements is posted here



Most students arrange a research 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.  Some students have two or more co-advisors.  Research advisors are usually tenured or tenure-track faculty members in the Computer Science Department.  But sometimes the student’s research is advised by a research scientist or an affiliated faculty member from another department, in which case the student must also have a departmental advisor who is a tenured or tenure-track faculty member in Computer Science.  The departmental advisor is responsible for tracking the student’s progress through doctoral program milestones, but is not responsible for the student’s research or funding.  Both advisors are expected to represent their students at the Semi-Annual Review of all doctoral students held near the end of the fall and spring semesters. Further details on the department’s advising policy and Semi-Annual Review are here


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 doctoral 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 throughout all fall and spring semesters of the program until the dissertation has been distributed to the defense committee.  The policy on outside activities is here.   


PhD students are required to advance register for their Candidacy Exam, Thesis Proposal, and Thesis Defense with the Computer Science Department using the PhD Program Milestones Registration Form. Candidacy Exam – Register 2 weeks in advance of anticipated exam date; Thesis Proposal – Register 2 weeks in advance of anticipated proposal date; Thesis Defense – Register 6 weeks in advance of anticipated defense date. Failure to register these PhD Milestones with the Computer Science Department in time may result in the rescheduling of the anticipated date.  Contact Cindy Meekins at for more information. 


The candidacy exam is a two-hour oral exam based on a syllabus prepared jointly by the student and his/her candidacy committee. If the student passes the exam, the candidacy committee signs a form that admits the student to doctoral candidacy. The candidacy exam should be completed by the end of the sixth semester and must be completed prior to the thesis proposal.  The candidacy exam may be taken earlier; it is not necessary to complete all coursework or any other doctoral program requirements before the candidacy exam.

The Candidacy Exam Form must be prepared prior to the Candidacy Exam Date, and presented to the Committee Chair for signatures upon completion of the Exam. The signed Candidacy Exam Form must be submitted to the Computer Science Department on the same day the Candidacy Exam is completed. The Candidacy Exam Form should be signed and emailed as a PDF to the PhD Program Administrator, currently Cindy Meekins at   

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.  Both a written proposal and an oral presentation are required; at least two hours should be scheduled for the oral part.  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 proposal may be done earlier; the only doctoral program requirement that must be completed before the thesis proposal is the candidacy exam. 

The university’s permitted composition of the dissertation proposal committee and other requirements for the proposal are specified here.  Note that GSAS refers to the proposal as the “propectus”. Additional department-specific requirements for the proposal contents and presentation 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.  However, it is important to note that students cannot formally distribute their dissertation until the semester they register for their sixth RU or, more typically, after completing six RUs. 

The defense is preceded by a public seminar where the PhD candidate presents their work and the audience may ask informal questions.  Following the seminar, only the candidate and the committee meet for the formal defense in closed session.  The candidate then steps out while the committee members deliberate.  The entire proceedings should be scheduled for a three-hour timeslot.

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 dissertation formatting requirements, including a latex template, are here

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 six weeks before a defense takes place.



All doctoral 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.  All TA and instructor assignments must be for courses approved by the department’s Academic Committee as Computer Science courses and occur during regular academic semesters; the teaching units must be completed while enrolled in the doctoral program. Most students complete their teaching units during their second or third year in the doctoral program, but there are no timing restrictions on which semesters (prior to MPhil) students can do their teaching units.   Teaching or TAing paid as additional compensation (“add comp”) does not count towards the teaching requirement.  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, and teaching/TAing. 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 August 19, 2022.