Advising Policy

Unless otherwise stated, all doctoral program requirements apply equally to PhD and DES students.


Every doctoral student must have an advisor throughout the program.

DES applicants are admitted only if the applicant was recruited by a tenured or tenure-track member of the Computer Science Department faculty who asked to be the student’s research advisor.  DES students must be advised by a tenured or tenure-track Computer Science faculty member throughout the program.

Most PhD 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 PhD 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.

In almost all cases, a PhD student’s research advisor is a tenured or tenure-track faculty member appointed in the Computer Science Department at Columbia.  In rare cases, a PhD student’s research advisor may be a lecturer or 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 doctoral program milestones, but is not responsible for directing the student’s research nor the student’s 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 and should participate in the same “review group”.

Some doctoral students have two or more joint research advisors.


The full faculty holds an all-day meeting near the end of the fall and spring semesters to review the progress of every doctoral student.  A draft review letter is composed for each doctoral student during the meeting.  A student’s letter states whether they are making “satisfactory progress” or “unsatisfactory progress”, and specifies overdue or upcoming milestones and activities expected or required of the student.  The research advisor, and the departmental advisor if different, may edit the draft review letter and then approve finalizing the letter soon after the Semi-Annual Review (or within a time period determined at the Semi-Annual Review, e.g., when a milestone is scheduled to occur soon after the meeting or the student is taking courses whose final grades are not yet known).  The finalized letter is signed by the Department Chair on behalf of the full faculty and sent via email to the student, with the research advisor, the departmental advisor (if different), and the secondary advisor cc’d.  In the event that an advisor has not approved a student’s review letter in a timely fashion, then the letter may be approved by either the Director of Graduate Studies or the Department Chair.


Traditional doctoral student advising involves a single member of the academic department’s regular faculty, 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 an affiliated research scientist or by an affiliated faculty member outside the department.  In rare cases, a previous advisor who has left may be permitted to continue advising.

Nevertheless, the Department has a responsibility to ensure that every student is associated 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 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 student’s progress in the doctoral program.

All tenured and tenure-track (ToTT) faculty in the department are eligible to serve as research advisors.  Full-time teaching faculty, research scientists, and non-CS faculty members formally affiliated with the department may also serve as research advisors. Former research advisors who have left their position with the department or the university may in rare cases be permitted to continue as research advisor. No one else is eligible to serve as a research advisor or co-advisor for a doctoral student.

To ensure that advising relationships are acceptable to the department, all research advisors arranged during the admissions process must be approved by the PhD Admissions Chair. All later advisor arrangements and changes must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies.  The Department Chair reserves ultimate authority for all advisor approvals. In all cases, the PhD Program Administrator is responsible for verifying approvals.


Every doctoral student must also have a mutually agreed upon “departmental advisor” who is a current tenured or tenure-track (ToTT) faculty member in the Department of Computer Science at Columbia University. When the research advisor is indeed ToTT 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 ToTT faculty, e.g., a research scientist or a faculty member in another department.   In these cases, it is preferred that the departmental advisor be tenured. 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 Review. 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 both before and after each Semi-Annual Review – although all research advisors are invited to all Semi-Annual Review 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 ToTT faculty – is to ensure that every student has an advisor who satisfies three conditions:

  1. The person regularly and routinely participates in the Semi-Annual Review – 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.

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 the student’s support.


It is desirable in some cases for new PhD students to choose their research 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.

New PhD students who do not enter with a pre-arranged research advisor shall be assigned a nominal departmental advisor at entrance. The departmental advisor relationship is formalized before or during the first Semi-Annual Review following enrollment. In some cases this may be delayed until (but no later than) the second Semi-Annual Review at the student’s and/or prospective departmental advisor’s request. A research advisor, if different from the departmental advisor, must also be designated no later than the second Semi-Annual Review.


Doctoral students 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 within a reasonable period of time, usually by the following Semi-Annual Review.  A nominal departmental advisor shall be appointed by the Director of Graduate Studies or the Department Chair on a temporary basis.


All doctoral students are assigned a “secondary advisor” during their first semester and thereafter should have a secondary advisor throughout the program. The secondary advisor is independent of the research advisor and/or departmental advisor, and must be a regular tenured or tenure-track faculty member in the department who normally attends the Semi-Annual Review meeting and who agrees to discuss the student’s formal notification of progress and status (i.e., the semi-annual review letter) as well as related issues as they arise.  The secondary advisor is normally arranged by the research advisor, but doctoral students may optionally select (or change) their own secondary advisor. 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 supervision.

Important note: The secondary advisor should be in the same “review group” as the student’s research advisor and departmental advisor.

Last updated on June 4, 2024.