Ph.D. in Computer Science Overview

by Genevieve Carlton
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Doctoral programs offer focused, advanced training in computer science subfields, opening the door to employment in academia and research.

A Ph.D. in computer science provides graduate-level training for leadership roles in tech, business, and academia. Computer scientists with doctorates can also work in software engineering, artificial intelligence, and data analytics.

A doctoral degree in computer science may not be the right path for everyone, but some high-level roles require a doctorate in the field. This guide provides an introduction to the expectations of computer science Ph.D. program, common doctoral concentrations, and the job outlook for individuals with doctorates in computer science.

What Is a Doctorate in Computer Science?

A Ph.D. is the highest degree in computer science. Doctoral students focus their training in particular specialty areas, conduct research with faculty advisors, and defend dissertations. Earning a doctorate in computer science takes 4-5 years. After completing their degrees, graduates commonly work in tech, biomedicine, business, and academia.

Computer science doctoral students strengthen their problem-solving, analytical, and research abilities. The degree requires exceptional computing and technology skills. Related programs with slightly different focus areas include computer engineering and computer information systems.

Who Should Pursue a Computer Science Ph.D.?

Doctoral programs require a significant commitment of time and effort. Most Ph.D. computer science programs take around five years, and some career paths, including academia, offer lower salaries than private sector jobs. Before applying to doctoral degrees, candidates should make sure their professional goals and personal attributes fit their prospective programs.

A Ph.D. in computer science trains graduate students for research-heavy and academic positions. Doctoral graduates can work as computer science professors, computer and information research scientists, and senior computer scientists.

Many tech careers do not require a Ph.D. in computer science. Consider other professional paths like computer engineering, web development, and software engineering.

What Are the Job Opportunities After a Ph.D. in Computer Science?

Computer and information technology jobs report faster-than-average projected job growth rates and significantly above-average median annual wages, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In May 2020, tech jobs paid more than double the national median annual wage.

As a result, computer science careers offer a strong job outlook, and an advanced degree in computer science often yields greater responsibilities and higher earning potential. Professionals with Ph.D. degrees in computer science can move into academic, research, and leadership positions.

Computer and information research scientists study computing problems and develop innovative solutions that draw on existing and new technologies. Computer scientists, for example, create new programming languages, design software systems, and develop new algorithms. They also conduct experiments on computing systems to test their operations.

A Ph.D. in computer science prepares graduates for advanced roles as computer and information research scientists. Professionals with Ph.D. degrees often work in focus areas such as machine learning, data science, and artificial intelligence.
Postsecondary teachers, also known as college professors, instruct undergraduates and graduate students. Computer science professors teach programming languages, algorithms, database management, and data analytics. They also conduct research in their specialization areas and publish their findings in academic journals.

Most tenure-track academic jobs require candidates to possess doctorates, though some colleges may hire applicants with master's degrees for adjunct or instructor roles. However, an individual committed to an academic career typically needs a Ph.D

How Much Does a Ph.D. in Computer Science Make?

Computer science professionals earn a range of salaries depending on their career paths and industries. Doctoral degree-holders commonly work as computer and information research scientists, senior software engineers, computer science managers, chief technology officers, and computer science professors.

Professionals with Ph.D. degrees in computer science can earn median salaries between $85,000-$127,000 per year. The table below introduces common career paths, median salary data, and projected job growth.

Computer and Information Research Scientists

$126,830
Median Salary

15%
Job Growth (2019-2029)

Source: BLS


Postsecondary Computer Science Teachers

$85,540
Median Salary

3%
Job Growth (2019-2029)

Source: BLS


Is It Worth Getting a Ph.D. in Computer Science?

Computer science professionals with Ph.D. degrees earn high salaries and qualify for academic and research roles that either require or prefer a doctorate. When weighing whether a computer science Ph.D. makes sense, prospective students should consider whether their career goals require a doctorate.

Other factors to consider include opportunity cost, actual cost, and potential outcomes after completing a Ph.D. Is a Ph.D. in computer science worth it? The answer depends on each person's unique circumstances.

Financial Considerations of a Ph.D. in Computer Science

Earning a doctorate often means spending several years out of the workforce. Does it make financial sense for tech professionals to pursue Ph.D. degrees? A doctorate opens doors for high-paying careers as computer scientists, computer science professors, and chief technology officers.

Prospective students can lower the cost of their degree by applying for scholarships and researching fellowship and assistantship opportunities. An online Ph.D. program may offer greater flexibility for professionals who want to continue working while earning their degrees.

Admission Requirements for a Computer Science Ph.D.

Prospective Ph.D. computer science students must meet several admission requirements. At most universities, each candidate needs a minimum of a bachelor's degree in computer science or a related field. The most competitive programs may recommend a master's degree in computer science.

Each applicant typically submits their GRE scores, letters of recommendation, a resume, and a statement of purpose. International applicants generally need Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or other English language proficiency exam scores. Because admission requirements vary by university, applicants should carefully review the process at each prospective school.

What Is Required for a Ph.D. in Computer Science?

A bachelor's degree in computer science or a related field GRE test scores, though test scores are optional for some programs Letters of recommendation from former professors or supervisors TOEFL scores for international applicants A statement of purpose demonstrating drive and a clear career path The dedication to complete several years of doctoral-level computer science coursework A computer science concentration Passing scores on comprehensive exams The focus to complete dissertation research and write a dissertation Faculty committee approval at the dissertation defens

Which Country Is Best for Pursuing a Ph.D. in Computer Science?

Universities around the world offer Ph.D. in computer science programs. Where should prospective doctoral students earn their degrees? The answer depends on several factors, including location, career goals, and specialization.

Computer scientists interested in working internationally may benefit from earning degrees in the country where they plan to work, while American computer science programs may offer stronger domestic networking and career possibilities.

What to Expect in a Doctoral Program in Computer Science

Computer science Ph.D. programs prepare graduates for advanced roles. During their first year, Ph.D. students often complete required courses that provide in-depth knowledge of advanced computer science theories and applications.

Common graduate-level computer science courses cover computer systems, machine learning, databases, artificial intelligence, and data visualization. Some programs allow students to test out of core course requirements if they demonstrate graduate-level experience.

In addition to coursework, doctoral students must pass comprehensive examinations to demonstrate their mastery of computer science and move into the candidacy phase of their degrees. As doctoral candidates, they conduct dissertation research under faculty advisor supervision. A doctoral candidate completes their Ph.D. after defending their dissertation before a faculty committee.

Some programs also incorporate teaching experience or an internship. Graduate teaching assistants help professors with grading or leading discussion sections. A computer science internship builds real-world skills and helps doctoral candidates expand their professional networks.

How Long Is a Ph.D. in Computer Science?

A graduate student typically spends 4-5 years earning a Ph.D. in computer science. During that time, they complete coursework, pass comprehensive examinations, and conduct dissertation research. At the conclusion of the program, doctoral candidates defend their dissertations.

Most computer science programs operate full time, but many also offer part-time enrollment options. In a part-time program, students take a lower course load and may spend several additional years earning their degrees.

Computer Science Concentrations

During a computer science Ph.D., doctoral students choose concentrations to focus their studies. This specialization shapes their coursework requirements, choice of faculty advisor, and the material covered on comprehensive exams. In addition to the common computer science concentrations listed below, doctoral students can design custom concentrations based on their interests and career goals.

Algorithmic Fairness and Data Privacy

Algorithms aggregate data about people's lives. In this concentration, doctoral candidates examine the intersection between algorithms as tools and the role of fairness and data privacy.

Artificial Intelligence

Enrollees in this focus explore deep learning, natural language processing, and machine learning. The concentration may include AI in robotics or data analytics coursework.

Computational Biology and Biomedical Informatics

A computational biology or biomedical informatics concentration uses computer science to improve medical outcomes, analyze biological data, and engineer medical technologies. This track requires a strong background in algorithms and machine learning.

Computer Architecture

Computer architecture explores the intersection between software and hardware systems. Doctoral candidates examine advanced theoretical approaches to computer and network architecture, including memory management and data output.

Computer Graphics, Animation, and Computational Physics

Computer animation relies on advanced knowledge of computational physics to simulate motion and model shapes. This concentration focuses on graphics and animation skills that require advanced computer science techniques.

Programming Languages and Logics

Computer science researchers develop new programming languages. In this concentration, doctoral students examine the structure and logic behind programming languages to improve existing languages or create new ones.

Software Systems

A software systems concentration prepares graduates for advanced positions in software development, including academia and applied roles. This track emphasizes software systems techniques and practical applications of computing systems.

Accreditation for Computer Science Programs

Prospective computer science Ph.D. students should research program and college accreditation when considering computer science degrees. Accredited colleges meet high standards for educating students and granting degrees. An accredited degree fulfills the requirements for professional licenses and certifications.

In addition to college accreditation, the top computer science programs hold accreditation from programmatic accrediting agencies. These agencies evaluate computer science programs on their faculty qualifications, student learning outcomes, and degree requirements. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology grants accreditation to computer science programs.

Interview With an Expert

Dr. Siming Liu is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at Missouri State University. He obtained his Ph.D. in artificial intelligence in games at the University of Nevada, Reno in 2015. The focus of Dr. Liu's scientific curiosity is in computational intelligence, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, with applications in computer games and simulations. He is currently working on using reinforcement learning and evolutionary algorithms to build AI players for a variety of games (real-time strategy games, puzzle games, fighting games, racing games, sandbox games, etc).

Where did you get your Ph.D. in computer science?

I received my Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2015.

Why did you choose to study computer science?

When I was in middle school back in the early '90s, I was attracted to computers, where we could create virtual worlds and interact with the characters in these worlds through keyboard and mouse. I then decided to choose computer science as my major in college.

What did you specialize in?

I specialize in artificial intelligence, computational intelligence, machine learning, and optimizations.

What do you do for a career now?

I'm currently an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at Missouri State University. I work with graduate and undergraduate students on a variety of research projects in the field of constructing AI players to compete with human players and other AI players on different games and simulations. My long-term career goal is to be a successful researcher and educator at Missouri State.

What advice do you have for someone considering pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science?

For someone interested in a Ph.D. in computer science, I would say a Ph.D. can be extremely rewarding and a lot of fun, but it also means a great deal of dedication and hard work for a long duration. Unless you have a strong passion for the problems you are working on, you will not finish the Ph.D.

If you decide to apply to a Ph.D. program, I would recommend you to look into different universities and different Ph.D. advisors — their current research projects and their recent publications — before applying. Carefully review the Ph.D. advisors whose research topics interest you the most and contact them before you apply in order to introduce yourself and show your enthusiasm for the research.

Frequently Asked Questions

true Is It Worth Getting a Ph.D. in Computer Science?

A Ph.D. program can open new pathways and career advancement for roles in academia, research, and leadership. However, it depends on your career goals.

true How Much Does a Ph.D. in Computer Science Make?

Professionals with computer science Ph.D. degrees earn above-average salaries. In 2020, computer and information research scientists reported a median salary of over $126,000.

true What Is Required for a Ph.D. in Computer Science?

Each applicant needs a bachelor's or master's degree to gain admission to a Ph.D. program. Doctoral students must take courses, pass comprehensive exams, and defend dissertations.

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

Header Image Credit: FluxFactory | Getty Images

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