Why You Should
Get a PhD in Computer Science

A Doctor of Philosophy in Computer Science (PhDCS) certifies that the bearer is an expert in the field, both in theory and practice. A computer science doctorate is the highest degree you can get, but you can continue your studies in a postdoctoral fellowship program.

Earning a PhD requires lots of research and involvement in projects. To learn if a PhD in computer science is for you, read on.

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Computer Science PhDs: An Overview

A doctoral degree in computer science will establish your expertise in the field. Your earning potential will likely increase after finishing your degree. As a leader in the study of computer science, you can spearhead projects of your own and lead other research professionals.

A PhD in Computer Science program is designed to increase the breadth and depth of your knowledge. The breadth requirements allow you to cover all the different areas of computer science. The depth requirements, meanwhile, consist of your specialization. This is where you build expertise in the theories and principles of a single area of computer science.

The final stage of getting a PhD is the dissertation. This is proof of your ability to conduct original research in computer science. Some universities require residency, a capstone project, and teaching experience before you can write your dissertation. Check each program to make sure you meet its criteria.

Computer Science PhD Degree Requirements

Allocating at least four years of extra schooling to a doctoral degree program is a big decision. Considering how rigorous PhD applications are, you may not even qualify for the program.

The best way to tip the odds in your favor is to get a Master’s Degree in Computer Science and get your master’s research project published. You can apply with only your bachelor’s degree, but you’ll need to have an exemplary academic record to back it up.

Once you’ve made it into a PhD program, your path to graduation will consist of the following requirements.

Breadth Requirements

Breadth requirements in a PhD program gauge your understanding of the core areas in the field. In computer science, these include the broad areas of theory, systems, and artificial intelligence. From each area, you need to choose one or two sub-areas to focus on.

The offered sub-areas vary per school or college, but most of them will require you to get a grade of B or higher. Since these take up the bulk of your coursework, you’ll want to finish them as soon as you can so you can move on to other requirements.

Depth Requirements

The depth requirements at the doctorate level are referred to as the qualifying exams by many universities. Before you get to this requirement, you must form an advisory committee with at least three faculty members. These are the people who will administer your qualifying exams, testing you on your depth of understanding of a specific topic.

You will need to prepare an oral presentation about your achievements in the academic field, as well as the projects you are currently working on. Your presentation will give the committee an idea of your expertise so they can ask questions relevant to that. You should also have ideas for what your dissertation project will be.

PhD Program Dissertation

After your qualifying exams, you need to prepare a prospectus in which you outline your proposed dissertation project. Then, you work on your dissertation under the guidance of your committee. After submitting your finished thesis and earning the approval of the committee and the university, you will earn your PhD.

When brainstorming ideas for your dissertation project, a good starting point is a research gap. If you do not have a particular area of computer science in mind, consider looking into algorithms and distributed computing, machine learning, medical image analysis or pattern recognition, or business process modeling. These areas have a lot of unexplored terrain.

Project Requirement

Some universities require their PhD candidates to submit a capstone project as part of the curriculum. Usually, it is a software application. For this project, you need to get a B-minus grade or higher.

Teaching Requirement

Some PhD students have no desire to teach or become a professor. However, many universities believe that their candidates should be prepared to go down that road. They allow their PhD candidates to practice teaching during their program.

If you do not see yourself working in academia, you can apply to be a teaching assistant for a semester or two. Otherwise, you can teach a class by yourself.

Residency Requirement

Some computer science doctoral degree programs have a residency requirement, similar to resident doctors in hospitals. The goal is to gain more experience and become more acquainted with your future colleagues in the field. Usually, your residency as a computer scientist in training will take between three and six months to complete.

Computer Science Doctorate Program of Study

Computer Science Doctorate Program of Study

The course of study in a computer science doctoral program is designed to measure a candidate’s competency, understanding of the field, and commitment to the advancement of computer science knowledge. Your experience may differ depending on which specialization you pursue.

Areas of Study and Coursework

Coursework varies by university, but below we list some of the most common concentrations available to computer science PhD students.

Computer Science Theory

Theoretical computer science courses tackle the theory of algorithms and complexity theory. As the bridge that links mathematics and computer science, this subject is often mandatory.

In this subject, you will learn about measures of computational effort such as time, memory, randomness, and parallelism. Other universities offer additional topics like cryptography.

Software Engineering

If you want to be a software engineer, we recommend taking more classes related to the subject. It’s important not to confuse software engineering for a programming language subject. Although programming is part of the subject, you will encounter more engineering principles rather than simply designing detailed instructions for computers.

Computer Systems

This sub-discipline covers the integrated devices or hardware that allows a computer to input, process, and store data and information. In addition, you’ll learn about simple interfaces and how to use them in designing complex and powerful systems.

Other topics that might interest you in this subject are digital logic, memory, processors, assembly languages, recursive descent parsing, code generation, virtual machines, and operating systems.

Programming Languages

There is a wide array of programming languages that programmers and developers use nowadays. While it can get confusing and overwhelming at times, it is advisable to learn a few from the general categories of programming languages.

You can enroll in classes that discuss systems programming languages like C or C++, or a language like Scala, which adheres to the functional paradigm. There are also object oriented languages like Java or Python. Alternatively, you can dive deep into understanding Python as a powerful scripting language alongside JavaScript.

Aside from the programming languages themselves, this area also covers methodology and language design. Some schools offer program logic and verification, automated reasoning, compilers, type theory, and program analysis.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

AI is a research field that aims to simulate human or natural intelligence through machines. Fundamental topics include robotics, human-computer interaction, information retrieval, natural language processing, computer vision, knowledge representation, and reasoning. AI is widely used in industries such as manufacturing, finance, and healthcare.

Computer Graphics

Computer graphics is a fundamental technology used in many applications. It is referred to in films as computer-generated imagery or CGI. Other applications of computer graphics hardware are in digital photography, movies, games, computer-aided design, and virtual simulators, to name a few.

Pixels are the building blocks of computer graphics. These comprise digital art, models, and designs. Using mathematical transformation concepts to calculate the occlusion and depth of objects, you can apply textures and lighting to models and render them.

Doctor of Philosophy in Computer Science Career Paths

Undertaking research will always be an essential activity for any field. While some career paths do not require a PhD, you can make your mark by improving a process or innovating a product as an outcome of your research.

Computer Systems Engineer

A computer systems engineer applies engineering, computer science, and math analysis principles to develop and evaluate software and personal computers. Aside from having comprehensive knowledge of the principles, computer systems engineers have the skills and expertise in designing the technology to fit the client’s needs.

According to ZipRecruiter, computer systems engineers earn an average of $75,302 per year.

Computer Network Architect

Computer network architects deal with data communication networks. These include local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs), and Intranets. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary of a computer network architect was $116,780 in 2020.

BLS also estimates that the growth of this occupation between 2019 and 2029 will be one percent higher than the average growth for all occupations. Although this might not seem like much growth, the demand for computer network architects remains high because of the recent expansion of information technology network firms.

Most employers require their applicants to have at least five years of relevant work experience. Although those with a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science or Information Technology can apply to be a computer network architect, professionals with a master’s degree or PhD have the upper hand.

Computer Scientist

Computer scientists are also referred to as computer and information research scientists. This profession develops new approaches and improves the existing computing technologies. BLS projects 15 percent growth for computer scientist jobs between 2019 and 2029, so this profession will still be relevant in the coming years.

Computer scientists focus on the technological application of theories and concepts to programs rather than to the hardware. To become a computer and information research scientist, you should study physics and math at the doctorate level.

According to BLS, the median annual salary for computer and information research scientists in 2020 was $126,830 per year. The high pay is one of the main attractions of this occupation.

Computer Hardware Engineer

Computer hardware engineers are responsible for designing the hardware, creating the blueprints, and overseeing the manufacturing process of computers. They work with software engineers to create powerful information technology devices from the inside out. In some cases, they also work on car parts, medical devices, and other high-tech products.

You can become a computer hardware engineer without a PhD, but it is probably not a good option in the next few years because of its slow growth rate of only two percent. But, BLS reports that the median salary for computer hardware engineers is $119,560 per year.

Software Developer

Software developers create and design programs that allow people to perform tasks on a computer or other devices. They oversee the whole development process of a software program, from planning to implementation. Some software developers code programs themselves but they can also delegate that task to a computer programmer.

If you can, it’s better to have a specialization in software development, like applications or systems, and a specific market to sell your skills to. Most of your tasks will depend on the client’s needs and preferences. You could end up developing upgrades, testing, or maintaining applications, to name a few possibilities.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual pay for software developers was $110,140 as of May 2020. You can be a software developer with a bachelor’s degree and even without prior work experience. With a 22 percent growth rate according to BLS, software development will remain a sensible career choice in the coming years.

Database Administrator

A database administrator is indispensable for maintaining the health of a database. An organization runs without fuss if someone manages, backs up, and makes the collected data available daily. These tasks are the responsibility of a database administrator.

According to BLS, the median annual salary for database administrators was $98,860 in 2020, and this occupation is growing faster than most.

Grad School Admissions Process for Computer Science

Grad School Admissions Process for Computer Science

The graduate school admissions process for computer science is similar to undergraduate school admissions. You will submit transcripts, GRE test scores, a letter of intent, letters of recommendation, and a list of your awards and achievements.

Before being admitted as a PhD student, universities expect you to have sufficient research experience. If you do not have this yet, you can start now and make up for it. You can join a research laboratory or apply for internships and do research. Having published papers will also improve your chances of getting into your chosen university.

Graduate Student Application

Advisers look for three traits in PhD candidates. First, a PhD candidate must be passionate about doing research. Next, they must demonstrate confidence in undertaking laboratory work. So, emphasize your good qualities and ability to keep an open mind. Lastly, you should show a genuine interest in the subject matter.

If you want to improve your chances of getting into a PhD program in computer science, you should focus on polishing your laboratory skills and doing more relevant research in the field.


During your undergraduate classes, you should take relevant courses that will give you a boost in your PhD journey. The classes on your transcripts will show how interested you are in the field. For example, you could take electives related to computer science instead of cruising to an A with easier courses.

Getting good grades and high scores on the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is proof of your academic potential that you can bank on during the PhD application process. However, these numbers will not look as good to the admissions committee if your research experience is sparse. The key is to do well in both areas.

Letters of Recommendation

You need to submit two or three letters of recommendation with your PhD application. Your recommenders should be professors, supervisors, or project leaders who can vouch for your research ability. There is a high chance that a member of the admissions committee is an acquaintance of one of the people who recommended you. This will work in your favor.

If you don’t have much research experience, you can still request letters of recommendation from people in the field. Reach out to your internship supervisor or the professor you worked with as a teaching assistant and ask them to vouch for you. They can emphasize your problem-solving skills, which is an important research skill.

Letter of Intent

Some universities refer to this requirement as a statement of purpose. This is basically an essay about why you want to pursue a PhD. Here, you can communicate your thoughts to the admissions committee prior to the interview.

Write about what motivated you to apply for a PhD and what will keep that fire burning while you finish your degree. Research your prospective department and university, read the publications of your future professors, and personalize your content based on that information. Make your letter stand out from other applications, and hope for the best.

Publications, Patents, Awards, and Other Academic Achievements

It will be hard to convince the admissions committee to approve your application if your research experience is thin. You can try to compensate for this by adding in any relevant academic achievement that you think is impressive.

GRE Test Scores

Your GRE test scores won’t affect your application unless they are significantly low. As a PhD candidate, you’ll want to get high scores, but getting an average score is also fine. Just make sure that you perform evenly on all of the subjects.

Extracurricular Activities

If you have many extracurricular activities from your undergraduate career, you don’t have to include them all in your application. Choose the activities that are most relevant to your program and rank them according to significance. If you were a teaching assistant previously, you could also include this on the list.

Is a PhD Program in Computer Science Worth It?

A PhD program will guarantee you cutting-edge research skills, allow you to do high-impact research, and enhance your mastery of the field.

Pursuing a PhD in Computer Science is not everyone’s cup of tea, as this path is highly demanding. You may have the resources, the connections, and the brainpower to comply with each requirement. But, if you are not convinced that these efforts will pay off, then it’s not worth pursuing a doctorate.

Should You Pursue a Doctorate in Computer Science?

If you are looking for ways to invest in yourself, pursuing a PhD is a good choice. The title of Doctor of Philosophy in Computer Science has a nice ring to it. But, keep in mind that attaining it will take four or more years of your life. Just make sure that you love research. You will be spending more than half of your time in school doing just that.

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