PhD Program Requirements

On This Page

Plan of Study
PhD Preliminary Exams
Course Requirements
Area Examination Requirement
PhD Thesis Advisor and Committee
PhD Comprehensive Exam/Proposal
PhD Thesis Defense 

Transfer Credits
MS Degree for PhD Students


Each graduate student is assigned an initial advisor when they are accepted into the program. PhD students consult with their faculty advisor to develop the Plan of Study, detailing courses to fulfill the breadth and depth requirements and the Preliminary Exam to be attempted. First-year PhD students must submit their Plan of Study, signed by their advisor, before registering for courses in their second semester. The duties of the faculty advisor will later be assumed by the chair of the student's thesis committee.

Plan of Study

This document lists the courses intended to fulfill the breadth and depth course requirements, and is signed by the faculty advisor (including any co-advisors). Revising the plan of study requires a new advisor signature. A minimum of thirty credit hours of graduate level courses are required. In addition, a minimum of thirty credit hours of thesis work are required for all doctoral degrees within the Graduate School. Students are encouraged to take a mixture of breadth and depth courses during the first 2.5 years.

Several examinations that are required by the Computer Science Department for graduation with a PhD degree are described below. In addition, there are requirements of the Graduate School that must be met.

These include requirements related to:

  • Preliminary Exam (Area Exams)
  • Thesis Advisor and Committee
  • PhD Comprehensive Exam/Proposal
  • Thesis Defense

PhD Preliminary Exams

The PhD Preliminary Exam fulfills the Graduate School requirement for a Preliminary Exam. The Exam consists of an Area Examination Requirement plus Course Requirements.

Course Requirements

The doctoral degree includes breadth courses and depth courses. Depth courses should be closely related to the student’s research interests and should be intellectually distinct from breadth courses.

Breadth courses should cover a range of Computer Science topics outside the student’s research interests.  The FIVE breadth courses should preferabley be from FIVE different areas.

Breadth Requirement (15 credit hours)

Five 5000-level (not 6000- or 7000-) Computer Science courses must be taken within the Department of Computer Science, according to the following requirements:

  1. All five courses must have a grade B or better.
  2. All five courses must be taken within the first five semesters.
  3. All five courses must be listed on the Plan of Study.

Note: Students must obtain approval from Graduate Committee for any exception to these requirements.

CSCI 6000 - Introduction to the Computer Science PhD Program - is a required course for all new PhD students and must be taken in the first semester of joining the program.

Depth Requirement (15 credit hours)

Fifteen credit hours of graduate level courses, from any department, organized in support of the student’s chosen research focus and according to the following requirements:

  1. All courses must be listed on the Plan of Study.
  2. All courses must have a grade of B or better.

Area Examination Requirement

The purpose of the Area Examination is to ensure that the student has sufficient depth to begin research in a selected area. Thus the exam tests knowledge of the general area of computer science that contains the research topic, deeper specialized knowledge of the specific research area that the student will be working in, and intellectual sophistication needed to conduct research in the area.

The area examination contrasts with the comprehensive exam, which is devoted to a focused research theme. It complements the course work requirement of the preliminary exam, which is meant to build breadth in Computer Science in general and general knowledge of the student's research area.

Selecting an Examination

Each student is given an advisor on entry to the PhD program. During the first semester of PhD studies, the student must file a Preliminary Exam Plan, approved by the advisor. The plan specifies the courses and the Area Exam.

  1. The plan may be amended as many times as necessary, but the advisor's approval is required on all versions of the plan.
  2. The area examination must be passed by the end of the third academic year in order to be making adequate progress. It will normally be taken during the second academic year.
  3. Because the Area Exam and coursework selections are related to competencies in a specific subject area, students with an academic advisor outside their area of interest should attempt to find a faculty member qualified to advise on the coursework and area exam components of the plan of study. The academic advisor signing the plan of study need not be a student's PhD research advisor, but should be in a related area in order to make the transition easier.
  4. A student may switch academic advisors with the approval of the new advisor. The new advisor will approve a revised Preliminary Exam Plan. A student changing areas who has already completed an area examination will not be required to take another. Instead the student will be required to make up any deficiencies as determined by the new advisor.
  5. A student is allowed at most two attempts total to pass the Area Exam.

Examination Scope and Scheduling

  1. Any three graduate faculty members can offer an area examination. Faculty outside the Computer Science department may serve on the committee as members; however the chair of the committee must a CS faculty member.
  2. All area examinations are open to all students in the department, but each student's advisor must approve of the area exam chosen by the student through the Preliminary Exam Plan. Most area examinations will be offered once per year, in the same month every year.
  3. Exams that are being offered for the first time will be announced at some point during the preceding academic year. As much information about the exam as possible will be made available when a new exam is announced.
  4. The list of all area exams for the academic year will be finalized at the start of the Fall Semester and posted on the departmental website. The Graduate Secretary must be notified of each area exam by the Exam Committee. An exam that is not on the list at the start of the academic year (or was not announced before the previous summer recess) cannot be offered that year. The date the exam will be offered, as well as its format, are at the sole discretion of the committee offering the exam.
  5. The format of the examination and the materials upon which the area examination will be based (courses, papers, and/or textbooks) will be posted at the exam website at least three months in advance of the exam. Exams will often differ slightly from the posting, but broad changes in the exam will be posted a year in advance. It is recommended that as much material as possible be available to students, e.g. previous exams.
  6. Faculty will attempt to maintain consistency in the exams. Exams in different areas should be at similar levels of difficulty. The material tested by the exam is roughly the equivalent of two graduate courses minimum and three graduate courses maximum, although the exam need not be based on any specific courses.
  7. An exam must be offered again, within a year, if a student wishes to retake it to earn a passing grade.

An Area Exam Report must be submitted upon successful completion of the exam.

PhD Thesis Advisor and Committee

The student must find a thesis topic and a thesis committee; these are usually done in parallel. The committee must include five faculty, one of whom is from outside the Computer Science Department.

The thesis topic must be acceptable to the committee and the committee must believe that the student is capable of doing the research needed to complete a thesis on this topic. This is measured by the comprehensive exam (Graduate School's terminology), which as implemented in Computer Science is really a thesis proposal to the student's committee.

The student's thesis advisor is the chair of the thesis committee and takes over the advisory role from the student's initial advisor.

PhD Comprehensive Exam/Proposal

Each student is expected to take the Comprehensive Exam/Proposal within four years of the student's admission to regular degree status. The purposes of the Comprehensive Exam are to insure that:

  • the student has a sufficient grasp of the fundamentals of the chosen thesis area to begin research;
  • the student has the ability to exchange ideas and information with the members of the Advisory Committee; and
  • the student has a broad base of knowledge about computer science.

The exam, normally an oral exam, will be given by the student's five-person thesis committee (approved by the Department Chairman). A passing grade is given if at least four of the five members of the examining committee vote to award to passing grade. The student shall not, however, receive a passing grade if the Chair of the examining committee does not vote to award a passing grade. Doctoral Comprehensive Examinations must be scheduled with the Graduate School at least two weeks in advance by submitting a Doctoral Examination Report.

PhD Thesis Defense

A thesis based on original investigation and showing mature scholarship and critical judgment, as well as familiarity with tools and methods of research, must be written on some subject approved by the student's Thesis Advisory Committee.

After the thesis has been completed, a final exam on the thesis and related topics will be conducted. This exam is oral and open to anyone.

The exam will be conducted by a committee, appointed by the Dean, which will consist of no fewer than five representatives, including at least THREE tenured or tenure track members of the home department, one OUTSIDE member from CU but outside the home department, and the last member could be from CU or professor from the University at large or experts from industry, if required by their research.

More than one dissenting vote will disqualify the candidate in the final exam. Thesis Defense must be scheduled with the Graduate School at least two weeks in advance by submitting a Doctoral Examination Report.

Transfer Credit

The Graduate School will allow doctoral students to transfer up to 21 semester hours of graduate course work at another institution toward the PhD degree. All transfer requests must have departmental approval. Transfer requests can be made with the Request for Transfer of Credit.

MS Degree for PhD Students

A student pursuing a program of study toward the PhD degree will not normally receive the MS degree. A PhD student desiring to receive the MS degree must, of course, satisfy the requirements for that degree; the most important additional requirement in this case is the completion of an MS thesis or the non-thesis option. Course work taken at this university to satisfy the requirements for the MS degree in Computer Science normally will be counted in considering the minimum requirement of course work for the PhD degree in Computer Science cited above except for MS thesis hours.