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University of Pittsburgh    
2019-2020 Graduate & Professional Studies Catalog 
  Feb 27, 2021
2019-2020 Graduate & Professional Studies Catalog [Archived Catalog]

Computer Science, PhD

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Admissions Requirements

Students may be admitted to the PhD program even if they do not have an MS degree. Moreover, students admitted to the MS program are eligible to complete the requirements for the PhD degree, and if they wish to transfer to the PhD program, they must apply to the admissions committee, which will make its decision based on the student’s performance in the MS program and on faculty recommendations. 

The department is open to applications from exceptional students transitioning to graduate study in Computer Science from other undergraduate fields. Transitional students with demonstrated computing aptitude, as evidenced by outstanding grades in at least four (4) of the required computer science courses noted below, may be considered for admission to the graduate program. Completed minimally a selection of courses in the following topical areas (the corresponding Pitt course numbers are indicated): 

In Computer Science, one course in each of:

In Mathematics, the following:

Degree Requirements

A student interested in earning the PhD must be admitted into that program. Master’s students interested in the PhD program are encouraged to take the preliminary exams.

Residency Requirements

All students seeking the PhD degree in Computer Science must engage in a minimum of one term of full-time graduate study by the end of the term in which the comprehensive examination is taken.

Course Requirements

The PhD degree requires 72 credits of formal course work, independent study, directed study, and/or dissertation research. In addition to the credit requirement, twelve courses are required for the PhD categorized as follows: four foundation courses, six elective courses, CS 2001  (Research Topics in Computer Science) and CS 2002  (Research Experiences in Computer Science). Students are required to take CS 2001  during their first fall term and CS 2002  the following spring term.

The four foundation courses must cover each of the following four foundation areas.

     Architecture and Compilers

     Operating Systems and Networks

     Artificial Intelligence and Database Systems

     Theory and Algorithms

The six elective courses must be 2100-level or higher Department courses and cannot be independent study courses (CS 2990 , CS 3000 ), graduate internship (CS 2900 ), thesis project or research courses (CS 2910 , CS 3900 ).  At least two of the six courses must be at the 3000-level.

The following requirements apply to the 12 required courses: 

  • All must be taken for a letter grade. 
  • Students are required to complete the four required foundation area courses by the end of the fourth regular term of study. Regular terms include the fall and spring and do not include the summer session. 
  • The student must receive a grade of B or better in each of the required foundation area courses, and a grade of B- or better in each of the six additional courses; in addition, he or she must maintain an overall average QPA of 3.0 or better. 
  • No more than six of the 12 courses may be taken outside of the Department. This includes courses that are transferred from other universities. All courses from outside the Department must be approved by GPEC. 
  • All 12 courses must be successfully completed before admission to candidacy for the PhD (This normally occurs when the student passes the oral examination during the dissertation proposal.) 

CS 2003 Requirement

After completing CS 2001  and CS 2002 , students must enroll in CS 2003  until receiving a satisfactory grade of S for four regular terms. 

In order to receive a satisfactory grade of S, students must:  

  • Attend at least seventy percent (70%) of Departmental Research Colloquia offered at the regularly scheduled course time over the course of the term. If there are an unexpectedly high number of Colloquia in a term (approximately more than one per week), attending only 10 Colloquia is required.
  • GSO-sponsored colloquia occurring within the regularly scheduled course time shall be included in the count of colloquia offered for this requirement. 
  • Perform at least one (1) approved Research Activity during a regular term (fall or spring) of each academic year.  Options include: Presenting a GSO-sponsored colloquium for CS 2003 . Other related activities may be presented to GPEC in petition for approval.  Other related activities may be presented to GPEC in petition for approval.

This annual requirement shall be evaluated only in the spring term and shall consider the academic year beginning with the prior fall term. As such, students may receive an S in the fall term having only fulfilled requirement (a), with the expectation that requirement (b) will be fulfilled in the spring. 

Preliminary Examination

To complete the PhD Preliminary requirement, each student must pass the following Department courses during the first two regular terms of study: 

  • At least two courses at the 2100 - 2899 level with a grade of A- or higher 
  • At least two courses at the 2100 - 2899 level with a grade of B or higher 

At least one of the courses taken for an A- must be a required foundation area course. Students are not permitted to repeat a class that they have passed (i.e., earned B or better) in order to improve the grade (i.e., to A or A-). Regular terms include the fall and spring and do not include the summer term. 

Comprehensive Examination

The purpose of the comprehensive exam is to test the depth of knowledge of the student in one or more areas that are related to the student’s area of research and that are approved by the comprehensive examination committee. 

To pass the comprehensive exam a student must demonstrate sufficient expertise and depth of knowledge in a selected area of foundation to conduct research leading to a dissertation in that area. The comprehensive exam is an oral exam and is administered by at least three (3) Department of Computer Science faculty that compose the PhD dissertation proposal committee. The committee has to be approved by the department chair at least four (4) weeks before the scheduled exam date. 

The student will prepare a 30-minute presentation which will be followed by an oral question and answer session. The exam is based on a reading list. The student should agree on a reading list with each member of the comprehensive exam committee at least two weeks prior to the exam. The length of the exam is at least two hours and the focus and goal of the presentation and the question and answer session will be specified by the committee at least two weeks before the exam. 

Dissertation Proposal

All PhD students must conduct original research leading to a dissertation. This research must be conducted under the direction of a faculty advisor and begins with the preparation of a dissertation proposal. A written dissertation proposal of approximately 30-40 pages and a presentation of the dissertation proposal are made to a committee of graduate faculty. This committee will examine the dissertation topic and research methods. The committee has to be approved by the department chair at least four (4) weeks before distributing the proposal or the dissertation to the committee.

The intent of requiring a dissertation proposal and an examination on it is to provide opportunities for substantive feedback from a student’s committee on the dissertation topic and methods of research. The proposal and examination can aid the student in identifying especially promising research issues and in avoiding work that the committee deems to be unnecessary or inappropriate. 

After obtaining approval of the dissertation proposal from the faculty committee, a student gains the official status of a PhD candidate. At this time the proposed research is conducted under the direction of the faculty advisor. Yearly meetings with the student’s dissertation committee are required. Upon completion of the research, and subject to agreement from the faculty advisor and committee, the candidate schedules an open meeting at which the dissertation is presented and defended. 

Doctoral Committee

Each PhD student should have a research advisor who must be a full time (primary appointment) Department of Computer Science faculty member and a member of the School of Computing and Information Faculty  . If a student chooses to have two research co-advisors, at least one of the co-advisors should be a full-time (primary appointment) Department of Computer Science faculty member and a member of the SCI graduate faculty. A co-advisor who is not a full time Department of Computer Science faculty should have a secondary (including adjunct) appointment in the Department and be a member of the SCI graduate faculty. The student should work carefully with his or her advisor (or co-advisors) to select a doctoral committee. The committee is composed of: 

  • The research advisor or the two research co-advisors
  • At least two other faculty members with a primary appointment in the Department of Computer Science, one of whom must be tenured in the Department. 
  • At least one faculty member from another department within the University that would serve as an external member. The external member(s) should also be a member of the graduate faculty. With the approval of the Dean, the external member of the committee may come from outside the University. The external member cannot serve as a co-advisor. 

A majority of the committee members must be members of the SCI graduate faculty. Regulations require that the doctoral candidate and his or her committee meet at least once per year to evaluate the candidate’s progress. The membership of the committee may be changed whenever it is appropriate or necessary, subject to the approval of the Department chair and the Dean. The committee, or any change to its member, has to be approved by the department chair at least four (4) weeks before distributing the proposal or the dissertation to the committee. Note that the doctoral committee need not be identical to the comprehensive examination committee, although usually there will be significant overlap between the two. 

Written Proposal

A written proposal must be distributed to the examining committee at least two weeks in advance of the oral examination on the proposal.

There is no specific requirement on the length of the written proposal. However, each member of the Doctoral Committee may request that the student provides him/her with a short document (about 30-40 double-spaced pages) that summarizes the proposed research. This document normally contains: 

  • a clear statement of the problem to be solved,
  • proposed methods of solution, 
  • scholarly review of related work, 
  • preliminary results obtained from a prototype program and/or a partial analysis, and 
  • a detailed research plan, stating the issues remaining to be addressed and suggestions for how they will be addressed, within a specified time frame. 

Additional documents (including papers or technical reports) may be provided as appendices. 

Oral Examination of the Proposal

After writing the proposal and conferring with his or her advisor (or co-advisors), the student must schedule an oral examination and send an announcement of the examination to all faculty and graduate students at least one week in advance of it. The oral examination (sometimes called the prospectus meeting) consists of two parts:

  • a public presentation of the proposal open to all members of the University community, followed by questions from the general audience; this component is normally 40-50 minutes in length, and 
  • a private examination by the doctoral committee. 

Any Department faculty member may attend the private examination, but only the examining committee will vote on results. The doctoral committee must unanimously approve the dissertation topic and research plan before the student may be admitted to candidacy for the doctoral degree.

The oral examination must be announced to the Department of Computer Science community via the faculty and graduate student mailing lists. This announcement must be at least one week prior to the examination. The announcement should include a title, abstract, committee member names, date of examination and location of examination. The abstract is due at least four (4) weeks before the scheduled proposal date.

It is the student’s responsibility to schedule meetings with members of the examining committee within a few weeks after the examination to review criticisms and suggestions.

After passing the oral examination on the proposal, a student gains the official status of a PhD candidate. 

Dissertation Research and Defense

The student must meet with his or her entire dissertation committee at least once per year during the time in which the research is being done. The student will also be meeting regularly with his or her advisor or co-advisors. 

Upon completion of the research, the student prepares a written dissertation, and, in consultation with his or her dissertation committee, schedules a public oral defense. 

The oral defense must take place at least eight months after the admission to candidacy. The normal format for the defense of dissertation is a public oral presentation of the research followed by questions by the dissertation committee and general audience. Only the dissertation committee will vote on the result. If the outcome is not unanimous, the case is referred to the Dean for resolution. 

The oral defense is public and open to all members of the University community. Students must complete the defense announcement form at least four weeks prior to the scheduled exam date to allow sufficient time to publish the defense in the University Times.

It is the responsibility of the student’s advisor or co-advisors to ensure that the dissertation is in final form before requesting signatures of all committee members. After the final oral examination is successfully completed, the student must submit his or hers theses or dissertation electronically. Check the graduation procedures on the SCI Current Students web page to see what you will need to submit for the Electronic Thesis and Dissertation (ETD). 

Research, Internship Training Requirement

Research Training

Because the PhD degree is a research degree, students should expect to participate in research projects as a way of learning the art of doing research. Normally, a student will start by working with a faculty member on a pre-defined research problem, and later will define his or her own research problem as the subject of the dissertation.

There is no departmental requirement that students participate in the preparation of research grant proposals. However, it is desirable that all doctoral students have some exposure to the process of preparing and submitting research grant proposals. Normally this will be part of the mentoring by each student’s advisor. 


When an international student does an internship, he or she must use Curricular Practical Training (CPT). If a student on an F-1 visa has engaged in 12 months or more of full-time Curricular Practical Training, he/she will be ineligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT). 


Milestone Limits
Preliminary Exam

Must be passed within two (2) regular terms after full status admission.

Foundation Area Courses Must be passed within two (2) regular terms after admission.
Comprehensive Exam Must be passed within four (4) calendar years of admission.
Oral Proposal Must be passed within five (5) years after full status admission.
Defense and Dissertation Submit an approved dissertation to the SCI Dean a minimum of eight (8) months after passing the proposal.
Statute of Limitations PhD degree must be completed within a period of ten calendar years from the student’s initial registration for graduate study (or within eight calendar years for students who enter with a Master’s degree). These limits apply to all students, whether full-time or part-time.

Please note that each of the above milestones must be satisfied by the indicated deadline as part of maintaining good academic standing in the department.

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