Javascript is currently not supported, or is disabled by this browser. Please enable Javascript for full functionality.

Skip to Main Content
University of Pittsburgh    
2017-2018 Graduate & Professional Studies Catalog 
  Jun 12, 2024
2017-2018 Graduate & Professional Studies Catalog [Archived Catalog]

Intelligent Systems, PhD

Return to School of Computing and Information Return to: School of Computing and Information

The Intelligent Systems Program (ISP) is a degree-granting program in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Arts and Sciences that enables graduate students to pursue diverse interdisciplinary studies in applied artificial intelligence.  The scope of the program is broad, but encourages students to explore concentrations in specific areas, such as medical diagnosis, knowledge representation, machine learning, intelligent tutoring, natural language generation and discourse, planning, case-based reasoning, and problem solving.

Many of Pitt’s acclaimed schools are represented through our associated faculty, including the School of Medicine, the School of Law, the School of Education, and the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.  There are especially strong connections to research groups in the Department of Computer Science, the Department of Biomedical Informatics, the Learning Research and Development Center, the Department of Linguistics, the Swanson School of Engineering and the Department of Psychology.

The program offers Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degrees and an area of concentration in medical informatics.

Contact Information

Director: Diane Litman
Administrator: Michele Thomas
Main Office: 5113 Sennott Square
Fax: 412-624-8561

Admissions Procedures

Before You Begin

The application form is online. You will find the application process easier if, before beginning the process, you:

  • Prepare a personal statement and gather relevant information. See Admissions Requirements.
  • Contact three persons who know you well and are familiar with your academic accomplishments, and request that each person write a letter of recommendation on your behalf. At least one of these persons should be familiar with the field of intelligent systems. Recommenders are required fill out the recommendation form online, so make sure to obtain e-mail addresses for each recommender.
  • Have Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores sent to the University of Pittsburgh. The University’s college code is 2927. Applicants with MDs may be admitted without GRE scores; however, we stress that since most applicants do submit scores, having these could strengthen your application.
  • Note for non-native English speakers: Have your TOEFL scores sent to the University of Pittsburgh. The Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences has TOEFL or IELTS minimum requirements for admission. Effective for 2013-2014 applicants:  The required TOEFL score of 90 (with at least a score of 22 in all of the four sections of speaking, listening, reading and writing). The required minimum IELTS of 7.0 (with at least 6.5 in each of its four sections).  The University of Pittsburgh’s college code is 2927.
Previous transcripts

Contact the registrars’ offices at each college or university you attended previously and request that they send your official transcript to:

University of Pittsburgh
Intelligent Systems Program
5113 Sennott Square
210 South Bouquet Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15260

Deadlines and Important Notes

The deadline for receipt of applications with consideration for financial aid is January 15 every year. Please note that your recommenders may choose to send their supporting materials by regular mail, as will your previous academic institutions. However, letters of recommendation arriving in the mail will not be accepted unless they are sealed and signed across the back of the envelope. Please ask your recommenders to mail/submit their letters before the deadline. You should also complete your application early enough to ensure that we receive all materials supporting your application promptly.

If you are interested in fellowship support, note that Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences fellowships are competitively available to students who apply to the Intelligent Systems PhD program. The admissions committee will automatically consider incoming students for such a fellowship. If you are admitted into the program, you will be notified in your admission letter whether you have received a fellowship award. You do not need to submit additional documents to apply for the fellowship award.

Note on GRE scores: Some applicants, particularly those with MDs, sometimes elect to apply without GRE scores. While we do consider such applications, please note that GRE scores are required for applicants and not supplying these could hurt your application. We emphasise that submitting GRE scores is essential for those wishing to be considered for admission and fellowship opportunities.

Filling Out the Application

Fill out the standard School of Computing and Information application form available online.

Transfers from Other Institutions

There is no preset limit on the number of cross-registration credits that can be counted toward a PhD. For other institutions, a maximum of 24 transfer credits may be counted toward a PhD. Up to six credits may be counted toward the MS for work completed at another institution or for work previously completed at the University of Pittsburgh.

However, the explicit approval of the student’s advisor and of the ISP director are required. To apply, the student should submit the following information to the ISP director: (1) institution, (2) whether the class is a graduate or undergraduate class, (3) exactly which requirement(s) the course is meant to satisfy (see below), (4) an indication of approval by the student’s advisor, (5) what grade the student received in the class (for completed courses), (6) justification, if the class was not taken prior to entering the ISP program, and (7) sufficient information about the course syllabus for the director to judge whether the transfer or cross-registration is appropriate.

For (3): the student should specify whether the course is meant to count only toward the 72 (PhD) / 24 (MS) hours required for graduation, or whether it is also meant to satisfy a requirement in the ISP curriculum. If the latter, please clearly identify which requirement.

Cross-registrations With Other Institutions

Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne University, the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Robert Morris University, and the University of Pittsburgh offer graduate students the opportunity for cross-registration in graduate programs in the five institutions in the fall and spring terms. Credits earned by cross-registration in graduate courses at Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne University, the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and Robert Morris University, when approved in advance by the student’s graduate advisor, are accepted as University of Pittsburgh credits for the calculation of the grade point average and the completion of degree requirements. Each department at each institution retains the authority to establish the prerequisites for admission and the maximum enrollment in its own courses and to grant priority in registration to its own graduate students.

Cross-registration is only available in the fall and spring terms. Only fulltime students may cross-register. That is, to cross-register for a course in a particular term, students must be registered for at least nine credits at their home institution. Students who cross-register during the spring or fall term do not pay tuition to the host institution; however, they are responsible for any additional fees associated with the course such as laboratory fees, books, and the like. During the summer, students may attend one of the above colleges as guest students, but they must pay that institution’s tuition and fees. Students are discouraged from cross-registering during their term of graduation to avoid any delays in the receipt of course credit needed to graduate. Students should meet with their advisor before they cross-register. The forms to cross-register are available at the Registrar (Thackery Hall) or at the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Graduate School (5141 SENSQ).  See the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education (PCHE) Web site for organization history and available program information.

Substituting Other Courses at the University of Pittsburgh

Similarly to the above, course substitutions require approval of the student’s advisor and the ISP director. To apply for a course substitution, a student should first obtain the approval of his or her advisor. Then, the student should submit the following information to the ISP director: (1) whether the class is a graduate or undergraduate class, (2) exactly which requirement the course is meant to satisfy, (3) an indication of approval by the student’s advisor, (4) justification for the substitution, and (5) sufficient information about the course syllabus for the director to judge whether the substitution would be appropriate.

Financial Assistance

Students in the ISP program are funded through a variety of sources, including externally supported research and training grants, University fellowships, and program funds.

Requirements for the PhD

The degree requirements described here are subject to change by the ISP faculty. A student has the option of meeting all of the requirements in effect when he or she entered the ISP or meeting all of the prevailing requirements of the program. Please check here periodically for changes and speak to your adviser or the ISP director if you have any questions about degree requirements or related issues.

The student’s adviser must be a member of the ISP faculty. Note that each new student is initially assigned an administrative adviser. A student’s administrative adviser will not necessarily be the student’s MS or PhD adviser.

To obtain a degree, a student must also be in good standing and at full student status (not provisional). To remain in good standing, a student must make sufficient progress on their degree requirements, and also attend all but two (2) of the scheduled AI Forum talks per term and sign in so they get credit.  Failure to meet this requirement will affect application for Andrew Mellon Fellowship candidacy, Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences Program funding candidacy, summer GSA funding, ISP Travel Grants and similar funding.  In case of extenuating circumstances, the student should communicate the possible absence to the ISP director and administrator.

To earn the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in the ISP, a student must successfully complete all of the following:

Course Requirements

  • Students must earn a grade of B- or better in each of the courses in the appropriate ISP curriculum (the General Intelligent Systems Track or the Biomedical Informatics Track ).
  • Students must complete at least 72 (PhD) credits (including coursework and research) with a QPA of at least 3.0.

Students are expected to have the undergraduate prerequisites needed to take the graduate courses required by the ISP.  These may be required if not taken.

General Intelligent Systems Track Curriculum:


AND Choose Two of the Following:


Theory of computation, algorithms

Choose One of the Following:

Advanced courses

Four ISSP advanced lecture courses, numbered 2000 or higher and approved by the PhD adviser.

Biomedical Informatics Track Curriculum (ISP/MI)

This assumes that a student already has training in a health care field; if this is not so, then the faculty will select a set of courses that teach the student basic medical knowledge, and the student may take these courses as electives.

First-year students

Advanced courses

3 Graduate-level Courses (2000 or higher, 3 credits or more) ISSP lecture course that has your adviser’s approval as being relevant to your studies in the ISP required.


TA any biomedical informatics (BIOINF) course that is cross listed as an ISSP course.

MS Project and PhD Preliminary Evaluation

For this requirement, the student must complete a research project, approved by the student’s preliminary evaluation committee, involving (1) significant research, design, or development work, (2) a written report, and (3) an oral presentation. Students must form a MS project committee (MS) or a preliminary evaluation committee (PhD) consisting of three faculty members, two of whom must be ISP faculty. The student’s adviser chairs the committee, and must be an ISP faculty member.

Preferably, the research project is completed by the end of the summer term of the second year. Students who have not defended their research project by end of the fall term of their third year in the program will be placed on provisional status in the program, unless extenuating circumstances warrant an extension, as judged by the student’s preliminary evaluation committee.

Although not a requirement, it is strongly suggested that the student submit the project report for publication in a refereed journal or conference. Thus, the scope of the research project is intended to be at the level of a paper that is of publishable quality in a peer-reviewed AI journal or conference.

The steps to completing the project are as follows:

  • Submit a project proposal to your committee for its approval.
  • Perform the work, and write a project report.
  • Submit your project report to your committee at least two weeks in advance of your oral presentation of the work.
  • Present your work in a talk given to your committee. As a guideline, you should give about a 30-minute talk and leave about 30 minutes for questions and discussion. The ISP faculty should be invited to the oral presentation. General questions relating to the field of AI are appropriate at this examination. The oral presentation may take place in an open forum, such as the ISP AI Forum, followed by a closed session with just your committee and any other ISP faculty members who wish to be present.

The committee will evaluate the project and presentation. The following criteria should be considered: The project and presentation should represent independent research, design, or development work; they should be technically sound; and they should be relevant to the ISP. Also, the student should display breadth of knowledge, understanding of the significance and motivation of the work, and understanding of the relationship of the work with prior work; and, the presentation should be clear. The committee will combine that evaluation with an evaluation of the student’s progress in coursework to arrive at an overall evaluation of one of the following:

  • Pass at the PhD level.
  • Provisional pass at the PhD level: Must complete additional requirements specified by the committee in order to obtain a pass.
  • Pass at the MS level: Student obtains a terminal MS degree, once all course requirements for the MS are completed.
  • Fail.

Students who pass will need a card signed by their committee to obtain credit for passing. Contact the ISP program secretary at least two weeks before the oral portion of the preliminary evaluation, so the card can be available at the meeting to be signed.

PhD Comprehensive Examination

For the PhD comprehensive examination, students should follow these steps:

Form a comprehensive examination committee consisting of at least three faculty members, two of whom must be ISP faculty. The student’s PhD adviser chairs the committee and must be an ISP faculty member. The faculty on a given student’s comprehensive examination committee are often the same as the faculty on that student’s preliminary evaluation committee, but they need not be.

Choose three major subareas of AI.  One of these areas is flexible; the other two should be chosen from the ISP list of sub-areas below.  The flexible area must be unanimously approved by the students’ committee (but does not need to be approved by the director).  Biomedical Informatics students should choose “Biomedical Informatics” as one of the subareas.

  • AI and Business/Accounting
  • AI and Law
  • AI and Medicine
  • AI and MIS
  • Bioinformatics
  • Case-based Reasoning
  • Cognitive Architectures (or Subsymbolic Approaches)
  • Connectionist Approaches
  • Statistics and Evaluation Methods
  • Expert Systems
  • Intelligent Interfaces
  • Intelligent Tutoring Systems
  • Knowledge Representation
  • Machine Learning
  • Biomedical Informatics
  • Natural-language Processing
  • Planning
  • Reasoning About Uncertainty
  • Robotics
  • Vision

Work with the committee to finalize the reading for the three chosen subareas. Have the committee approve the list.

Work with your committee members (or their designated administrative assistants) to set the following dates for the examination:

  • The date and time the written examination is distributed to you.
  • The date and time you return the examination, which by default is nine days after receiving it. Your committee can designate an examination period of fewer or more than nine days, and through your adviser you may request that they do so.
  • The date and time you orally defend your examination answers before your committee. You should schedule two hours for your oral exam defense, although typically less time will be needed.

Your committee will provide a list of written questions. Unless an exception is made by your committee, you will have nine days to provide the written answers to these questions. At the end of those nine days, you should distribute your answers to each of your committee members. Be sure to check that each has received your answers.

An oral examination will take place after the comprehensive committee has read your answers; the committee should be given a minimum of three days to read your answers before the oral examination. The ISP faculty (only) will be invited. You will be asked questions by your committee about your answers on the written examination, and more broadly, about your knowledge of the material in the three areas of concentration you have chosen.

At the end of your oral examination, your committee will evaluate your performance as one of the following:

  • Pass.
  • Provisional pass: Must complete additional requirements specified by the committee in order to obtain a pass.
  • Fail.

An evaluation by the comprehensive examination committee of “fail” will be considered by the ISP faculty at large, who will make a determination about the status of the student in the ISP, including whether the student is allowed to re-take the examination or whether he or she is terminated from the program.

Students who pass the comprehensive examination will need a card signed by their committee to obtain credit for passing. Contact the ISP program secretary at least two weeks before the oral portion of the comprehensive examination, so the card can be available at the meeting to be signed.

A selection of successful comprehensive examinations with reading lists, questions, and answers can be found here.

Note: According to the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences graduate school guidelines, the comprehensive examination should be passed AND admission to candidacy for the PhD degree granted AT LEAST EIGHT MONTHS BEFORE SCHEDULING OF THE FINAL ORAL DISSERTATION DEFENSE. Please review the University of Pittsburgh Graduate and Professional Bulletin in the areas covering Comprehensive Examination, Doctoral Committee, and Admission to Candidacy for the PhD Degree. In addition, please review the guidelines regarding Statute of Limitations and Leaves of Absence. PhD degree must be completed within a period of 10 years from initial registration, or eight years if the student received a master’s degree.

PhD Dissertation

In pursuing the PhD dissertation, students should follow these steps:

  1. Find a dissertation adviser and form a dissertation committee. Doctoral dissertation committees are composed of four members, all of whom must be current members of the Graduate Faculty at the University of Pittsburgh. There must be three Graduate Faculty members from the candidate’s department (“internal members”) and at least one Graduate Faculty member external to the candidate’s department (“external member”). A list of Graduate Faculty for the university can be viewed at the following website: Membership on the Graduate Faculty is not automatic and must be formally requested by the faculty member’s department or school and approved by the Associate Dean before the faculty member can serve on a doctoral dissertation committee. External committee members must be approved by the Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies before the thesis proposal/prospectus meeting or defense. Prior approval also must be obtained for any prospective committee member from the University of Pittsburgh or elsewhere who does not have Graduate Faculty status but is requested as an additional committee member beyond the four required members with Graduate Faculty status. Any changes to the committee after the thesis proposal/prospectus/overview meeting also must be approved by the Assistant Dean before the defense. Forms for admission to candidacy and committee changes can be obtained in 5141 Sennott Square. If a graduate faculty member has a primary appointment in one department and a secondary or joint appointment in another department, s/he may serve as either an internal or external committee member. S/he may also serve as a chair or co-chair of the committee. All committee members are required to be physically present at both the thesis proposal/prospectus/overview meeting and the defense. In special circumstances, a committee member may request to participate via videoconferencing at either the overview or defense, but cannot participate remotely in both. Only the Assistant Dean can approve a remote participation from one of the two required meetings (overview or defense). A graduate faculty member from another University may serve as the external member of a doctoral committee with the approval of the Assistant Dean. A department must submit the C.V. of the external member along with a memo justifying their participation on the committee (i.e., special expertise in a particular field). Requests for external members must be approved by the Assistant Dean in advance of the requested member’s participation on the doctoral committee. The Assistant Dean will review the material and either approve or reject the proposed external member. It must be understood by the external member that they are required tobe present in person at both the thesis proposal/prospectus/overview meeting and the defense of the dissertation at their own expense. Any exceptions to this attendance rule must be approved by the Assistant Dean in advance. A graduate faculty member from another school or University, who has been approved by the Assistant Dean, may serve as a cochair of a dissertation committee. Committee members who leave the university after a graduate student has been admitted to candidacy may stay on the committee in their original capacity, be it as an internal/external member, as long as they are willing and able to physically attend the defense, and providing that the defense is scheduled within 12 months of the faculty member’s departure. The only exception to this rule is if the departed committee member is the chair, in which case a co-chair from the department must be designated. If a committee member retires, they may remain on the committee as long as they are still willing to serve, and are still activeprofessionally in the academic community.
  2. Write a dissertation proposal. Present the proposal to your committee. Your committee must approve your proposal. You will need a form signed by your committee and the ISP director to complete this process. Contact the program administrator at least two weeks before meeting so the form can be available for signature at the meeting.
  3. Carry out the research. Write the dissertation.

Announcement of your dissertation defense must appear in University Times and Pitt Chronicle. Send information to the ISP administrator at least five weeks before your oral defense date. This information will be sent to the University Times and Pitt Chronicle. The announcement includes the student name, the title of the dissertation, and the time and place of the defense.

Have an oral defense which is open to the University at large. You will need a card signed by your committee to obtain credit for passing the dissertation requirement. Contact the program secretary two weeks before your defense, so the card can be available for signature at the meeting.

Credit for doctoral research is ordinarily obtained through the course ISSP 3000 - RESEARCH AND DISSERTATION PHD . Students who have completed all course requirements, passed the PhD comprehensive examination, completed 72 credits of graduate student, and are working fulltime on their dissertations are encouraged to register for FTDB 3999 - FULL-TIME DISSERTATION STUDY .

Return to School of Computing and Information Return to: School of Computing and Information

Catalog Navigation