Graduate Program - PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

The PhD is a research degree, and is the most advanced degree that can be attained in Computer Science. Each PhD student works closely with a research advisor and an advisory committee, and publishes papers based on his or her work. Students may collaborate with researchers all over the world, travel to conferences, and have internships with government or leading industry research labs. Completion of the degree is accomplished by writing and defending a scholarly dissertation. Outstanding students with a desire to do cutting-edge research are invited to apply to the program.

Choosing a PhD in Computer Science


The NC State Graduate School requires all PhD candidates to complete 72 credit hours beyond the bachelors degree. If a candidate has earned a Masters degree from NC State and continues without a break into the PhD, up to 36 hours taken while in masters status may be used to meet the requirements for the PhD. If a candidate experiences a break between the Masters degree and the PhD, or earns a Masters degree from an institution other than NC State, up to 18 hours taken while in masters status may be used to meet the requirements for the PhD. Transfer credits require the approval of the student's Advisory Committee and the Director of Graduate Programs (DGP).

A summary of the curriculum requirements for the PhD is below.

Requirement Credit Hours
Orientation Course (CSC 600) 1
Core courses (four) 12
Computer Science 700-level courses (two) 6
Written Qualifying Exam (CSC 890) 6
Computer Science graduate electives / research credits 47
Total 72

All incoming PhD students must register for an orientation course: CSC 600 (Computer Science Graduate Orientation).

PhD candidates must take four core courses, consisting of two courses from each of two categories:

  • Category 1: Theory
    CSC 503 (Computational Applied Logic), CSC 505 (Algorithms), CSC 512 (Compiler Construction), CSC 514 (Foundations of Cryptography), CSC 565 (Graph Theory), CSC 579 (Performance Evaluation), CSC 580 (Numerical Analysis), CSC 707 (Theory of Computation).
  • Category 2: Systems
    CSC 501 (Operating Systems), CSC 506 (Parallel Architectures), CSC 510 (Software Engineering), CSC 520 (Artificial Intelligence), CSC 540 (Database Systems), CSC 561 (Graphics), CSC 570 (Networks), CSC 574 (Computer and Network Security).

The GPA of the four core courses must be 3.5 or better. CSC 720 may be substituted for CSC 520 and CSC 573 may be substituted for CSC 570. Special topics courses (CSC 59x or 79x) may not be used to satisfy core course requirements. Core course requirements must be met during the first 27 credit hours of the candidate's degree program.

The candidate must also take two CSC 700 level courses. One of these courses may be a CSC 791 (Special Topics) course with approval of the advisor and DGP.

Additional requirements:

  1. Courses cannot be double counted for both the core and the 700-level requirements.
  2. All Computer Science credits must be at or above the 500 level.
  3. To graduate, a student must have a minimum 3.0 average on all graduate course work, as well as all courses on his or her Plan of Graduate Work. Any student with a GPA less than 3.0 cannot hold an assistantship. A student's graduate study will be terminated if 18 or more credit hours at the 400 level or above have been attempted with a GPA of less than 3.0.

Advisory Committee and Plan of Work

All students in the Ph. D. program must have a graduate advisor who is a Full member of the Graduate Faculty in Computer Science. The graduate advisor serves as chair or co-chair of the committee. The choice of the advisor is key to the success of the student, and is normally based on a number of factors, particularly the interests and strengths of the student. Identifying and agreeing to work with an advisor is left up to the students and faculty. The DGP can help with suggestions of appropriate candidates.

Funding of Research Assistants is decided by the advisor, and is therefore an important consideration in selection of the advisor. A list of currently-funded research projects in the Department of Computer Science may be found here.

The advisory committee will consist of at least four Graduate Faculty members, one of whom represents the minor field if a minor has been declared. Even if a minor has not been declared, at least one committee member must have an affiliation outside the department (this requirement is usually easy to satisfy, since many of the Computer Science faculty are also affiliated with other programs, such as Computer Engineering, Operations Research, etc.). At least two of the committee members must have Computer Science as their “home” department.

The committee is formed, and the plan of work is submitted, after the Written Prelim Exam, but before taking the Oral Prelim Exam. It is a good idea to ask faculty members to join your committee at least one month (better: two) before the date you hope to schedule your Oral Prelim Exam. The committee is indicated on the Plan of Graduate Work, which is filed electronically by the student using their MyPack portal, and electronically routed for approvals. It is not necessary to know the precise exam date in order to submit the plan of work.

The Plan of Graduate Work should:

  • include both a list of the course work to be undertaken (in all programs) and the dissertation topic.
  • be developed by the student and his/her advisory committee.
  • be approved by the committee and the DGP prior to submission to the Gradute School for final approval.

Written Prelim Exam

The Written Preliminary Exam is the first milestone in the student's PhD program. The purpose of this exam is to measure research aptitude, preparation (including knowledge of a specialization area), and proper research methodology. It is expected that the student will have conducted an extensive literature search of a problem area, identified a research problem, and obtained some preliminary research results in that area. The work for this exam must be substantially that of the student, with minor help from the advisor or others.

The student must first have an advisor, who helps him or her identify a suitable topic for the exam. In the semester the exam is to be taken, the student will register for up to 6 credits of CSC 890 (Doctoral Preliminary Exam). (Alternatively, the credits may be spread over two successive semesters.) Full-time PhD students who previously received a MS degree are expected to have passed this exam by the start of the 4th semester; PhD students who did not previously receive a MS degree are expected to have passed the exam by the start of the 5th semester.

The student, in consultation with the advisor, must submit to the DGP:

  • the name of the advisor
  • the names of up to five Computer Science faculty (not including the advisor, the DGP and the Department Head) who have expertise in the topic of the exam
  • the title and a preliminary abstract of the paper

The DGP will form an examination committee consisting of the advisor, one of the five faculty knowledgeable about the subject area, and one other departmental faculty member (the DGP and Department Head are not eligible for this role). This information should be submitted at least 3 weeks before the proposed exam date.

The exam requires both a written report and an oral presentation. The report should be approximately 7000 words, and should include sufficient background information to be accessible to a non-specialist. If the report has already been submitted for publication and has multiple authors, the student must make clear that the work, and the writing, are mostly his or her own efforts. It is not acceptable to use a paper in which the writing or the work is substantially due to others, since this would not represent the student's independent efforts. The oral presentation is open to all faculty and students in Computer Science.

The examination committee is charged with determining if the student is capable of doing PhD level research. The examiners use a review form that should include detailed, specific comments in the categories (i) originality, (ii) technical quality, and (iii) presentation quality (includes the oral presentation). The student will be informed of the outcome immediately following the exam.

If the outcome of the exam is failure, the exam committee will determine if a retake is allowed. The conditions of the retake will be set by the DGP after consultation with the student and the advisor. The retake committee will be entirely separate from the original exam committee. If a retake is allowed, failure of the retake will result in termination of the student's Ph.D. program.

Oral Prelim Exam

In the Oral Prelim Exam, the student is expected to present a proposal for their dissertation research. They are expected to outline the expected research topics for their dissertation. The student should have made progress on that research so as to convince their committee that the research is both significant and feasible. As indicated by the name, this is a preliminary proposal for research and it is not intended that the major part of the research be already completed.

The exam requires both a written report and an oral presentation. Although there is no prescribed format for the report, it is expected that the research proposal will include six main elements:

  1. a working title for the research project,
  2. a statement about the main research objectives and why the proposed work is important, relevant, and realistic,
  3. some background knowledge in the field, including a review of the literature and key research findings,
  4. a discussion of the methodology or approach to be used,
  5. a description of the strategy and timetable for the research project and any potential research challenges, and
  6. a list of references.

This examination is conducted by the student's advisory committee and is open to all Graduate Faculty members and Computer Science students. The oral examination is designed to test the student's ability to relate factual knowledge to specific circumstances, to use this knowledge with accuracy and promptness, and to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the field of specialization and related areas.

To schedule the Oral Prelim exam, the Written Prelim Exam must have previously been passed, the Graduate Plan of Work must be approved, and all required courses and courses relevant to the Prelim Oral Exam must be completed. The student coordinates with their committee a time and place for the exam, and reserves an examination room with the department. The student then submits to the Graduate Programs office a Request to Schedule the Preliminary Oral Examination at least two weeks prior to the desired examination date.

A unanimous vote of approval by the members of the advisory committee is required for the student to pass the Oral Prelim Exam. Approval may be conditioned, however, on the successful completion of additional work in some particular field(s). Failure to pass the preliminary oral examination terminates the student's work at this institution unless the examining committee recommends a reexamination. No reexamination may be given until at least one full semester has elapsed, and only one reexamination is permitted.

As the research progresses after passing the Oral Prelim Exam, it may be necessary for the research topics to change modestly. The student's advisory committee must be apprised of and approve the changes.

Final Oral Exam (Defense)

The Final Oral Examination is a public dissertation defense. Its purpose is to ensure that the student's completed work is indeed substantial and original, and to celebrate the student's scholarly achievement. Typically the student's oral presentation is one hour long. It is followed by a period for questions from the Advisory Committee and the audience.

The final oral examination is scheduled after the dissertation is completed. At least one semester must elapse between the Oral Prelim exam and the Final Oral Exam. The Request to Schedule the Doctoral Oral Examination should be submitted at least 3 weeks prior to the desired exam date.

The examination consists of the candidate's defense of the methodology used and the conclusions reached in the research, as reported in the dissertation. It is conducted by the student's advisory committee and is open to the University community.

A unanimous vote of approval of the advisory committee is required for passing the final oral examination. Approval may be conditioned, however, on the student's meeting specific requirements prescribed by the student's advisory committee. Failure of a student to pass the examination terminates his or her work at this institution unless the advisory committee recommends a reexamination. No reexamination may be given until one full semester has elapsed and only one reexamination is permitted.


The doctoral dissertation is the document presenting the results of the student's original investigation in the field of primary interest. It must represent a contribution to knowledge, adequately supported by data, and be written in a manner consistent with the highest standards of scholarship. It is expected that the work described in the thesis be published in research journals and conferences.

The dissertation will be reviewed by all members of the advisory committee and must receive their approval prior to submission to the Graduate School. Information on the required form and organization of the dissertation, in addition to other regulations, is presented in the University's Thesis and Dissertation Guide. Style guidelines and templates for dissertations may also be found here . PhD candidates are strongly encouraged to attend an ETD workshop conducted by the Thesis Editor. Workshop schedules are here.

At the time of the dissertation's submission to the Graduate School, the student is also required to submit one copy each of the Survey of Earned Doctorate form and University Microfilms International Agreement form and to complete a brief, standard questionnaire about his or her experience as a graduate student at NC State. Students are encouraged to keep a copy of the Checklist for Submission of Theses and Dissertations to make sure they observe all the required steps.

The University also requires that all doctoral dissertations be microfilmed by University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, MI, including the publication of the abstract in Dissertation Abstracts International. The cost of this service is paid by the student. After the dissertation is available to the public the dissertation is sent off to be microfilmed. When the microfiche copy is returned to NCSU, it is available in the NCSU library. The Graduate School requests only an electronic version of the dissertation; no paper copies of the dissertation are required. The advisor may request a bound copy, however.

Graduate School deadlines for defenses and submission of theses are given here.

Continuous Enrollment and Time Limits

The Graduate School has a continuous enrollment policy. While pursuing a graduate degree, the student must be registered every Fall and Spring semester until completion. Otherwise, a student must request an official leave of absence from the Graduate School.

Additionally, the PhD student must be registered for at least one credit in any semester, including the summer, that he or she plans to defend the dissertation.

There are minimum registration requirements for all Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants, and Fellows who are eligible for the Graduate Student Support Plan. Details may be found here .

A student working toward a doctoral degree is expected to be registered for graduate work at NC State for at least 6 semesters beyond the bachelors degree. See the Grad School Handbook for the complete discussion of residence credits.

All doctoral students must attain candidacy (pass the Oral Prelim exam) within six (6) calendar years from the date of admission and complete all degree requirements within ten (10) calendar years.

Colloquium Attendance

Many times each semester, researchers from inside and outside the University make hour-long public presentations on their work. Each PhD student must attend eight such presentations during the course of their degree for which they check in using their NC State ID and submit an online Colloquium Attendance Form for each. A schedule of seminars and colloquia in Computer Science may be found here.


Academic Progress Reporting

Each semester every PhD student is required to create or update an Academic Progress report. The report summarizes the student's PhD record to date, and the progress made in the most recent semester. The faculty as a whole review these reports and provide helpful comments to advisors. These comments, and the advisor's own comments, are summarized and sent to each student in a letter signed by the DGP.

The purpose of the Academic Progress report and the review is to help students and advisors:

  • maintain steady progress of students towards achievement of the PhD
  • focus attention on and offer help to students having problems
  • improve the quality of advising and the overall quality of the PhD program
  • recognize and reward outstanding student success

The MS “en route” (Non-Thesis) Option

A PhD student may receive a MS non-thesis degree “en route” to the PhD. The requirements are similar to the MS thesis degree, with the following differences:

  1. You must pass the PhD Written Qualifier (or Written Prelim) Exam (CSC 890), rather than submitting and defending a MS thesis. This exam requires a paper, and an oral presentation to an exam committee. The student may register for a maximum of 6 credits of CSC 890 for this purpose.
  2. Four core courses, two from each category, must be taken, rather than two.
  3. One 700-level (not a special topics or 79X) course must be taken

The curriculum requirements for the non-thesis option are summarized below:

Requirement Credit Hours
Core courses (four) 12
Computer Science 700-level courses (one) 3
Orientation Course (CSC 600) 1
Computer Science graduate electives 3
Minor courses, Computer Science graduate electives, or “restricted” electives 12
PhD written prelim exam ( CSC 890)




To receive the “en route” MS degree, speak with the DGP during the semester in which you will fulfill the above requirements. Students receiving the “en route” MS degree will remain in the PhD program.

Patent Agreement

Graduate students must sign a statement agreeing to abide by the University's patent policies. This statement is now part of the Graduate Plan of Work. Patent and copyright procedures of NC State are available here. Students wishing to be exempted due to policies of their companies should contact the university's Office of Technology Transfer at 919-515-7199.


No minor is required. If you choose to pursue one, the minor department must be represented on your Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee may also approve courses outside of Computer Science in the absence of an official minor.


Students pursuing a PhD in another field, wishing to co-major in Computer Science, should consult with the DGP first. Generally, Computer Science must be represented on the student's committee by at least one faculty member, and the Computer Science PhD course requirements and Written Prelim exam must be passed, in addition to the requirements for the major PhD.

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