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Graduate Program

PhD Requirements


The PhD in Computer Science is the highest professional degree awarded by the Rensselaer Computer Science Department. With it students may advance to university teaching and research, and to careers in industrial research,with a solid foundation of knowledge and an ability to carry through original investigations in Computer Science.

The major milestones in the Ph.D. program are:

  • Core Qualifying Exam - by end of third semester
  • Research Qualifying Exam - by end of second year
  • Candidacy Exam - by end of third year
  • Thesis Defense

Part-time students may take up to twice the time to meet these milestones.

Students enrolled in the MS program concurrently with the PhD program are expected to work toward the above milestones from the time they enter the graduate program, rather than waiting until the MS is complete.

Most students should be involved in research each semester, taking at least one research credit under supervision of their faculty advisor. PhD students register for CSCI-9990 Dissertation, which will only be allowed to count towards the PhD degree (not an MS degree).

Year 1: The Core Qualifying Exam

The first year of the program is devoted to becoming involved in research and to completion of course for the core qualifying exam. Students should consult with their faculty advisor regarding both the requirements of their research project(s) and their plans for preparation for the core qualifying exam.

To fulfill the core qualifying exam requirement, students must take and do well in courses in five areas. Details are available at http://www.cs.rpi.edu/academics/grad/qual.html.

Full-time students who have not passed the Qualifying Exam within three semesters of entering the Ph.D. program will be dismissed from the program. Extensions to this deadline can be requested from the Graduate Curriculum Chair.

Year 2: Research Qualifying Exam and Committee

Year 2 is devoted to further research exploration, selection of a doctoral committee, and the Research Area Qualifying Exam.

A student's research is overseen by a faculty advisor and a doctoral committee. The student may work with a research supervisor who is not a CS faculty member, but the work with that supervisor must also be overseen by an advisor who is a member of the Computer Science Department faculty. Both the research supervisor and the CS advisor will be members of the student's doctoral committee.

The doctoral committee must include at least three full-time, tenure-track Computer Science Department faculty members and least one "outside" member who is not a member of the Computer Science Department. Faculty who are based in another department but have a joint appointment to CS are not considered outside the department. Students are encouraged to choose an outside member who is not part of the RPI faculty.

The chair of the doctoral committee is normally the student's research supervisor and/or CS advisor. The committee chair must be a full-time, tenure-track faculty member who has an appointment to the Computer Science Department.

The names of the committee members are submitted for the approval of the Department Chair who then communicates them to the Graduate School.

The research qualifying exam will be supervised by a preliminary committee consisting of the advisor and at least two other faculty members. The membership of the preliminary committee is informal and does not have to be approved by the Office of Graduate Education. The preliminary committee will be chosen based on who is likely to become a member of the doctoral committee, but when the time comes to choose the doctoral committee members, the choice need not be constrained by the membership of the preliminary committee. The preliminary committee will decide what a student must do for the research qualifying exam and whether the student passes or fails the exam. There are three forms the research qualifying exam can take:

  1. The student takes and gets an A in one or more courses designated by the committee.
  2. The advisor and preliminary committee prepare a list of technical papers in the research area. The student must read and understand these papers. The student is given an oral exam by the proposed doctoral committee with someone other than the research advisor chairing the exam. The student is questioned by the committee. This committee then votes on whether the student passes.
  3. The student writes a survey paper, and may give a presentation on the paper. This will be an iterative process, with the student revising the paper until the committee is satisfied.

The format of the exams and presentations is determined by the committee. If a student fails the exam, the committee will decide whether the student will be given a second chance or will be asked to leave the PhD program.

When the research qualifying exam has been completed, the committee members should complete and sign the research qualifing exam form and submit the form to Terry Hayden.

The Research Area Qualifying Exam must be passed by the end of the second year in the PhD program.

Year 3: Candidacy Exam

Working with his or her advisor, the student spends the third year developing a detailed understanding of the chosen research area, and preparing a research proposal. It is expected that a student will schedule a Candidacy Exam near the end of year 3.

The Candidacy Exam is an oral exam focusing on a thesis proposal and administered by the student's doctoral committee. The student begins by presenting the thesis proposal and then is questioned by the committee. Other faculty may attend the exam, but do not vote on whether the student passes the exam. Faculty members not on the committee should make their intention to attend the exam known early so that a copy of the thesis proposal can be given to them. The Candidacy Exam must be completed by the end of the third year in the PhD program.

Year 4 and Beyond: Research Completion and Defense

After the candidacy exam has been passed, the student must complete the proposed research, write the dissertation, and defend the dissertation, all under the supervision of the student's doctoral committee. Throughout this time, the student should continue to discuss progress and results with committee members to reduce the possibility of "surprises" during the defense.

The dissertation defense is an oral examination that includes a presentation by the student of the major results in the dissertation. A student's doctoral committee establishes the specific format for this examination. The presentation of research results by the student is open to the public.

The defense should take place at least one year after the candidacy exam, in order to allow time to incorporate feedback from the candidacy exam. Students who wish to take the defense less than one year after the candidacy must contact the Graduate Program Director for approval.

The student is responsible for making sure that the dissertation is prepared according to Office of Graduate Education regulations. The Thesis Writing Manual defines these regulations.

Course and Credit Requirements

Course and research credits must be chosen with the advice and approval of the Computer Science advisor and must constitute a coherent plan of study reflecting the student's goals in obtaining a PhD in Computer Science.

Students must complete 72 credits of course work and research beyond the undergraduate degree. Of these 72 credits, at least 36 must be course credits and at least 24 must be research credits. If the student has a prior MS, a total of 48 credits beyond the MS must be taken, including at least 12 course credits and at least 24 research credits. At least two thirds of the course credits must be at the 6000 level. Up to one third of the course credits may be 4000 level.

Students who complete the required credits before completing their thesis work will need to continue to register for research credits to maintain full-time status.

Computational Molecular Biology Track

Each student should take courses in the following areas. This requirement can be satisfied by course work completed prior to entering the PhD Program.

  • At least 12 credits in molecular or cell biology/biochemistry.
  • At least 9 credits in probability, statistics, machine learning, and bioinformatics.
  • At least 12 credits in CS including at least one course each in software systems, theory of computation, and applications.

Courses used for the qualifying exam may also be counted toward this requirement. Recommended courses for fulfilling this requirement are the qualifying exam courses and courses in database systems, computational molecular biology, and data mining.

Additional Requirements

  • PhD students benefit from experience in public speaking and presenting technical ideas. Thus, all PhD students are required to make a public lecture (such as a conference presentation) while in the PhD program.
  • Students are expected to attend the Computer Science Colloquium series on a regular basis. Full-time students must attend at least 50% of Computer Science Department colloquia offered during their first two years. Part-time students are exampt from this requirement. More details are available at http://www.cs.rpi.edu/academics/grad/colloquium.html

Students reading these requirements should also read the regulations laid down by the Graduate School, in the latest Rensselaer Catalog.

Evaluation of Student Progress

The progress toward degree of each graduate student in the department is reviewed each semester by the faculty to provide useful feedback to the student. At the end of each semester, all graduate students complete a form that records their progress towards their degrees (e.g., courses taken, papers published, talks, major results, etc.). The faculty advisor reviews this form and prepares a letter to be sent to the student commenting on the progress and establishing expectations for the future. The faculty meet and review the progress of each student and the content of the letter proposed by the advisor. Suggestions on changes to the letter are made. After the meeting, the letter is sent to the student. If a student receives two such letters in a row reporting unsatisfactory progress, the student is subject to dismissal from the PhD program. Note that students who enter the PhD program with a prior MS degree are expected to make faster progress through the PhD program than students who enter the program with no prior MS.

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