The PhD degree at the USC Computer Science department prepares students for a career in research. The goal of the program is to nurture talented minds via research and formal coursework, to produce future thought leaders in computer science. The program accepts students who have completed a four-year Bachelor's degree in a relevant field; a Master’s degree is not a requirement for entry. Once admitted to the program, a student must complete a set of requirements to graduate with the PhD degree. These requirements are described next.
A student is required to complete a total of at least 60 units, at least 40 of which must be at the 500 level or above (beyond the bachelor’s degree and including the required courses as listed in the requirements below). A student must maintain a 3.0 GPA to remain in good academic standing.
Mandatory courses: Each student is required to complete two semesters of CSCI 697 (1 unit each, 2 maximum) and CSCI 670 (4 units). In addition, students are required to pass two semesters of CSCI 698 (1-2 units each, no maximum) as part of a teaching requirement. CSCI 698 is coursework related to a teaching requirement and is described in Section 7. Elective courses: In addition to the mandatory courses, each student must complete five (5) CSCI courses at the 500 level and above, each of 4 units. No more than two (2) of these courses (8 units total) may be at the 500 level; the remaining must be CSCI courses at the 600 level. Directed Research units or thesis credits do not satisfy this requirement. Students are strongly advised to take at least one of their elective courses in an area of Computer Science that is different from their proposed area of research. The PhD advisor is expected to provide guidance on this matter to the student. The CSCI 670 course requirement may be waived by examination only. Each course in the department has a faculty member who is designated as the course “owner.” The owner of CSCI 670 is in charge of creating and grading the waiver examination. CSCI 697 and CSCI 698 may not be waived.
The screening procedure is used to evaluate a student’s progress in the required coursework, in selecting a research advisor, and in establishing a preliminary dissertation research program. Prior to applying for screening, it is expected that a student should have found an advisor and have worked long enough with him/her for the faculty member to be able to evaluate the student’s aptitude for research. Irrespective of the courses taken, units accrued, and the duration for which a student has worked with her/his advisor, a student must apply for screening in his/her 3rd semester in the program. The decision as to whether a student is “screened in” will be made at the meeting of a faculty committee. This decision will be based on the quality of the student’s coursework and on the recommendation of the advisor regarding the student’s aptitude for research. If a student is not screened in on his/her first attempt, the student will be eligible for another attempt at screening, which must take place within 12 months of the original attempt. If a student is not screened in on his/her second attempt he/she will be dismissed from the PhD program effective immediately.
Every Spring semester a faculty committee will review each PhD student in the program. This is a rigorous review. Each student must submit his/her current CV and a list of publications and/or achievements; each student’s faculty advisor will also submit a statement assessing the student’s research and progress. The review will result in an evaluation of “excellent”, “satisfactory”, or “unsatisfactory”. A student must earn a “satisfactory” or “excellent” evaluation on the most recent annual review before he/she will be allowed to take his/her Qualifying Examination or Dissertation Defense. For each student who earns an “unsatisfactory” annual review, the student’s faculty advisor and the Associate Chair for PhD Affairs will develop a remediation plan. The student may be reviewed again within six months. Two consecutive unsatisfactory reviews may be used as grounds for removing a student from the PhD program.
Seminar and Thesis Proposal Attendance Requirement
Each PhD student must attend four (4) Department seminars and/or PhD Thesis Proposals each semester. A student may not get a satisfactory or excellent annual review without having attended the four required seminars/Thesis Proposals.
Each PhD student must pass CSCI 698: Teaching Practicum in two or more semesters before she/he can graduate with a PhD. CSCI 698 requires a PhD student to serve as a TA for a Computer Science class. In at least one instance of CSCI 698 registration, the student must TA for a class being taught by a faculty member who is not the student’s advisor. The student must TA for at least two distinct classes in two distinct semesters to fulfill the teaching requirement.
All doctoral students must pass a Qualifying Examination in Computer Science. Before passing the Qualifying Examination, a student must have completed all his/her course requirements. The Qualifying Examination is administered by a guidance committee consisting of the dissertation advisor and four (4) other faculty members. The student’s dissertation advisor will act as the chair of the guidance committee. The committee must include at least three (3) faculty members who have an appointment in Computer Science, and at least one committee member must be tenured in the Computer Science Department. The committee must also include one tenured/tenure track USC faculty member from another department whose primary appointment is not in Computer Science. All guidance committees must be approved by the Associate Chair for PhD Affairs, the Dean’s office, and the Graduate School. In exceptional cases, the guidance committee may include faculty from other universities, in addition to the five members from USC. The Qualifying Examination has two parts: Written and Oral. A student must have a satisfactory result from the most recent Annual Review and at least a 3.0 GPA in order to complete his/her Qualifying Examination. A student may take the Written portion of the Qualifying Examination prior to completing his/her course requirements. The Written portion of the Qualifying Examination should be taken during the student’s 4th semester in the PhD program. The Written portion is in the form of a paper. A student must work with his/her Qualifying Examination committee to determine the topic and scope of the paper. The criteria for the paper written in fulfillment of the Written portion of the Qualifying Examination are as follows:
- Minimum 15 pages in the ACM Computer Science Style.
- Writing style must be of publishable quality, as determined by the guidance committee.
- Must include at least 30 scholarly references.
The student will pass the Written part of the Qualifying Examination with his/her committee’s consensus. If a student does not pass the Written portion of the Qualifying Examination, he/she may retake it one additional time. The student must retake the Written portion of the Qualifying Examination within at least six (6) and at most 12 months of the initial attempt. The Oral portion of the Qualifying Examination must be taken by the end of a student’s 3rd year. It is closed to the public. The Oral portion of the Qualifying Examination will assess a student’s ability to provide a 30-minute presentation on the topic covered in the Written portion and to show adequate mastery of that topic, reflected, both, in the quality of the presentation and the ability to answer questions from the committee. The student will not be allowed to schedule the Oral portion of the Qualifying Examination without having passed the Written portion. If a student does not pass the Oral portion of the Qualifying Examination, he/she may retake it one additional time. The student must retake the Oral portion of the Qualifying Examination within at least six (6) and at most 12 months of the initial attempt. Postponement of any part of the Qualifying Examination will be treated on a case-by-case basis by the Associate Chair for the PhD Program.
The Thesis Proposal is a presentation open to the public. The presentation must be announced at least one week in advance. The announcement must include the presentation title and abstract, the venue, date and time, as well as the names of the guidance committee members. The presentation is expected to be 45 minutes long at a minimum, with time for questions at the end. All current PhD students are encouraged to attend and participate in the public questionand-answer session. A portion of the question-and-answer session may be closed at the discretion of the student’s guidance committee. The Thesis Proposal must be made by the end of a student’s 5th year in the program, although it is strongly recommended that students do so by the end of their 4th year. Only students who have passed the Qualifying examination (both Written and Oral), may schedule a Thesis Proposal presentation. The guidance committee will assess the thesis proposal for novelty, substance, and feasibility, and decide whether to approve the proposal. If a student’s Thesis Proposal is not approved, the student may make one additional proposal. The student must make the additional Thesis Proposal within at most six (6) months of the first attempt.
A dissertation involving original research completes the requirements for a PhD degree. A Defense of the dissertation must be held as a public oral examination. The Defense must be announced at least one week in advance. To schedule the Defense, the student must have passed the Thesis Proposal. The Defense announcement must include the dissertation title and abstract, the venue, date and time for the examination, as well as the names of the dissertation Defense committee members. The student must provide the complete written dissertation to the committee at least five (5) business days before the scheduled defense. The dissertation defense committee must have at least three (3) members, of which at least two must have an appointment in Computer Science. The student’s dissertation advisor will chair the committee. At least one committee member must be tenured in the Computer Science Department. The committee must also include one tenured (or tenure-track) USC faculty member from another department whose primary appointment is not in Computer Science.
A student must pass the Qualifying Examination within four years of being admitted to the PhD program. The dissertation Defense must be completed within seven years of being admitted to the PhD program (six if the student arrives with a relevant Master’s degree). After seven years in the PhD program, the student may not be eligible for any Teaching Assistantship funding from the Computer Science department. An extension to either time limit (Qualifying Exam and Defense) requires approval of two-thirds of the Computer Science faculty. In no case may the granted extensions exceed the time limits set by the USC Graduate School.
Doctoral students may be granted a maximum of 24 months (not necessarily consecutive) leave-of-absence by the Department Chair, or by a committee appointed by the Department Chair with the approval of the Graduate School. During these absences, the clock defining the time limits for the qualifying and defense examinations is suspended. The clock is resumed when the student returns from the leave-of-absence. Any leaves longer than 24 months, or leave applied for within four months of the expiration of a time limit, requires an approval of two-thirds of Computer Science faculty. Absences longer than 24 months also require USC Graduate School approval.
Students with a relevant MS degree from another university may transfer up to 30 units towards their PhD degree. At most two courses may be substituted for the allowed two 500-level courses in the course requirement. No substitutions are allowed for the 600-level courses.
Petitioning for MS Degree
After satisfying the PhD course requirements and completing a minimum of 28 units with a GPA of 3.0, a student is eligible to petition for a Master's degree in Computer Science.
Existing Students and the new PhD Requirements
These requirements shall apply to all students admitted to the Computer Science PhD program for Fall 2015 or thereafter. Students admitted prior to Fall 2015 may choose to have these requirements applied to them. To do this, the student must submit to the Department an approval letter signed by the student’s PhD advisor.
Published on June 14th, 2016
Last updated on January 29th, 2021