Fall 2014 or Earlier

This document describes the requirements for a Ph.D. degree in the Computer Science department at the University of Southern California for students who began their doctoral studies in Fall 2014 or earlier.


The Ph.D. requirements have several components. A unit requirement ensures that students complete sufficient coursework, research and thesis credits for graduate study in Computer Science. The breadth course requirement introduces students to graduate-level topics in core Computer Science subjects and is designed to expose them to a variety of sub-disciplines. The screening procedure measures student progress towards their Ph.D. The depth requirement imparts the necessary coursework in a student’s chosen research area to enable them to perform high-quality research. The qualifying examination tests student preparation and plans for the dissertation. Finally, the dissertation defense examination evaluates the student’s completed research work. The student is deemed to have completed a Ph.D. when he or she has completed all of these requirements. The following sections describe each of these components in detail.

These components are not entirely independent of each other. Rather, the design of the core and breadth requirements are integrated with the design of the screening and qualifying exams so that between them they contribute to the student's steady progress towards the Ph.D. In this spirit, we have defined a set of tracks for research and study. The screening exam focuses on quality of course work, substantial progress towards the breadth requirement, selection of a research track and the agreement of a professor to supervise work in that area. The qualifying exam marks the completion of the breadth and depth requirements for courses, as well as substantial progress toward the dissertation. We also discuss the track structure below.

Unit Requirements

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 listed in the breadth and depth requirements below). A student must maintain a 3.5 GPA to remain in good academic standing.


Each student is required to complete two semesters of CS 597 (1 units each, 2 maximum). In addition, a student must complete one class from each of the following 5 groups:

  • Group 1
    • Computer Architecture, EE 557
    • Operating Systems, CS 555
    • Computer Communications, CS 551
  • Group 2
    • Software Engineering, CS 577a
    • Database Systems, CS 585
    • Web Technologies, CS 571
  • Group 3
    • Robotics, CS 545
    • Artificial Intelligence, CS 561
    • Brain Theory, CS 564
  • Group 4
    • Computer Vision, CS 574
    • 3D Graphics and Rendering, CS 580
    • Geometric Modeling, CS 582
  • Group 5
    • Advanced Analysis of Algorithms, CS 670
    • Logic and its Applications, CS 581
    • Numerical Analysis, Math 501

A student may substitute any class in any group with a more advanced class. This substitution requires the approval of the appropriate faculty group leader (CS faculty members are divided into four groups: Interaction, Autonomy, Immersion and Computation. Each group has a designated group leader. Each faculty group is responsible for one or more breadth course groups. Thus, the Interaction group is responsible for Groups 1 and 2, Autonomy for Group 3, Immersion for Group 4 and Computation for Group 5).

Research Tracks

There are several research tracks that reflect the research areas that department faculty focus on. Each track is associated with a set of courses that defines the track, and each track is defined and administered by one faculty group (see below). These tracks provide a framework that can guide a student’s selection of research area and depth coursework as well as help place their work in the context of research being conducted in the department. These tracks feature prominently in the screening requirement and the depth requirement, which are discussed below. Because the department’s research foci evolve continuously, this document does not list the research tracks. Rather, the “current” set of tracks is always maintained here. Tracks can be added, or removed, and courses can be added or removed from existing tracks by a vote of relevant faculty groups. The above web page will maintain a dated archive of track descriptions to enable students to determine if they met requirements that were in effect at some earlier point in time. The above web page also indicates which faculty groups administer which research tracks.


The screening procedure is used to evaluate a student’s progress in required coursework, and in selecting a research advisor.

A student must apply to be screened

  • no later than his/her fourth semester in the program.
  • or, after completing 21 units in the program which include units from at least three courses listed in the breadth requirement whichever comes earlier.

Prior to applying for screening, 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.

The student should commit to a research track in his/her screening application. This selection may be modified later with the approval of a faculty member.

The decision as to whether a student is “screened in” or not will be made at a meeting of the entire faculty. This decision will be based on the quality of the student’s coursework, and the recommendation of the advisor regarding the student’s aptitude for research.

Depth Requirement

The depth requirement is intended to prepare the student for conducting research in a topic belonging to a particular track.

To satisfy the depth requirement, a student must complete three courses which may include CS 599s but not Directed Research units or thesis credits. In most cases, these courses will be chosen from among those associated with their declared track. However, students may (in consultation with the research advisor) satisfy this requirement by including one or more classes not associated with their declared track. In particular, students are permitted to satisfy this requirement with courses listed in departments other than Computer Science (including departments outside the School of Engineering), with the advisor’s consent. This flexibility is intended to foster interdisciplinary research.

Qualifying Examination

All doctoral students must pass a qualifying examination in Computer Science. Before passing the qualifying examination, the student must have completed his/her breadth and depth requirements.

The qualifying examination is administered by a guidance committee consisting of the dissertation advisor and at least four other faculty members. The committee must include at least one USC faculty member from another department whose primary appointment is not in Computer Science. All guidance committees must be approved by the department chair and by the Graduate School. In exceptional cases, the guidance committee may include faculty from other universities; in these cases, the procedures established by the Graduate School must be followed.

Prior to the qualifying examination, the student must present a written document that consists of three parts:

  • A thorough review of the literature highlighting inadequacies and open problems that present challenges to the proposed thesis.
  • A presentation of completed work that demonstrates the student’s capability to conduct research on the proposed topic.
  • A succinct thesis statement, a list of expected contributions, and a research plan together with a timeline for accomplishing the plan.
  • The qualifying examination itself is an oral examination usually based on the written document.

Permission to take the qualifying examination must be obtained from the Dean of Graduate Studies at least 60 days in advance. The exam must be completed in the semester for which permission is granted. Prior to the qualifying examination, the student must list the courses that he/she intends to use towards the breadth and depth course requirements. This list must be checked by the Ph.D. advisor and must be approved by the guidance committee. If the student fails the examination, the guidance committee may recommend that the student re-take the examination 6-12 months later. A student may not take the examination more than two times.

Dissertation Defense

A dissertation involving original research completes the requirements for a Ph.D. degree. A defense of the dissertation must be held as a public oral examination. The defense must be announced (electronically and posting to the department bulletin board) at least one week prior to the exam. The announcement must include the title and abstract, the venue, date and time for the examination, as well as the names of the committee members.

Time Limits

A student must pass the qualifying exam within four years of being admitted to the Ph.D. program. The defense must be completed within seven years of being admitted to the Ph.D. program (six if the student arrives with a relevant M.S. degree).

An extension to either time limit requires approval of 2/3rds of the CS faculty. In no case may the granted extensions exceed the time limits set by the 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 stops. 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 2/3rds of CS faculty. Absences longer than 24 months also require graduate school approval.

Transfer Requirements

Students with an M.S. degree from another university may transfer courses towards satisfying the breadth requirement, and any number towards satisfying the depth requirement. Such transfers require the approval of a faculty member and the graduate school.

Existing Students and the new Ph.D. Requirements

These requirements shall apply to all students admitted for or after Fall 2004. Students admitted prior to Fall 2004 may choose to have these new requirements applied to them. To do this, the student must submit to the department an approval letter signed by the Ph.D. advisor.

Published on June 15th, 2016

Last updated on February 3rd, 2023