The Online PhD in Computer Science

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The computer science field offers many exciting and high-paying jobs, and a PhD can contribute to enhanced marketability for in-demand careers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that certain technology fields such as information security will grow by 37 percent between 2012 and 2022. Higher education in related fields can correspond to employment opportunities – bls.gov notes that a doctorate or professional degree is a required qualification for computer and information research scientists. This guidebook discusses what it takes to get an online PhD in computer science, how to choose the right school, and a cost-benefit analysis comparing the expected expenses of obtaining the degree along with anticipated job growth and salary. An interview with the graduate of a computer science PhD program is also included, offering an idea of what it might be like to work in the field.

Questions to Ask About Online Computer Science Doctorates

One of the benefits of earning an online PhD is the ability for students to take classes at their own pace, which often implies an asynchronous learning format. Finding the right online PhD in computer science programs requires careful consideration of many factors. The section below discusses a few important criteria when deciding on which online doctorate in computer science program to enroll in.

1. Is the online school accredited?

Confirming a school’s accreditation is one of the first steps a prospective student should take when researching which school to apply to. Accreditation ensures that the education provided meets set standards for educational quality. A degree from an accredited institution carries more respect than a degree from an unaccredited institution. Finally, employers may require a PhD from institutions with a specific level of accreditation. It’s wise to do research on the exact type of accreditation requested by employers. For example, certain online schools have national rather than regional accreditation. Certain career opportunities may require that PhD programs have specialized credentials from an accrediting body focused on a particular field of study.

2. Does the online doctorate in computer science offer concentrations?

Due to the fast advancement of information technology, the computer science academic subject area has many different subsets of study. As a result, schools offering PhD programs allow for several concentrations or specialties. The more specialties at a given school, the wider the range of academic possibilities available for the student. However, the total number of concentrations or specialties offered is not the end of the discussion. The quality and level of study of the specialty is important, too. A program may have fewer concentrations, but go more in-depth with those it does offer. While choosing a program, prospective students should decide if they wish to explore a variety of specialization options or focus on one predetermined concentration.

3. What are the career prospects for PhD graduates of this online school?

One of the most attractive reasons for entering a PhD computer science program is to improve one’s career prospects. Before deciding on which school to attend, a prospective student should figure out how it could help them obtain higher pay, that dream job or another professional goal. This type of information can be gathered from the school’s website, but may require further investigation by calling the school itself or using online search engines to learn more about the success of the school’s graduates. Some specific questions to consider are whether the school has regional or nationwide recognition, the geographical breadth of the school’s alumni and the percentage of graduates that are gainfully employed within one year of graduation.

4. How much will it cost to attend?

Tuition and other costs are another very important factor when choosing which online PhD institution to enroll in. Tuition would be the single largest cost, but service fees, technology fees, books and other related fees are also serious considerations when calculating the cost of attendance. Finally, the availability of financial aid for qualified applicants is equally important. A school might seem expensive, but if it offers a loan or scholarship that another, less expensive school does not, costs may become equal when comparing the tuition of the two schools.

5. What are the program’s onsite requirements?

Some online doctoral degree programs require visits to the school. Online programs have varying procedures for defending one’s dissertation: some allow this to take place by teleconference, and others require in-person attendance. So even though a majority of the program may be online, if trips to the campus are required, those travel costs can be significant. Additionally, employed students may need to arrange for time off from work. Assuming the PhD program is otherwise perfect for the prospective student, onsite residency requirements alone should not prevent one from attending, but they need to be factored into the equation.

Concentrations, Professional Possibilities and Coursework

As part of an online PhD, computer science students need to choose a concentration on which to focus. This ability to specialize allows students to not only take classes they are interested in, but also learn about specific areas of the technology and information industry that may make them more marketable and improve their career prospects. The following are some of the more popular areas of specialization available for doctoral degrees:

Artificial Intelligence

This concentration examines the theories behind artificial intelligence as well as its applications. Concepts such as machine learning, cognitive modeling, neural networks, logic programming and reasoning under uncertainty are examined and then applied to potential and actual uses for this technology. The current state of artificial intelligence is reviewed along with what the future holds for the field.

Computer programmer

Designs, develops and manages code for computer software. Computer programmers are specially tasked with taking the design parameters and objectives of a given software product, then writing the computer instructions so that the computer hardware runs in the intended manner and accomplishes the designed tasks.

Software engineer

Converts the desired tasks of a computer hardware system into designs for actual software that can accomplish those tasks. Requiring a tremendous amount of “thinking outside the box,” software engineers apply principles of computer science to real world problems and goals.

Big Data

Methods, tools, techniques and theories for management, processing and analysis of extremely large data sets are the focus here. The influence of the Internet along with the ease with which information can be gathered and stored has created immense volumes of data, which organizations are desperately trying to take advantage of for marketing and other purposes. Students learn how to sort through the huge, seemingly random amounts of data and process them in a way to provide insights and conclusions that organizations can use.

Information research scientist

Studies new approaches to computer technology. By conducting research and studying complex computational problems, information scientists attempt to take the next step in software and hardware development. Sometimes this results in the invention of brand new technology, and sometimes it finds uses for existing technology in ways not previously thought possible.

Computer systems analyst

Analyzes an organization’s computer infrastructure and systems in order to help an enterprise or other entity more effectively achieve its strategic goals. An analyst must be able to meld the needs of the organization with the limitations or potential of a given computer system.

Database Information Systems

Database design, development, management and application are the primary focus in this area of specialization. Students also look at how organizations use large scale database systems. Students can work to obtain a level of familiarity with various enterprise information systems so they can effectively explain these complex systems to colleagues who are non-technical, but need to understand the process in order to run the organization.

Database administrator

Manages database systems for an organization. These administrators work to ensure the integrity of information in the database as well as its accessibility and efficient operation.

Computer network architect

Designs and creates computer networks that range in size and complexity from a small home or office network to a wide area network that covers the entire globe. Architects are able to evaluate the needs of an individual or organization and provide suitable networks that meet those needs given technological and economic considerations.

Information Assurance

This specialization focuses on the protection of data and the systems that process, store and gather data. Data security is on the mind of consumers and businesses now more than ever given the complex information systems used by organizations as well as ever increasing amounts of personal information stored and transmitted over computer networks. This concentration surveys principles of data authentication, integrity and confidentiality. Students focusing in information assurance learn about managing and accessing data risks, not only for software, but for hardware as well.

Information security analyst

Develops, implements and manages security measures to protect an organization’s information systems. Job duties can range from creating a security system matching client specifications to implementing real-time cyber-attack security measures.

Computer network architect

Designs and creates computer networks that range in size and complexity from a small home or office network to a wide area network that covers the entire globe. Architects are able to evaluate the needs of an individual or organization and provide suitable networks that meet those needs given technological and economic considerations.

Software Engineering

This area of study concerns advanced concepts as they relate to the design, development and management of software and the application of software to specific needs. Principles covered include software development life cycles, the engineering process and project management. By focusing on this area of specialization, students can expect to examine advanced software design concepts so that they not only learn how to design software of current systems, but anticipate future software needs.

Software engineer

Converts the desired tasks of a computer hardware system into designs for actual software that can accomplish those tasks. Requiring a tremendous amount of “thinking outside the box,” software engineers apply principles of computer science to real world problems and goals.

Computer programmer

Designs, develops and manages code for computer software. Computer programmers are specially tasked with taking the design parameters and objectives of a given software product, then writing the computer instructions so that the computer hardware runs in the intended manner and accomplishes the designed tasks.

Cryptography

One of the more intriguing areas of specialization that covers concepts on which secure computer communication is based. In essence, students investigate the theory of secure computer communication and engineering concepts to apply those theories to securing networks and the data on those networks. Topics covered include network protocols, data access techniques and network intrusion detection.

Information security analyst

Develops, implements and manages security measures to protect an organization’s information systems. Job duties can range from creating a security system matching client specifications to implementing real-time cyber-attack security measures.

Computer programmer

Designs, develops and manages code for computer software. Computer programmers are specially tasked with taking the design parameters and objectives of a given software product, then writing the computer instructions so that the computer hardware runs in the intended manner and accomplishes the designed tasks.

Information research scientist

Studies new approaches to computer technology. By conducting research and studying complex computational problems, information scientists attempt to take the next step in software and hardware development. Sometimes this results in the invention of brand new technology, and sometimes it finds uses for existing technology in ways not previously thought possible.

Computer systems analyst

Analyzes an organization’s computer infrastructure and systems in order to help an enterprise or other entity more effectively achieve its strategic goals. An analyst must be able to meld the needs of the organization with the limitations or potential of a given computer system.

Database administrator

Manages database systems for an organization. These administrators work to ensure the integrity of information in the database as well as its accessibility and efficient operation.

Computer network architect

Designs and creates computer networks that range in size and complexity from a small home or office network to a wide area network that covers the entire globe. Architects are able to evaluate the needs of an individual or organization and provide suitable networks that meet those needs given technological and economic considerations.

Information security analyst

Develops, implements and manages security measures to protect an organization’s information systems. Job duties can range from creating a security system matching client specifications to implementing real-time cyber-attack security measures.

Software engineer

Converts the desired tasks of a computer hardware system into designs for actual software that can accomplish those tasks. Requiring a tremendous amount of “thinking outside the box,” software engineers apply principles of computer science to real world problems and goals.

Despite the specific area of focus that most computer science PhD students choose, they are required to take a certain number of base or core classes, many of which are similar across programs. These classes serve as the basis of the curriculum while electives build targeted concentrations. This list is a set of typical courses that a student in an online PhD in computer science program can expect to take:

Theory and Principles of Programming

Advanced programming concepts are discussed in this course. Students build on their past programming knowledge to not just learn how to program, but understand the underlying principles of how a programming language is designed. A historical background of programming principles is also covered in order to examine current needs in design and analyze future computer trends.

Computer Ethics

Students cover the history of computer development within the context of ethical issues that have arisen. Students learn and apply ethical theories and principles in order to analyze current dilemmas, such as invasion of privacy, surveillance, social media and intellectual property protection.

Research Methods

Usually encompassing multiple classes, these courses demonstrate how to properly design and conduct research, as well as analyze the data collected in order to reach a valid and supportable conclusion. This training can help students in their dissertation process. Topics covered include quantitative analysis, research design, statistics and qualitative research.

Algorithm Design

Students learn about the foundation of algorithms, which are specific procedures to solve a problem or complete a task. Research and writing are required on the theoretical basis of algorithm design and development. Upon completion of this course, students are familiar with the fundamental principles of algorithms within the computer science context as well as how to design, write and apply their own.

Computer Graphics

This course examines the theory of computer graphic design. Students also cover the basic principles of human visual perception in order to effectively render computer graphics. Topics covered include rasterization, vector graphics, spatial anti-aliasing and others. Research into computer graphics is conducted as well as a look into the future of technology used for computer graphics.

Doctoral Dissertation

Probably the most important class taken during the online doctorate program in computer science. This course may consist of multiple classes in which students develop a proposal, conduct the actual research, write the dissertation and then defend it orally. Some schools recommend the dissertation be published once it is successfully completed.

Timetable for an Online PhD in Computer Science

The ability to learn at one’s own pace is a major reason students enroll in an online graduate program. The flexibility to take classes at a convenient time allows individuals to obtain degrees that otherwise would not be available to them due to temporal and logistical constraints. As a result, each student may finish their online doctoral computer science degree at different times, especially with the dissertation process taken into account. Additionally, an entering student may receive transfer credits, which could shorten the time it takes to obtain the computer science degree. The below section is provided as a recommended and common timetable for a typical student’s completion of the online PhD in computer science.

Year 0

Applying to any graduate program can be a tedious and involved process. The application for an online PhD program in computer science is no different. The typical application consists of the application form, an essay or personal statement, a resume, official academic transcripts, proof of a master’s degree from an accredited institution, and two or more letters of recommendation. Some schools have additional – sometimes optional – requirements such as GRE or GMAT test scores or a computer science background, either from a university degree or a minimum level of related work experience.

While easier said than done, all of these elements must be submitted before the application deadline. Students should be well organized and plan ahead since each component takes a different amount of time to finish. For example, application items such as letters of recommendation and official transcript requests should be one of the first things started in order to give ample time for their completion. Once those requests have been made, a prospective student can fill out the application or write the personal statement while waiting for the letters of recommendation and official transcripts to be received.

Year 1

The first year begins with the central doctrines of computer science. Prerequisites are taken in this first year, both in core classes and research classes. The core classes taken cover topics such as computer programming, software engineering and ethics. Research-related classes introduce students not only to effective methods of conducting research, but also to ways of analyzing the information gathered from the research, such as statistics and qualitative reasoning. Depending on the school, students take one or two specialization courses their first year.

Year 2

The second year builds upon the foundation and basics learned from year one. Students take more advanced classes so that they may obtain a more intricate understanding of computer science concepts. The number of research related classes increases, further preparing the student to start the dissertation process. Students also take more advanced specialization classes and electives in order to complete their concentration. Depending on the program, final comprehensive exams are taken at the end of this second year.

Year 3+

The third year consists primarily of work on the student’s dissertation. By now, the student has submitted a thesis topic, which once approved, allows them to commence the research needed to start writing. Throughout this process, the student provides regular updates to their advisor or chairperson, receiving constructive feedback and making small adjustments or major changes as needed. Once the dissertation is completed, it is presented to a panel, usually consisting of the advisor and additional computer science faculty. The student explains the research, methodologies and conclusions, then defends it while responding to questions from the panel. This presentation tests the student’s understanding of the research and the underlying computer science and concepts required to complete the dissertation.

The dissertation process can take several years to complete, depending on the student’s level of commitment and time available. Except for the defense, the dissertation process seems relatively unchallenging from a traditional academic perspective, as there are no exams or concepts that must be memorized or critically manipulated within limited time constraints. Yet the dissertation is usually the hardest portion of a doctoral degree because it requires organization, time for focused thought and motivation to finish. As a consequence, students may take more time to finish their dissertation than is truly required. Depending on the school, students are expected to complete their entire PhD program, including the dissertation, within five years.

Spotlight: Aspen University Online PhD in Computer Science

Aspen University

Aspen University is based in Denver, Colorado, and is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC). Aspen University offers 60 online degree programs from the associate level all the way up to the doctoral level, in addition to five certificate programs.

Aspen University’s PhD in computer science is offered by the School of Information Technology and is made up of 20 classes totaling 60 credits. Of the 20 classes, six are research classes, nine are core classes, and five are for dissertation preparation and defense.

Only students who have a computer science degree or have at least seven years of work experience in the computer science field are accepted. Additionally, students must have a master’s degree or the equivalent from an accredited or otherwise approved institution, with at least a 3.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale.

Interview with a Computer Science PhD Graduate

A.J. Shankar,he CEO of Everlaw and a graduate of a computer science PhD program

Tell me a bit about your career path. What led you to earn a PhD?

I majored in applied math as an undergraduate, with an emphasis on computer science. The math was a great foundation, but I felt there was so much more I wanted to learn about computer science, so I applied to grad school.

What does your day-to-day role entail?

As the CEO of a small startup, I only write code about 25 percent of the time these days. However, I am integrally involved in the architecture of our product, and many of the concepts I learned in grad school have been invaluable for realizing some of our technical ambitions.

What drew you to computer science?

I love writing code. Like math, there’s a depth to the field that’s very satisfying, and peeling back the abstractions that everyday programmers use reveals some really neat behavior. Also like math, there’s an elegance and beauty to coding, but there’s the added benefit that you’re always building something that other people can use.

Do you have any tips for someone who is interested in a career in computer science?

Only go to grad school if you’re really passionate about some of the classes you’ve taken and are willing to spend years learning more.

Doctoral Degree in Computer Science: Is It Worth the Money?

Before beginning an online PhD, computer science students must decide if it would be worth the financial commitment and time spent. Five or more years of education plus tens of thousands of dollars is a hefty investment. In order to resolve whether the PhD would be worth it, students should compare two important elements: The monetary cost of the degree and the salary that can be made after graduation.

Cost of an Online PhD: Computer Science Programs

When calculating the cost of an online PhD program in computer science, tuition is the single most influential number. Many institutions charge by the credit hour and provide financial aid packages for eligible applicants to help defray the cost of attendance. Students with exceptional academic credentials may be eligible for grants or scholarships that do not need to be paid back. Other students can apply for low interest loans, whether through private sources or the government. Some schools also offer discounts for military service.

Aspen University’s total cost of attendance, which includes tuition, books and other fees, is currently $23,860. Compare that with Colorado Technical University, whose cost of attendance is much higher, estimated at $58,500. Obviously there is a broad range of costs, which is something students should be very aware of when creating their short list.

Payback from Investment in Computer Science PhD

Basic salary information is provided below for specific professions that can take advantage of a computer science PhD:


Job Type Top 10% Median (50%) Bottom 10%
Computer programmer $123,490 $76,140 $43,640
Computer network architects $145,700 $95,380 $53,920
Database administrators $120,990 $78,520 $43,720
Information security analysts $138,780 $88,590 $50,430
Computer systems analysts $125,460 $81,190 $50,290
Information research scientists $158,800 $106,290 $61,300
In Millions of 2014 Dollars

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics

To put all those numbers in perspective, the job search site simplyhired.com states that the average salary for computer science PhD jobs was $75,000.

Growth is expected in fields related to computer science. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates employment growth rates of between 18 percent and 37 percent for computer programmers, computer network architects, database administrators, information security analysts, computer systems analysts and information research scientists. This is compared to the national average growth rate for all occupations projected at 11 percent for the same period between 2012 and 2022.