Best Online PhD Programs in Computer Science

Nov 24, 2021

What is an Online PhD in Computer Science Program?

There are many different doctoral degrees in computer science and other related areas, such as doctoral degrees in cyber security, information security, information systems, and information technology. While many of these degree programs are on campus, there are some online programs available, including online Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Computer Science programs and online doctoral degrees in areas such as cybersecurity, information systems, and information technology. Many PhD programs in computer science are available fully online, while others may be available in hybrid formats. Typically, students need to complete a dissertation and will have the opportunity to customize their degree to fit their desired career goals. These broad degrees help train students to solve real-world problems in a range of industries using technology and computers. Learn more about these online degree programs below.

Why Should I Get an Online PhD in Computer Science?

Some students may be trying to decide if a PhD in Computer Science is worth it and weighing the pros and cons of a PhD in the field. Students should first consider whether they want to pursue a master's degree or a doctoral degree. This usually comes down to a student's ultimate career goal. For instance, students who want to work in the field of business may consider earning a Master of Business Administration (MBA) vs. a PhD in Computer Science. Although some graduates with their PhD in Computer Science may go on to work in the business industry, their career is likely to be more technology-focused than business-focused. Another benefit of earning a doctoral degree is that graduates tend to earn more money and take on more advanced positions with this high-level degree. Computer science is also a very flexible field, as nearly every industry utilizes technology. Therefore, graduates can pursue a wide range of careers in various fields and find employment fairly easily.

Admissions Requirements for Online Computer Science PhD Programs

Admissions standards and procedures vary for different online computer science PhD programs. For instance, there are some PhD programs that are master's only programs and require applicants to hold a master's degree, while others may accept students with either a bachelor's degree or master's degree. Applicants will likely need to apply to the graduate school first. They may need to meet a minimum GPA requirement, such as a 3.2 or higher. The application for online PhD programs in computer science may require students to take the GRE. They also usually need to include their transcripts with the application, along with any required supplemental materials. For example, students may be required to include letters of recommendation, a statement of goals or essay, and a resume or CV.

What Should I Expect from an Online PhD in Computer Science?

Online PhD programs in computer science may have different tracks based on a student's prior education. For example, some of these online programs have a track for those with a bachelor's degree that requires between 66 and 90 credits of coursework as opposed to a master's track that only requires between 32 and 60 credits of coursework. These programs generally expose students to the use of computer science in various fields and further develop their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Graduates are also typically prepared to take on leadership positions within computer science.

How Long is an Online Doctoral Computer Science Program?

Online PhD programs in computer science may take between 4 and 5 years to complete. This usually involves 3 to 4 years of coursework and 1 year or more of dissertation work. How long it takes a student to finish their dissertation will commonly determine the time to graduation. Other factors that can affect the time to degree completion include a student's educational background and course load. Students with only a bachelor's degree will usually take longer to earn their PhD than those with a master's degree because they have to take more classes. Students who take a full course load will also finish faster than those who take fewer courses each semester.

Common Courses for Online Computer Science Doctoral Programs

Coursework for online PhD in Computer Science programs is typically unique to the program. However, it is common for students to take some core courses and then specialization courses and/or elective courses. Most of these doctoral programs conclude with dissertation credits that help prepare students to write their dissertation. Students will typically be enrolled in these various dissertation credits throughout the duration of the research and writing process. It is common for core computer science courses to provide students with hands-on experience working with different kinds of hardware and software systems. Some courses may focus on research and others may be project-based. Below are a few examples of possible courses.

Machine Learning

Students commonly take an introductory course in machine learning to examine major approaches in the field and computational learning theory. Many of these courses have prerequisite coursework that must be completed prior to taking it. Other specific topics include algorithms, kernel machine, neural network, evaluation models, and more. Students will also explore current research in the field.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence courses also usually have some prerequisite requirements and help introduce students to the use of computers with human thought processes. These courses may discuss topics in Swarm Intelligence, search programming, search strategies, and Heuristic programming. Students will also explore the different applications for these technologies in various industries.

Data/Database Management

Courses in data management or database management may also incorporate topics in data engineering. Students in these courses learn about database models and the different concepts in database management. Other topics for these courses can include data acquisition, mining, indexing, and analysis. Students will also discuss current practices used in the field.

Data Visualization

Courses in data visualization may be offered as electives or special topics courses, depending on the program. Some programs may use these courses to cover topics that are not fully discussed in other related courses. Overall, these courses help train students in the different visualization techniques used to help people easily understand data and make decisions based on this data. Students may use specific programs and tools such as Python, Tableau, and more.

Online Computer Science PhD Degree Specializations

In general, most online PhD in Computer Science do not have specific specialization options. However, students can focus their degree through specialization or elective courses and their research. Depending on the program, students may be able to pick and choose between different elective courses that align with their interests. Some programs may have students take courses related to a primary area of specialization (broader) and a secondary area of specialization (more specific) that corresponds to their career goals and research interests. For instance, students may take courses in machine learning or artificial intelligence for their primary specialization and courses in computer graphics or data visualization in R for their secondary specialization. Other programs may offer different clusters of courses. For example, students may choose to take courses in a computation cluster vs. an application cluster. Courses in computation may focus on specialized computing methods or systems, while application courses will introduce students to applications of computer science in specific scientific disciplines.

Doctoral Dissertation for Computer Science

The entire doctoral dissertation process for online PhD programs in computer science can take a year or more to complete. Students typically need to take a qualifying exam that may take place prior to finishing all of their coursework. This exam ensures that students are ready for further, advanced study in computer science. Once coursework is completed, students typically take a preliminary exam to advance to candidacy and prepare for conducting research for their dissertation. Leading up to this point, students have likely taken various research courses and graduate seminars that have helped prepare them for conducting their own research. Around this time, students also form a dissertation committee with their advisor and other faculty members who will help guide the student through the dissertation process. Students will likely need to conduct some preliminary research and may need to submit a dissertation proposal of some kind to their dissertation committee. The committee helps make sure the student is on the right track and provides feedback. Once students have completed their dissertation, they have to defend their dissertation in front of their dissertation committee. Some programs may also include students' peers in the defense presentation. The committee may provide some final feedback and corrections that students must complete prior to graduation.

How to Choose the Right Online Computer Science PhD Program

There are many considerations for choosing the best online computer science PhD program for each individual student. Students should first be sure that a doctoral degree in computer science is the right degree level and subject area to help them reach their desired career goals. Once this has been determined, students need to ensure that an online or hybrid learning format will fit within their schedule and learning style. Then, students can begin comparing individual online PhD in Computer Science programs. Depending on their preferences, students may want to find a fully online program vs. a hybrid program. Students may also want to find a program that offers coursework that aligns with their interests and career goals. Typically, students will want to find programs that include training in research and hands-on experience working with various kinds of computer systems and technology to prepare for the real-world. Students may also want to consider what their school of choice is known for and see if this aligns with their interests. For instance, some computer science programs may be found at schools that are leaders in big data, while other schools focus on a different area of the field. Finally, the cost of the doctoral program may also play a role in students' decision.

Accreditation for Schools with a Computer Science PhD Program

There are generally two levels of accreditation, regional and program-specific accreditation. While most online PhD programs in computer science do not have program- or subject-specific accreditation, many are offered from institutions that hold regional accreditation. This type of accreditation is important because the federal government will not allow students to accept federal loans or grants unless they attend an accredited institution. Most employers also prefer employees who have earned an accredited degree because it means that the institution has provided a quality education. Some employers may also provide tuition assistance for employees attending accredited institutions. In the case of online PhD programs in computer science, schools that offer these programs may be accredited by institutions such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Other computer science-related programs may have recognition from technology-related groups. For example, some schools' cybersecurity courses may earn the school a designation as a National Center of Academic Excellence (NCAE) in Cybersecurity from the National Security Agency (NSA).

Job Outlook for Computer Science

Career information for a degree in computer science is quite diverse as there are many careers involving computer science. Typically, those with an advanced degree, such as a PhD, in the field can pursue higher up management and/or research positions. Computer science experts are needed in a range of fields, including:

  • Software engineering
  • Communications
  • Aerospace
  • Medical research
  • Engineering
  • Science

Based on a graduate's personal interests and educational background, they may specialize in a specific area of computer science. Some may pursue managerial or practitioner positions, while others focus on research-based positions. Some examples of possible job titles for graduates include:

  • Computer and information research scientist
  • Computer and information systems manager
  • Executive
  • Professor
  • Senior software engineer
  • Computer scientist

Computer and Information Research Scientist

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of 2020, computer and information research scientists made a median annual salary of $126,830. The job outlook for these professionals was 22% from 2020 to 2030, per the BLS. These professionals work in a range of fields, such as medicine, business, and science, to figure out ways to improve existing technology and create new technology. This requires them to understand computing needs, work with other scientists and engineers, experiment with possible solutions, and analyze their results.

Computer and Information Systems Manager

Computer and information systems managers made a median annual salary of $151,150, as of 2020, per the BLS. The BLS also reported that these managers had a job outlook of 11% from 2020 to 2030. Computer and information systems managers are responsible for overseeing the various computer-related activities in their organization. They can also work in a range of fields and typically oversee the work of other information technology staff. These managers may analyze the benefits of and oversee new technology-related projects, conduct maintenance on current systems, and help ensure the security of important information.

Top Executive

Top executives, such as chief information officers (CIOs), executive directors, and managing directors, can work for organizations in any number of fields. According to the BLS, top executives made a median annual salary of $106,180, as of 2020, and had a job outlook of 8% from 2020 to 2030. The specific job duties vary for top executives by role, but for those in advanced positions related to computer science, they will likely help develop goals and strategies to meet those goals involving an organization's technology. They may also be responsible for selecting managers, finding ways to cut costs, and manage budgets.

Financial Aid and Scholarships for Online Computer Science PhD Programs

Financing one's online PhD in Computer Science can be a big concern for students. Students should always search for available financial aid options to help cut the personal costs for earning their degree. This usually means first filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to see what federal aid they may qualify for. Then, students can begin to explore financial aid options offered by their institution(s) of choice, as well as outside sources. Some schools may offer their own scholarships or various kinds of tuition discounts, but there are usually various organizations outside of a college or university that offer scholarships, grants, or fellowships related to specific subject areas. For example, graduate students in computer science can pursue the Department of Energy (DOE) Computational Science Graduate Fellowship. This fellowship offers a mathematics/computer science track and winners receive full tuition and a yearly stipend of $38,000, in addition to other benefits.

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