Find Your Online Doctorate in Computer Science

Finding your online PhD program in computer science may take a little legwork, but the rewards of earning this career-changing degree are worth it. See what it takes to earn a doctorate in computer science online, including what’s required, who has the top programs, and which doctorate option is best for you.

Written by

PhDs.me Staff

Last updated

Feb 15, 2021

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that the need for computer and information technology professionals will grow much faster than average for all occupations through 2029. Employers in both the public and private sectors are actively seeking out and competing for computer science doctorate degree holders to develop new products and innovate cutting-edge services for consumers. To facilitate this growth, colleges and universities have added blended and online programs in computer science, giving students the flexibility they need to earn an advanced degree on a schedule that’s right for them.

But which doctorate is right for me? Is an online PhD in computer science worth the cost? Can I earn an online doctorate part-time?

These are some of the questions that computer science students and professionals ask when considering a doctorate. The good news is, you’re in the right place to get answers. We address these questions and other online CS PhD concerns, provide resources to help you understand the degree, and help you find the program you need to boost your career. Let’s personalize your path to an online doctorate in computer science.

Best Online Computer Science Doctorate Programs for 2021

With so much variation, “the best” program will be different for each student. Your high-quality, affordable program may not meet the needs of another student who is looking for a program that shines in the number of specializations offered. Differences aside, many programs excel in numerous areas, including cost, quality, convenience, and the resources and support that students need to achieve success. See which schools landed on our list of the best online computer science doctorates for 2021.

Online CS Doctorate Spotlight

Northcentral University

Northcentral University’s doctor of philosophy in computer science program is 100% online and gives students the flexibility to propose their own research and build a portfolio of work that best illustrates their abilities and focus. Flexibility is one of the main themes of NCU’s CS doctorate program. The program has ongoing admissions, meaning that students can jump in and start earning their degree every Monday. The program takes about 40 months, with 60 earned credits spread over 20 courses required to earn the degree. The school rewards two full-tuition scholarships and two $20,000 scholarships to new students. The total estimated cost of the program is $68,365, but you should check directly with the school for the most updated tuition and fee schedule.

Colorado Technical University

CTU offers three computer science online doctorate programs, include the general doctorate of computer science. The school also offers a doctorate in big data analytics online and the online doctorate in cybersecurity. CTU has raised the bar when it comes to convenience for online computer science doctorates, offering three start times during the year, the option to complete the program in as little as three years, and dissertation development integrated into the program. While this program is online, there is an on-campus residency requirement for students and opportunities to attend in-person symposiums. Online doctoral candidates at CTU are required to complete 100 credits, and tuition costs run about $59,800, with fees and supplies costing extra.

Mississippi State University

MSU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering offers an online Ph.D. degree in electrical and computer engineering (ECE). The program prepares students for leadership roles and research in computer and electrical engineering, with a component that allows for students to create and develop their own specific areas of interest. One particular feature that helps this doctorate program stand out is that no matter what state students of Mississippi State University’s online education programs reside, they pay in-state tuition. This can represent a savings of thousands of dollars for out-of-state students. Online graduate students pay $514 per credit, with the total amount of credits required to graduate ranging from 48 to 66 credits, depending on which prerequisites have been completed prior to enrollment.

Benefits of the Online Doctorate in Computer Science

The computer science doctorate is one of the most diverse advanced degrees available. Students interested in studying technology at the doctoral level can earn a PhD in a computing specialization, a doctor of computer science, or a doctor of engineering sciences, and specialize in areas ranging from big data and information systems to information quality and artificial intelligence. In addition, graduates can go on to work as tenure-track faculty or research scientists at top universities, government consultants, or senior engineers at companies such as Google and Facebook. The doctorate continues to grow as a top degree for computer science students.

Recognizing this growth, colleges across the U.S. are making computer science doctorates accessible to their students online. Distance learning programs and courses allow students to work toward their PhD or doctorate degrees in computer science in a flexible setting. This has two real and distinct benefits when it comes to earning a degree:

Real-time convenience

Depending on the nature of the program, you can submit coursework, participate in online discussion groups, and communicate with professors via email, proprietary learning platforms, and Zoom meetings or Google meetups. While good for just about anyone, this time-and-place flexibility makes it easier for non-traditional students, e.g., working professionals with families, to pursue a terminal degree.

Customizing your pace

Many blended and online computer science doctorates allow students to earn their degree as fast or as slow as they need to. This means taking anywhere between one to four courses per semester and graduating as fast as three years or taking up to seven years to complete the degree. Some programs cap the number of years you can take to graduate, so make sure you fully understand the requirements before applying.

The growth of online learning has made computer science doctorates a reality for more students than ever before. Before deciding if it’s right for you, however, make sure you understand the different types of online programs out there. Let’s take a more detailed look at online program deliveries and how each could impact your journey to a computer science doctorate.

Types of Online PhD Degrees in Computer Science

High-quality online higher education is available in many forms, from fully online programs with no in-person requirements to blended programs with required campus visits for residencies, symposiums, or dissertation defense. With online doctorates, it’s crucial to research each potential program thoroughly, particularly those with campuses that are further away than a few hour’s drive. Even programs advertised as 100% online can have in-person requirements. Here’s what to look for when vetting online computer science programs at the doctorate level.

Fully online with residency

Coursework and communication is done almost exclusively online. Online work includes papers, projects, coding assignments, presentations, and discussion groups. The residency component often comes within one or more of the following areas:

Candidacy exams

After completing all required core coursework, students may be required to pass a candidacy exam that must be taken in person. These exams are designed to measure understanding of the course material completed thus far. Written and oral exams are not unusual in a PhD program.

Dissertation proposals

Before jumping into dissertation research and writing, PhD candidates must defend their proposal to faculty and fellow students. This is to ensure a clear understanding of what the dissertation will be based on and the feasibility of the project. Dissertation proposals often take place in person, but may be done via video conference. Make sure you know which one your school requires.

Dissertation defense

After finishing a dissertation, PhD candidates defend their findings before a faulty panel. This happens in person and is usually open to the public, but again, it may be done via video conference.

Blended and hybrid

Hybrid programs combine campus-based learning with online coursework to balance convenience with instructional face time. Because PhD candidates are usually balancing work and family responsibilities, online programs with in-person requirements will have classes on nights and weekends, usually once a week but sometimes less than that.

Timeline: Online Computer Science PhD

Online doctorates in computer science can run anywhere between three years (accelerated) and seven years (maximum flexibility). This depends on both the type of doctorate and whether the program allows for part-time study. Most students aim to complete their candidacy examinations after year two or three and their dissertation defense or project presentation by the end of year five or six. With this variation in mind, let’s examine a standard timeline for the most popular online computer science doctorate: the PhD.

Year
1

Students begin with core courses that address program-specific learning outcomes (more on that below). They also weave in electives related to their research interests and identify potential faculty advisors. At this point, students may also be required to file a plan of work to explain their academic intentions.

Year
2

Heightened focus on courses related to research interests and potential dissertation topic. By the end of the year, students should be progressing toward (if not taking) their comprehensive/candidacy examination. This can happen after year two or year three depending on (1) whether the student is full-time or part-time and (2) how many credits the students has achieved prior to doctorate work. Students may also begin forming a dissertation committee and preparing to apply for candidacy.

Year
3

Students should have met with their dissertation committee to finalize research direction on their topic. For full-time students, writing of the dissertation should be well underway. For part-time students, candidacy exams should be passed and dissertation work in the early stages (research and proposal). In years two and three, doctoral students may also be required to present papers at academic conferences.

Year
4

Full-time students should be finishing up their writing and preparing to defend their dissertation. This includes registration for the defense as well as distribution of the paper to the committee beforehand. Part-time students should have candidacy exams passed, dissertation topic approved, and research (and some writing) done at this point.

Year
5

For full-time students, all work should be focused on completing the defense and publication of the dissertation. Part-time students likely will be finishing up the writing portion and eyeing the dissertation defense process.

Year
6 – 7

Full-time students should have their dissertation defended and published by the end of year six. Part-time students, at the very least, should have their paper written and defense scheduled. For the students who need to take full advantage of the program’s seven-year maximum, they should have their final year fully planned with their advising team.

Each online doctorate in computer science has different options and requirements. Make sure you examine your academic and professional wants and needs carefully, and then see if they mesh with potential programs. If you’re ever uncertain, talk to an admissions advisor or program representative.

Online PhD vs. Doctor of Computer Science (DSci) and Doctor of Computer Engineering (DEng)

Advanced students in computer science have a number of doctorate-level degrees from which to choose. Each has guiding philosophies, qualifications, and academic and professional goals slightly different from the others. While the PhD is the most common, the DSci, DEng, and similar variations attract thousands of students each year. Here’s how the three main online doctorate options in computer science stack up.

Online PhD in CSOnline DSci or DEng
PurposePractical application of CS principles in a business or industry settingCS theory and scholarship
Student TypeMid CareerEarly career
Student GoalA technical leadership position in industry or the public sectorAcademic or research position
FundingIndustry or public sector employerGrant- or scholarship-based
PrerequisitesMaster’s degree in CS or a related field and professional experienceBachelor’s degree
Length3–4 years5–6 years
CapstonePortfolio or major projectDissertation & presentation

Online CS Doctorate Program Learning Outcomes

Whether pursuing a PhD or one of the practical doctorates, nearly every program starts with a set of learning outcomes. These outcomes serve as a common denominator, with all courses, materials, and projects leading to the achievement of these learning goals. Do these learning outcomes really matter for future PhD students? Absolutely. They tell you what the program is all about, what it emphasizes, where it prepares graduates to work, and more. In essence, they’re the first and most clear-cut way to see if a program makes sense for your career path.

Students may see overlap in the stated learning outcomes for computer science PhDs. For example, most programs will have a combination of the following:

1

Advanced understanding of computer science fundamentals
Students may see similar core areas noted across programs, including data science, artificial intelligence, software, networking theory, and systems. If two programs have variation in their core areas, it could indicate a different focus or faculty expertise. Make sure you read through these carefully, and don’t be afraid to ask an advisor for details.

2

Significant expertise in a research area of choice
Although a general degree is possible in some programs, some degree of specialization is necessary when in a dissertation-dependent program.

3

Produce original research
This comes in the form of primary research unique to the student and the computer science field, ideally in a manner that advances scholarship in their chosen specialty. In practical degree programs, this could be a specific project or portfolio of work that breaks new ground in the field.

4

Communication
Effective communication of research and findings orally and in writing.

In addition to these four outcomes, students may see others that indicate program emphasis on a certain aspect of computer science or advanced study in general. These can include (but are not limited to) the following:

1

Teaching/Instruction
Students gain experience teaching less-experienced students or peers in their area of interest.

2

Publication/Scholarship
Conducting, presenting, and publishing research in academic journals.

3

Community membership
Regular participation at professional conferences or other gatherings to discuss large-scale issues in the field.

4

Ethics
To understand and be able to describe the ethical issues related to computer science issues that involve humans and human interaction.

Specialization in Computer Science: What Focus Should I Target?

A specialization is an area of interest that guides academic research and coursework. While studies at the bachelor’s and master’s levels can be relatively broad — with more emphasis on understanding core concepts — specialization is critical when pursuing a PhD. It drives research, mentorship, and, most importantly, the selection and production of a capstone project or dissertation. It’s also a key step in charting a career path after graduation. Let’s view some of the most popular and up-and-coming areas in which advanced CS students can specialize.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

In addition to AI principles, PhD students can dive into robotics, probabilistic modeling, cognition, and machine learning. This specialization has crossover potential into areas such as medicine, biology, and industrial production.

Biocomputation

Biocomputation concentrates on computational hurdles and solutions within medical informatics. Coursework and research can include advanced algorithms, networking, bioengineering, and even modeling and simulation.

Computer and network security

Research topics in the niche include theory and application in network security, database security, cryptography, and advanced operating systems.

Information management

This track/specialization can span topics from system design and architecture to using machine learning and data mining to conduct advanced analyses with enormous data sets. Students can also perform intense research with information management of web applications, web search, and social media platforms.

Mobile and internet computing

Students interested in this topic can pursue research on anything from networking protocols to the mobile marketplace to the sociotechnical nature of web-based systems. The interaction between humans and computers continues to grow as an academic focus.

Software theory

Rooted in programming languages, software theory research at the doctorate level can focus on one or more languages and how they apply to areas systems development, computer and networking security, and databases.

Systems development

These systems can be as small as a router to as large as massive server farms. PhD-level research occurs in areas of development, maintenance, upgrading, security, and privacy.

If you have a master’s in computer science or you’ve been working in the field for a while, you likely have some sort of a specialty already. At the very least, you know what areas of computer science you enjoy and which ones you’d rather avoid. Pursuing a doctorate in CS gives you a great opportunity to hone these interests into a formal academic or professional next step, either to a professorship or to an advanced leadership position in the field. Before you make the leap, answer these two questions:

1

Advanced understanding of computer science fundamentals
Students may see similar core areas noted across programs, including data science, artificial intelligence, software, networking theory, and systems. If two programs have variation in their core areas, it could indicate a different focus or faculty expertise. Make sure you read through these carefully, and don’t be afraid to ask an advisor for details.

2

Significant expertise in a research area of choice
Although a general degree is possible in some programs, some degree of specialization is necessary when in a dissertation-dependent program.

3

Produce original research
This comes in the form of primary research unique to the student and the computer science field, ideally in a manner that advances scholarship in their chosen specialty. In practical degree programs, this could be a specific project or portfolio of work that breaks new ground in the field.

4

Communication
Effective communication of research and findings orally and in writing.

Accreditation

When choosing an online doctorate computer science program, it’s vital that you pick one that has the proper accreditation. There are two types of accreditation to look out for. The most important one you should look for is the institutional accreditation of the school you choose. Proper institutional accreditation helps ensure that the school you’ve chosen has been properly reviewed to meet curriculum requirements. The U.S. Department of Education oversees the institutional accrediting bodies to ensure they adhere to rigorous standards and offers a public database you can use to check if the schools you’re interested in are accredited.

A computer science program may also be accredited by ABET. ABET accredits postsecondary programs in applied and natural sciences, computing, and engineering. While there are no accrediting bodies for computer science PhD programs in the U.S., ABET accredits associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degree levels. If you’re pursuing a PhD in a computer science program with ABET accreditation at other levels, you’re attending a school with a rigorous computer science program in general. The accrediting commissions within ABET include the Applied and Natural Science Accreditation Commission, the Computing Accreditation Commission, the Engineering Accreditation Commission, and the Engineering Technology Accreditation Commission.

Applying to a Computer Science Doctorate Online

Admissions requirements can be fairly standard across computer science doctorates. Applicants to PhD or DSci programs often need a bachelor’s or master’s from a regionally accredited institution, a GPA of 3.0 or higher in that degree program, three letters of recommendation, and a written statement about their interest in the program. Variation exists across programs, with some emphasizing standardize test scores and others looking more to a candidate’s professional experience. Here are the admissions requirements you should examine more closely when vetting potential schools and programs.

GRE scores

This may be where the most variation exists. Some programs have minimum standards for all sections of the GRE (quantitative, qualitative, and analytical writing). This minimum is usually around 300, with at least 150 each on the quantitative and qualitative sections. Students may find that certain PhD programs in computer science look more closely at the quantitative score and require a 155 or 160 for consideration. Furthermore, Ivy League-caliber programs may only admit applicants who scored in the 90th percentile on all GRE sections, while some colleges don’t require GRE scores at all.

Curriculum Vitae (CV)

The importance of the CV to admission can depend greatly on the nature of the program. Because PhD candidates tend to be earlier in their career than DSci or DEng students, PhD programs may place less weight on professional experience. However, admissions boards always want to know what skills you possess, whether gained in school or in the workplace. Make sure you highlight all CS-related knowledge and skills that could help you gain admission to your program of choice.

GPA

Standard programs require a minimum 3.0. More competitive programs may only accept applications from those with a 3.5 or higher. However, be mindful of the period of time over which the GPA must be earned. Even Yale’s computer science program acknowledges that GPA over the most recent two years of study is more important than freshman year grades. Before applying to a CS PhD, make sure your GPA qualifies.

Tuition & Fees

Students considering a PhD in computer science should always ask themselves: can I afford it? Or, even more important, will the degree and salary boost warrant the cost? As with school and program selection, the answers will be unique to the student. However, a deeper understanding of tuition, fees, and salaries for PhD holders can help get you started. Here’s a quick look at in-state tuition for four online computer science doctorates today. They do not factor in additional fees such as registration fees, per-course fees, or technology fees that may occur.

SchoolCost per CreditTotal CreditsSubtotal
University of Arkansas – Little Rock$38375$28,725
Columbia University$2,01860$121,080
Northcentral University$1,03760$62,220
Capella University$74577$57,365

NOTE: Some colleges and programs have tuition assistance, grants, and other payment help specifically for PhD students. This can drive down the cost of a program significantly. While it’s good to know the base tuition rate for a program before you apply, keep in mind that you might pay far less than advertised. Never hesitate to contact a financial aid representative or advisor at a college to see what options you have available. Read through our guide to scholarships and grants to see what’s available and how to apply.

Salaries for Computer Science Doctorates

Does a PhD pay? In computer science it can. According to data from PayScale.com, those with a PhD in computer science earn a mean annual salary of $127,000. This includes professionals with job titles such as senior software engineer, research scientist, computer scientist, and lead data scientist.

Payscale reports earnings for the following job titles that typically require a PhD in computer science:

Job TitleMedian Earnings90th Percentile Earnings
Research Scientist$81,000$120,000
Principal Software Engineer$138,000$178,000
Senior Data Scientist$127,000$161,000

PayScale.com data indicates that professionals who hold an M.S. in computer science earn $10,000 per year, a full $27,000 less than their doctorate-holding counterparts.