Computer Science, PhD

Contact Info

Department of Computer Science

Nguyen Engineering Building, 4300
4400 University Drive, MS 4A5
Fairfax, VA 22030

Phone: 703-993-1530

Doctoral study in computer science offers students the opportunity to combine a sound foundation in computer science with concentrated knowledge in the latest developments in particular areas. The program includes both fundamentals and advanced work in the areas of artificial intelligence and databases, programming languages and software engineering, systems and networks, theoretical computer science, and visual computing. 

Total credits: 72

Find degree requirements in the university catalog.

2015-2016 Academic Year

The PhD program requires course work, qualifying and comprehensive examinations, and a doctoral dissertation that is first proposed and eventually defended. Mason's general doctoral requirements apply to this program.

Admission Requirements

All applicants must have an undergraduate degree, and their prior academic work must show a strong academic background in computer science. In addition, they must have taken the GRE exams: the General Test is required from every applicant; the Subject Test in Computer Science is not required but is recommended. Finally, each applicant must provide a brief statement of career goals and personal aspirations, as well as three letters of reference. Each application receives careful consideration from the PhD Admission Committee.

Reduction of Credit  

Students must complete a minimum of 72 graduate credits, which may be reduced by a maximum of 30 credits from an approved and completed master's degree. Reduction of credit requires the approval of the program director or designee and the dean or designee of the school. They determine how many credits are eligible for the reduction of credit.

Degree Requirements

The 72 hours of required doctoral-level credits typically consist of 48 credits of regular coursework and 24 credits of dissertation research. The following degree plan is based on a student who receives a full 30 credit reduction. Students who do not receive a full credit reduction should choose additional credits in consultation with their advisor.

Doctoral Course Work (18 Credits) 

  • CS 600 - Theory of Computation (3 credits) (must be completed with a grade of B+ or better)
  • CS 700 - Quantitative Methods and Experimental Design in Computer Science (3 credits)
  • CS 800 - Computer Science Colloquium (0 credits) (must be taken for two semesters)
  • CS 990 - Dissertation Topic Presentation (0 credits)
  • 12 credits in advanced graduate courses from a list maintained by the Computer Science Department and chosen in consultation with the student's advisor.

These may include at most 3 credits of CS 896 - Directed Reading and Research. Students may register in CS 896 only after passing the PhD qualifying exams.

Qualifying Exam

Students must demonstrate breadth of knowledge in computer science by passing written qualifying exams. The exams are offered once every semester (usually in the week before the semester begins). To qualify, each student must pass exams in four areas, one of which is foundations of computer science. The other three areas are chosen from these eight areas: operating systems, networks, compilers and languages, object-oriented software specification and construction, software modeling and architectural design, artificial intelligence, database systems, and information systems security. The four exams must be attempted in the same semester, and a failed exam may be retaken once only in the next semester. A student who fails to pass the four exams in two consecutive semesters is subject to termination from the program. Each student must take a set of four exams no later than the first opportunity following the completion of 18 credits. If a student enters the program without a master’s degree in computer science or a related area, then the exams must be taken no later than the first opportunity following the completion of 30 credits.

Dissertation Research (24 credits)

 A minimum of 24 credits of CS 998 and CS 999 must be completed, of which at least 12 must be in CS 999. Only 24 credits of CS 998 and CS 999 may be applied toward the degree. Students may enroll in CS 998 only after passing the qualifying exams, and they may enroll in CS 999 only after advancing to candidacy. 

Select 24 credits from the following:

  • CS 998 - Doctoral Dissertation Proposal (1-12 credits)*
  • CS 999 - Doctoral Dissertation (1-12 credits)*

*minimum 12 credits

Dissertation Committee Selection

Each student must form a dissertation committee, comprising four or five individuals. Three members of the committee must be tenured or tenure-track faculty in the Computer Science Department. The fourth member should be a member of the George Mason University graduate faculty who is outside the department. The fifth member may be from outside the university. The chair of the dissertation committee, who must also be the dissertation director, must be tenured or tenure-track faculty in the Volgenau School. The committee must be approved by the chair of the Computer Science Department.

Comprehensive Exam

Students must pass an oral comprehensive exam in which they demonstrate depth of knowledge in their intended area of research and ability to perform original research in that area. The scope of the oral exam is defined by a reading list prepared by the student and the dissertation director. The list should include research papers and textbooks that adequately cover the basic tools used in the research area, the fundamentals of the research area, and state-of-the-art knowledge in the specific focus of research. The reading list must be accompanied by a one-page description of the intended research. This document must be approved by the dissertation committee at least one month prior to the exam and becomes part of the student's record. The duration of the oral exam is typically two hours. Students who fail the exam are allowed to retake it once. Failure in the second attempt results in dismissal from the program.

Dissertation Proposal

Each student must prepare a written dissertation proposal. While preparing this proposal, the student enrolls in CS 998 - Doctoral Dissertation Proposal. The proposal must be made available to the committee at least two weeks in advance of the presentation. The proposal must be presented to and approved by the dissertation committee. The committee determines whether the proposal has merit and can lead to significant contributions to the area and whether the student has the knowledge and skills to complete the proposed work successfully and in a timely manner. Students may present their dissertation proposal only after passing the comprehensive exam, and the presentation may not be on the same day as the comprehensive exam. If the student fails to defend the proposal, the student may present a dissertation proposal a second time at a later date. Failure in the second attempt results in dismissal from the program. On completing this requirement successfully, the student is advanced to candidacy for the PhD degree.

Dissertation Preparation and Defense

While preparing the dissertation, the candidate enrolls in CS 999 - Doctoral Dissertation. When the work is deemed complete, the dissertation is defended. The public defense is preceded by a predefense meeting in which only the candidate, the dissertation committee members, and the director of the PhD in Computer Science Program (or his or her representative) are present. If the committee approves, the candidate may then schedule the final public defense. There should be at least one month between the predefense meeting and the defense, and the defense must be announced at least two weeks in advance. The dissertation must be made available to the committee at least two weeks in advance of the defense. The entire dissertation committee must be present at the defense, unless an exception is approved by the director of the PhD in Computer Science Program in advance of the defense. The dissertation must make significant contributions to its area and be publishable in refereed journals or conferences. If the candidate defends the dissertation successfully, the dissertation committee recommends that the final form of the dissertation be completed under the supervision of the dissertation director and the graduate faculty of Mason accept the candidate for the PhD degree. If the candidate fails to defend the dissertation, the candidate may request a second defense, following the same procedures as for the initial defense. There is no time limit for this request other than general time limits for the doctoral degree and an additional predefense is not required. A candidate who fails a second attempt to defend the dissertation is dismissed from the program.

Total: 72 credits


Mason is an excellent place to pursue a PhD in computer science. We have a strong faculty in a diverse set of computer science areas and our program is nationally ranked. Our location, in the center of one of the largest computer science and information technology corridors in the nation, is also a major center for science and engineering research and funding. This makes the area a rich source for PhD research opportunities. Our PhD graduates have been highly successful both in academic and industrial positions.

The department is committed to funding PhD students as much as possible. A significant number of teaching assistantship and research assistantship positions are available. PhD students are given strong preference for these positions; currently most PhD students in need of an assistantship are being funded. The PhD program also offers one Presidential Graduate Fellowship each year.

This information is being provided here for your planning purposes only. For official catalog information, please refer instead to the official George Mason University Catalog Website at
This information is being provided here for your planning purposes only. For official catalog information, please refer instead to the official George Mason University Catalog Website at
This information is being provided here for your planning purposes only. For official catalog information, please refer instead to the official George Mason University Catalog Website at