Doctoral Degree Requirements


The ultimate goal of Penn’s PhD program in CIS is research excellence.  This can be broken down into several intermediate goals: 

  1. Breadth across multiple subfields of CS at a graduate level.
  2. Mastery in depth of a specific research area.
  3. Engagement with research during the first two years of the program.
  4. Written and oral communication skills.
  5. Practice in teaching.
  6. A significant contribution to knowledge by the end of the program.

CIS PhD Program Requirements

General Information

All doctoral work, including the dissertation, must be completed within ten years of matriculation as a graduate student at Penn.

To be in good standing the student is required to maintain satisfactory progress and to achieve the CIS PhD benchmarks in a timely manner.

The student is required to maintain a cumulative grade point average of at least 3.0.

Doctoral students have a worksheet which they can use to monitor enrollment and completion of milestones. On the worksheet, Qualifications Evaluation records completion of the Breadth requirement; Candidacy Examination is completion of the thesis proposal; Dissertation Defense is the successful completions of the dissertation defense. (The worksheet is does not currently show completion of the Research Qualifier.) Students can access the worksheet through PATH.

For the first two years of their doctoral career, Ph.D. students enroll in four courses (including independent studies) in the Fall and Spring semesters; billing is at the full-time rate.

After the second year of study, in order to meet University and fiscal constraints, full-time enrollment in the Fall and Spring is three courses, Thesis Research, etc.; billing is at the full-time rate.

Once a student has been in the doctoral program for five years, they are billed at a reduced rate.
Once a doctoral student has made the dissertation proposal, they should register for CIS 9950/Dissertation.

Course Requirements

Breadth Courses

The first milestone is intended to expose students to multiple subject areas within computer science.


Most of the existing graduate-level (5000- or higher) CIS courses are categorized into five buckets:

  • Mathematical Foundations
  • System Design and Implementation
  • Learning and Modeling
  • Human-Centered Computing
  • Technical Communication

Students are required to take and receive a grade of B or above in two courses spanning two of the five buckets.  Both of these buckets should be different from the student’s “home bucket” (i.e., the bucket into which their own PhD work is most likely to fall).

The breadth requirement is waived for PhD students who enter the program with a Master’s degree in computer science (or a related field, subject to review by the advisor and graduate chair).

There is no mechanism for “testing out” of breadth (or depth) courses, or for “transferring credit” from other degree programs based on prior coursework, except for a completed masters degree.

Faculty advisors will approve students’ breadth course selections to ensure the set of courses is well-rounded and appropriate for the student.


The motivating principle behind the breadth milestone is for students to gain meaningful exposure at the graduate level to multiple subfields of Computer and Information Science, such that they can be informed colleagues and peers. Below, we provide more detail on these key highlighted terms, and explain how they impact the courses on this breadth list and students’ selection of them.

“Gain meaningful exposure”: The goal of the breadth courses is graduate-level exposure to areas outside of a student’s chosen sub-discipline. While we do expect mastery (i.e. excellence, ability above that of most other students), within the student’s chosen area, the aim of Breadth is to enable students to have a more holistic understanding of Computer and Information Science. Therefore students are considered to satisfy the requirement by receiving a grade of B or above in the course. We only consider courses with a meaningful evaluation component (e.g., graded exam, project, homeworks).

“Graduate level”: Outside their target research area, we expect incoming PhD students to have an equivalent level of preparatory coursework as the broader graduate student body, for example first-year Master’s students. Therefore, courses included under Breadth are those that are appropriate for graduate students and offered at a 5000 level or above.

“Multiple subfields”: We partition computer science into five large buckets and require that students take two courses spanning two of the five buckets. Therefore, most students will be gaining graduate-level coursework exposure to at least two subfields outside their own. We feel this is appropriate, as the majority of students already have undergraduate (or Master’s) exposure to a wider range of subfields (including those traditionally considered “core”: Theory and Systems). For students without such background (i.e., those without a CS undergraduate or Master’s degree), it will be especially important to ensure that they are well-rounded by this coursework. Therefore, faculty advisors will be tasked with approving the student’s final Breadth course list, ensuring that it meets these requirements — and, in the case of students without a traditional CS background, that the student is well-rounded, including in traditional core CS areas outside of their research focus.

“Computer and Information Science”: While the vast majority of courses on this list are CIS courses, a select few may be offered in other departments when appropriate, in particular when the content of the external course is pertinent to Computer and Information Science and the CIS department does not offer an equivalent course.

Depth Courses

The second set of course requirements is intended to help students achieve mastery of their chosen research subfield.

Each student must choose, in consultation with their advisor, a set of four additional courses that together constitute a solid foundation for advanced work in their area.  They should receive a grade of B or above in these courses.

Timing: At least three breadth and/or depth courses must be completed by the end of the student’s second year, four by the end of the third year, five by the end of the fourth year, and all six by the end of the fifth year.  Students coming in with masters degrees will be finished taking courses by the end of the third year.

Responsible Conduct for Research in Engineering

During the first year students are required to take EAS 9000.  This course consists of:

  1. Eight hours of in person training conducted through workshops. These sessions will be held virtually and will be split up into four two-hour blocks. Attendance is mandatory.
    -The fourth session is department specific; this information will be sent from CIS.
  2. Two courses in Knowledge Link.
    -CITI Responsible Conduct of Research
    -Confronting Bias: Thriving Across Our Differences (you will be asked to create a LinkedIn Learning account. If you have a LinkedIn account, you may choose to link the course to your existing account. It is not required to do so).

These EAS 900 workshops are mandatory for first-year students and held every Fall at the SEAS level.  Emails regarding the schedule will come directly from the Graduate Academic Dean’s office,

Approved Breadth Courses

Initial Breadth Course List

  1. Mathematical Foundations: Courses in this bucket emphasize mathematics and formal reasoning as it applies to foundational questions about computation.
  • CIS 5000 Software Foundations
  • CIS 5020 Analysis of Algo
  • CIS 5110 Theory of Computation
  • CIS 5180 Topics in Logic
  • CIS 5200 ML
  • CIS 5560 Cryptography
  • CIS 6100 Advanced Geometric Methods
  • CIS 6250 Theory of Machine Learning
  • CIS 6700 Advanced Topics in Programming Languages
  • CIS 6730 Computer-Aided Verification
  • CIS 6770 Advanced Topics in Algorithms and Complexity
  • CIS 6820 Friendly Logics
  1. System Design and Implementation: Courses in this bucket explore the construction of computing artifacts that meet complex design constraints or requirements. They emphasize not only what we build, but how we build it and the challenges involved in doing so. Courses in this area often include considerations of performance (speed, memory, energy), scalability, complexity, and software quality.
  • CIS 5500 Database & Information Systems
  • CIS 5550 Internet/WebSys
  • CIS 5710 Comp Org & Design
  • CIS 5010 Architecture
  • CIS 5050 Software Systems
  • CIS 5400 Principles of Embedded Computation
  • CIS 5410 Embedded Software for Life-Critical Applications
  • CIS 5420 Embedded Systems Programming
  • CIS 5470 Software Analysis
  • CIS 5480 Operating Systems
  • CIS 5490 Wireless Communications / IoT
  • CIS 5510 Computer and Network Security
  • CIS 5520 Advanced Programming
  • CIS 5530 Networked Systems
  • CIS 5540 Programming Paradigms
  • CIS 5570 Programming for the Web
  • CIS 5650 GPU Programming
  • CIS 6010 Advanced Topics in Computer Architecture
  • CIS 6400 Advance Topics in Software Systems
  • CIS 6500 Advanced Topics in Databases
  1. Learning and Modeling: Courses in this bucket seek to build models of observed phenomena. They emphasize building these models from data, with the goal of predicting, classifying or otherwise structuring observations.
  • CIS 5190 Applied ML
  • CIS 5210 AI
  • CIS 5360 Comp Bio
  • CIS 5670 Sci Comp
  • CIS 5200 ML
  • CIS 5220 Deep Learning for Data Sci
  • CIS 5260 Machine Translation
  • CIS 5300 NLP
  • CIS 5370 Biomedical Image Analysis
  • CIS 5800 Machine Perception
  • CIS 5810 Computer Vision
  • CIS 6200 Advanced Topics in Machine Learning
  • CIS 6300 Advanced Topics in NLP
  • CIS 6800 Advanced Topics in Machine Perception
  1. Human-Centered Computing: Courses in this bucket examine how computing and technology affect and interact with society and human behavior and perception, seeking to place artifacts in the context in which they are used. In particular this area includes courses that deal with the societal impact of computation as well as courses in HCI.
  • CIS 5120 HCI
  • CIS 5230 The Ethical Algorithm
  • CIS 5640 Game Design and Development
  • CIS 7980 Explaining Explanation
  • CIS 5600 Interactive Computer Graphics
  • CIS 5610 Advanced Rendering
  • CIS 5620 Animation
  • CIS 5630 Physically Based Animation
  • CIS 5660 Procedural Computer Graphics
  • CIS 6600 Advanced Topics in Computer Graphics and Animation
  1. Technical communication: Courses in this bucket emphasize verbal and written communication of science and research.
  • CIS 8100 Writing and Speaking with Style

Each instance of CIS 7000, Special Topics, with a given instructor and title is treated as a new course and approved using the same process as other breadth courses.

Research Affiliation Process

During the first year of the Ph.D. program, each student is assigned an academic advisor. This faculty member will typically not be the student’s ultimate supervisor. Their role is to help with planning coursework and with initiating the process of binding with a permanent research advisor.

It is the student’s responsibility during the first year to explore relationships with potential research advisors. Ways of doing this include taking courses (especially advanced seminars) taught by faculty members in the student’s area of interest, attending research group meetings, and undertaking independent studies with potential advisors.

It is very strongly recommended that Ph.D. students take at least one independent study during their first year; taking one or more each semester is encouraged. Note, however, that this is not a requirement: it is a good idea for most, but not all, students. For example, a student coming into the Ph.D. program from a non-CS undergraduate program may need to spend a significant part of the first year building up background knowledge; this should be discussed between the student and their academic advisor.

Official bindings between students and research advisors are made at the end of the second semester, following final exams. This process is overseen by the graduate chair, taking into account both faculty and student preferences. Students should talk with potential advisors before the binding process begins, to settle, if possible, on plans for advising arrangements. (I.e., the official binding process is intended mainly to ratify arrangements that have been agreed in advance.) In rare cases, the binding process may fail, resulting in no binding to an advisor for a particular student. In this case, the student’s support will continue for the remainder of the first year — i.e., until the end of the summer – by which time they must find a research advisor in order to continue in the program.

Research Qualifier

One of the most important activities for students during the early years of their PhDs is beginning the process of becoming independent researchers.  Although this activity may not produce publishable results at this stage, engaging with the process is critical.  The goal of the research qualifier is to check that students are making satisfactory progress on research during their early years in the program.

Concretely, it offers an opportunity for the student, their advisor, and two additional faculty in their area to evaluate and discuss their research efforts so far.  It is also a chance to polish written and oral communication skills.   

The research qualifier has two parts: a written report and an oral presentation.

Review committee

The research qualifier is evaluated by a committee consisting of three members. The chair must be a member of the CIS Graduate Group other than the student’s advisor.  The other committee members may be the student’s advisor(s), university faculty outside CIS, or from outside the university (such as an industry researcher).

Written report

The written report should describe the background, related work, goals, preliminary results, and future plans of the student’s current research efforts. It has the same general form as a dissertation proposal, but much shorter and—crucially—with no expectation of a clear path to dissertation-worthy or even publishable results (or even any positive results at all: well-executed but unsuccessful attempts are also fine.) 

The report should comprise approximately 5,000 to 10,000 words. No specific format is required, but for reference this corresponds to around 7 to 15 pages of single-spaced 10-point text.

The report should be aimed at a reasonably broad audience – e.g., first-year PhD students in the same research area.

The words in the report should be written solely by the student.  Students may, if they wish, ask others for comments on drafts, as long as they make any corrections themselves.

If the work it describes is collaborative (which is fine), the report should clearly describe who did what, and it should focus on the student’s individual contribution.

The written report should be sent to the committee at least two weeks before the oral presentation.

Oral presentation

The oral presentation is a seminar-style treatment of the material in the written report, again aimed at first-year PhD students in the same broad research area.  The presentation should take around 45 minutes, followed by an additional around 45 minutes for questions and discussion.  

The scheduling of the public oral presentation of the WPE-II is the responsibility of the student; it is a good idea to begin scheduling as early as possible. Please schedule a 2-hour block to leave plenty of time for discussion.

The oral presentation announcement — to faculty, fellow doctoral students, and postdocs, with abstract, committee members, room, time, etc. — should be sent by the student to all CIS doctoral students, postdocs, and faculty (by emailing at least two weeks prior to the presentation, with a reminder the day before. Click here for emailing guidelines.

The SEAS space reservation website has information about availability, technology, and procedures for reserving conference rooms; use this site to reserve the room for your presentation. You can also reserve rooms in 3401 Walnut by contacting Lily Hoot (

Evaluation criteria

Following the oral presentation, the review committee will meet and decide on one of three possible outcomes: pass, revise and resubmit either or both of the written report and the oral presentation within six months, or fail.  

The primary purpose of the research qualifier is to demonstrate that the student is developing the research skills that will enable them to write a successful dissertation in due course.  In particular, the report and presentation should demonstrate

  1. general background knowledge of the student’s chosen area within computer science,
  2. detailed command of a particular sub-area related to the student’s research, and
  3. ability to carry out a research project in this subarea and to present the results in a scholarly way.

The research qualifier is also intended to help ensure that the student has the writing and oral communication skills necessary to successfully complete the PhD. Thus, both the report and the presentation will be evaluated in part on the effectiveness of their communication.

Feedback from the 3-member evaluation committee will be provided both on the spot after the oral presentation and on the form recording the outcome of the process.


The research qualifier must be completed no earlier than the beginning of the fourth and no later than the end of the fifth semester.

Teaching Practicum

Students fulfill the teaching practicum requirement by acting as a teaching assistant for two semesters. Students participating in the teaching practicum will be registered for one credit of CIS 895/Teaching Practicum, in addition to three course/independent study credits for a total of four credit units.

Teaching Practicum assignments are made by the graduate coordinator and the graduate chair, taking into consideration specific requests from faculty and/or students. Satisfaction of the requirement is based on end-of-semester evaluations by course instructors.

It is expected that a student will spend approximately 15 hours per week on the teaching practicum.

In accordance with the Pennsylvania English Fluency in Higher Education Act, Penn is required to certify to the English fluency of all students acting as teaching assistants whose native language is other than English. To fulfill this requirement, international students must register for Penn’s English Language Program (ELP) Speak Test.

Information re: the Interactive Performance Test (IPT) for international students who will be TAs can be accessed @

To register for the IPT online – You are completing the form as an individual student.
Check “My department has agreed to pay the test fee.
The 26-digit BEN number to be charged is
130 – 1303 – 1 – 000000 – 5304 – 4323 – 0000

For “Name of department personnel who can verify the above BEN number” – Britton Carnevali
For “Email of department personnel who can verify the above BEN number” –
For “Phone of department personnel who can verify the above Ben number” – 8-5515

If there is a question send email to

Thesis Proposal Approval

The objective of the thesis proposal approval is to evaluate the direction and progress of the thesis project, to assess its suitability, to determine whether the student has in-depth knowledge of concepts fundamental to the research, and to ensure that the student is capable of pursuing independent research.

During the third year of doctoral studies, students must assemble a thesis committee of at least three Penn faculty, (the dissertation advisor is not one of the three), and one external committee member. The external need not attend the meeting. You should discuss expectations with your committee.

Students complete the Dissertation Proposal Approval Form which is approved by their Advisor and the Graduate Group Chair; email to access a copy of the Dissertation Proposal Approval Form.  Students can then share this form with their advisor and committee members for review and approval.  All completed forms should be sent back to Britton and the Graduate Chair for final review and approval.  Details about recording the defense, once a student has passed can be found under the Thesis Proposal Defense section.

Thesis Proposal Defense

Students must defend their thesis proposal by the end of their fourth year in the doctoral program, and at least a year before the thesis defense.

The proposal consists of a written document and a 1-hour oral presentation. The document should be at least 10,000 words and include a proposal for remaining work to be completed prior to graduation. The document and presentation should clearly address the following questions:

  • What exact problem, issue, or question is this research concerned with?
  • What limitations or failings of current understanding, knowledge, methods, or technologies does this research resolve?
  • How significant is the problem, issue, or question?
  • What new understanding, knowledge, methods, or technologies will this research generate? How does this address the purpose of the work?
  • What experiments, studies, or prototypes will be produced to achieve the stated goal?
  • How will achievement of the goal be demonstrated and the contribution of the work measured?

The thesis proposal defense must take place at least one year before the thesis defense.
The proposal document should be delivered to the committee at least two weeks in advance of the defense, to allow time for thorough reading.

The School’s Space Reservation website has information re: availability, technology, and reserving CIS/Engineering conference rooms.

CIS doctoral students can use to send the announcement of the: dissertation proposal defense to their fellow CIS Ph.D. students, faculty, and post-docs; click here to access the guidelines for using

Once the student has passed, their advisor should email Britton and the Graduate Chair, so their progress can properly be recorded in BP Logix using the Candidacy Examination form.

Scheduling and Announcements of Public Presentations

The scheduling of the oral defense of the WPE-II, thesis proposal, and thesis are the responsibility of the student. Given that these events all involve multiple busy people, it is a good idea to begin scheduling them well in advance (a few weeks ahead for the WPE-II and thesis proposal; at least two months ahead for the thesis defense).

CIS doctoral students can use to send announcements re: their WPE II presentation, dissertation proposal defense, and dissertation defense to their fellow CIS PhD student, faculty, and post-docs; click here to access the guidelines for using

The School’s Space Reservation website has information re: availability, technology, & reserving CIS/Engineering conference rooms.  Use this to reserve the room for your presentation that best fits your needs.

Defense of the Dissertation

When the student and research advisor are satisfied with the dissertation, the dissertation committee evaluates the written dissertation and there is a second oral defense at which the committee establishes that the project has been completed and makes an original contribution to knowledge worthy of the PhD degree. The thesis defense should take place at least a year following the dissertation proposal defense. The committee’s decision and any additional feedback is communicated informally to the candidate on the day of the defense, followed by a formal recommendation to the graduate chair within the next few days. The dissertation should be delivered to the committee at least three weeks in advance of the defense, to allow time for thorough reading.

The School’s Space Reservation website has information re: availability, technology, & reserving CIS/Engineering conference rooms.

CIS doctoral students can use to the announcement of the dissertation defense to their fellow CIS Ph.D. students, faculty, and post-docs click here to access the guidelines for using

Click here to download the University Acceptance of Dissertation form 152 complete the Acceptance of Dissertation form and have your advisor(s) and all committee member sign it at the defense.

Information and links for formatting the thesis, submission of the thesis to the University, etc. can be found here.

Once the thesis has been defended, the student can request that tuition/fees be waived; click here for the form to make this request. Please note, commencing 2019 SEAS administrative regulations have made approval for the tuition/fees waiver difficult to obtain and it is not recommended to follow this option.

Doctoral Dissertation Resources:

Penn Graduate Student Center (GSC): links to Penn resources including the Dissertation Manual, preparation guidelines, online resources, useful software, etc.

GSC “Navigating the Dissertation” events: Navigating the Dissertation seeks to help doctoral students be successful in the dissertation process through workshops, resources, dissertation groups, and Dissertation Boot Camp. The Boot Camp offers an environment and support for intense, focused writing time, and provides participants with the structure and motivation to overcome typical roadblocks in the dissertation process.

EAS 510 Course: The EAS 510 course is primarily for Penn Engineering graduate students who use English as a second language and who need to develop the communication skills for their academic and professional careers.

Weingarten Learning Resources Center: The WLRC provides academic support services and programs for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students.

Thesis Submission/Graduation Checklist

Information re: applying for graduation, thesis formatting, etc. can be accessed here.

Students must make an appointment to officially submit the thesis by contacting

The following signed documents are needed for the thesis submission:

You can download the documents and complete them yourself. You can access your transcript and Ph.D. worksheet through PennInTouch.

Be sure all grades, etc. are posted correctly; due Penn administrative constraints, the only appropriate grades for CIS 999 THESIS/DISS RESEARCH are S(atisfactory) or U(nsatisfactory).

Prior to submitting the thesis send email to; your transcript/worksheet needs to be approved for graduation. When submitting your final signed department forms, you will also need to submit your signed Title page.  All are needed to obtain the signature of the SEAS Associate Dean on the SEAS PhD Degree Certification. Please note these are OFFICIAL documents that are included with the submission of your thesis and they should be completed thoroughly, neatly and efficiently.

Graduate Program:

Your CIS Contacts:

Redian Furxhiu
Graduate Coordinator for on-campus MCIT, CIS/MSE and CGGT programs
Office: 308 Levine
Phone: 215-898-1668

Staci Kaplan
Program Manager for DATS (Data Science MSE)
Office: 308 Levine
Phone: 215-573-2431

Britton Carnevali
Doctoral Program Manager
Office: 310 Levine
Phone: 215-898-5515

Mariel Celentano
Graduate Coordinator for ROBO
Office: 459 Levine
Phone: 215-573-4907

Liz Wai-Ping Ng
Associate Director for Embedded Systems MSE program
Office: 313 Levine
Phone: 215-898-8543

Julia Esposito
PICS Program Coordinator, SCMP Academic Coordinator
Office: 3401 Walnut, 5th Fl.
Phone: 215-573-6037