How Much Will You Earn With a PhD in Computer Science?
March 07, 2023
PhDs in many disciplines work almost exclusively in academia. Not so with Computer Science PhDs, whose expertise is in demand throughout the tech world and in tech-dependent businesses as well. No matter where you wind up, you should pull a healthy six-figure salary.
Getting a PhD in Computer Science is a time-consuming and labor-intensive endeavor. First, you need to earn a master's degree. Then you have to get into a doctoral program. After that, you'll complete two years of coursework that will push you to your limits.
And that's when the real fun begins: you'll research, write, and defend a massive project called a dissertation. Clear all the hurdles and you can slap a "doctor" in front of your name (although most PhDs don't; as one PhD explained on Quora, "I only use the 'doctor' title when I want to get a good table at a restaurant").
You'll be rewarded with a ton of knowledge and a well-deserved sense of accomplishment. But will you reap financial rewards? How much will you make with a PhD in Computer Science? We answer that question in this article and also discuss:
- What is a PhD in Computer Science?
- What jobs are available to someone with a PhD in Computer Science?
- What will you earn with a PhD in Computer Science?
- What will you study in a Computer Science PhD program?
- Where can you earn a PhD in Computer Science?
What is a PhD in Computer Science?
A PhD in Computer Science is a terminal degree in computer science, a discipline typically offered through a university's school of engineering and applied science. It's a broad discipline with multiple applications across businesses, organizations, and institutions. Because of this, computer science doctoral candidates study a dizzying variety of subjects and applications. What they share in common is that all are training for careers in advanced research and development, and all must produce an original piece of research to receive their degree.
Most universities require computer science doctoral students to specialize in a specified area. Students at Northwestern University, for example, can concentrate in one of six disciplines:
- Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
- Human-Computer Interaction
- Systems and Networking
Students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology must specify one of seven departments for their computer science doctorate:
- Aeronautics and Astronautics
- Chemical Engineering
- Civil and Environmental Engineering
- Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences
- Mechanical Engineering
- Nuclear Science and Engineering
Because computer science has such broad applications, doctoral students frequently engage in interdisciplinary study with other schools and departments throughout their university.
Like most PhDs, this degree is designed to be completed on-campus. Few schools offer PhDs of any kind online, and those that do merit close scrutiny. The critical relationships PhD students build with mentors and associates cannot easily develop online. You need to be on campus for the first two years of your PhD program (the period during which you will complete all your pre-dissertation work).
You must hold a master's degree to pursue a PhD in computer science. That master's doesn't necessarily have to be in computer science. However, most schools will require students with non-comp sci master's degrees to complete so much preliminary coursework before starting PhD work that they will essentially earn a master's in computer science anyway. Some schools admit students on a combined master's-doctoral degree track; others are PhD only, and you will need to complete your master's degree before you can be admitted.
What jobs are available to someone with a PhD in Computer Science?
The received wisdom about PhDs is that their careers are largely confined to academia and, on occasion, to high-level corporate research. That's more-or-less true in many disciplines, and it's also true that many computer science PhDs become professors and academic researchers after they earn their degrees. However, a great many don't; instead, they end up in the business world.
For example: between 2005 and 2022, only about one-quarter of computer science PhDs at Duke University took faculty positions (at schools like Duke, Cyprus University of Technology, University of Utah, Elon University, and Beijing Normal University - China). Nearly all the rest found work with major tech employers, including:
- Google (23)
- Microsoft (8)
- Facebook (6)
- Apple (5)
- LinkedIn (4)
- VMWare (4)
- Oracle (4)
- Amazon (3)
- Duke University (3)
Likewise, PhD graduates at Northwestern University "are pursuing careers in a number of industry and research labs, academia, and startups" that include Georgia Institute of Technology, MIT, Adobe Research, Apple, Google, Intel, Nokia, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. PhD recipients at North Carolina State University at Raleigh over the past five years were subsequently employed by Amazon, Meta, Google, Cisco, Microsoft, Palo Alto Network, SAS, and Bandwidth.
So, what sort of work will you do as a comp sci PhD in the corporate world? A recent search of Google's job postings revealed that the company is hiring PhDs in computer science for the following jobs:
- Senior Director, Distinguished Scientist, Privacy
- Director, Strategy and Operations, Product and Tools Operations
- Senior Software Engineer, Infrastructure, Google Cloud NetInfra
- Software Engineering Manager II, Google Cloud Compute
- Data Scientist Technical Lead
- Senior CPU Performance Modeling Architect
A similar search at Microsoft produced the following results:
- Principal Software Engineering Manager
- Senior Data and Applied Scientist
- Principal Researcher in Computational Catalysis
- Senior Software Engineer
Your work will be highly technical, extremely complex, and in all likelihood related to your area of specialization.
What will you earn with a PhD in Computer Science?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not break out incomes for computer and information research scientists by degree. It reports that a master's is the minimum degree required to enter the field, and that average annual income for computer scientists is $131,490. Payscale.com reports an average salary for computer science PhDs of $131,000. Clearly, you don't get a PhD for the money; you can make nearly as much as a PhD makes with only a master's degree.
In 2016, the Taulbee Survey collected income data for computer science faculty at US and Canadian universities. According to its data, a full professor in computer science at a private university earns a median salary of about $200,000; an associate professor earns a median salary of just over $141,000; and an assistant professor, $120,000. Among non-tenure track positions: teachers earn a median salary of $102,000; researchers earn $107,000; and postdoctoral candidates earn $70,000.
We also looked at faculty salaries at the University of Virginia (Main Campus) to see what computer science professors there earned. We found that full professors earn between $143,000 and $407,000 per year, with most making more than $250,000.
What will you study in a PhD in Computer Science program?
In a highly specific PhD field—say, business analytics—candidates may follow a fixed curriculum for part or all of their first two years. In more wide-ranging disciplines—like computer science—that doesn't make sense.
Some schools—Northwestern University, for one—require students in different specializations to complete a prescribed program of study. Other schools—Stanford University, for example—require no specific courses (although students must design a "coherent program of study" that is approved by a faculty advisor).
Stanford, like many computer science PhD programs, requires candidates to fulfill breadth requirements, under which students must take one or more classes from a list of courses in multiple fields. The University of California - Berkeley, for example, requires students to complete one course in at least three of these areas:
- Artificial Intelligence (AI)
At Georgia Institute of Technology (Main Campus), students must take classes in five of the following areas:
- Computational Science and Engineering
- Computer Architecture
- Database Systems
- Graphics and Visualization
- Human-Computer Interaction
- Information Security
- Intelligent Systems (including Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Science, and Robotics)
- Learning Sciences and Technology
- Machine Learning
- Networking and Communications
- Programming Languages and Compilers
- Social Computing
- Software Methodology and Engineering
- Systems (Including Operating Systems, and Distributed and Parallel Processing)
- Theoretical Computer Science
At the end of the second year, many schools require students to pass an examination, present the results of a project, or both. Once they've cleared this hurdle, they can begin work on their final research project, a PhD dissertation. The dissertation process, which takes years to complete, culminates in a defense of the dissertation before a panel of experts. It is not uncommon for the panel to require revisions, after which the candidate gets to defend their dissertation all over again. It is a grueling process by all accounts.
Where can you earn a PhD in Computer Science?
Many universities offer a PhD in Computer Science. If you hope to land a prestigious teaching position or a top corporate job, you should consider pursuing this degree at a top program. Fortunately, there are many excellent programs to choose from. They include:
- Carnegie Mellon University
- Columbia University
- Cornell University
- Georgia Institute of Technology
- Harvard University
- Princeton University
- Rice University
- Stanford University
- University of California - Berkeley
- University of Chicago
- University of Michigan - Ann Arbor
- University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign
- University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
- The University of Texas at Austin
- University of Washington
- University of Wisconsin - Madison
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