Prospective Students - Graduate Studies - Ph.D. Guidelines

Entrance Requirements

Regular Admission to the Ph.D. Computer Science Program

For regular admission to the doctoral program, the applicant must:

  1. Satisfy the minimum requirements for admission to graduate study as specified in the Mississippi State University Graduate Studies Bulletin (available online at ), and submit all documents as required in the application procedure below;
  2. Possess those qualifications and interests that indicate to the Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) Graduate Studies Committee that the applicant will be successful in the MSU computer science doctoral program; and
  3. Have a minimum TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score of 550 on the paper version, or 213 on the computer version. (This applies only to international students. The University may waive the TOEFL requirement for international students who hold a degree from a U.S. Institution).

Contingent Admission to the Ph.D. in Computer Science Program

Applicants who fail to meet the requirements for regular admission may be considered for contingent admission by the Graduate Studies Committee. Contingent admission may be granted under the following conditions:

  1. International students with a TOEFL score of less than 550, but at least 500, may be admitted, but only with contingencies. To change from contingent status to normal admission status, the student will be required to complete satisfactorily the appropriate English as a Second Language sequence of courses; see the MSU Graduate Studies Bulletin (General Requirements for Admission, English Language Requirements for International Students) for specific requirements.
  2. Applicants who have not yet taken the GRE but who have a computer science baccalaureate degree from a U.S. institution may be admitted, but only with contingencies. To change from contingent status to normal admission status, the student will be required to take the GRE General Test in his or her first semester and obtain a satisfactory composite GRE score.
  3. A student who has not completed the undergraduate prerequisites may be given contingent admission. To change from contingent status to normal admission status, the student must complete all remaining prerequisites with a grade of B or better in each course.

Application Procedure

The applicant is required to submit the following documents to the Office of the Graduate School (See the Graduate Studies Bulletin regarding the admissions process. Application fee is required.)

  1. Application for admission to graduate study;
  2. Transcripts from all former institutions attended;
  3. TOEFL score (for international students when English is not the first language);
  4. Scores on the general test of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE);
  5. Three letters of recommendation; and
  6. Statement of the applicant's career goals and objectives.

In addition, the applicant is encouraged to submit directly to the Department of Computer Science and Engineering any additional information (such as GRE subject test scores, resume, etc.) that supports his/her application.

Most students live within commuting distance of Starkville, Mississippi, for the entire duration of their studies. Even though the Ph.D. degree is not available via distance education, some students perform research or other tasks at non-Starkville locations, because it facilitates their academic program.

Prospective students who anticipate living outside the Starkville area at any time during their studies should contact the Graduate Coordinator of the department, so that practical plans can be made in advance.

The department has a special application form for teaching assistantships (PDF) that is separate from the application for admission to the graduate program.

Application Dates

Applications may be submitted at any time. Completed applications should be received by the University deadlines given in the Graduate Studies Bulletin.

Preference for awarding assistantships will be given to applications received by February 1 for Summer or Fall Semester admission and October 1 for Spring Semester admission. The Department will not consider assistantship applications from individuals who do not have complete admission applications on file.

Additional Information

For additional information visit the departmental web site or send email to

Degree Requirements

Undergraduate Prerequisite Courses for the Ph.D. Degree

The prerequisite courses required of all doctoral students are the following and their prerequisites:

  • MA 2733 Calculus III
  • CSE 2383 Data Structures and Analysis of Algorithms
  • ECE 3724 Microprocessors
  • CSE 3813 Introduction to Formal Languages
  • CSE 4833/6833 Introduction to Algorithms
  • CSE 4713/6713 Programming Languages
  • CSE 4733/6733 Operating Systems I

Candidates for the Ph.D. degree must have completed all prerequisite courses or their equivalent. These courses may be completed after enrolling in the graduate program. A Ph.D. student's program of study may include 6000-level prerequisite courses [effective Spring 2008].

Graduate Coursework Restrictions

All CSE graduate students must complete the seven required prerequisite courses prior to receiving a graduate degree from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. Students who enter the graduate program in computer science with a deficiency of one or more of these courses should schedule at least one per semester until they are completed (unless otherwise authorized by their advisors). If not fulfilled prior to admission, graduate students in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering must take the split-level prerequisite courses (CSE 6713, CSE 6733, and CSE 6833) at the graduate level.

Graduate students must take at least nine hours of graduate-level hours each semester in order to maintain their status as full-time graduate students. Students who are required to take undergraduate courses as part of the prerequisites for the graduate program may substitute up to three credit hours of undergraduate prerequisite courses each semester in place of three hours of graduate coursework. The three split-level prerequisite courses (CSE 6713, CSE 6733, and CSE 6833) will count as graduate courses for the purpose of maintaining full-time student status.

Students who are serving as Teaching Assistants for the Department of Computer Science and Engineering must enroll in at least 12 hours of graduate coursework or research. Students who are serving as Research Assistants should check with their advisors regarding course requirements.

Major Professor and the Graduate Committee

By the end of the second semester of study, the student must have selected a major professor (advisor) from his/her area of interest. The major professor will serve as the student's advisor and must be a member of the graduate faculty in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. Prior to developing a program of study, the student's major professor will form a Graduate Committee consisting of a major professor (advisor) as chair, an optional minor professor (advisor), and at least three other members, two of whom are to be from the student's research area. The committee must include the minor professor only if a minor is included in the program of study. The majority of the committee (including the major professor) must be non-adjunct graduate faculty in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering; adjunct faculty in Computer Science and Engineering may serve as the dissertation director. The committee will have responsibility for approving the student's program of study and for examining the student regarding the completion of the dissertation.

The membership of a student's Graduate Committee shall not include (1) a member of that student's immediate family, (2) anyone who is a former, current, or expected future supervisor of that student in a permanent job position, or (3) anyone who is funded on a grant or contract for which that student has supervisory responsibility or helps determine the award of the contract or grant. The restrictions regarding job supervisors do not include individuals who supervise that student as a graduate assistant, research assistant, or work/study employee.

Program of Study

The program of study should be designed to provide appropriate depth and support for the student's area of interest (concentration) and to prepare the student for research in his/her chosen area. The program of study is proposed by the student after consultation with his/her major and minor professors and must be approved by his/her Graduate Committee and the Graduate Coordinator.

The course work will consist of not less than forty-three credit hours of applicable graduate courses, plus dissertation and internal or external minor. The forty-three credit hours includes a graduate seminar (one credit), but excludes master's thesis, master's project, and dissertation. Graduate courses completed as part of the Master's degree or graduate courses completed prior to entry into the Ph.D. program may, when approved by the student's Graduate Committee, be applied to the Ph.D. degree requirements. The Committee's decision will be documented by an "Attachment Sheet for Program of Study" form. The program of study will cover remaining course work requirements. A Ph.D. student's program of study may include 6000-level prerequisite courses [effective Spring 2008]. In addition, the program of study must contain the following specific elements:

  1. Major Course Work. The major course work requires a minimum of 43 credit hours. It must satisfy the following requirements:
    • a. The program of study must include at least two full graduate courses from the Theory of Computation area:
      • CSE 8813 Theory of Computation
      • CSE 8833 Algorithms
      • CSE 8843 Complexity of Sequential and Parallel Algorithms
      • CSE 8990 Special Topics in Computer Science on a topic which has been designated in advance by the Department as a theory course fulfilling this requirement.
    • b. At least four full graduate courses from one area (the area of concentration) below, and at least two full graduate courses from one other area below (the supporting area):
      • Artificial Intelligence
      • Software Engineering
      • High Performance Computing
      • Graphics and Visualization
      • Computer Security
      • Courses applying directly to the student's research and approved by the student's Graduate Committee may be included in the research area course work, even if they are offered from another area or by another department.
    • c. The program of study must include at least three of the following six Fundamental Areas courses:
      • CSE 6153 Data Communications and Computer Networks
      • CSE 6163 Designing Parallel Algorithms
      • CSE 6214 Introduction to Software Engineering
      • CSE 6413 Computer Graphics
      • CSE 6503 Database Management Systems
      • CSE 6633 Artificial Intelligence
      • A student who has taken any of these six courses for undergraduate credit may use the undergraduate course to meet the graduate Fundamental Areas requirement and substitute another graduate-level course approved by the student's graduate committee.
    • d. The program of study must include the departmental seminar (one credit hour):
      • CSE 8011 Graduate Seminar
  2. Minor. A minor is defined by the Office of Graduate Studies as a block of course work completed in any department, other than the major department, approved for masters or doctoral programs. A minor for Ph.D. students in computer science is optional. The minor requirements (usually four graduate courses) are in addition to those required in the major area and must be approved by the minor professor. The minor professor serves as a member of the student's graduate committee. The University also has the following additional rules.
    • A minor cannot use coursework completed at another institution.
    • A minor cannot use coursework from a prior degree.
    • If the minor area is interdisciplinary, courses do not have to be cross-listed.
    • Minor coursework must conform to the same time limit as other courses on the program of study.
  3. Dissertation. A minimum of 20 hours of dissertation credits is required.

Individual Studies Courses

A graduate student may take a directed individual studies course (CSE 7000) only if a written contract describing the course has been agreed upon by the instructor, the student, and the student's major professor. Once the student's committee has been formed, the contract must be submitted to the entire committee for approval. The contract must clearly state whether the course will count for 8000-level credit. Ph.D. students may count no more than 6 hours of CSE 7000 courses on their formal program of study. The form to be used for CSE 7000 contracts is available from the Department's Web site.

Examination Procedure

During preparation for the doctoral degree, the student will be required to complete three examinations and present an oral dissertation proposal. These events are discussed below in the order in which they will occur during the student's program of study.

Qualifying Examination

  1. Purpose: To determine the readiness of the student to pursue a doctoral degree in computer science.
  2. To be taken:
    • Prior to the beginning of classes in the 4th Fall/Spring semester after entering the Ph.D. program with a previous master’s degree.
    • Prior to the beginning of classes in the 6th Fall/Spring semester after entering the Ph.D. program without a previous master’s degree.
    The student is allowed to attempt to pass the qualifying exam any time it is offered until the student’s deadline has passed. The first attempt may be after the student’s first semester or summer term. Students will declare in advance which exams will be attempted (about 3 or 4 months in advance of the exam).
  3. To be given: One business day prior to the first day of classes in the Fall and Spring semesters.
  4. Format: The Ph.D. Qualifying Exam consists of six hours divided into two-hour periods. A student shall take one subject exam in a given period.
  5. Contents: The student is required to pass both theory subject exams, listed in Table 2 below, and subject exams in two competency areas of the student’s choice, listed in Table 2 below. The exam will cover material from various undergraduate and split-level courses as listed in Table 2 below. The questions will be constructed in such a manner as to require the student to demonstrate an ability to understand a problem or an issue and to synthesize concepts, theories, and practices to answer the question.
  6. Grading: The student's response to each of the subject exams attempted will be awarded one of the following grades.
    • PASS – indicating a response that clearly demonstrates the student is qualified for doctoral study; a grade of A earned at MSU in the course underlying a subject exam counts as a PASS as shown in Table 2 below.
    • FAIL – indicating that the response was not of acceptable quality for a doctoral student.
    • The overall grade of the qualifying exam is either a PASS or a FAIL. To achieve an overall PASS, a student must gain a grade of PASS on all required subject exams. A student who has not achieved a PASS overall and whose deadline has passed will receive an overall FAIL grade.
    • A student who has not yet passed the exam overall may apply any grades of PASS received so far on subject exams toward passing the exam overall.
    • At the time that the student takes the exam, the graduate faculty will conduct a review of the student’s status in the program. Such a review could result in passing the exam without conditions, or could result in binding recommendations from the graduate faculty or could result in strong recommendations that the student address a problem within a certain time frame, or could even result in dismissal from the program. This review will include, as a minimum, the following:
      • performance on the qualifying exam
      • progress and performance in coursework
      • any serious impediments to further progress toward the doctorate
    • When the graduate faculty decides to recommend dismissal of the student from the Ph.D. program due to failing the Qualifying Exam overall, the recommendation will be sent to the Dean within one month of the grading of the exam.

Table 1 Ph.D. Qualifying Exam Subject Examinations (effective August 2015)
Exam Subject (duration)Basis for Exam Questions Achieve A in MSU course(s)*
Theory (combined time period of 2 hours)
Formal Languages

Analysis of Algorithms
CSE 3813
CSE 4833/6833
CSE 3813 or
CSE 8813
CSE 4833/6833 or
CSE 8833 or
CSE 8843
Competency Area (choose 2)
Artificial Intelligence (2 hours) CSE 4633/6633 CSE 4633/6633
Computational Science (2 hours) CSE 4163/6163 CSE 4163/6163
Graphics (2 hours) CSE 4413/6413 CSE 4413/6413 or
CSE 44xx/64xx Digital Viz **
Human-Centered Computing CSE 4663/6663 CSE 4663/6663 or PSY
4743/6743 or PSY 4653/6653 or
CSE 8283 or PSY 8214
Software Engineering (2 hours) CSE 4214/6214 CSE 4214/6214
Systems (combined time period of 2 hours) 2 exams out of 5
(see next column)
2 of 5 courses:
CSE 4153/6153
CSE 4733/6733
CSE 4243/6243
CSE 4273/6273
CSE 4383/6383
*4000-level and 6000-level courses count where applicable, irrespective of when the course was taken (e.g. during undergraduate or masters studies).
**CSE 44xx/64xx Digital Visual Communication and Analysis is a planned new course.

Preliminary Examination

  1. Purpose: To assess the student's competence to complete the Ph.D.
  2. To be taken: This examination will be scheduled after the student has completed, or is within 6 hours of completing, all course work and has had a dissertation topic approved by members of his/her committee.
    • When a student is nearing the end of coursework, if the student's GPA is less than 3.0 at the end of the most recently completed term, then the Ph.D. Preliminary Examination must be postponed until the current GPA is at least 3.0. (The student must enroll for at least one hour during the term in which the Examination is given; this is normally the case for Ph.D. students.)
    • The dissertation topic should be a relatively short (2-3 page) description of the expected topic of research and should include a discussion of one or more specific research issues related to the topic that are promising areas for dissertation research. If a student's committee or research topic changes after the student has passed the preliminary examination, the student's committee will determine if the student must take another preliminary exam.
  3. To be offered: The examination will be scheduled by arrangement with the student's Graduate Committee.
  4. Format: The exam is closed to the public. The exam consists of two parts, the major exam and the minor exam.
    • Major Exam: The major examination will be administered by the student's Graduate Committee. The exam will consist of a written examination composed by the Committee and an oral examination. Each committee member other than the minor professor (but including the major professor) will contribute one question or set of questions for the written examination.
    • Minor Exam: If the student has a minor, the minor exam will be administered by the minor advisor. The minor professor will be invited to conduct the minor exam in combination with and using the same procedure as the major exam.
    • The major professor will collect the questions into a single examination that will be given to the student and Committee members. The time allotted for preparing written answers will be approximately 7 days. Written answers to the examination will be returned to the major professor who will distribute copies of all of the student's written answers to all of the Committee members.
    • The oral examination for the major exam will be scheduled approximately one week after the written answers have been completed by the student. The oral examination for the minor exam (if there is one) should be conducted separately from the oral portion of the major exam. During the oral portion of the major exam the student may give a short presentation to address any issues related to the examination that were raised by a Committee member or that the student has determined need clarification. Further questioning related to the written examination by the Committee is expected during the oral examination. If the student has a minor, the minor professor may choose to participate in the oral portion of the major examination.
  5. Contents: The exam will cover material from related course work and material in the major area and the minor area if the student has a minor. A primary intent of the examination is to determine if the student can explore relationships in materials taught in different courses and in the research topic. The student's answers should not be a simple summary of other people's ideas. Rather, the answers should reveal a depth of understanding and original thought that demonstrates that the student is prepared to perform original research in the dissertation topic area.
  6. Instructions: When the major professor gives the preliminary exam questions to the student, he/she should emphasize the depth of the answers expected. He/she should also inform the student as to which members of the Committee supplied which questions. During preparation of the written answers, the student may ask a particular committee member for clarification of a question. However, questions during the written portion of the exam must be limited to clarification of the interpretation of a question. Once the written responses have been submitted to the Committee, individual committee members must advise the major professor of serious deficiencies in the written answers. The major professor will communicate these concerns to the student with instructions that the student must be prepared to address these concerns during the oral portion of the exam.
    • The student may consult any published references he/she would like while answering the examination question. The same rules for citing references and avoiding plagiarism apply for the written portion of the examination that apply to a term paper, thesis, or dissertation.
  7. Grading: If the student has a minor, the grade received on the minor exam will be determined by the minor professor. The grade received on the major exam will be determined by the examining committee. The student will be permitted one retry for each examination. A second attempt to pass the examination must be accomplished within four to six months of failure. A second failure results in dismissal from the program.

Dissertation Proposal

  1. Purpose: The dissertation proposal provides the student with the opportunity to formally present his/her dissertation proposal to the Graduate Committee. The proposal also allows for questioning by the Committee to clarify the objectives of the proposal, and allows for adjustment of objectives until agreement is reached between the student and the Graduate Committee.
  2. To be taken: After taking the preliminary examination.
  3. To be offered: Upon arrangement with the Graduate Committee.
  4. Format: The student will submit a written proposal to the Graduate Committee at least one week prior to the oral presentation. The format of the proposal shall conform to the University's Standard for Preparing Theses and Dissertations, and the Department's format standard. (The signature page will list only Committee members.)
    • The presentation shall consist of an oral presentation of the dissertation proposal that is open to the student's Graduate Committee only. At this time, the student and his/her Committee may negotiate specific changes in the proposed work.
  5. Contents: Material related to the student's intended area of research. The written proposal should contain a literature review in the proposed research area, a clear thesis statement, a description of the significance of the proposed area to the field, a proposed procedure for the conduct of the research and publication plan.
  6. Grading: The acceptability of the proposal will be determined by the Committee.

Final Examination

  1. Purpose: This examination is to permit the student to demonstrate a mastery of techniques of research in computer science and to demonstrate a distinct contribution to the field of investigation.
  2. To be taken: After all other examinations and the dissertation have been completed.
  3. To be offered: By arrangement with the Graduate Committee, before the deadline for final examinations established by the Office of Graduate Studies.
  4. Format: The final examination is an oral defense of the dissertation that is open to the public. There is an open question period that is open to the public, and a closed question period open only to the candidate and the Graduate Committee.
  5. Contents: The examination will cover the research attendant to the dissertation.
  6. Grading: The acceptability of the dissertation will be determined by the Graduate Committee. Action to be taken upon failure will be determined by the Graduate Committee.
  7. Report of results: The major professor reports the results of the examination to the Office of Graduate Studies.
    • The dissertation must follow the format specified in the Standards for Preparing Dissertations and Theses available from the Office of Graduate Studies and in the form and style outlined in the Departmental Guidelines for Preparing Dissertations, Theses, and Project Reports.
    • Approval of the dissertation proceeds from the committee, to the Graduate Coordinator of the Department, and thence to the Dean of Engineering. After all approvals are obtained, the student must submit a completed signature page on bond paper and an electronic copy of their dissertation to the Library following the directions given at The electronic copy must conform to all regulations as outlined in the Graduate Studies Bulletin. In addition, the student must submit an additional signed approval page to the departmental office.

Admission to Candidacy

A doctoral student becomes a Candidate upon completion of all prerequisite and fundamental area courses, completion of all courses on the program of study, acceptance of a research topic by his/her Graduate Committee, and passing the preliminary examination.