George Mason University

School of Information Technology & Engineering

Common Questions about our Ph.D. and Engineer Programs

[This file last modified on June 27, 2005.]

This web page is no longer being maintained. It has been replaced by: ( Informal Guide to the Ph.D. and Engineer Programs.

What Ph.D. and Engineer programs do you offer?

We currently offer three Ph.D. programs: Information Technology (, Computer Science (, and Electrical & Computer Engineering (

Within the Ph.D. program in Information Technology, a variety of concentrations are available:

In addition, we offer the Engineer degree in Information Technology ( The Engineer degree combines the course work of the Ph.D. program with an applied project of shorter duration than a doctoral dissertation. It is aimed at working professionals seeking advanced (post-Masters) training.

Where can I find complete information about these programs?

For complete details on the Information Technology Ph.D. degree, see For complete details on the Computer Science Ph.D. program, see Information on the Electrical and Computer Engineering Ph.D. is available at

Information on the Engineer degree is available at:

Are there orientation sessions that I can attend?

Every Fall and Spring semester, we present an orientation session for newly admitted students. It is usually held near the middle of the semester. For an indication of the information provided at one of these sessions, please see the notes from a recent session.

How do I choose among these programs?

The Ph.D. program in Information Technology covers all aspects of research in the School of Information Technology & Engineering, and is especially appropriate for interdisciplinary research. Students with more specialized interests may choose one of the concentrations within the program (see above), or (if their research interests are appropriate) one of the other two Ph.D. degrees offered (either Computer Science, or Electrical and Computer Engineering).

The other two Ph.D. programs focus on the advanced applications and the underlying mathematical and computational systems that make up their respective fields.

For those interested in advanced (post-Masters) training, but who are less interested in the research training associated with the doctoral dissertation, the Engineer degree may be more appropriate.

Do I need a Masters degree before I apply to the program?

Generally, a Masters degree in a related field is required for admission to our Ph.D. and Engineer programs. In addition, well-qualified students without an appropriate Masters degree may apply directly to these programs.

The Information Technology Ph.D. and Engineer programs recommend that applicants have a Masters degree in an information-technology related area. The Computer Science Ph.D. program recommends a Masters degree in Computer Science or a related field. The Electrical and Computer Engineering Ph.D. program recommends a Masters degree in Electrical Engineering or Computer Engineering or some related area.

Having an appropriate Masters degree may enable applicants to pass qualifying examinations without further Masters-level course work.

The descriptions of the individual programs are written assuming that a student has a Masters degree. Students without a Masters degree will have to complete the equivalent of an appropriate Masters degree as part of their program of study. In some cases it may be possible to obtain transfer credit for graduate course work taken elsewhere.

Are there other admission requirements?

Applicants are evaluated on the strength of their academic backgrounds. Basic requirements include an undergraduate grade point average of B (3.000 on a 4.000 scale) and a graduate grade point everage of 3.500 on a 4.000 scale. For complete details, see the web sites for the individual programs mentioned above.

Do I need to take the GRE or the TOEFL?

The TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) is required for those whose native language is not English.

For the Information Technology Ph.D. and Engineer programs, the general GRE (Graduate Record Examination) is required of applicants who have degrees from foreign universities.

For the Computer Science program, the GRE subject exam in Computer Science is normally required. If the general GRE scores are submitted, they will be considered.

For the Electrical and Computer Engineering program, the general GRE exam is required.

What are the requirements for completion of the degree?

Students in our Ph.D. programs must complete a set of qualifying exams to demonstrate basic knowledge. These exams are related to courses within our Masters programs, and students may wish to take these courses to prepare for the exams. (Courses taken to prepare for the qualifying exams are not included in the set of specialized courses discussed below.)

For the Information Technology program, further information on the qualifying exams is available from For the Computer Science program, see For the Electrical and Computer Engineering program see

In all three Ph.D. programs, students then complete a set of specialized courses related to their planned research, pass exams that test readiness for doctoral research, and complete and defend a doctoral dissertation. For complete details on the Information Technology Ph.D. degree, see For complete details on the Computer Science Ph.D. program, see Information on the Electrical and Computer Engineering Ph.D. is available at

For the Engineer program in Information Technology, students must complete 30 hours of advanced course work designed to prepare them to complete an applied project in their area of interest. Up to six hours of the course requirements can be waived by passing appropriate qualifying examinations. In addition, the student must complete and defend their project.

How long does it take to complete a Ph.D. or Engineer degree?

Because research is unpredictable, a definite time period cannot be specified. Most of our Ph.D. students complete their degree in 3-5 years. We do not have data yet for the Engineer degree, but we expect that it will reduce the time required by at least one year.

How much will it cost to complete a Ph.D. or Engineer degree?

Current information on tuition, fees, and living expenses is available at

Students in the Information Technology Ph.D. program must enroll for a minimum of 48 credit hours. If a student takes courses to prepare for all the qualifying examinations, then the student will have to enroll for a minimum of 60 credit hours. Most of our Ph.D. students complete their degree in 3-5 years; we expect students in the Engineer program to complete their degrees in 2-4 years.

Can I go to school part time?

Yes, and many of our students do go to school part time. Each of our graduate courses is offered in the evening, on a one-day-a-week basis. There is no residency requirement (i.e., you are not required to attend school full time for one or more semesters).

If you are absent from the University for a semester or longer, you should make special arrangements, or your enrollment may be terminated. For further information, contact Karen Alarie (, 703-993-1499).

How do I apply to the program?

You must complete and submit a Graduate Application form. You can obtain one by either (1) coming to room 160, Science & Technology II Building; (2) sending e-mail to; (3) writing to Graduate Admissions, School of IT&E, Mail Stop 3D5, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030; (4) downloading the application form at

Applicants to the Information Technology Ph.D. or Engineer programs should also submit the self-evaluation form.

Can I obtain credit for courses taken elsewhere?

This may be possible, but there are restrictions. You should contact our office for more information (, 703-993-1499).

Do I need to begin my degree program in the Fall semester?

No, you can start during the Fall, Spring, or Summer semester.

What are the deadlines for applying?

The deadlines are listed in the Graduate Application form (see above). We are often able to accept applications after the deadline (especially for applicants with U.S. citizenship), although we cannot guarantee that late applications will be processed before the beginning of the requested semester.

Is financial aid available?

Financial aid for graduate students is available from several sources. Here is a summary of the most common sources of funding.

For students enrolled in or admitted to one of our graduate programs, fellowships are available. The student should apply by May 1 (for the Fall semester) or November 1 (for the Spring semester) of any year. Fellowships are not available for the Summer semester. Application forms and further information can be obtained from Karen Alarie (, 703-993-1499). Typically, fellowships provide supplementary or temporary support; they do not provide full or long-term assistance. Students requiring full support should consider the programs listed below.

The departments within the School of Information Technology & Engineering hire Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs). You should contact the chair of the department associated with your program/research to inquire about these positions. For new students, this is a common source of financial support.

Individual faculty members support Graduate Research Assistants (GRAs) through their research grants. These positions depend on the availability of external funding, and normally are awarded to doctoral students working closely with the corresponding faculty member(s).

Faculty members within the School of Information Technology & Engineering can apply for special student funding opportunities. As with research funding, this funding is normally received by doctoral students working closely with the corresponding faculty member(s).

Support is available from the University's Office of Student Financial Aid. In addition, many campus offices hire students (computer laboratories, the library, etc.).

Finally, scholarship and fellowship opportunities are available from outside the university. Notices of such programs are sent to the e-mail list of doctoral students. If you wish to be added to this list, send e-mail to

Unfortunately, there is no central office that handles all financial aid programs for students.

Should I apply to the Ph.D. program?

A Ph.D. degree can be one of the most satisfying and rewarding of educational experiences. You can work closely with a faculty mentor, performing original research, and tackling challenging and unsolved problems. But a Ph.D. degree is not for everyone.

You should ask yourself why you want a Ph.D. degree. Not all jobs and careers require one. In fact, in some careers a Ph.D. degree can be a disadvantage (since it can make you appear overqualified for a job). A Ph.D. degree can take a long time to complete (see above). Not all students who begin Ph.D. programs complete them.

A Ph.D. program teaches you how to perform independent research in a specialized subject area. The major challenge is the completion of the doctoral dissertation, which requires you to work by yourself, under the supervision of a faculty advisor, for a period that can take several years. It requires determination and self-motivation.

If these challenges and opportunities excite you, then by all means apply to the Ph.D. program.

For those requiring advanced (post-Masters training) but without the interest in the research aspects of the Ph.D. degree, the Engineer degree may be more appropriate.

What are career prospects for graduates of the Ph.D. program?

It is difficult to give a general answer to this question, since the answer can depend on the particular specialization and goals of the student. You should first read the answer to the previous question, if you have not done so already.

Many of our doctoral students are already employed, and continue with their current jobs when they graduate. Such students may receive a promotion when they graduate. In some cases, the employer has subsidized the education of the student, and in such cases the employer may have clear and specified goals for the employee.

Certain careers may require a Ph.D. degree. This is commonly true for faculty positions at a university. (Some of our graduates take faculty positions when they graduate.) Depending on the university, a faculty position may involve mostly teaching, or it may require a mix of teaching and research. Graduates may also consider teaching positions at community colleges or similar educational institutions. These positions typically place less emphasis on research.

Another source of employment is in government laboratories or research installations.

Some companies (more commonly, these are larger companies) have research divisions which hire Ph.D. graduates.

There are a variety of sources of information about jobs. The University has an office of Career Services. Job notices are also posted on bulletin boards in the Science and Technology II building.

Because many jobs for Ph.D. graduates are specialized, professional journals and magazines are often a good source of information. Students should consult their advisors for suggestions.

Some job notices are sent to the e-mail list of doctoral students. If you wish to be added to this list, send e-mail to

How should I prepare for advanced graduate work?

The Ph.D. and Engineer degrees can, to a great extent, be customized to each student, since the requirements for the degrees are flexible (at least in terms of subject matter). For this reason, you should be clear, perhaps before you even apply for the program, what skills you wish to acquire in the program. This is not the same as choosing a research topic. For example, you might want to learn more about a specialized topic such as distributed data bases, artificial intelligence, or signal processing. You might want to acquire a technical skill such as computer-aided design. Or you might wish to study an application area such as transportation modeling.

You should then make sure that your chosen topics are studied in our School. This information can be obtained by examining the descriptions of our Masters programs, and by looking at faculty biographies (go to and follow the appropriate links).

You may also wish to contact a faculty member who does research in an area that interests you, to discuss your plans.

How do I select a research topic?

You should work with your academic advisor to determine a research topic. Let the advisor know the topics that interest you, and your personal goals for your degree. A research topic should then develop out of these discussions.

Research, by its very nature, is unpredictable. The research project might not turn out as you expect. To avoid disappointment and frustration, you should keep in mind the skills you want to acquire while completing your degree, and use these as a measure of progress.

Many of our students work in jobs that relate to their doctoral research. We encourage such students to choose research topics related to their jobs. There are several advantages to this. First, the student brings expertise to the research. Second, the student may have access to co-workers, data, and equipment that can contribute to the research. Third, the student may be able to persuade his or her employer to support their degree research on the job, since the research may be of value to the employer.

How do I select an advisor?

If you have spoken with faculty members before applying to the Ph.D. program, then you may ask one of these faculty members to be your advisor. Otherwise, an advisor will be assigned to you.

You should treat this person as a preliminary advisor. It is your responsibility to get to know the faculty and, if appropriate, identify an advisor who is better suited to your interests.

Supervising a doctoral student takes a great deal of time. For this reason, a faculty member may limit the number of advisees that he or she supervises. You may need to be flexible in your choice of an advisor.

It is essential that you meet with your advisor before taking any courses. You should discuss your choice of courses with your advisor throughout your degree program. If you do not, then there is no guarantee that a course you take will count towards your degree.

How do I get to know the faculty and their research?

Many faculty members have web pages that describe their research and teaching interests. You might wish to look up some of their publications to get further information (although you should not get too discouraged if these publications are difficult to understand). During the first two weeks of the semester, many students sit in on lectures to determine which courses to take, and this can be an opportunity to see and hear a faculty member. You can take a course from a faculty member. You can also make an appointment to meet with a faculty member.

In addition, faculty members in the Computer Science Department and the Information & Software Engineering Department conduct special seminars to familiarize students in the Computer Science Ph.D. program with their work.

How else can I familiarize myself with the Ph.D. and Engineer programs?

You should attend dissertation and project defenses that relate to your interests. These defenses are public events, and anyone may attend. Notices of defenses are posted on the bulletin board across from Room 100, Science & Technology II Building. You may also wish to look at sample dissertations; these are available at the University Library. It is also a good idea to get to know other Ph.D. and Engineer students.

Each semester, students who are about to begin dissertation research make public presentations of their dissertation proposals. These are open to the public, and notices are posted on the bulletin board mentioned in the previous paragraph.

An e-mail list of Ph.D. and Engineer students is maintined by the School. This list is used to distribute notices of dissertation defenses, dissertation proposal presentations, funding opportunities, and other news items of interest to students.

In addition, orientation sessions for new Ph.D. and Engineer students are held each fall and spring semester, several weeks after the beginning of the semester.

If you would like to be added to the e-mail list, or if you would like more information about upcoming orientation sessions, please send e-mail to Karen Alarie (

What should I do if I am interested in computer security?

Computer security is a popular research topic for our doctoral students. Most students interested in computer security apply to the Information Technology Ph.D. program. Students are advised to take INFS 762 (Information Security Principles) and INFS 766 (Internet Security Protocols), together with the prerequisite courses, if necessary. Additional courses are selected based on the student's interests, after consulting with an advisor. A number of relevant courses are included as part of the graduate certificate in Information Systems Security; this web page includes detailed information about security courses.

Research on computer security is the main focus of the Center for Secure Information Systems. This web site includes a list of faculty members who supervise research in computer security. Because of the popularity of this research topic, some advisors are unable to take on additional doctoral students.