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Take your education to the highest peak with our PhD in software engineering guide! This real-world resource will help you understand how doctoral programs in software are structured & delivered. Learn about admissions, coursework, research, and dissertation requirements. Take a closer look at PhD program costs, online learning opportunities, and the career benefits of earning a doctorate in software engineering. And find answers to frequently asked questions from potential students.
Have you already decided on a doctorate? Skip ahead to our state-by-state listings of PhD in software engineering programs!
What is a Doctorate in Software Engineering?
A PhD in software engineering transforms great software engineers into field experts. PhD programs allow students to immerse themselves in advanced focus areas such as software organization and properties, notations and tools, and creation and management. In addition, doctoral students complete original and detailed research in order to become a go-to expert on their dissertation topic.
A doctorate in software engineering is a top-level educational qualification. Professionals who pursue this path usually plan to become university professors, high-flying researchers in major tech companies, and well-paid consultants. Before you commit to 4-5 years of hard work, it’s worth knowing where you’re headed.
Software Engineering PhD Programs: Your Degree Options
PhD in Software Engineering
A PhD in software engineering has a two-fold purpose. It hones your ability to engineer efficient and practical software systems. But it also challenges you to consider the theories behind software development, study its applications, and develop new tools. In doing so, you’ll be prepared to:
- Lead research and development teams in advancing software architecture
- Teach software engineering (and pursue tenure) at the university level
- Assume executive positions responsible for top-level software-related decisions
PhD in Software Development
A PhD in software development prepares you to apply advanced problem-solving techniques to the field of software. You’ll design, develop, validate, and maintain large software applications and work with the latest technologies. Like PhD in software engineering candidates, most software development PhD graduates pursue university-level teaching jobs and research-focused industry positions (e.g. senior or principal software developer).
PhD in Computer Science with a Software Engineering Concentration
A PhD in computer science with a software engineering concentration will provide you with the research skills to advance software systems through computational theory, algorithmic research & development, and/or practical design innovations. PhD graduates play a lead role in advancing cutting-edge technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI). They also apply for software engineering & computer science faculty positions at colleges and universities.
PhD Program Overview: Curriculum, Admission Requirements & Costs
Structure & Timeline
Have a look at the curriculum links in our listings to get a sense of how a doctorate is structured. PhD programs in software engineering consist of core courses, electives, research, and a dissertation. They typically take four or five years to complete.
- Years 1-3: At most universities, doctoral students in software engineering complete core requirements and electives in the first two or three years of the program. During this time, you will also select a dissertation topic, develop a proposal, and defend your plan in a public setting. PhD students earn candidate status once the proposal is approved.
- Years 4-5: PhD programs become research-heavy in the final two years. You should expect to spend a couple of years conducting research and writing your dissertation. A faculty advisor will help guide you through the dissertation process, providing advice on topic selection, assistance with research, and prep for your dissertation defense. At the end of the program, you will publicly defend your findings in front of a faculty dissertation committee.
PhD in Software Engineering: Curriculum
Core Coursework & Electives
Software engineering PhD programs contain core coursework and electives, with specific credit mandates. Each school will allow you to explore different topics, easing the process of creating an impactful and motivating dissertation proposal. Advisors will tailor your coursework to help you discover and focus on your specialization.
For example, a PhD in software engineering from the University of California Irvine has a 48-credit coursework requirement, consisting of:
- The software engineering core
- Five electives in software engineering topics
- Three courses of individual study and/or thesis supervision
- Additional coursework to fill in credits toward the 48-credit requirement
- Attending dozens of seminars
A PhD in software engineering from Carnegie Mellon features:
- One core research course in software engineering
- Four “star” and two elective courses, each selected by the student
- A practicum
- Two semesters as a teaching assistant serving as an assistant teacher
North Dakota State University’s software and security engineering PhD program contains:
- Six core courses
- One of two focus tracks in either software engineering or cybersecurity, each requiring three courses
- The doctoral dissertation
You’ll notice that some PhD in software engineering courses overlap with subjects that have been addressed in master’s programs. The difference is that doctoral courses are much more in-depth. Top-level coursework completed within PhD programs can include:
- Models of software systems
- Type systems for programming languages
- Cloud and security foundations
- Optimizing compilers for modern architectures
- Global e-business strategy
- Information security and privacy
- Human aspects of software development
Research & Dissertation Preparation
While you’re tackling courses, you’ll also be exploring possible research ideas for your dissertation. This phase of your PhD in software engineering can cover a large range of topics. You may wish to investigate advanced areas in software such as:
- Software architecture and design
- Security and privacy
- Analysis and quality assurance
- Developer tools
- Management and organization of software development
Faculty members will help you break down these general categories into an impactful & targeted research topic for your PhD dissertation. You must receive approval for your dissertation topic before you are allowed to complete the last few years of your doctorate.
Be prepared to hit the ground running. Research work will usually begin in the early stages of your doctoral program. The University of California Irvine and Carnegie Mellon specifically mention working on research projects at the onset of the PhD. Some schools even provide directed study opportunities. Directed study allows you to conduct research under the oversight of a faculty member in preparation for your dissertation.
Software engineering PhD students are required to conduct original research that will explore new territory and broaden the industry’s knowledge of the field. You’ll be expected to present your conclusions & findings in a written and publicly defended dissertation. Carnegie Mellon’s handbook offers a thorough account of the dissertation process, from the proposal to its ultimate defense.
Once you have decided on a dissertation topic, completed your research, and created your dissertation:
- A committee of several faculty members involved in your doctoral work will review your written work.
- You will then be required to defend your findings in an oral presentation. A dissertation defense takes approximately 45 minutes, followed by questions.
- The committee can decide to approve—either with or without corrections—or reject the dissertation.
Wondering what a dissertation in software engineering looks like? Examine the following completed dissertations by PhD candidates at UC Irvine and Auburn University:
- Reusable Method Summaries for Improving Performance of Dynamic Dependence Analysis by Vijay Krishna Palepu (PhD graduate from the University of California Irvine)
- Popularity-Aware Storage Systems for Big Data Applications by Ting Cao (PhD graduate from Auburn University)
PhD Admission Requirements
Admission requirements to software engineering PhD programs vary by school. However, you can expect to see most (if not all) of the following listed in university doctoral admissions guides:
- Master’s Degree in a Related Field: Common MS majors include software engineering, computer science, software development, etc. (Some schools will consider BS applicants).
- High GPA: Universities will usually ask for a minimum 3.0 GPA at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
- Competitive GRE Scores
- Personal Statement: Universities will want to know about your interests, goals, and/or professional experience.
- Letters of Recommendation
- Proof of Proficiency in English: International students from non-English speaking countries may need to take a IELTS or TOEFL test.
Admission to PhD in software engineering programs is highly competitive, so be aware that schools will be considering other aspects of your background. For example, UC Irvine reviews design portfolios, GitHub profiles, and any relevant writing (e.g. scholarly papers).
Tuition Costs & Funding for Software Engineering PhD Programs
It’s important to note that most PhD programs in software engineering are fully funded. If you are considering a doctorate in a STEM field, be sure to ask if tuition is covered. For example:
- The University of Michigan-Dearborn’s PhD in Computer and Information Science (CIS): Software Engineering Concentration follows the university’s fully-funded PhD model.
- PhD candidates earn a tuition waiver and monthly stipend, plus health insurance, in exchange for their work as a graduate student instructor or research assistant (or both).
Similar arrangements exist for PhD candidates at UC Irvine and North Dakota State University.
If you are unable to find a fully funded PhD program, you may wish to look into filing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for graduate students, scholarship and fellowship options, and—as a last resort—private loans. Tuition for non-funded doctorates will vary from school to school, but you can expect to see tuition prices range from $15,000 to north of $50,000 per year.
Online PhD in Software Engineering Programs
Software development needs no lab work and few physical references, so some online PhD in software engineering programs do exist. However, virtual doctorates are still far less common than online BS in software engineering degrees and online MS in software engineering programs.
Examples of online doctoral programs in the field include the:
- Online PhD in Systems Engineering at Colorado State University
- Online PhD in Computer Science with software engineering coursework at the University of North Dakota
These are doctorates from regionally accredited institutions with solid brick & mortar reputations. You’ll be able to view on-campus lectures live or watch recordings afterwards. You can discuss your work in virtual meetings with your faculty advisors. And you can fit your dissertation research around other commitments. Be aware that online PhD programs aren’t usually funded—you may end up paying tuition costs of $800+ per credit.
PhD Career Benefits & Opportunities
What Can You Do with a PhD in Software Engineering?
A PhD in software engineering makes you the world’s expert on your dissertation topic. You will be acknowledged as a specialist in software engineering & development wherever you go. While your expertise in the field awards you some flexibility in the roles you choose to pursue, there are a handful of opportunities that are tailor-made for software engineering PhD graduates.
University Faculty in Software Engineering: A PhD is the standard requirement for tenured faculty positions. Entering the world of academia will involve a number of responsibilities, including:
- Instructing undergraduate and graduate students on software engineering principles
- Developing new course materials to address advances in software engineering
- Writing grant proposals to fund research into new technologies
- Conducting research to expand the field of software engineering
- Writing white papers and presenting at conferences and seminars
Computer & Information Research Scientists: Computer and information research scientists design new computer architectures to improve network technology, increase computing speeds, and advance data security measures.
Principal Software Engineers: Principal software engineers function as a company’s technical and managerial focal point for software engineering projects. They ensure clients’ satisfaction with the end product and provide executive management updates on budgetary and resource constraints.
Executives or Start-up Founders: Executives and founders create and guide a company’s vision by applying in-depth knowledge of software systems and applications. If you find yourself interested in leading a start-up, then it’s likely you’ve created—or are involved with—a new software technology or product with industry potential.
Industry Experts & Consultants: Legislatures and agencies enforce various compliance requirements to ensure data security. Industry experts serve as consultants to develop and modify policies and regulations. You essentially monetize your knowledge by lending your expertise wherever it is needed.
Salaries for PhD in Software Engineering Graduates
Wondering if earning a PhD in software engineering will have a positive impact on your earning potential? Well, according to Glassdoor, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Software engineers with PhD degrees earn an average of $40,000 more than master’s degree earners. In 2023, PhD in software engineering earners averaged $164,835 per year ($130,041 base pay and $34,794 additional pay), compared to $121,158 per year ($101,096 base pay and $20,062 additional pay) for master’s in software engineering earners.
Big Tech Company Salaries
Large technology companies—like Google and Meta—seek out elite software engineers. These firms pay well to recruit the best candidates, so your chances of being hired increase significantly with a PhD.
|Total Yearly Pay
Specific Job Salaries
|Total Yearly Pay
|Assistant Professor in Software Engineering
|Computer and Information Research Scientist
Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provided a computer and information research scientist’s salary (updated May 2021). Glassdoor provided all other salary estimates (updated February 2023). Additional pay refers to cash bonuses and profit sharing.
Is a PhD in Software Engineering Worth it?
You’ve reviewed what earning a PhD in software engineering entails, how long it will take, and what it might cost. You’ve considered admissions criteria, carefully reviewing your own background and your odds of gaining entry to a reputable program. Now for the most important question: Is a PhD in software engineering really worth it?
This is a difficult question to answer, as the decision ultimately depends on your professional goals, existing responsibilities, and your budget. To help you decide, we’ve made the case for both sides.
Pros of a PhD in Software Engineering
Earning a PhD in software engineering is worth it if you want to pursue advanced career opportunities that are unavailable to those with an undergraduate or master’s degree. For example, you may wish to:
- Apply for a top Research & Development (R&D) position within global tech companies (e.g. Microsoft or Google)
- Support start-ups who rely on skilled researchers and innovators as they develop new technologies
- Join the academic world in order to lead groundbreaking research while educating future software engineers
If any of the above sound like you, then a PhD in software engineering is worth it.
Cons of a PhD in Software Engineering
Earning a PhD in software engineering is not worth it if you’re not prepared for the obstacles and intense commitment required to complete a doctorate. For example, you may:
- Have existing responsibilities (family, career, etc.) that make dedicating four to five years to a doctoral program an impossibility
- Are unable to secure admission to a fully-funded program and are overwhelmed with the idea of taking on enormous debt in exchange for an advanced degree
- Either have not considered your career goals or are unsure about your interest in the opportunities available to PhD holders
If the above points ring true for you, then a PhD in Software Engineering is not worth it.
PhD in Software Engineering: Frequently Asked Questions
Can You Pursue a Doctorate in Software Engineering Without Earning a Master’s Degree First?
Yes. Several schools allow bachelor’s degree graduates to apply without first completing a master’s degree. For example:
- University of Texas at Dallas requires a Bachelor of Science in a related field, 3.5 GPA, and strong GRE scores.
- North Dakota State University requires a Bachelor of Science degree, at least three years of full-time professional software engineering experience, and one programming language (C++, C#, or Java preferred).
- Auburn University requires a relevant bachelor’s degree, with computer science, software engineering, and cybersecurity engineering being preferred.
How Long Are Software Engineering PhD programs?
Most doctoral programs require a full-time commitment of four to five years. PhD programs in software engineering are split into two major phases: coursework and the dissertation. PhD coursework requires two to three years of full-time effort. The dissertation typically takes an additional two to three years of research, writing, and defense.
How Are Master’s Degree and PhD in Software Engineering Programs Different?
Master’s degrees and PhD programs are advanced educational qualifications in software engineering, but there are some important differences between them:
- Program Length: A software engineering master’s degree usually takes two years of full-time study; a PhD program requires a full-time commitment of four to five years.
- Coursework: Master’s programs typically require 30 course credits, culminating with a thesis or final project. PhD programs are four to five years long and involve core coursework, electives, and the completion of a PhD dissertation.
- Master’s Thesis vs. PhD Dissertation: A master’s thesis involves analyzing and commenting on existing research in the world of software engineering. A PhD dissertation requires unique research and the development of an original concept. PhD students ultimately contribute new knowledge to the field of software engineering.
- Career Opportunities: A master’s degree in software engineering will provide you with advanced skills required to thrive within software development companies. You’ll be able to apply your in-depth knowledge to create & manage complex software applications through the entire development cycle. A software engineering PhD prepares you to conduct research and educate students within academia or pursue professional R&D positions.