Universities offer a variety of Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) programs related to Artificial Intelligence (AI.) Some of these are titled as Ph.D.s in AI, whereas most are Ph.D.s in Computer Science or related engineering disciplines with a specialization or focus in AI. Admissions requirements usually include a related bachelor’s degree and, sometimes, a master’s degree. Moreover, most Ph.D. programs expect academic excellence and strong recommendations. The AI Ph.D. programs take three to five or more years, depending on if you have a master’s and the complexity of your dissertation. People with Ph.D.s in AI usually go on to tenure track professorships, postdoctoral research positions, or high-level software engineering positions.
What Are Artificial Intelligence Ph.D. Programs?
Ph.D. programs in AI focus on mastering advanced theoretical subjects, such as decision theory, algorithms, optimization, and stochastic processes. Artificial intelligence covers anything where a computer behaves, rationalizes, or learns like a human. Ph.D.s are usually the endpoint to a long educational career. By the time scholars earn Ph.D.s, they have probably been in school for well over 20 years.
People with an AI Ph.D. degree are capable of formulating and executing novel research into the subtopics of AI. Some of the subtopics include:
- Environment adaptation in self-driving vehicles
- Natural language processing in robotics
- Cheating detection in higher education
- Diagnosing and treating diseased in healthcare
AI Ph.D. programs require candidates to focus most of their coursework and research on AI topics. Most culminate in a dissertation of published research. Many AI Ph.D. recipients’ dissertations are published in peer-reviewed journals or presented at industry-leading conferences. They go on to lead careers as experts in AI technology.
Types of Artificial Intelligence Ph.D. Programs
Most AI Ph.D. programs are a Ph.D. in Computer Science with a concentration in AI. These degrees involve general, advanced level computer science courses for the first year or two and then specialize in AI courses and research for the remainder of the curriculum.
AI Ph.D.s offered in other colleges like Computer Engineering, Systems Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, or Electrical Engineering are similar to Ph.D.s in Computer Science. They often involve similar coursework and research. For instance, colleges like Indiana University Bloomington’s Computing and Engineering have departments specializing in AI or Intelligent Engineering. Some colleges, however, may focus more on a specific discipline. For example, a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering with an AI focus is more likely to involve electric vehicles than targeted online advertising.
Some AI programs fall under a Computational Linguistics specialization, like CUNY. These programs emphasize the natural language processing aspect of AI. Computational Linguistics programs still involve significant computer science and engineering but also require advanced knowledge in language and speech.
Other unique programs offer a joint Ph.D. with non-engineering disciplines, such as Carnegie Mellon’s Joint Ph.D. in Machine Learning and Public Policy, Statistics, or Neural Computation.
How Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence Programs Work
Ph.D. programs usually take three to six years to complete. For example, Harvard lays out a three+ year track where the last year(s) is spent completing your research and defending your dissertation. Many Ph.D. programs have a residency requirement where you must take classes on-campus for one to three years. Moreover, most universities, such as Brandeis, require Ph.D. students to grade and/or teach for one to four semesters. Despite these requirements, several Ph.D. programs allow for part-time or full-time students, like Drexel.
Ph.D. programs in AI admit the strongest students. Most applications require a resume, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a statement of interest. Many programs require a minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher, although some allow for statements of explanation if you have a lower GPA due to illness or other excusable causes for a low GPA.
Many universities, like Cornell, recently made the GRE either optional or not required because the GRE provides little prediction into the success of research and represents a COVID-19 risk. These programs may require the GRE again in the future. However, many schools still require the IELTS/TOEFL for international applicants.
Curriculum and Coursework
The curriculum for AI Ph.D.s varies based on the applicants’ prior education for many universities. Some programs allow applicants to receive credit for relevant master’s programs completed prior to admission. The programs require about 30 hours of advanced research and classes. Other programs do not give credit for master’s programs completed elsewhere. These require over 60 hours of electives, in addition to the 30-hours of fundamental and core classes in addition to the advanced courses.
For programs with more specific specialties, the courses are usually narrowly focused. For example, Duke’s Robotics track requires ten classes, at least three of which are focused on AI as it relates to robotics. Others allow for non-AI-specific courses such as computer networks.
Many Ph.D. programs have strict GPA requirements to remain in the program. For example, Northeastern requires PhD candidates to maintain at least a 3.5 GPA. Other programs automatically dismiss students with too many Cs in courses.
Common specializations include:
- Computational Linguistics
- Automotive Systems
- Data Science
Artificial Intelligence Dissertations
Most Ph.D. programs require a dissertation. The dissertation takes at least two years to research and write, usually starting in the second or third year of the Ph.D. curriculum. Moreover, many programs require an oral presentation or defense of the dissertation. Some universities give an award for the best dissertation of the year. For example, Boston University gave a best dissertation award to Hao Chen for the dissertation entitled “Improving Data Center Efficiency Through Smart Grid Integration and Intelligent Analytics.”
A couple of programs require publications, like Capitol Technology, or additional course electives, like LIU. For example, The Ohio State University requires 27 hours of graded coursework and three hours with an advisor for non-thesis path candidates. Thesis-path candidates only have to take 18 hours of graded coursework but must spend 12 hours with their advisors.
Are There Online Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence Programs?
Officially, the majority of AI Ph.D. programs are in-person. Only one university, Capitol Technology University, allows for a fully online program. This is one of the most expensive Ph.D.s in the field, costing about $60,000. However, it is also one of the most flexible programs. It allows you to complete your coursework on your own schedule, perhaps even while working. Moreover, it allows for either a dissertation path or a publication path. The coursework is fully focused on AI research and writing, thus eliminating requirements for more general courses like algorithms or networks.
One detail you should consider is that the Capitol Technology Ph.D. program is heavily driven by a faculty mentor. This is someone you will need consistent contact with and open communication. The website only lists the director, so there is a significant element of uncertainty on how the program will work for you. But doctoral candidates who are self-driven and have a solid idea of their research path have a higher likelihood of succeeding.
If you need flexibility in your Ph.D. program, you may find some professors at traditional universities will work with you on how you meet and conduct the research, or you may find an alternative degree program that is online. Although a Ph.D. program may not be officially online, you may be able to spend just a semester or two on campus and then perform the rest of the Ph.D. requirements remotely. This is most likely possible if the university has an online master’s program where you can take classes. For example, the Georgia Institute of Technology does not have a residency requirement, has an online master’s of computer science program, and some professors will work flexibly with doctoral candidates with whom they have a close relationship.
What Jobs Can You Get with a Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence?
Many Ph.D. graduates work as tenure track professors at universities with AI classes. Others work as postdoc research scientists at universities. Both of these roles are expected to conduct research and publish, but professors have more of an expectation to teach, as well. Universities usually have a small number of these positions available. Moreover, postdoc research positions tend to only last for a limited amount of time.
Other engineers with AI-focused-Ph.D.s conduct research and do software development in the private sector at AI-intensive companies. For example, Google uses AI in many departments. Its assistant uses natural language processing to interface with users through voice. Moreover, Google uses AI to generate news feeds for users. Google, and other industry leaders, have a strong preference for engineers with Ph.D.s. This career path is often highly sought by new Ph.D. recipients.
Another private sector industry shifting to AI is vehicle manufacturing. For example, self-driving cars use significant AI to make ethical and legal decisions while operating. Another example is that electric vehicles use AI techniques to optimize performance and power usage.
Some AI Ph.D. recipients become c-suite executives, such as Chief Technology Officers (CTO). For example, Dr. Ted Gaubert has a Ph.D. in engineering and works as a CTO for an AI-intensive company. Another CTO, Dr. David Talby, revolutionized AI with a new natural language processing library, Spark. CTO positions in AI-focused companies often have decades of experience in the AI field.
How Much Do Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence Programs Cost?
The tuition for many Ph.D. programs is paid through fellowships, graduate research assistantships, and teaching assistantships. For example, Harvard provides full support for Ph.D. candidates. Some programs mandate teaching or research to attend based on the assumption that Ph.D. candidates need financial assistance.
Fellowships are often reserved for applicants with an exceptional academic and research background. These are usually named for eminent alumni, professors, or other scholars associated with the university. Receiving such a fellowship is a highly respected honor.
For programs that do not provide full assistance, the usual cost is about $500 to $1,000 per credit hour, plus university fees. On the low end, Northern Illinois University charges about $557 per credit hour. With 30 to 60 hours required, this means the programs cost about $30,000 to over $60,000 out of pocket. Typically, Ph.D. programs that do not provide funding for any Ph.D. candidates are less reputable or provide other benefits, such as flexibility, online programs, or fewer requirements.
How Much Does a Ph.D. in AI Make?
Engineers with AI Ph.D.s earn well into the six-figure range in the private sector. For example, OpenAI, a non-profit, pays its top researchers over $400,000 per year. Amazon pays its data scientists with Ph.D.s over $200,000 in salary. Directors and executives with Ph.D.s often earn over $1,000,000 in private industry.
When considering working in the private industry, professionals usually compare offers based on total compensation, not just salary. Many companies offer large stock and bonus packages to Ph.D.-level engineers and scientists.
Startups sometimes pay less in salary, but much more in stock options. For example, the salary may be $50,000 to $100,000, but when the startup goes public, you may end up with hundreds of thousands in stock options. This creates a sense of ownership and investment in the success of the startup.
Computer science professors and postdoctoral researchers earn about $90,000 to $160,000 from universities. However, they increase their competition by writing books, speaking at conferences, and advising companies. Startups often employ professors for advice on the feasibility and design of their technology.