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Mechanics and Procedures

This section documents procedures applicable to all degree options.

Virginia State Residency
Getting Paperwork Done
Scheduling an Exam
Submitting an ETD
Good Standing
Plan of Study
Annual Evaluation: SARs and Green Thursday
Leave of Absence and Readmission
Course Registration
Courseload Expectations and Restrictions
Background Deficiencies
Transfer Credits
Dropping Courses
Start of Semester Defense Exceptions
Internships and Co-ops
Graduation and Commencement

Virginia State Residency

One way to reduce your tuition and fees costs are to become a Virginia State Resident. And the fees reductions can save you money even if your tuition is paid by an assistantship. For details on the process, see here. Note that you have to apply for this, even if you were an undergrad previously at Virginia Tech. 


Getting Paperwork Done

There are many forms that you will need to deal with as a graduate student. Most forms can be found online.  Except for initial employment paperwork (that must still be done in person), all of our forms are dealt with electronically. Forms should be submitted to the CS Graduate Forms Submission Portal.

Many of these forms require the signature of two sets of people: (1) your advisory committee members (including your advisor) and (2) the GD, the Department Head, the College Dean, or the Graduate School. The fastest way to get these forms signed is to get the signatures of people in set (1), then submit the form to the CS Graduate Forms Submission Portal. The rest of the needed processing will be handled from there.

Sometimes you will want to discuss the contents of a form with the GD, in which case a personal meeting or email exchange will be appropriate. However, when it comes time for the GD to sign the form, you will still need to submit it to CS Graduate Forms Submission Portal. We use this system to make sure that paperwork does not fall through the cracks.

While the GC will make every effort to obtain the signatures as quickly as possible, sometimes one of the necessary people will be out of the office for several days. So it is important to turn in forms well in advance of any deadline you may be trying to meet.

In addition, there are many dependencies in the forms that students must fill out. For example, international students should have a Plan of Study approved before they go on Coop or Internships (see Internships and Co-ops). Also, application for exams require a Plan of Study already on file. It is important that students pay attention to the deadlines and milestones required for their progress. Submitting all forms at once will not get them done any faster and at times it might actually slow down the approval process.


Scehduling an Exam

All graduate degrees require a final exam. This exam must be taken during an academic term in which the student is registered (perhaps this registration will be as a defense-only student, see Defense Exceptions). PhD Degrees also require a Preliminary Exam. The Preliminary and Final Exams are "owned" by and therefore scheduled with the Graduate School. This section documents the procedures.

At least two weeks prior to the examination date, the student must schedule a final exam with the Graduate School. The request for the exam is done electronically and must be approved by all members of the advisory committee, the GD, and the Graduate School. The policy page at the Graduate School contains more information. The Graduate School Exam Approval System also has some help information.

Note: There are several checks that must be met before the exam can be scheduled. A student must have an approved Plan of Study, and must not have any holds on his/her account.

Note: DO NOT submit a Plan of Study at the same time as you schedule an exam. Your plan of study should be approved (not just submitted, but actually approved by the Grad School) before you request an exam.


Submitting an ETD

Virginia Tech has long been a leader in the electronic publication of Thesis and Dissertations. All graduate students must submit their Thesis or Dissertation electronically. The full process is done online using the online system to request graduation and to schedule final defense.

Submitting the Thesis or Dissertation to the ETD repository is a pre-requisite for graduation. The Grad School sets a deadline to submit the ETD if the student desires to participate in commencement, this is usually 2 weeks before the last day of classes.


Good Standing

Graduate students must remain in "good standing" throughout the period of graduate studies. This means that the student is making satisfactory progress towards the completion of a graduate degree. Each student's progress is reviewed annually by the full department during the Green Thursday review and based on the student's Student Activity Report. Only students in good standing are normally eligible for funding support administered by the department, i.e., GTAs and fellowships. In extreme cases, students not in good standing will be removed from the graduate program. The GPC will normally provide at least one warning before removing a student, however, in cases where there exists substantial failure to achieve satisfactory progress the student may be removed without prior warning.

MS Degree Milestones

These milestones are designed with the intention that an MS student will typically graduate two years after entering the graduate program. MS students retain their good standing by meeting all of the following:

  • take a course load appropriate for your circumstance (full or part time, completed course requirements or not) in each term. Maintain at least a B (3.0) average over all courses at all times. Note that while "full time student" is defined as 9 credits or more, and all students on assistantship are required to be enrolled for at least 12 credits, this does not mean that students are expected to take four regular 3-credit courses during any semester. Students should take the number of courses in a given semester appropriate for making good progress toward completing their degree, and add in research hours (CS5994) to bring the total number of credits per semester to the proper level;
  • take any courses assigned as a background deficiency during the earliest possible academic term;
  • remove any Incomplete course grade by the end of the next semester in which the student is enrolled; and
  • have an approved Plan of Study on file no later than the end of the second semester in the program. This means that the student will also need to have identified a major advisor and an advisory committee.


PhD Degree Milestones

A PhD student will typically graduate five years after entering the graduate program (if starting with a BS) or four years after entering the graduate program (if starting with a MS) PhD students retain their good standing by meeting all of the following:

  • take a course load appropriate for your circumstance (full or part time, completed course requirements or not) in each term. Maintain at least a B (3.0) average over all courses at all times. Note that while "full time student" is defined as 9 credits or more, and all students on assistantship are required to be enrolled for at least 12 credits, this does not mean that students are expected to take four regular 3-credit courses during any semester. Students should take the number of courses in a given semester appropriate for making good progress toward completing their degree, and add in research hours (CS7994) to bring the total number of credits per semester to the proper level;
  • take any courses assigned as a background deficiency during the earliest possible academic term;
  • remove any Incomplete course grade by the end of the next semester in which the student is enrolled;
  • complete the PhD qualifying process within 24 months of entering the PhD program;
  • have an approved Plan of Study on file within three semesters of entering the program; and
  • pass the preliminary examination within four years of entering the program.

Students who have any doubts about their standing should discuss this with their research advisor and/or the GD.


Plan of Study

The Plan of Study is an official University document that serves as a “contract” between the student and the department. It details the degree program (M.S. or Ph.D.; with or without Bioinformatics option; if M.S. whether coursework or thesis), list of courses along with the semesters they have been taken/will be taken, and the advisory committee. Separate plans of study are required for M.S. and Ph.D. degrees.

The student prepares the plan of study in consultation with the advisory committee and submits it to the GC. Once the GD approves it, the plan of study is submitted to the Virginia Tech graduate school for its approval.

A plan of study can be submitted only ONCE for a given degree, but once it is approved, it can be changed by filing a Request for Plan of Study Changes form.

The graduate school encourages that plans of study be submitted as early as possible. Thus, the graduate school requires that plans of study are due by the end of the second academic semester for all Master's students, and are due by the end of the third academic semester for doctoral students.

A PhD advisory committee must have five members by the time that the preliminary exam is scheduled. However, we will process an initial Plan of Study with only four members of the committee identified.

Plans of Study require a fair amount of processing for approval. The department checks that you meet departmental degree requirement. The graduate school checks for university requirements. In addition, your account is checked to make sure your finances are in order. As a result, the plan of study takes about a month of processing time from the moment you submit a form to the GC until it is finally approved. Be aware that this is a slow process and do not expect it to be approved overnight.

Use the appropropriate form for your degree found at the forms page to prepare your Plan of Study.


Annual Evaluation: SARs and Green Thursday

The Graduate School requires that all graduate students receive an annual evaluation of their progress. In the Department of Computer Science, the annual evaluation process is similar in some respects to how faculty are given their annual review. The review process is initiated by each student filling out the Student Activity Report. The report is usually due in the Spring. An email will be sent once the form is available.

Student Activity Reports

All students must file a SAR. However, there are differences depending on your stage in the graduate program:

  • If a student is graduating in the Spring semester, the student may only note this on the form have their advisor (ARA) complete the assessment section. The other details are not required.
  • Students in their first semester (i.e., started graduate studies in the Spring) will have little to say on the form and need not get an advisor to write an assessment. They still must submit the form.
  • All other students must complete the SAR in its entirety.

The SAR form has essentially three parts:

  • A listing of academic milestones passed and planned (which serves to give the student self guidance as to whether he or she is on track toward graduation)
  • A listing of accomplishments for the year. This also self-guides the student regarding progress for the year.
  • A written statement from the student's advisor assessing the student's progress, to be signed by both the advisor and the student.

These SARs serve as a major source of input for assessing rankings for GTA assignments, and for graduation awards and other honors. The SAR is extremely important for graduate students who are seeking support from the Department as a GTA or GRA. We use the content of the form, the advisor evaluation, and the subsequent discussion on Green Thursday as a way to assess your progress in the degree. In rare cases, and after discussion at the Green Thursday evaluation, we use the SAR for issuing warning letters or terminating a student from the program for lack of progress.

The assessment from your advisor, which is part of the SAR, is an important tool for you to be sure that you are truly on track with your work.

Green Thursday

The SARs submitted by the graduate students are organized for discussion in an all day meeting of the CS Department faculty. This meeting is call Green Thursday and it takes place during Reading Day in the Spring Semester.

In that meeting, the CS faculty discusses students progress towards degree and evaluates their timely meeting of milestones. The particular case of students that receive a poor evaluation are discussed in more detail. The result is one more evaluation of each student's progress. This final evaluation, together with the advisor evaluation is then shared with the graduate school.

Later in the summer GPC emails to each student a summary of the discussion. For most students, the summary is no different than the assessment of the advisor that was already included in the SAR. For those cases that the assessment differs, a more detail note is shared with the student.


Leave of Absence and Readmission

Graduate students wishing to take some time off (e.g., a semester) from graduate studies must fill and submit a “Leave of Absence Request” Form. Once the leave is approved, the student can resume studies after the break. For leaves of more than one calendar year, a formal re-admission request must be submitted before rejoining VT. Such requests must be submitted in the semester prior to the semester in which studies are to be resumed.

Note that readmission goes through a process similar to when students were first admitted to the program. The admissions committee looks at the students record, and the student’s advisor is consulted. Depending on the time away from the program, a student might have to justify ‘old’ course work at the time of readmission.


Course Registration

Graduate students can register in courses at the 4000 (senior), 5000 (beginning graduate), and 6000 (advanced graduate) level. See the list of courses available for graduate students. Not all courses will count for all graduate degrees, see the notes by each course for details. In special cases, when students have been admitted with deficiencies in their computing background, they may be required to take courses at the 2000 (sophomore) or 3000 (junior) level, beyond their regular graduate program requirements. See Background Deficiencies for further details.

Students currently enrolled in the graduate program are eligible to pre-register for courses. This normally takes place in October and March. Students are strongly encouraged to take advantage of pre-registration since (a) courses might be cancelled for lack of enrollment if not enough pre-register (especially Spring Semester classes when relatively few new students enter the program) and (b) it is your best opportunity for getting into the courses you want.

After pre-registration, Fall courses are typically locked so that students may not add them online. Courses normally stay locked until after new students entering the program for Fall semester have had a chance to be added. After this time, courses will be opened for add/drop access online.

All CS graduate courses are normally open to CS graduate students only. Non-CS graduate students will need to request a force-add into the course.

You can use the following instructions to set the number of credit hours for research credits (CS5994 and CS7994).

  1. At the registration page, click on "schedule and options" above the list of courses.
  2. Click on the "credit hours" field
  3. Replace with the desired number of research hours
  4. Submit



The deadlines in a typical semester are structured as follows using two parameters: x (the date when classes start) and y (the date when final grades are due). These are approximate guidelines only. The ordinal sequence of events will be maintained although the specific “gaps” may not. To get the authoritative answer, consult the academic calendar available on the main VT website:


Classes start x  
Add deadline x + 4 days  
Drop deadline x + 4 days + 1 month This is the deadline to drop the course without grade penalty or it appearing on the student’s transcript.
Course withdrawal date y – 2 weeks Withdrawal at this late stage is granted only under extreme circumstances. Poor performance in the course is not a valid reason to request a withdrawal. The course will appear on the transcript with a “W” grade. See Dropping Courses for more information.
Last day of classes y – 9 days  
Final grades due y  

Registration for CS5974

Registration for CS5974 Independent Study involves a special procedure. You do not register online for CS5974 Independent Study, but instead fill out a request form. The form must be processed typically by Wednesday in the first week of class. Although CS5974 is technically available for variable credit hours, students will nearly always take it for 3 credits.

Note that the MS Thesis option does NOT allow credit toward the degree for CS5974.

An Independent Study course requires a commitment from a CS professor to sponsor the study, as only CS faculty can serve as instructors for this class. Sometimes a student will wish to work with a faculty member outside the CS Department. A CS graduate student can do an Independent Study under a professor outside the CS department if the following two criteria are met:

  • The content is appropriate for credit toward a CS course and can be used in a CS degree.
  • A CS faculty member agrees to be the formal sponsor of the course. The person who signs the course approval form as the supervisor of the work must be a CS faculty member. Even though the work is mainly done with another person, the CS faculty member must be the responsible party within our department.


Courseload Expectations and Restrictions

Students on GTA or GRA support must have "full-time" enrollment status, and so must enroll for 12 credit hours. While a normal course load is 12 credits, this does not mean that students are expected to take four regular 3-credit courses during any semester. Students should take the number of courses in a given semester appropriate for making good progress toward completing their degree, and add in research hours (CS5994 or CS7994, as appropriate) to bring the total number of credits per semester to 12.

The department restricts the number of regular courses that students may take. These restrictions are motivated by two considerations:

  1. What we consider to be a rational workload balancing the need to take courses versus obligations to work and/or expectations to participate in research programs.
  2. Protection for other students who might be locked out of courses by those who would hold seats while they "shop" for the subset they actually will keep.

For the purpose of these restrictions, a "regular course" is any (typically 3-credit) course that is eligible for graduate credit, whether given by the CS department or another department. This includes CS5974 Independent Study. It does not include CS5994/7994 Research Hours, 1-credit seminar courses (such as the CS Graduate Seminar), or courses taken for personal interest that do not count for graduate credit (such as GEDI courses). The following courseload restrictions are enforced by the department:

  • GTAs and GRAs are limited to at most two regular courses per semester.
  • No student may enroll in more than three regular courses until the last day of the normal drop/add period (Friday of the first week of classes).
  • Students in the PhD program are limited to two regular courses per semester unless they have permission from their advisor and the GD to take a third course.


Background Deficiencies

The department admits applicants from a variety of backgrounds, who have the potential for completing a CS graduate degree. Students with less than the equivalent of an undergraduate CS minor may have insufficient CS background to immediately undertake graduate courses. Particular background assumed as prerequisites for various graduate courses include object oriented programming, data structures, operating systems, and algorithm analysis. Incoming students might have identified deficiencies upon entering, or if they are concerned that they may have deficient background, should discuss this issue with the GD prior to the start of classes in their first semester. Typically the GD suggests undergraduate courses to make up for the background deficiencies.

Undergraduate courses assigned to overcome background deficiencies must be taken at the earliest possible opportunity to remain in good standing. These courses must be taken for a regular grade (A/F) and cannot be taken pass/fail. Such undergraduate deficiency courses should be listed on the plan of study, however they do not directly count toward satisfying the graduation requirements for any graduate degree in CS.


Transfer Credits

Courses used on a student's plan of study will normally be courses in Computer Science taken at Virginia Tech or designated cognate courses in other departments at Virginia Tech. Students entering our graduate program with credit for courses taken at other universities can apply to have a certain amount of that credit transferred to Virginia Tech and applied to their plans of study here.

In general, the procedure is to first determine an appropriate faculty member who will validate that equivalent credit has been done elsewhere. This is typically a faculty member who teaches a corresponding course here or, if such a course does not exist at Virginia Tech, a faculty member who is most knowledgeable in the cognizant area of the course. Depending on the nature of the course (CS course or cognate course), the appropriate faculty member might be within or outside the CS department. The student presents necessary documentation on the coursework to this faculty member who approves the transfer of credit.

At least 50% of graded coursework on any plan of study must come from courses taken at Virginia Tech. Up to 50% of graded credit hours may be from transfer courses. Transfer courses count toward satisfying area requirements on the plan of study. Transfer courses do not count toward any GPA calculations. Transfer courses do not count toward satisfying the PhD Qualifier Excellence in Breadth requirement.

Courses taken at other universities will normally be approved for use on a plan of study if the course is essentially the same as a Virginia Tech course which can appear on the student's plan of study. Credit for courses that are not essentially the same as a Virginia Tech course might be permitted as a general CS elective at the 5000- or 6000-level. Such courses might be approved within a specific CS area, in which case they would count as a regular course within that area for the purpose of fulfilling breadth requirements. Non-computer science courses that have not been designated as cognate courses will normally be approved for use on a plan of study (again, probably as general electives) if the student's advisor believes that this course is an integral and essential part of a student's plan of study.

A course may be transferred only if it was taken while the student was enrolled as a graduate student. A course may not be transferred if it was used to satisfy requirements for any undergraduate degree. To be eligible for credit, the student must have earned at least a grade of B or its equivalent, and the course must be taken at an accredited graduate institution. We must have on file an official transcript from the institution that shows the course and grade earned.

A student requesting transfer credit must follow this procedure:

  • Requests for transfer of credit are typically made during your first semester at Virginia Tech, but can be applied for and approved at any time. For each course you request to be transferred, you will fill out a copy of the credit transfer request form.
  • Fill out the primary details of the form and attach to the form as much information about the course as possible, such as: a copy of the course syllabus as taught (as opposed to the university or college catalog description, which does not carry enough information); the title and author of the textbook used; a sample graded assignment (preferably the last one in the course, definitely not the first); a copy of the final exam--preferably both the questions and your graded answers (if you do not have the final, please supply the mid-term); URLs to the course website or other online resource. In cases where the course was taken a long time ago and little documentation is available, do the best you can. Transfer credit may be denied if insufficient information is provided to judge the content and level of the course. Take this package to the professor who teaches the course most like the one you wish to transfer and ask the professor to consider your request.
  • In many cases the faculty member will give the recommendation immediately on your form, and you can give it to the GC. In cases where documentation is sparse, the faculty member might choose to “interview” you to assess your knowledge in the stated course. If more time and consideration is needed, please leave the form with the faculty member with a request to forward it to the GC. Once the form is received by the GC, the GD typically reviews it and approves it, and the transferred course(s) can then be used on a plan of study.


Dropping Courses

Course Registration contains information about course drop deadline dates in the context of a typical semester. Dropping a course after the official drop date is a process owned and approved by the Graduate School, not the Department. The student must submit a completed Drop-Add form with the Instructor's and the GD’s signatures to the GC. It will then be submitted to the graduate school for the Dean’s (of the graduate school) signature. If approved, the course will be dropped from the student’s schedule.

Approvals for late dropping of courses are not guaranteed and are given only under extreme (e.g., life-altering) circumstances. Poor performance in the course, lack of interest in the course etc. are not valid reasons to request a late drop. The Graduate School will not approve such requests.


Start of Semester Defense Exceptions

The Start of Semester Defense Exception (SSDE) (formerly known as Defending Student Status) is a special enrollment category defined by the Graduate School. In their words, it is "for students who have fulfilled all requirements, including advisory committee review and agreement that the thesis or dissertation is ready for defense, and are registering only to take the final oral examination."

The graduate school requires that all students be registered in the semester that they complete their degree. This means that if a student intends to defend in a Fall semester, but could not, he/she would need to register for the following semester (i.e., Spring). However, sometimes a student has finished his/her work (e.g. in the Fall) but is unable to schedule the defense for their thesis or dissertation by the end-of-semester deadline.

To keep the registration expenses to a minimum, the graduate school offers the ability to register for only a "token" credit of 1 hour, rather than normal, full-time credit hours. This type of registration is known as Start of Semester Defense Exception and is only available to students who:

  • were unable to schedule an examination time with their committee during the last term they were enrolled
  • have completed all requirements for the degree, including preparation and having the final copy of their thesis or dissertation reviewed by the advisory committee.

Please read the details of how to qualify and how to schedule a final exam under SSDE on the web at Graduate School Policies on SSDE.


Internships and Co-ops

Graduate students can opt to pursue industrial/research internship opportunities. These are usually paid opportunities and can serve to supplement a student’s academic training at Virginia Tech. Students should discuss internship and co-ops with their advisor to ensure that it doesn’t interfere with the student’s academic progress.

International students are typically limited by their visa status regarding such employment opportunities. In particular, leave of absence for a "coop" or "internship" may only be permitted when it does not interfere with the degree program. The CS Department routinely grants permission for students on student visas to pursue co-ops and internships. Students must consider the potential impact on their degree, such as whether they will be permitted to extend the I-20 if necessary.

For international students, internships and co-ops are typically categorized as CPT (Curricular Practical Training) for the purpose of immigration classifications. See the graduate school’s co-op page for information on the process on getting permission for a co-op. Note that international students will typically need to amend their Plan of Study to include GRAD5944 or GRAD7944. This will need to be done prior to getting approval for the co-op.


Graduation and Commencement

Graduation Procedures

Each semester, the Graduate School publishes a list of deadlines for the necessary steps toward graduation in that semester. For the Grad School's Graduation Requirements page for details including links to dates.

Typically there is a deadline by which you must have completed your final exam requirements if you want to be listed on the commencement bulletin and receive your diploma at commencement. There is a later deadline (in fact, past the end of classes) by which you must complete all requirements to be considered a graduate in that semester. Be sure to check in advance on the appropriate deadlines so that you know what is expected. They are posted at the Graduate School website.

To graduate, you must first submit an Application for Degree card through Hokie Spa by the Graduate School's deadline for that semester. You must also complete all defense requirements by the Graduate School's deadlines. For the MS Thesis option and PhD degree, this means holding the final defense and submitting the final documents by the appropriate deadlines. All MS Theses and PhD Dissertations must be submitted to the Electronic Theses and Dissertations system (see the ETD Homepage). If you are using the report from CS5974 Independent Study as the final exam requirement for the MS Coursework-only option, you should submit a copy (electonic or hard-copy) of the report to the GD by the deadline, and have your course instructor send an email message to the GD advising whether to accept or reject the report. These reports are not submitted to ETD.

Participation in Commencement Activities

If you are completing a MS thesis or PhD, please tell your faculty advisor well in advance if you plan to attend the graduation ceremony. Part of the ceremony involves "hooding" of the graduate by the faculty member. With the myriad different graduation ceremonies in place (at the department level, college level, and at the university level) most faculty are assigned to attend one or another ceremony, and few are able to go to all ceremonies. Further, faculty paticipating in hooding ceremonies typically must come dressed in regalia. Thus, your advisor needs to know in advance so that he or she can be prepared.

Graduates have access to various alumni services, including keeping their PID and email account.