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Frequently Asked Questions

This page is intended to answer some common questions that students already in the program tend to ask. Click here if you are a prosepective student looking for information about admission to one of our graduate programs. If you have qustions related to funding, please see the Funding Opportunities page.

In the following, GC refers to the Graduate Coordinator. ADH-GS refers to the Associate Head for Graduate Studies. The current GCs are Ms. Sharon Kinder-Potter for Blacksburg MS/PhD students, and Ms. Samantha Pipkin for all MEng students. The current ADH-GS is Dr. Eli Tilevich. Sara Coulson is the Director of Graduate Studies, and often stands in for Dr. Tilevich for administrative purposes.



How do I submit paperwork for processing?

All standard paperwork processed within the CS Department should be submitted via the online forms system at If your research advisor or committee members need to sign it, get that taken care of before you submit to the online system. Note that initial employment paperwork must be done in person, but everything else should be submitted to the forms system.


Degree Options

Do I need an M.S. before I do a Ph.D.?

The short answer is "No."

Here's the long answer. In some parts of the world, you are required to complete an M.S. before you are admitted to a Ph.D. program. Virginia Tech (and most universities in the US) follow a different approach. You could be admitted to the Ph.D. program straight out of your B.S. - it really depends on what your degree objective is.

That said, we have designed the requirements for a Ph.D. in CS to be a superset of the M.S. (coursework) requirements. So you have the option (but not the obligation) of obtaining a Virginia Tech M.S. "on the way" as you complete the coursework requirement of your Ph.D. degree (irrespective of whether you entered with/without an M.S. degree from elsewhere). Most Ph.D.-bound students appreciate the feeling of reassurance that picking up the M.S. degree "on the way" gives that the worst case scenario will still leave them with something. Don't underestimate the value of positive psychological motivations!

Some advisors, even if your goal is a Ph.D., might advise you to attempt an M.S. thesis first. This is to give you an abbreviated experience of what a research degree involves. Other advisors do not find this to be a useful exercise, and just want you to "get straight to your real research". There is no right answer. (Other than to listen to your advisor. :))


I would like to change my degree goal from MS to PhD, or from PhD to MS How do I do that?

Submit a "Change of Degree Status" form. Available on the Forms page. Submit the form to the GC. Once the department approves and sends the request to the graduate school, verify on your Hokiespa that the change is reflected. After that point, move on to fulfilling the goals of your new program. In particular, ensure that you register for the right credit hours. M.S. students register for CS 5994. Ph.D. students register for CS 7994. These "currencies" are not convertible, so do not take hours that you cannot use later.


What about if I want to change from MS coursework to MS thesis, or from MS thesis to MS coursework?

We no longer allow MS students to do the MS coursework option. This is only available to PhD students who want to do "MS on the way".


What if I want to change between the MS and the MEng degree options?

If approved, this would be done using the "Request for Change of Degree Status" form available on the Forms page. However, permission to switch is not automatically granted. Students who came into the MS program and have received GTA or GRA funding might not be permitted to switch since we consider this a commitment to complete a thesis.

Students are almost never permitted to switch from the MEng program to the MS program. When we process applications, we limit MS admission based on our faculty advising capacity. Thus, we typically do not have the additional advising capacity to handle requests that do not go through the normal MS admissions process. Requests to switch from the MEng program to the MS program need to be initiated by a CS faculty member who commits to fund at least one semester through a GRA. This is extremely rare.


What if I want to change my advisor or advisory committee?

You only officially have an advisor and committee once you submit a plan of study. If you have done this already, then any change is implemented by filing a "Change of Committee-Advisor" form (see notes on "Plans of Study" below). Else, you don't have to do anything. At the time of filing a plan of study, indicate the correct advisor/advisory committee.


Courses and Registrations

I have taken CS 6604 "Digital Libraries" last semester. Can I take the "Tools for Online Education" course next semester which also appears to have the same number CS 6604?

You can always take courses (if there is room for you). You are probably enquiring if both of them can count toward your Plan of Study. The answer is "yes". Most 6000-level courses in CS are advanced topics courses. As the catalog description in the graduate handbook says, this course "treats a specific advanced topic of current research interest in the area of data and information. May be repeated with different content for a maximum of 12 credit hours." So, not only can you take CS 6604 again, you can take it again two more times!

4984 and 5984 Special Topics courses have similar rules. If the content is different, then they can usually be repeated for credit.


I am interested in taking course <some course> which is listed as an online course in the VT course catalog. Can I be allowed to take this course for credit? Can it count toward my degree?

We are in a rapidly changing world. Some Online courses are primary intended for students in other programs (e.g., professional degrees) and for students registered in virtual campuses. Others are not limited in this way. Likewise for "regular" courses taught in a VT classroom. The fact that a course is "Online" or not has nothing to do with whether it can count on your Plan of Study. Click on the CRN of the course (which is a five-digit number). This will bring up a page that shows details of the course and any restrictions (if applicable). That should tell you whether you would be allowed to register for the course. As for whether it can count toward your CS degree, consult the CS courses page and the degree requirements. See if this course is a CS or cognate course approved for graduate credit. If not, it will not count toward your degree.


I am really really keen to take CS 5044 (Object Oriented Programming in Java). Can you let me take it?

You don't need permission to take any course (assuming that you can get in). But CS5044 cannot count toward your graduate degree requirements in CS because this is a course specifically designed for non-majors. It is appropriately placed at the 5000 level, not because it is graduate level CS material, but because it is targeted at graduate students in non-CS departments. Click on the CRN of the course in the registrar's catalog to see details of the course and restrictions. Furthermore, programming courses are considered as pre-requisites to our graduate program; so if you claim lack of experience in such courses as justification to take them for graduate credit, you will probably be advised to discontinue your graduate studies and apply for undergraduate studies.


I am taking/have taken course <some CS course> that is cross-listed with <some department>. The course is being offered/will be offered by a <some department> professor, not a CS professor. So my question is: will this count as a CS course or as a <some department> course?

Any cross-listed course will count as a CS course irrespective of who is teaching/taught it. It does not matter whether you take it with the CS number, or the other department's number. It counts like a CS course, whether you want it to or not.


Plans of Study

What is a Plan of Study?

This is a document where you specify the courses that you have taken plus the courses that you intend to take, that together will help you complete your degree. It also specifies the faculty members who will serve as the examining committee. A Plan of Study form can be obtained from the Forms page. Once it is filed, the Plan of Study becomes an official university document. The graduate school says that once the Plan of Study is approved, it serves as a "contract" between you and the university about what courses you need to obtain your degree.


Can I submit a Plan of Study with just the courses and decide my committee later?

No. They go together. It is the committee who is certifying that this is a good Plan of Study for you, so it doesn't make sense to just have the courses listed without anybody approving the list.


Is the POS binding? Can I change my mind later after submitting it? What if a course I intend to take later is not offered? What if I change my degree emphasis from HCI to scientific computing? What if I shift from thesis to non-thesis? From M.S. to Ph.D.? What if I change my committee? What if I change my advisor?

Yes and no: it is binding but you can easily change it. Once a POS is filed, it can be changed numerous times, as needed. This is normal to change the POS during the course of your studies (and changes are far easier to process than the original submission). For change of degree or thesis/non-thesis option, you will need to change your degree program first. See FAQ under "Degree Programs". Then file a new POS.


What do I need to do to change a POS?

Since a POS = courses + committee, the answer depends on whether you want to update the courses or update the composition of your committee. There are separate forms for each. Use either the "Plan of Study Change" form (if you are changing the courses) or "Change of Committee-Advisor" form (if you are changing the committee). Available from the Forms page.


What if I want to change both courses and the committee? Do I need to submit two forms?



Okay, then who should sign in the "Plan of Study Change"? The old committee, or the new committee?

Depends on the order that you do it. Whomever is your committee at the moment has to sign off on any such form.


This seems quite complicated. Why can't I just submit a fresh POS and be done with it?

The system is designed to preserve obvious sensibilities. For instance, you cannot drop a professor from your committee without him/her (or the rest of the committee) knowing about it, and so on.


I already have a PhD POS on file and need to submit an MS POS (or vice versa). If the courses and committee in one are a subset/superset of the other, can I just use inheritance to create the new POS?

No. The Grad School wants a fresh POS form for each degree.


I am having trouble obtaining signatures for my POS. My advisor is on travel, one of my committee members is at a different university, etc. What do I do?

Most of these forms can be sent around for signature via email. Alternatively, the committee member can authorize a faculty member here to sign for them.


Transferring Courses

How many/what courses can I transfer toward my graduate studies here?

From the Graduate School Handbook: No more than 50% of the graded credit hours needed to satisfy the requirements for a Virginia Tech graduate degree may be transferred in from a regionally accredited university. All such credits must have earned grades of "B" or better, have been earned while in good standing in graduate status, and must have been graduate courses (numbered 5000 or higher) at the institution where the student took the courses. Grades of "S" or "P" are not acceptable for transfer credit. All transfer courses must be acceptable to the student’s Advisory Committee and the Graduate Program Director or Department Head. For transfer course work more than five years old, a Justification of 'Old' Course Work form must be filed with the Plan of Study.

So, Masters thesis students can transfer up to 3 courses and Ph.D. students can transfer up to 4 courses (or 5 if you count 10 courses on your plan of study), but in all cases only such courses that were taken while in a graduate program.


Can I transfer a course even if there is no exact equivalent course here on the CS@VT graduate catalog?

Yes you can. You just need a faculty member to certify that this is indeed a graduate level course of CS subject content.


How would that work? I have taken a course on "Fantastic Algorithms".

Sounds like this is a course in the general theory/algorithms area. Seek out a professor in that area and look at the FAQ "How do I proceed with the paperwork?" below.


I have taken graduate courses in country <your country>. The grading system there is different from the A-F used in the United States. Can I transfer these courses?

This is beyond the jurisdiction of the department. The graduate school is responsible for determining the equivalence of courses across different grading systems and whether a transfer to a grade of B or better can be approved. Work with the GC who can first determine if the graduate school will be acceptable to the transfer. If the answer is yes, then fill out the paperwork as stated below.


I have taken graduate courses in country <your country> where the courses are 2 credit (or 1 credit). I claim they are really equivalent to the 3-credit courses here. Can I transfer these courses?

This is beyond the jurisdiction of the department. The graduate school is responsible for determining the equivalence of credit hours across different grading systems and whether such a transfer can be approved. Work with the GC who can first determine if the graduate school will be acceptable to the transfer. If the answer is yes, then fill out the paperwork as stated below.


Can I transfer research hours, i.e., thesis (CS 5994) or dissertation (CS 7994) hours?



Can I transfer project/independent study courses? i.e., ones where I, individually, work with a professor to implement a system or explore a research problem?

No. Such courses are equivalent to CS 5974 (Independent Study) courses and they cannot be transferred.


So what can I transfer courses as?

You can transfer courses as 4000-, 5000-, or 6000-level CS courses. You can also transfer them as other department (cognate) courses. All of these can potentially be used toward your graduate Plan of Study here.


How do I proceed with the paperwork?

For each course that you want to transfer, fill out a credit transfer form, available from the Forms page. Identify a faculty member who is most suited to evaluate the equivalence of the course (this can be either someone who is currently teaching or has previously taught a similar course here before and/or someone whose research interests are closest to the area). Go to them with as much background info as possible. Just showing your transcript is not sufficient for somebody to judge equivalency. Bring materials such as course syllabus, sample homeworks, course web site, or similar information so that they can make a recommendation.


And how does transfers for outside-CS (cognate) courses work?

The same. Seek out a professor (perhaps in an outside department) who would be qualified to approve the transfer and approach them with the same form as above.


Do you have a list of outside-CS professors that I can contact?

No. Just browse through the outside-CS department's webpage to identify a suitable professor.


I do not have any materials from my previous course. What should I do in order to get it transferred?

Consult with the professor. He/she might choose to interview you or find other means to assess the course. But the professor might also refuse to approve the transfer.


Ok. The professor has approved the transfer. What do I do now?

For now, nothing. Just keep these approval forms handy with the professor's signature and submit them when you turn in your complete plan of study. At that point, the ADH-GS will approve them along with the rest of your plan of study.


Is there a deadline to have courses transferred?

No, but it advisable to get them done as quickly as possible. Definitely before your Plan of Study is to be filed (so that you can hand the forms in with the POS).


Can I transfer a course on (e.g., graduate AI) and also take graduate AI for credit here?

No. If you transfer a course as CS5678, then you may not take CS5678 for credit here as well, nor may you take any course for credit that would not have been allowed due to duplication if you had taken CS5678 here.