PhD in Artificial Intelligence – A Complete Guide to AI PhD Programs, Online and On-Campus

Written by Scott Wilson

ai phd

The headlines are flooded with the same two letters no matter where you look these days: AI, artificial intelligence.

It’s a field that has suddenly exploded into the public imagination through innovative and incredible tools like chatbots with better English skills than your teenager, image generators that can produce lifelike pictures of people who never existed, and car navigation systems that are safer than any human driver.

But AI didn’t come out of nowhere. For decades, academic and professional computer science researchers have been putting their noses to the grindstone to lay the groundwork behind these breakthroughs. Sometimes ridiculed, frequently underfunded, but always inspired, they thought the deep thoughts that have finally created machines that can reason.

Almost universally, the forerunners of the AI explosion have the same three letters behind their names: PhD.

A doctoral degree is the highest achievement in any field of study. It’s also the most challenging to earn. But when it comes to a technology as complex and important as AI, it’s the degree you need to make big things happen.

A PhD in AI Puts You on the Bleeding Edge of Technology’s Next Frontier

autonomous carThere is no question that big things are coming in the world of AI. And that means big things for the world in general. Self-driving cars and super-sensitive medical imaging scanners may be the very least of it. According to some experienced observers and tech professionals, humanity may be looking at a technological sea change as profound as the discovery of fire.

But that kind of progress doesn’t just happen by itself—at least, not yet. Someone has to bootstrap the first generation of machines that can think for themselves. And over the course of their development and training, experts are going to be in demand to ensure they don’t go off the rails, remain aligned with human interests, and can adapt to applications in the areas where they are needed most.

That means a lot of jobs are coming in the AI industry. And the ones that are most important and influential will be filled by people who have doctoral degrees in AI.

What Are AI PhD Programs?

Although groundbreaking research in AI has been happening since around World War II, the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in artificial intelligence is a relatively new degree. Most of the people at the top of the field today had to earn their PhDs in related areas like:

But a PhD in AI allows a more focused course of study. Lasting from three to five years, these programs bring together the interdisciplinary skillsets that top AI scientists rely on, from philosophy to computer engineering.

They are shaped by the research and theory that are propelling the biggest breakthroughs in AI today. You don’t have to wait until graduation to be a big player in artificial intelligence. Doctoral students and their dissertation work are a key piece of what is making AI tick today.

Bringing Your Artificial Intelligence PhD Studies in Alignment with Your Career Goals

ai education researchArtificial intelligence is a field still finding its way into the light. As it emerges from the labs and conference rooms of tech companies and research universities, doctoral graduates are the ones occupying critical roles on the research and development side of AI, creating new algorithms and computational techniques for machine learning and logic capabilities.

You will find that doctoral studies in AI offer career preparation along these same lines. Make no mistake, the kind of training you get in these advanced programs will allow you to take your career in any direction you choose, including in applied capacities, deploying the technology in virtually any industry, far from the labs where it was developed.

AI PhDs in Core AI Research

The most straightforward kind of doctoral program in artificial intelligence is simply a PhD in AI. You know exactly what you’re getting right from the label: advanced doctoral studies in AI, backed by interdisciplinary studies in the tributaries of computer science, math, philosophy, and more. These are almost always primarily aligned with AI careers involved in building and advancing AI capabilities through research and development.

But in this transitional period, there are still many doctoral programs at universities with leading research programs that come with titles like PhD in Computer Science specializing in Artificial Intelligence or a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering AI Concentration. While they may have a slightly different focus than a PhD in AI, they offer substantially similar education in core AI studies.

AI PhDs in Business and Industry Applications

For PhD programs with a more specific focus in applied fields, you’ll find degrees like a Doctor of Science (ScD) in Artificial Intelligence and Decision Making, or a Doctor of Engineering (DEng) in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

AI PhDs in Defined Professional Fields

And finally, you’ll also find AI PhD degrees aligned with careers in entirely different fields where AI is developed and used in specialized technical applications in everything from medicine to materials science, as is the case with a PhD in AI in Medicine, or a PhD in Mechanical Engineering AI and Materials Track.

No matter how the program is structured or what fields it intersects with, the very nature of doctoral studies puts research front and center. And even in fields like medicine where the aim is to apply AI in order to advance what the field is capable of, the careers that open up to PhD graduates will involve creating new technologies and capabilities that serve to advance AI more broadly.

What Is the Difference Between a PhD in Artificial Intelligence and a PhD in Machine Learning?

reading robotIt’s impossible to dive into explorations of PhD in AI programs without running through the questions of doctoral studies in the subfield of machine learning.

Machine learning is so important and well-developed that we put together a separate guide to machine learning PhD degrees. But there are also plenty of programs like a DEng in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, or a PhD in AI and Machine Learning that wrap the two together.

And as you dive deep into some of the details of ML PhDs, you’ll find that some of them are fairly equivalent to AI PhDs in terms of coursework and outcomes. You can launch a strong career in any branch of AI today with an ML PhD under your belt, as well as many other fields where the technique has become key.

The flexibility that comes with your career path is a nice feature. A program in AI will ensure that you get the big picture of tools and concepts in the field. ML can offer greater expertise in that specific approach, but at the expense of other avenues. Ultimately, the right choice depends on your interests and your career plan.

AI PhD programs rarely offer explicit concentration or specialization options beyond their main focus. But the very nature of doctoral studies effectively allows you to specialize in any area that interests you. All these degrees are highly customizable.

The Curriculum Plan for a PhD in Artificial Intelligence Offers Highly Customizable Studies

global educationDoctoral curriculum plans are straightforward when you look at them in a university course catalog. Programs may require between 60 and 90 credits of coursework, but half or more of those are typically earned in seminar and thesis research classes. Often, specific classes in academic writing and dissertation structure are required.

Even with a curriculum that’s narrowly focused on AI, you have a lot of flexibility in setting your own course of study. With the ability to plot your own course plan, you can explore almost any area of investigation in the AI world today.

Typically, the entire graduate catalog of the university is available to fulfill your class requirements. That can take you into areas like coding theory, advanced physical acoustics, nonlinear and adaptive control systems, computational electromagnetics, or any sequence of study that you and your instructors agree will support your area of investigation.

A PhD in AI Dissertation Is the Ultimate Expression of Your Unique Ideas

One of the things that makes a PhD so exceptional in the educational world is the central feature of the program: the doctoral dissertation.

Expected to take as much as half of the total time you spend in your program, the dissertation is a highly polished work of academic writing. Often 200 pages or more, it must be a piece of work worthy of publication. That means meeting the highest standards for:

The intensive research and original thinking that goes into a dissertation project are exercises for the mind. By diving into the latest literature and thinking in your chosen topic, you come to know it intimately. And by using your knowledge and ideas to push the boundaries further, with experimentation and exploration, you become exactly the kind of expert the field itself needs for it to progress to the next level.

Your dissertation must stand up to intensive review as you defend it before your advisory committee. Frequently, multiple revisions are requested before it will be accepted.

At the end of the day, the dissertation represents the sum of your accomplishments in AI doctoral studies. Every employer for the rest of your career is going to review that PhD dissertation before they even consider bringing you in for an interview.

The Roles AI PhD Graduates are Filling Today

You can get a preview of the roles you can play in AI with a PhD by looking at the recent history of developments in the field.

In all three of the career paths outlined above, it’s been PhD graduates leading the way.

Of course, academia is also a natural habitat for doctoral graduates. Your professors at both the master’s and doctoral levels are almost all PhDs. Most AI PhD programs come with some requirement that candidates teach or assist in teaching undergraduate coursework. If you find you have the talent not just for research and investigation, but also a knack for passing along your understanding to others, this can be a rewarding and interesting path to follow.

AI PhD salary levels are likely to go nowhere but up.

While academia isn’t necessarily known for high salaries, the strong demand across the board for AI doctoral graduates is pushing compensation up in every other area. In many cases, high base salary levels are joined by stock grants and other bonus incentives for performance.

The Right University Is a Must for Succeeding in PhD-Level AI Studies

mit in cambridgeBy the time you are seriously considering earning a PhD in artificial intelligence, you’re far enough along with your academic experience to understand how critical it is to pick the right school for your studies. As an undergrad, or even a master’s student, you will have noticed how your education was shaped by the resources, professors, and connections your university had.

At the doctoral level, all those factors become even more important. And they are joined by the constraints of such advanced studies:

On top of all that, you definitely need access to the right kind of computational and informational resources to make your plan happen. And with such a complicated path ahead of you, first-rate academic advising is a must.

Exceptional schools work hard to earn a reputation for fostering doctoral candidates in AI that go on to become leaders in their fields.

Getting into a PhD in Artificial Intelligence Program Is Your First Big Challenge

college applicationJust as the demand for AI talent in business and government is surging, so is demand for the kind of elite education that can get you there. There aren’t a lot of doctoral options in AI in the first place, and many of the departments that offer them may accept only a handful of students each year.

This means that AI PhD programs can be very picky about who they accept. For the good of their reputation and the quality of the research they generate, only top candidates are likely to make it into these intensive programs.

Getting into a doctoral program has been compared to getting into a relationship… you have to choose the right program, but the program has to choose you too.

Just to be considered, you’ll need to submit:

And you’ll undergo an intensive interview process. Professors will be looking for interest, abilities, and an alignment between your intent and their own areas of research and expertise.

It’s not typically necessary to earn a master’s degree to be accepted into a doctoral program, but it doesn’t hurt. In some cases, you’ll be able to shorten your PhD studies by counting part of your master’s program toward that goal. At some universities, you will find combined options that allow you to earn an MS on your way to completing a PhD, with a combined 90-100 credits of coursework and a slightly compressed timeline to graduation.

The Rewards of Earning a PhD in AI Are High, but So Are the Costs

tuition checkOnce you get in, of course, you’re going to have to pay the rates that go with the most advanced studies at the most elite institutions in AI studies today.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the going rate for a year of graduate studies in the U.S. came to $20,513 in 2022. Since you’re going into a math-heavy field, we’ll leave the cumulative impact of five or six years of study as an exercise for the reader.

That’s really just the tip of the iceberg, too, since you also have the expenses of room and board and incidentals to take care of. And we don’t need to explain to you what average means, either—you can certainly end up paying more at some schools, to the tune of $28,017 at private universities (again, on average).

But there are also some excellent public universities that are driving AI studies forward. With in-state residency, you can find costs that are comparable to some undergrad programs. NCES shows the average annual cost of tuition and fees for public colleges as only $12,596.

Fortunately, the small number of students at this level of study works in your favor. Many, if not most, AI PhD programs offer some financial support.

Online PhD in Artificial Intelligence Programs Are Hard to Find, but Offer Many Advantages

education processAnother way to keep the costs down, as well as maintaining the potential to keep some money coming in from your day job, is to focus on online PhD in artificial intelligence programs.

Like other degrees in computer-focused fields, you’ll find that remote learning is a pretty good fit for AI degrees at any level. No matter where you are, you’re going to be spending a lot of time sitting alone in front of a computer screen. You’ll probably be making a lot of your daily contacts with professors and fellow students and researchers through Slack channels or email no matter what. Your experiments will be running in the cloud, hundreds of miles from wherever you are.

So it doesn’t matter an awful lot if you happen to be on the other side of the country from the physical location of your university. In fact, it comes with a lot of advantages:

Having said that, it’s much harder to find online PhD programs than at the master’s or even undergrad level. Only a few PhD or DEng programs are currently offered in that format. And you may prefer to collaborate closely with other researchers by being on site. But it’s likely that more schools will continue to move in the remote direction for all kinds of studies, so it pays to keep your eye open for online opportunities.

No matter how you choose to structure your PhD in AI, it’s a degree that gives you a strong shot at becoming a leader in a field that is changing the world.