Systems Ph.D. FAQs

Systems Ph.D. FAQs

What is Systems Ph.D.?

Click to Open


Engineering, business and societal problems often require individuals to produce solutions for different pieces of an operational problem, but they also need a systems engineer who can use a multidisciplinary approach to coordinate those efforts and ensure the different pieces fit together.

The program pursues methodologies and modeling techniques that are relevant for planning and executing multi-disciplinary solution efforts for design and operational problems in engineering, business, and the social sciences and combinations of these. The goal is first to generate tools and techniques that start with understanding the needs of the end consumer of the solution and to convert these needs into quantifiable requirements.  And then to investigate how these requirements can be satisfied by devising possible solutions, to evaluate solutions that are under consideration, and implementing a solution that effectively serves the needs of the end consumer.

Examples of Systems areas where the development of new techniques and processes are need.

Understanding the market for natural disaster insurance requires integrating models of natural hazards, building-specific structural vulnerability, consumer choice, insurance company competition, and governmental action. Designing coordinated networks of earth-observing sensors on satellites, UAVs and atmospheric balloons and predicting the transmission of disease-causing agents through the food supply chain are two other examples of challenges faced by systems engineers.

Why join a relatively new Ph.D. program?

Click to Open

Although the Ph.D. offering is relatively new, systems and systems engineering at Cornell has a prestigious, 19 year history that includes a master’s degree, a minor, a distance learning program and several certificate programs. Also, Ph.D. degrees focusing on systems have been offered at Cornell for many more years, but through individual engineering departments. The new broader systems Ph.D. program takes advantage of the previous Master’s degree foundation, existing faculty, courses, laboratory space and other resources to offer a tested curriculum proven to be successful in educating students and preparing them for their chosen careers. In addition, new courses covering advanced systems topics have been created specifically for the Ph.D. program to add the increased breadth and depth needed to carry out advanced research.

Students enrolling in these early years of Cornell’s Systems PhD program have the advantage of helping to shape the program and cater it to their specific interests and needs.

How is the Ph.D. different from the M.Eng program?

Click to Open

The doctoral level is designed for students and professionals who have adequate technical background, but are now looking to take a leadership role within a research group, company division, or a university. Students at this level will grow from learning existing systems techniques to creating new, state-of-the-art techniques. Also, new courses covering advanced topics have been created specifically for the Ph.D. program to add the increased breadth and depth needed to carry out advanced research.

What can I study? What is the specific curriculum?

Click to Open

Each student must show competency within the context of the following seven courses: (1) Foundations of Complex Systems, (2) Human-Centered Modeling, (3) Systems Architecture, (4) Risk-Based Systems Engineering, (5) Systems Behavior and Optimization, (6) Model-Based Systems Engineering, (7) Case Study Doctoral Colloquium.

In addition to these courses, each student will be required to complete two minors chosen from engineering, business, and the sciences (including social sciences, agriculture, etc.).

Students are required to pass a field-administered Qualifying Exam and an Admission to Candidacy Exam, or A Exam, which has an oral portion and is administered by the special committee of the student. Students are also required to pass a Final Exam, or B Exam, in which the student presents and defends the Ph.D. thesis.

What other schools offer this program and why choose Cornell?

Click to Open

U.S. News & World Report lists 30 U.S. institutions with doctoral programs in systems engineering, only one of which is in New York State. As an Ivy League university with strong academics across a very diverse campus, Cornell is uniquely positioned to offer the degree because of its interdisciplinary nature. Whereas most other universities house their systems programs in one department, Cornell’s Systems Program takes a multi-department approach that takes advantage of not only its 13 other engineering departments and schools, but also of Cornell's strong social science, economics and business programs, including Cornell Tech in New York City. This allows Cornell to focus on areas often overlooked by other systems program, such as the human-centered aspect of designing complex systems. The research being done by Cornell faculty reflects this approach as described in the Research section.  More information can be found online or provided by request.

For whom is this degree intended?

Click to Open

Cornell’s Systems Ph.D. program is for students and professionals who have adequate technical background, but are now looking to take a leadership role within a research group, company division, or a university. The employment prospects for the graduates of this program, both in academia and industry, are remarkably high. We expect the graduates of the program to find employment in a variety of fields, including energy, healthcare, defense, aerospace, information technology, and policy making.

Driven by the strong industry interest in systems experts, numerous universities are in the process of starting or growing their systems programs, which, in turn, drives the academic demand for individuals with Ph.D. in systems.

When can I enroll? When did the program begin?

Click to Open

You can apply now. The deadline for the applications each year is January 1 for the following September. The Ph.D. program began in the fall of 2016 and is now in its second year of full operation with about 16 full-time PhD students in residence in the fall 2018 semester.

How much is tuition?

Click to Open

The cost of enrolling in the program will vary based on the individual applying. You can take a look at the tuition rate in the Graduate School website. A number of financial aid options are available in the form of teaching assistantships, program fellowships, and research assistantships. Most enrolled students are supported fully by financial aid, unless they are supported, at some level, by their employer.

Is the Ph.D. offered via distance?

Click to Open

We are presently introducing a hybrid version of our Ph.D. program. However, this program will still require the first two years (four semesters) to be in residence. Under certain circumstances such as a previous relevant master’s degree, it may be possible to only spend one year (two semesters) in residence. 

The remaining years would be able to be completed via distance if it is worked out with your thesis advisor and your graduate study committee. The hybrid version is primarily for students who are being sponsored financially, at some level, by their company. Requests for enrolling in the hybrid version of the Ph.D. are being reviewed on a case by case basis.