The Informatics PhD Program

The Illinois Informatics PhD program is a unique research degree defined by innovative application and invention of computational methods to advance existing or newly created fields of inquiry. Research and education in informatics has a strong interdisciplinary flavor as it involves experts in the information and computation foundations together with experts in the application areas.

The Informatics PhD program at the University of Illinois supports such interdisciplinary research, and promotes the creation of new fields of research enabled by the development and application of new technologies.

The Informatics PhD program at Illinois brings together faculty working in various application areas, faculty working in information and computation foundations, and interdisciplinary faculty conjoining the two.


  • Individually tailored, student-centric study — with the help of an advisory committee, each student will craft his or her own program of study.
  • Renowned faculty from the entire campus and wide disciplinary spectrum, representing more than seven Schools and Colleges across the Urbana-Champaign campus
  • World-class computing resources
  • Fellowships and assistantships for the most qualified applicants

PhD Research Areas


The field of bioinformatics encompasses a wide range of research efforts that aim at gaining insights into biological processes through the development and implementation of repositories and tools, and the computational and statistical analysis of biological information. Computational, informatics, statistical, and mathematical resources and technologies are integrated to organize, analyze, and visualize biological data at multiple levels of organization, from molecules and phenotypes to populations and ecosystems.

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Health and Medical Informatics

Medical informatics covers all aspects of understanding and promoting the effective organization, analysis, management, and use of information in health care. The emphasis in the informatics program is on health information technology, including information management for chronic care in homes, particularly development and deployment of personal health records, healthcare infrastructure, particularly population management of everyday chronic conditions, national healthcare infrastructure, such as development of portable health records.

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Spatial Informatics

Spatial Informatics represents an overarching umbrella for studying theories, methods, and applications of spatial analysis/modeling; and spatial data handling, management, and visualization, including data-intensive, large-scale, and/or multi-scale problems that involve the use and development of GIS (Geographic Information Systems). Examples include development of new theories, methods and software in GIScience (Geographic Information Science), policy and user issues of GIS, geospatial data accessibility, spatial decision support systems, geospatial problem solving environments, and novel applications of GIS such as in Business, Earth sciences, Environmental Science and Engineering, Epidemiology, Geography and Regional Science, Natural Resource Management, and Urban and Regional Planning.

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Art and Cultural Informatics

Art and Cultural Informatics embraces information as medium and content for art production, experience, and dissemination. Cultural Informatics encompasses all areas in which the application of new information technologies will and might impact human expressive culture, changing the practice, experience, and dissemination of the arts, and their role in culture and society.

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Design, Technology and Society

Students in the Design, Technology, and Society Area investigate the interrelationship between information technology and social, political, and cultural processes and values. This includes both the analysis of the larger consequences of informatics systems and the criticism, design, and re-design of systems to address public needs and problems. This Area of will support students interested in pursuing informatics research from the intellectual traditions and methods of either the social sciences or the humanities, as well as the domains of community informatics and social informatics.

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Data Analytics and Information Visualization

Analytics and Visualization encompass data management, information retrieval, knowledge analysis, and conceptual understanding in the context of large-scale organizational systems. This Area will support technology-driven applications-oriented students in data mining, information retrieval, machine learning, information visualization, human-computer interaction, intelligent discovery environments, intelligent analysis systems, computational statistics, business analytics, and social and behavioral analytics.

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Cognitive Science and Language Processing

Cognitive Science and Language Processing is a multidisciplinary program for students with an interest in computational approaches to mind and intelligence, embracing philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and linguistics. The central hypothesis of cognitive science assumes that the mind has mental representations analogous to computer data structures, and computational procedures similar to computer algorithms. Our program also includes the inverse direction, using human cognition to improve computer processing within speech and language understanding systems.

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Admission to the program

Applicants to the PhD program must have been awarded (or are about to be awarded) a 4-year bachelors degree equivalent to that granted by the University of Illinois.

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How it all works — committees, courses, and requirements

Advisory and Dissertation Committees

The Chair of the Governing Committee will appoint a Supervising Committee to approve each student’s program of study, which will be called the Advisory Committee (first half of studies) and then the Dissertation Committee (second half of studies).

This Committee must contain faculty with expertise in both the Applications area and the Foundations area chosen by the student, including at least four faculty members of the Informatics Program.

The Advisory Committee supervises the student during the first half of studies and approves their program of study. They will also preside over the Qualifying Exam.

As per Graduate College Rules the Dissertation Committee must include a minimum of four voting members, at least three of whom are members of the Graduate faculty, and at least 2 of whom are tenured (at the Univ. of Illinois, Urbana campus). All members of the committee must either be Informatics faculty affiliates, or, in the case of an off-campus committee member, must have an Informatics research focus. The four must cover all aspects of the dissertation, including both the Applications and Foundations areas. Due to the applied nature of informatics, a fifth member external to the University is highly encouraged, such as an industrial researcher. The membership may overlap with the Advisory Committee.

The membership of these committees should remain constant for each half of the student’s studies, except in unusual circumstances, but may change when it is constituted for the dissertation. Changes to the supervising committees must be approved by the Governing Committee.

The student is apprised of progress after each year.

Applications and Foundations

The signature for interdisciplinary informatics is to require courses in both Applications (the subject matter courses for a particular Area) and Foundations (the particular information technology methods, such as programming, databases, etc., that are appropriate for a particular Area.)

Courses below the 500 level cannot be used to fulfill these basic requirements, although they can be counted as part of the total course load required.

Each student can choose the standard Applications and Foundations of an established Area, or with approval of their Advisory Committee, choose custom Applications and Foundations courses across Areas.

Because students may establish new areas of research, courses outside those listed are also permitted, with approval of the student’s Advisory Committee. These four courses will form the heart of their studies and are intended to provide the basic discipline knowledge. Typically, these would be taken as soon as possible but at least by the end of Year 2 (for a student entering in Stage II of the PhD), with any prerequisite 400-level courses taken in Year 1. The timing depends on prior preparation. As soon as they have sufficient preparation, students must also take two Research Practicums.

The required courses will usually be taken by the end of Year 2 but may be taken later if the student needs further preparatory work before being prepared for 500-level courses. After completing the required courses, a student must take an Area Qualification Exam to demonstrate breadth of knowledge in their chosen area, whether standard or custom. After passing the Area Qualifier, students must form a Dissertation Committee.

The first half of the program (years 1 and 2)

All students are expected to meet professional informatics levels of knowledge in programming/databases and in mathematics/statistics, or other technical field, as relevant to their area. The level is judged by their Advisory Committee and will vary depending on the Area chosen. Some students may already be at an adequate level, while others may require remediation. Their committee will develop a plan for achieving an adequate level, including research experiences and additional coursework, and will monitor students’ progress within the remediation plan.

In the first semester of study, students must take the Orientation Seminar (first for 0 credits, and then in a later semester for 1 credit).

During the first two years students must take four courses, determined in consultation with their Advisory Committee: two in Applications and two in Foundations. When ready, they must pass the Area Qualifying Examination.

Area Qualifying Examination

The purpose of the Informatics Area Qualifying Exam is to test the student on the foundation and application coursework that they have taken, to make sure that they are adequately prepared to move on to the dissertation stage. If the student’s principal advisor thinks he or she is ready for a Qualifying Exam and their advisory committee is satisfied with their course work, then they may take the Qualifying Exam, provided they have completed the following:

  • INFO 500 Orientation Seminar (both for 0 and 1 credit)
  • Two 500-level Foundations courses
  • Two 500-level Applications courses
  • Two semesters of INFO 510 Research Practicum

The Qualifying Exam has two portions: a open-book/computer written exam, and an oral exam with the full Advisory Committee, approximately one week later. The questions for the written exam will be devised by the student’s Advisory Committee, including the Principal Advisor/Chair. The questions will likely be drawn from a set of readings or other material that is assigned by the committee and advisor in advance of the exam. These questions will test knowledge and understanding of the student’s Applications and Foundations areas. Committee members will provide their questions to the advisor, who will assemble them into one document, and then provide them to the student at the pre-arranged time. The time length for the written exam is flexible and should be negotiated between the student and their committee, but must be agreed to prior to the start of the exam. For example the student might be given a 4 hour block of time, or a 24 hour block of time, or a weekend (i.e. Friday 5 pm to Monday 8 am) to complete the written portion of the exam. At the end of the allotted time the student sends the written answers back to the entire committee.

This is followed approximately one week later by an oral exam lasting up to two hours. During this oral exam, the full Advisory Committee, including the chair, ask followup questions and questions from related areas. At the end of this session the committee needs to decide whether the results are Pass, Pass with Conditions, Fail, or Deferred. A result of deferred means student will be given additional readings/courses and is required to retake the exam within six months. Student may receive a deferred exam only once; thereafter options are either pass or fail.

Responsibilities of Student

It is the student’s responsibility to schedule both the written and oral portion of the qualifying exams, based on when the advisor and committee members are available. The committee must consist of 4 Informatics faculty affiliates that adequately cover the application and foundation areas of interest. The student must also notify the Informatics Education Coordinator at least three weeks in advance of the qualifying exam, and provide the dates/times/locations of the exam.

Responsibilities of Advisor

It is the advisor’s responsibility to collect the questions from the committee members, and to get those to the student at the appropriate time. They also will chair the oral followup meeting and send the final signed Qualifying Exam Results Form back to the Informatics Education Coordinator.

The second half of the program (years 3 and 4)

The second half of the program is devoted to the dissertation research, which students typically carry out during Years 3 and 4. When ready, they must pass the Preliminary Examination (essentially a proposal defense). When finished, students must present an acceptable Dissertation and then pass the Final Examination to graduate from the Informatics PhD program. A well-prepared student should pass the Preliminary Examination in Year 3 and the Final Examination in Year 4 to earn a PhD within four years of entering the program.

Preliminary Examination

The Preliminary Examination is an oral defense of the student’s dissertation proposal. Writing a good proposal is an important part of being a successful researcher, and the preliminary exam is an important milestone that helps students develop the skill of writing a good proposal. Students write a proposal that is submitted to their committee at least 2 weeks (14 days) ahead of the exam. During the exam the student presents the proposed research and the committee evaluates the research goals and progress of the student. Thus, the two main purposes of the preliminary exam are to develop proposal writing skills and to obtain feedback on the research plan from the committee. The proposal must be approved by the student’s Dissertation Committee PRIOR to the bulk of the dissertation research being performed, and therefore most students will probably schedule their Preliminary Exams one or two semesters after passing the qualifying exam.

The format of the dissertation proposal is flexible due to the breadth of research areas encompassed in the Informatics PhD program. At a minimum it should include a definition or statement of the problem to be addressed, a comprehensive review of the literature, an outline of the methodology to be used, and a discussion of any preliminary results to date. Though there are no explicit page limits, the proposal should be between 15 and 25 pages in length, excluding the bibliographic references. The dissertation proposal should NOT be a preliminary draft (or select chapters) of the dissertation, an existing publication or a survey of the student’s research field.

Since the Dissertation Committee must be convened and approved by the Graduate College in advance of the Preliminary Examination, it is imperative that the student contact the Informatics Education Coordinator 3-6 weeks ahead of the proposed exam date (6 weeks if there is an external voting member on the committee). The student needs to email the Education Coordinator and confirm the committee members, provide their netID’s, along with the date/time and location of the exam. Once the Dissertation Committee is approved by the Graduate College, the exam must be taken within 180 days. It is the student’s responsibility to schedule the Preliminary exam (including finding a suitable location) based on the availability of the committee members. The dissertation proposal must be distributed to the Dissertation Committee members (copying the Informatics Education Coordinator) at least 2 weeks (14 days) in advance of the exam date.

The Advisor will chair the Exam, and is responsible for obtaining the committee’s signatures on the form at the end of the exam. As with the Qualifying Exam, the results are either Pass, Fail, or Deferred (in which a student must retake the exam within 180 days, with the same committee members).

As per the Graduate College rules, students must be registered during the semester that they take the Preliminary exam. Please note that the Preliminary exam and final Dissertation Defense may not be taken during the same semester.

Final Defense

Students must also be registered during the semester that they have their Final Defense (though they do not need to be registered during the semester they deposit their dissertation). Similar to the Preliminary Exam, the Dissertation Committee must be convened in advance of the Final Defense, so students should contact the Informatics Education Coordinator 3-6 weeks ahead of the proposed date (6 weeks if there is an external voting member on the committee). Once the Dissertation Committee is approved by the Graduate College, the Final Defense must occur within 180 days. It is the student’s responsibility to schedule the Final Defense (including finding a suitable location) based on the availability of the committee members. The dissertation must be distributed to the Dissertation Committee members (copying the Informatics Education Coordinator) at least 2 weeks (14 days) in advance of the defense date.

The Advisor will chair the Exam, and is responsible for obtaining the committee’s signatures on the forms at the end of the exam.

Students are required to present a public seminar on their disseration research prior to the defense. Most students typically reserve a room for 2.5 -3 hours, and the seminar occurs during the first hour (approximately 45 minutes long, with 10-15 minutes for questions from the public). After the question and answer period is over, members of the public leave the room, and the committee asks further questions prior to rendering their final decision.

Course load and GPA

The minimum course load for full-time graduate students is 12 hours. If you have a 50% assistantship (not fellowship), then the minimum is 8 hours. See for more information.

A minimum GPA is required by the Graduate College and is explained at

Required courses and hours

The total number of hours required for a PhD is 96 (or 64 with an approved MS):

  • 32 hours for MS courses (400 or 500-level)
  • 32 for PhD courses (400 or 500-level, as noted below)
  • 32 for dissertation credits

Students entering with a suitable MS can skip the first part and graduate in 4 years, with the first half being courses and the second half being dissertation. Students entering without a suitable MS will take 5 – 6 years.

The Informatics Program requires the following courses:

  • The INFO 500 Orientation seminar
  • Two Research Practicums (lab rotations). This course is INFO 510 and requires an approval form.
  • Two Applications courses (500-level)
  • Two Foundations courses (500-level), all for some coherent plan of X-informatics.

This will supply 25 of the required 32 PhD course hours. The student will also take at least two specialty courses (at either the 400 or 500-level) for the remaining required course hours.

Summary of requirements
Required Courses and ExamsWith MS degreeWith BS degree
Orientation Seminar (1 hour, 2 semesters) 0 then 1 0 then 1
Research Practicum (4 hours, 2 semesters) 8 8
Applications Courses (two 500-level courses from approved list) 8 8
Foundations Courses (two 500-level courses from approved list) 8 8
Thesis hours required (min/max applied toward degree) 32 minimum 32 minimum
Electives (400 or 500-level) 7 7
Masters degree 0 32 *
Total hours 64 96
Qualifying exam (required) Yes Yes
Preliminary exam (required) Yes Yes
Final exam/Dissertation defense (required) Yes Yes
Deposit Dissertation (required) Yes Yes

* Students entering without a Masters degree approved by their Advisory Committee, will be required to take 32 additional credit hours in 400- and 500-level courses approved by their Committee.