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    How Long Does It Take to Earn a PhD?

    By Cece Gilmore

    Cece Gilmore is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cece earned her undergraduate degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from Arizona State University. While at ASU, she was the education editor as well as a published staff reporter at Downtown Devil. Cece was also the co-host of her own radio show on Blaze Radio ASU.

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    Reviewed by Cari Shultz

    Cari Schultz is an Educational Review Board Advisor at Scholarships360, where she reviews content featured on the site. For over 20 years, Cari has worked in college admissions (Baldwin Wallace University, The Ohio State University, University of Kentucky) and as a college counselor (Columbus School for Girls).

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: March 21st, 2024
    How Long Does It Take to Earn a PhD?

    How long is a PhD program? That might be one of the first questions you ask yourself If you are thinking of earning a PhD. You have probably heard a range of years, and that is because how long it takes to earn a PhD depends on a number of factors. Keep reading to learn more!! 

    What is a PhD? 

    PhD stands for a “Doctorate of Philosophy.” This is an academic degree that qualifies the degree holder to teach their chosen subject at university level or to work in a specialized position in their chosen field. In general, the PhD is the highest level of degree a student can achieve. 

    Also see: Top fully funded PhD programs

    Why get a PhD? 

    A PhD is a serious commitment with a serious return on investment. Here is a list of professional and personal benefits for earning a PhD. 

    Professional benefits Personal benefits
    Career advancement Achieving a sense of accomplishment
    Higher earning potential Financial stability
    Teaching and mentoring Improvement of social skills
    Networking and collaboration Increased recognition
    Scholarly respect Enhanced self-confidence

    How long does it take to earn a PhD? 

    Earning a PhD usually takes between four and seven years to complete, depending on the type of PhD as well as the schools requirements, the students educational background, and personal progress. Students who take full-time classes can typically finish in four years. A typical PhD program requires anywhere from 60 to 120 semester credit hours

    Why earning a PhD takes years to earn

    Assistantship obligations

    Teaching and research assistantships can be very beneficial for the experience they provide and the potential funding, but they can also be time consuming obligations for PhD students. Therefore, assistantships may affect the amount of time it takes to complete a PhD program. 

    Comprehensive examinations

    Universities often require students to demonstrate their readiness in a PhD program through comprehensive exams. These comprehensive exams may be known as: 

    • Preliminary examinations
    • Major field examinations
    • Comprehensive exams or “Comps”
    • General examinations

    Dissertation

    A dissertation is an in-depth research document that serves as the culmination of a doctoral program. It is an important document that demonstrates a student’s original research and contribution to their field of study. 

    The dissertation involves conducting extensive research, reviewing previous literature, analyzing data, and presenting your findings in a structured manner. Once the dissertation is completed, it is typically defended orally in front of a committee of faculty members who assess the quality and validity of the research. 

    Average PhD timeline

    The specific of a PhD timeline carried by college and university. However, the following is a good overview of the average PhD program. 

    • Year 1: Take advanced courses
    • Year 2: Take advanced courses and begin preparing for exams
    • Year 3: Study, take and defend your comprehensive exams and begin researching your dissertation proposal
    • Year 4: Begin working on your dissertation
    • Year 5: Finish and defend your dissertation 

    Average PhD completion by focus

    According to data from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics the average time in years from graduate school entry to doctorate it took students to receive their degree in 2020 in certain fields is listed below. 

    • Life sciences = 6.9 years
    • Physical sciences and earth sciences = 6.3 years
    • Mathematics and computer sciences = 7.0 years
    • Psychology and social sciences = 7.9 years
    • Engineering = 6.8 years
    • Education = 12.0 years
    • Humanities and arts = 9.6 years
    • Other non-S&E fields = 9.3 years

    Related: Top 10 PhD in Education programs

    How to finish your PhD is less time

    Look for accelerated classes

    Accelerated courses are an easy way to reduce the amount of time it takes to finish a PhD. Therefore, look into if your program offers any shorter courses. 

    Work on your dissertation throughout the program

    Working on your dissertation little by little throughout the program will allow you to speed up your doctoral timeline. In addition, it may reduce the likelihood that you’ll drop out before finishing your final project.

    Maintain regular communication with your advisor

    Establish regular communication with your advisor or supervisor. Regular meetings can help you receive guidance, address any issues, and ensure you are heading in the right direction.

    Seek feedback early and often

    Share your work and progress with your advisor, peers, or other trusted individuals often. Then, you should incorporate suggestions and revisions as you go along. This will help you refine your work and avoid major revisions later.  

    Maintain a healthy school-life balance

    While it is important to be dedicated to your PhD, it’s just as important to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Therefore, be sure to prioritize yourself! While finishing your PhD in less time is a great feat, it is important that you are not sacrificing your well-being while doing so.

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • PhD stands for “doctorate of philosophy” and is generally the highest level of degree a student can earn
    • There are many professional and personal benefits to earning a PhD which can lead to a serious return on investment
    • A PhD program typically takes 4-7 years to complete. However, it can take longer or shorter depending on personal circumstances and field of study 
    • With planning and guidance from advisors, students can sometimes complete PhDs in less time

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    Frequently asked questions about how long it takes to earn a PhD 

    Do I need to have a master’s degree to get a PhD?

    Some schools require a master’s degree as an essential prerequisite for PhD admission. However, some schools also offer post-bachelor’s degree PhD programs. Therefore, research specific PhD programs to find one that best aligns with your educational experience.

    What is the easiest PhD to earn?

    All PhD programs are demanding, but may seem easier if you select a program that aligns with your interests.

    Can I finish my PhD earlier than the estimated time frame?

    It is possible to complete a PhD earlier than the estimated time frame, but it does depend largely on individual circumstances. Factors such as time management, prior qualifications, support from supervisors, and complexity of the research topic all can alter the time frame of a PhD.

    What happens if I don’t complete my PhD within the expected timeframe?

    The timeframe for completing a PhD can be flexible to accommodate individual circumstances. However, it is important to communicate with your advisor if you anticipate delays.

    Can I work while pursuing a PhD?

    Working while pursuing a PhD is definitely possible, but it can be challenging. Many PhD students receive funding through research or teaching assistantships, which often come with work obligations. Therefore, it is important to consider your time commitments and workload to ensure a manageable balance between work and studies.

    Can I accelerate the process of earning a PhD?

    Some universities or programs may offer options to accelerate the process of earning a PhD. This could include advanced standing based on prior qualifications, streamlined coursework or opportunities to conduct research alongside faculty members. Be sure to check with your intended institution about any accelerated PhD options available and whether you qualify for them.

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