How Long Does it Take to Get a PhD?

If you aspire to rise to the top of your field, then you may have your sights set on a PhD.

Earning a doctoral degree can be a years-long process, but choosing an accelerated online program may help you complete your program more quickly.

PhD students in a group study

How Long Does It Take to Get a PhD?

For a traditional, campus-based PhD program, the average time to completion is 8 years. Fulfilling the program’s requirements will demand a serious investment of your time.

Even still, some people are able to finish their programs in just three to six years. Multiple factors will influence the overall length of your program.

Required Credit Hours

Many PhD programs require you to earn 120 credit hours before entering the exam and dissertation phases.

Fortunately, there are PhD programs without such high credit-hour demands. For example, at some universities, you can earn a PhD with only 60 credit hours.

Full-time vs. Part-time Schedule

Enrolling in a doctoral program part-time may allow you to keep up with your regular job. You’ll have to decide whether you prefer the flexibility of part-time schooling or the faster schedule of full-time studies.

Final Project Requirements

Many PhD programs end with the completion of a dissertation. This assignment can take years to complete, so PhD students often end up in the all-but-dissertation (ABD) phase for quite some time.

University Scheduling

Some schools promote their ability to help you through the PhD process faster than normal. Accelerated class schedules with eight-week online courses may speed your studies along. Focused attention from dissertation advisors can help as well.

PhD Program Components

Before you enroll in a PhD program, it’s important to know some of the basic requirements:

Prerequisites:

  • Most schools require you to already hold a master’s degree, but some offer bachelor’s-to-PhD programs.

Length to completion:

  • On average, it takes eight years to earn a PhD. Even still, completing doctoral coursework and a dissertation in three to four years is not unheard of.

Topic of interest:

  • PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be getting a philosophy degree. Your field of study will depend on your interests and the programs that your university offers. You can tailor your doctoral focus though your choice of a dissertation topic.

Steps to completion:

  • You’ll take advanced classes before sitting for comprehensive exams. After passing your exams, you’ll begin working on a dissertation. You must defend your dissertation before finishing your program.

Coursework

Doctoral studies begin with a series of classes through which you increase your knowledge of your field of study and learn about conducting research. These are advanced classes, so they should be more in-depth than the ones you took during your undergraduate and master’s programs.

The number of courses that you need to take can vary significantly. It’s not uncommon for PhD programs to require 120 credit hours of coursework. That amounts to about 40 classes.

At other schools, the requirements are lower. Your university’s program may involve just 60 credit hours or, possibly, even fewer. A less intense course load may significantly slash your time to completion.

Your university may require you to maintain a GPA above a minimum threshold. An unsatisfactory GPA may keep you from moving on to the next step of the PhD process.

Comprehensive Examinations

Universities require students to demonstrate their readiness for a doctoral project before advancing to the next stage of their studies. Readiness is proven through comprehensive exams, which may also be known as:

  • Comps
  • Preliminary examinations
  • Major field examinations
  • General examinations

Often, comprehensive exams take the form of written or oral tests. In other situations, faculty may assess students’ readiness on the basis of a portfolio evaluation or a written paper.

PhD dissertation paper

Dissertation and Defense

A dissertation, also known as a graduate thesis, is a body of work that presents original research in your field. This manuscript focuses on a unique idea and includes evidence to support your thesis. During your doctoral studies, there are classes designed to help prepare you for your dissertation work.

The dissertation process can take several years. Once your manuscript is complete, you must defend it to the doctoral program faculty. After your defense, you may need to do further work on your manuscript, or the committee may decide that your dissertation is complete.

Not all programs require a dissertation. Instead, there may be an alternative doctoral project. Although both dissertations and capstone projects are rigorous, projects can sometimes be completed within a shorter time frame.

Average Time to Complete PhD by Field of Study

Students in some disciplines usually take a lot more time to finish their doctoral work than students in other fields.

If you’re studying in the following scientific fields, you may be more likely to earn your on-campus degree in seven years or less:

  • Physics — average of five years
  • Psychology — average of five to seven years

On the other hand, if your field of study relates more to the humanities, your on-campus degree program may take longer:

  • History — average of eight years
  • English — average of eight years
  • Education — average of 13 years

Why Does It Take So Long to Finish a Traditional PhD?

Some schools require doctoral students to take around 40 classes, which, in a traditional on-campus setting, can take years.

After completing the coursework, you must write your dissertation and defend it. The dissertation process alone can take multiple years.

Online doctoral programs can help shorten the PhD process to three or four years. Fewer credit hours may be required, and the classes may be delivered in an accelerated format.

Schools with an emphasis on quick doctoral programs may also offer dissertation advisors to efficiently guide students through that phase. Alternatively, some universities allow students to complete capstone projects that don’t take as long as dissertations.

How Hard Is It to Finish a PhD?

Doctoral studies are challenging. That shouldn’t come as a surprise; if doctorates were easy to acquire, nearly every college graduate would end up with a PhD behind her name.

Approximately 50 percent of students who begin a PhD program don’t end up finishing. Many quit within two years of starting. Another large portion gives up upon reaching the dissertation phase.

Although all PhD programs are challenging, the flexible nature of online programs may help you find success. Choosing a track that doesn’t require a dissertation may help as well.

Why Get a PhD?

You may need to earn a doctoral degree to achieve your career goals. For example, if you want to become a clinical psychologist, this level of study is essential. Many scientific and research positions require doctoral studies. University faculty typically need to hold terminal degrees as well.

Even if a doctorate is not a requirement for your desired line of work, it may help you achieve greater success. You might be granted higher levels of responsibility, and you may earn more money. In some fields, those who hold PhDs make around 30 percent more than those with master’s degrees.

Getting a PhD Online vs. Campus

Online education has changed students’ options for earning a PhD. These days, aspiring students can choose whether to attend classes on a college campus or online.

Traditional programs may require you to relocate to the university’s campus and attend school full-time. On average, it takes just over eight years to complete those programs.

Benefits of choosing online school instead may include:

Faster progress

  • Accelerated eight-week courses may allow you to finish your course load sooner. You may complete your entire program in just three or four years.

Multiple start dates

  • Online programs often let you join throughout the year, so you don’t have to put your studies on hold until the fall semester.

Flexibility

  • Not being required to move to campus or come to class at set times allows you to work your studies around your schedule.

Equal status

  • Online programs are just as rigorous as on-campus ones. As long as your university is accredited, your degree will be just as valuable as one from a traditional university setting.

Cost-savings

PhD graduation ceremonies

How to Finish Your PhD in Less Time

Although you can’t earn a doctoral degree overnight, you shouldn’t have to spend the majority of your working years striving toward PhD-completion. The following tips for accelerating the PhD process can help you finish your studies more quickly than the average doctoral student.

Use What You Already Know

Every school requires a minimum number of credit hours that you must earn in pursuit of your degree. To help you meet this threshold, some schools will allow you to transfer in credits from other doctoral programs. Universities may also give you credit for your professional experience. Reducing your class load can save you both time and money.

Look for Short Classes

Accelerated course schedules are one of the best ways to speed through the degree process. Every eight weeks, you’ll begin a new set of classes. Over the course of a year, there may be five different sessions during which you can take classes.

Work on Your Dissertation Throughout the Program

Traditionally, dissertation work begins once the classroom portion of your studies is over. Quick doctoral programs may allow you to begin the dissertation process while you’re still taking other classes. This approach, known as an embedded dissertation, can reduce the likelihood that you’ll drop out before finishing your final project. It can also speed up your doctoral timeline.

Ask for Help

Lack of support can lead some doctoral students to drop out. On the other hand, having a good support system can help you push through and finish your program more quickly. Build a team of family, friends and academic mentors who can encourage you, guide you and lend practical help when you’re feeling overwhelmed by school.

Do You Have to Have a Master’s Degree to Get a PhD?

Many schools consider a master’s degree an essential prerequisite for PhD admission. If you don’t already have a master’s degree, a bachelor’s-to-doctorate program may allow you to earn a master’s and a PhD for less time and money than it would take to pursue them separately.

How Long Does It Take to Get a PhD After a Master’s?

You may be able to complete your doctoral program in three to four years if you opt for an accelerated online program. On average, traditional on-campus PhD programs take around eight years to complete.

PhD graduates holding dollar bills

Does a PhD Increase Salary?

Compared to those with a master’s, those with a PhD may earn:

  • 7 percent more in the engineering field
  • 17 percent more in the social sciences
  • 27 percent more if they work in the field of biology
  • 33 percent more as a psychologist

What Is the Easiest PhD to Get?

All PhD programs are demanding, but you’ll have the easiest time if you select a program that aligns with your interests and your career goals. The flexibility of online study may help your doctoral program seem less burdensome. In addition, capstone projects are sometimes easier than writing dissertations.

If earning a doctoral degree in a short time frame is important to you, then consider the many benefits that online programs have to offer. Within just a few years, you may be able to place the letters “PhD” at the end of your name.
 

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Isaac Collins
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Joy Miller
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