What Is The Average Time to Obtain a Ph.D.?

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Updated June 3, 2021

Pursuing a Doctorate Degree

Making the decision to pursue a Ph.D can be an exciting time. Those seeking terminal degrees are often exhilarated by the thought of spending years immersed in research pertaining to their field of interest, having the opportunity to teach classes, and publishing academic articles. Before embarking on the long educational journey, most learners wonder how long the process will take.

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The 5 Year Ph.D

In previous years, it was common to finish a master's degree and then for those who wished to continue in their studies, the next five years would be spent working towards a doctoral degree. Those five years were spent learning new materials, teaching undergraduates, working as a lab assistant, and doing research for a dissertation. According to the science and communications blog Figure One, a decade ago it was very rare for a dissertation program to take longer than seven years. Today however, a person entering a doctoral program can expect to spend at least six or seven years earning that degree.

Averages by Field of Study

According to Joseph Berger of the New York Times, the average length of a dissertation program today is 8.2 years (2). Terminal degrees in the hard sciences typically take a slightly shorter time to complete than do degrees in education and the humanities. The field of physics has a current average of five years. The psychology field averages five to seven years. New doctoral students in the fields of history or english can expect to spend eight years completing the degree. Some fields of study require a significantly longer degree process. For example, in the field of education, the current average is 13 years.

Why Does It Take So Long?

Today's doctoral students have significantly more demands placed on them than ever before. Most students today are earning their degrees while raising a family and working full time. The first two to three years of the doctoral program will likely be spent taking required and elective classes. Many of these courses have research components that can cause those courses to be time consuming. Students are often working a second job as a teaching assistant or research assistant during this phase of the program. Some fields of study, like teaching and psychology, can also require a residency or internship during the doctoral process.

Following the coursework, students must then study for and pass a comprehensive examination. This exam allows the faculty to ensure that the students have met all academic criteria needed to gain expertise in the field of study. This process can take several months to complete.

Once the comprehensive exam has been passed, Ph.D candidates begin the research and dissertation phase. In some fields of study, this can be accomplished in a year or eighteen months. However, many areas of research demand a dissertation process that is three years long or longer due to more intensive Institutional Review Board (IRB) requirements, study design, and data analysis. Today's doctoral students are also expected to participate as an assistant in research to be published in journals during their Ph.D process.

The Bottom Line

When deciding to pursue an advanced degree, it is essential that the student considers the significant investment of both money and time. Today's doctoral student can expect to spend almost a decade studying and researching to become experts in the field. This highly demanding process can also be immensely rewarding at the end of the process when you finally earn the title of "doctor".

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