How Long Does It Take to Get a Ph.D.?

A student in a graduation gown reading a library book

A Ph.D. is a great achievement in an academic’s life. You’ve worked hard through your undergraduate courses, graduated, perhaps even moved through a master’s program and written a thesis, and now you are considering an even more advanced degree. But what exactly are you in for?

What is a Ph.D.?

Ph.D. stands for Doctor of Philosophy, a doctoral research degree in any field except medicine and sometimes theology, and an abbreviation of the Latin term (Ph)ilosophiae (D)octor. However, don’t worry, you aren’t required to study philosophy, unless you want to!

The Ph.D. is, in fact, the most common type of doctorate degree. This is the highest academic qualification you can reach, which symbolizes that you have mastered your field of study or chosen profession. Almost all fields award Ph.D.s, including STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), Business, Humanities, Education, and even Law. To be considered for a Ph.D., you must produce work that advances or contributes significantly to your field.

A Ph.D. will train you to think like a researcher and teach you how to solve problems in new and diverse ways. According to the University of Arizona, throughout your Ph.D. program, “you’ll examine the changes in your field of interest and challenge yourself to answer questions that include: How are those changes affecting current research in my field? How are those changes affecting policy decisions and leadership??” (“What is the Difference”).

How long does it take to complete a Ph.D.?

The time it takes to complete a doctoral degree can vary depending on the program you have chosen. Most programs are designed to take around four to five years; however, they often take a little longer and can stretch to seven to eight years to complete due to the time it takes to research and draft the dissertation at the end of your program. In fact, in 2020, depending on the program, it took doctoral students between six to twelve years to complete their studies (“Survey of Earned Doctorates: Figure 19”).

A Ph.D. program follows a general timeline, which usually includes passing a comprehensive exam, taking advanced courses, and ultimately producing an original body of research, which may include a thesis or dissertation. At the same time, you might also be expected to take on the role of a teaching assistant or research assistant. This role can help you prepare for your career in academia or as a researcher, as well as slow you down in the process due to the workload. Assistantships will help you pay for graduate school but can take time away from working on your dissertation!

Program Requirements and Time to Completion

ProgramRequirementsTeaching or Research AssistantshipResidency RequirementTime to Completion (Average)
Physical and earth sciences

Oral or written exam, Advanced courses, Dissertation


Not required, but all are considered for the assistantships


Not required


6.3 years
EngineeringOral and/or written exam, Advanced courses, DissertationNot required, but all who apply are considered for the assistantshipsFor some universities-three years of full-time study beyond the bachelor’s degree + coursework6.8 years
Life sciencesWritten exam, Advanced courses, DissertationNot required, but all who apply are considered for the assistantships It depends on the university6.9 years
Mathematics and computer scienceOral exam, Advanced courses, DissertationRequired It depends on the university7 years
Psychology and social sciencesOral or written exam, Advanced courses, DissertationRequired Not required7.9 years
Humanities and artsWritten or creative exam (Arts), Advanced courses, DissertationNot required, but all who apply are considered for the assistantships It depends on the university9.6 years
EducationOral and written exam, Advanced courses, DissertationNot required, but all who apply are considered for the assistantships Approximately 2 years, depending on the university12 years

What are the requirements for a Ph.D.?

The requirements for a Ph.D. are advanced coursework, comprehensive exams, and a dissertation. The advanced coursework is graduate-level coursework that investigates quite a few sub-topics related to your field. The courses are designed to help you find your specialty or topics for your comprehensive exams. The comprehensive exam is designed for you to show your knowledge of your field, which covers categories such as history of the subject and major research or theories. The last requirement for a Ph.D. is a dissertation, which is an original body of work that should add something new to your field, whether that is examining a piece of literature with a new theory or doing an experiment to find new results.

What are the prerequisites for a Ph.D.?

The pre-requisites are slightly more in-depth than what a Master’s program requires and differ based on each university’s admission requirements. The first step is to find the school and the program that fits your chosen field of interest, course of study, and lifestyle the best. After you have chosen your schools, make sure that you understand the admissions requirements and timelines, so you don’t miss a deadline. Typically, you will need quite a few documents in your application packet, which might include, transcripts, a curriculum vita or resume, GRE or GMAT scores, statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation.

Do I always need a Master’s degree first?

Not at all! In general, the route to a Ph.D. is a bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, then a Ph.D. However, it is possible to go directly from the bachelor’s degree to a Ph.D. program. There are several advantages and disadvantages to doing this. One advantage is saving a bit of time, eliminating about a year of study. Another advantage is project availability – you can secure a research project before it becomes unavailable in the future, thus increasing your opportunity of acceptance. Keep in mind that there will also likely be several others who have Master’s degrees applying for the same programs and projects, which may put you at a disadvantage. Just remember if your application materials are strong, you may just beat out those with Master’s degrees.

Author

  • Chris Kado

    For over a decade, Chris has supported students across the globe in fulfilling their college aspirations. Chris started out as a college admissions consultant, where he helped community college students reduce their loan obligations by constructing comprehensive transfer strategies, maximizing the use of CLEP and AP credits, and scoring scholarships. ‍ During his graduate studies at Harvard, Chris held numerous roles in education, including working as a research assistant and advising students on the college admissions process. Chris holds extensive experience in essay development and preparation for the SAT and SAT Subject Tests. His guidance has enabled students to gain admission into diverse programs at institutions including UC Berkeley, Princeton, the University of Chicago, Michigan, Harvard, Fashion Institute of Technology, Embry-Riddle, Notre Dame, and Duke. ‍ Chris holds an Master's in History from Harvard University and is currently working towards a Master's in Education at UIUC. He also received a College Advising Program Certificate from Columbia University, completed the Independent Educational Consultant Certificate from University of California Irvine, and earned the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) from Cambridge. Nowadays, Chris continues to serve a full-time role as a College Counselor for WeAdmit, write insightful articles for Magoosh, and teach at Education First summer camps!

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