How long does it take to get a PhD? On average, PhD programs are 4 or 5 years long. The time it takes to get a PhD is slightly longer in the US, between 4-6 years, because these programs tend to be more structured. If you want to know in Canada or Europe, you can expect it to take 3-5 years. However, there are PhD programs that take longer, such as part-time programs, or are extremely short, like online accelerated PhD programs. Ultimately, how long it takes to get a PhD is up to you. In this article, we’ll look at the average PhD program lengths, the typical PhD timeline, and tips on how to get your PhD finished faster.
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On average, it takes 4-5 years to complete a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program. In the US, most PhD programs are between 4-6 years, while in Canada they are typically shorter, around 3-4 years.
Some students take longer than 6 years to complete their PhD, but in general the longest time it takes to get a PhD is capped at 8 years. If you’re enrolling in a part-time PhD program, for instance, your timeline will probably be extended to 6-8 years.
The shortest PhD programs out there are accelerated or sometimes online PhD programs. Some of these are only 1-2 years long, but there are comparatively fewer programs available, and they are only suitable for certain fields and careers which require less intensive research which defines most PhD programs.
One of the main reasons why it takes many years to get a PhD is because these programs are comprehensive and the requirements to graduate are extensive. Most have a set number of credit hours you need to complete, examinations to write, plus you’ll need to write your PhD thesis or dissertation, unless you pursue a .
There are certainly ways to shorten the PhD application timeline and time to graduate, which includes enrolling in a shorter program if possible, increasing your course load or the number of research hours you can dedicate per week, but generally a PhD will still take some time.
We’ll take a look at the typical PhD timeline and how long it takes to get a PhD normally. After, we’ll cover some tips on how to get your PhD done faster or how you can avoid dragging things out.
In North America, the typical PhD program is divided into two stages. The first stage is where you complete all the required coursework, comprehensive exams and other academic requirements, depending on the program. The second stage is when you submit a proposal for original, independent research, get it approved and start working on your thesis or dissertation. Your PhD culminates with your thesis defense. Once your thesis has been approved, you’ll be eligible to graduate.
This timeline is somewhat flexible, as you might complete the first stage in 1 or 2 years but take longer to complete your dissertation. For the purpose of this general PhD schedule, we’ll assume your PhD program is a typical length of 4-6 years.
We’ve included the application stage of getting your PhD here first because the can take several months to put together your application package and hear back about acceptance to a program. Secondly, because the application stage involves some critical steps you’ll need to complete in order to get your PhD.
1. Research proposal
To apply to a PhD program, you’ll most likely be required to submit a research proposal and be prepared to answer any your advisor will have. This is your “proposal” of what research question you will explore during your studies at a program, or an outline of what research topic you want to pursue. If you’re not sure how to write a research proposal, check out these or a sample.
2. Application materials
The admission requirements for a PhD can vary from program to program, but here are the general components of a PhD application:
Writing a grad school statement of purpose? Check out these examples:
PhD Years 1-3: Coursework Stage
Your PhD program will usually begin with your orientation, where you’ll learn about the program’s individual structure, requirements and expectations. You’ll also either choose or be assigned an academic advisor and schedule an initial meeting with them. Your advisor will be a member of the university faculty who will act as your support while you complete your research and write your thesis.
The first year or two of your PhD will involve completing required advanced coursework in your field. You’ll attend lectures and seminars and you may participate in research projects with department faculty or fellow graduate students or even lab work, depending on your field.
Along with required coursework, you’ll have the chance to take elective courses that interest you or relate to your field. It’s important to choose electives that will enrich your program. Choose ones that really interest you, that might help inform your PhD research or that will help you fulfill your credit requirements.
PhD programs sometimes have extracurricular activities or additional requirements outside the classroom. This can include internships or a practicum you need to complete for credit, or you might be interested in attending academic conferences or relevant events to socialize and network you’re your colleagues in the field.
5. Comprehensive exams
The coursework stage of your PhD program will end with , sometimes called qualifying or preliminary exams. These are your “final exams” to make sure that you completed the necessary PhD coursework and that you’re ready and qualified to take on your own independent research in the next phase.
PhD Years 4-6: Thesis Stage
1. Thesis proposal
You may recall that you submitted a research proposal as part of your PhD application, and this step of the process is similar. Your thesis proposal is just like your research proposal, but it’s a more refined and developed version. Throughout your coursework, your research question might have changed or you might have changed course a little bit. If you’re still thinking about your , take the time to solidify it before you reach the thesis proposal stage.
Your research proposal might have been a first draft, while your thesis proposal is your official announcement of: this is what I propose to research in this PhD program.
Depending on your field and the program, you thesis research might involve a great deal of lab work, or data collection or fieldwork. Whatever the case, your thesis proposal is a complete outline of what you intend to do for this independent research project and the steps you’ll take.
2. Thesis approval
Once your proposal is written, you’ll submit it for approval. Your academic advisor, PhD supervisor or the PhD committee overseeing your program will review it and either approve it or make suggestions for changes. Once it’s been polished and finalized, you’ll be given the go ahead to start conducting your research.
3. PhD research
Your research alone will probably take you several semesters to complete. On top of the fieldwork, lab work or data collection and analysis you’ll be completing, you’ll be using this time to write and review. Writing your thesis or dissertation takes a fair number of hours to outline, draft, edit and complete. It also means hitting the books to complete a literature review of your research topic so you have a complete background understanding of your chosen topic and how it will inform your research.
Your research and the preparation of your thesis is really the biggest part of this second stage, and is probably the longest part of your PhD altogether.
4. Extra requirements
When you’re not deep in your research, you’ll be completing other requirements of your PhD program or additional duties that enrich your education. Some programs require you to dedicate some hours to teaching, whether it be leading seminars for undergraduate students or acting as a teaching assistant for university faculty.
5. Thesis submission and preparation for thesis defense
When you’re finished writing your thesis and you’re ready to submit it, it’s critical to know . Because not only do you have to complete this original, new body of research work, you have to get the approval of your PhD committee to put it out into the world.
Your thesis defense is essentially the final presentation of your PhD.
6. Thesis defense
Your thesis defense is an oral presentation of your research project, but it also involves submitting your written document to be reviewed. Essentially, you’ll present the entirety of your thesis to the PhD supervising committee, including your findings and conclusions. From there, the committee will ask . Your answers will defend your methodology and results to the committee, basically proving the value and validity of your work. While this is an evaluation of sorts, it is also your opportunity to share your original ideas and invite further research into your topic.
After your defense, the PhD committee will either approve your thesis or send it back to you with edits or changes to be made before it can be formally approved.
Graduation and Postdoc
Once your thesis has been approved, congratulations! You’ll be eligible for graduation and be awarded your degree. Now that you’ve finished this marathon, you can choose to pursue further studies or start looking for a .
With a PhD, you have many different options for positions in your field. You might want to know or at a university if you’re interested in teaching others. PhD graduates who decide to or who would rather work outside the realm of academia can find that suit their skills and experiences.
Either way, you’ll need to prepare for position, explore what the career options are for you, decide what your career goals are and start sending out applications. Remember to prep your postdoc resume and get read for , since the job hunt will begin soon after you finish your PhD!
Is it possible to get your PhD done faster? What are some ways you can speed up the process and avoid taking 8 years to complete your graduate studies? Luckily, there are many key ways you can make your journey through grad school easier and speed things up a little, from the type of PhD program you choose to the habits and skills you cultivate during your program.
#1 Enroll in an accelerated program
The first way to guarantee it will take less time to get your PhD is to, of course, enroll in a shorter PhD program. Direct entry PhD programs allow you to enroll once you’ve completed your bachelor’s degree in exceptional circumstances. Note that these are not the , as your academic record needs to be excellent, and you’ll likely need prior research experience and you may even need to have publications already. However, a direct entry PhD program is around 4-5 years, but it allows you to skip the 1-2 years it would take to earn a master’s degree.
You can also choose to enroll in an online or accelerated PhD program that is designed to be much shorter than the traditional PhD. Once again, though, these programs are not available to students in every field, so you may need to research whether there are any options for you.
#2 Choose the right mentor
One of the first things you can do to ensure your PhD is smooth sailing is to choose the right mentor or academic advisor. Many programs allow you to choose your advisor, while some assign one to you. Whatever the case, it’s important to establish a strong working relationship and clear expectations early on.
One of the first things you’ll do as a PhD student is meet with your advisor. Take the time to discuss with them what your expectations for the program are, ask questions and ask them what their expectations are of you. Your advisor is there to help you and advise you, and they have resources and connections you can use to your advantage. But they are also working with a busy schedule and might be advising more than one PhD student, too. A mutually respectful relationship with open communication will ensure fewer interpersonal hurdles down the road.
#3 Earn credit hours faster
One way you can shave some time off your PhD is by earning your credit hours faster and getting to the research and thesis-writing stage faster. This might mean you take on a full-time course load or ask your advisor for ways to earn extra credit, such as participating in research projects. Some PhD programs will give you course credit for previous graduate level coursework you might have completed during your master’s degree, or for certifications and professional education you completed outside of school.
#4 Keep your thesis focused
When you get started on your research, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the amount of work you need to complete, with the writing of your thesis on top of it all. One way to keep your research hyper-focused and on point is to keep your thesis topic narrow. If your subject is too broad, you’ll be spending way too much time in your research. Give yourself clear objectives and scope, and don’t deviate from your PhD proposal if you don’t have to.
There may be a million questions you want to explore within your PhD topic, but there will be other opportunities to explore them. Keep your focus narrow so you don’t spend years and years asking and answering research questions!
#5 Adopt the right habits
One of the best things you can do to get your PhD done faster and adjust to the experience of graduate school is to change your thinking. Adopt a growth mindset so that you’re open to new learning, willing to listen to constructive feedback on your proposal or thesis and willing to grow your skills. A PhD is an advanced program, and you’ll already be very skilled, but it is also an opportunity to learn and grow. There will be challenges for you, so be ready to meet and overcome them instead of letting them draw you back or slow you down.
#5 Develop your professional skills fast
A PhD is an opportunity to grow your professional skillset as much as it is an opportunity for you to contribute meaningfully to your field. If you haven’t already been working on skills such as communication, presenting or lecturing and writing, now is the time to start.
Strong writing skills will help you get your thesis finished and edited faster, as you’ll be more familiar with the process and understand what makes a strong document. It’s also a useful skill to learn how to write effective funding proposals or grant proposals. You may need to do so to secure funding for your research, but it’s a highly valuable skill in the workforce, too.
Good presentation skills will help you during your thesis defense or if you’re asked to present during a conference. They will also help you build confidence in your voice and ideas and make you a better communicator when you’re networking or job searching.
#6 Keep to your schedule
This is maybe the most important skill if you want to finish your PhD faster: make a detailed schedule and hold yourself accountable to it. If you like, you can plan out your entire PhD week by week from Day 1. Write down what your course schedule is, when you’ll do research and how many hours, when you’ll write and how many hours, what extracurriculars or personal activities will take up your time and so on.
A detailed schedule gives you an overview of your PhD and a timeline of when you’ll finish. It will keep you organized and accountable, so you can avoid procrastinating or avoidable speed bumps that might slow you down. It also helps you compartmentalize the many items on your to-do list so you don’t stress out about how much you need to accomplish.
When creating your schedule, especially during the research stage when there is no formal class schedule for you to adhere to, focus on deliverables. Set a date when you will submit a section of your thesis to your advisor, or when you will complete your literature review. Setting goals and clear outcomes will keep you on track and focused.
#7 Take initiative and be independent
The last tip to help you get your PhD done faster is to take initiative. Remember that a PhD is a largely independent endeavor. You’ll have the support of a committee or advisor, but you can’t rely on them to do the work for you or put everything on hold if they aren’t available when you need them. Be flexible and adaptable so you can keep working and moving forward, even if your schedule gets interrupted or needs to change to suit your situation.
It's also important to take the initiative in your learning. Take advantage of opportunities for growth, networking, and gaining experience where you can. Get the most out of your PhD program and use your experiences to fuel your end goal of completing your thesis.
1. How long does it take to get a PhD?
On average, it takes 4-5 years to get a PhD. There are a few factors that can influence the time it takes to complete your PhD, from program length and structure to what country you are earning your PhD in, to your own personal work ethic and schedule.
2. How long are PhD programs?
PhD programs in the US are on average 4-6 years. In Canada and the UK, they are usually 3-5 years long. Part-time PhD programs may take up to 7-8 years to complete. Direct-entry PhD programs and dual master’s and PhD programs are typically 5 years long. If you’re enrolling in an online, hybrid or accelerated PhD program, the timeline is usually 2-3 years, but there are some extremely short 1-year PhD programs offered online for specific disciplines.
3. Can you get a PhD done faster?
Yes, you can finish your PhD before the “normal” timeline. For example, if you complete your coursework early, if you finish writing your thesis faster than average and get it approved, or if you otherwise complete all your PhD program requirements before the anticipated finish date.
4. Are there any online PhD programs?
Yes, there are online PhDs available for certain fields and disciplines. These typically range from 2-3 years, although there are some traditional 4-year PhD programs offered online. There are also some “accelerated” online PhDs which last 12-18 months.
5. Is a PhD shorter if you have a master’s?
A PhD program is not necessarily shorter if you first complete a master’s degree, but having gone through a master’s program can better prepare you to finish your PhD faster. Some PhD programs accept credit hours from your master’s degree towards the coursework requirements for a PhD, and if you’ve previously written a master’s thesis or completed some research during your graduate studies, this will be an advantage. Since you’ll already be familiar with the process of writing a thesis and conducting your own research, you can avoid some stumbling blocks in your PhD program that might otherwise slow down your progress.
6. Can you get a PhD without a master’s?
Yes, it is possible to get a PhD without first completing a master’s degree. There are direct entry PhD programs that allow students with a bachelor’s degree to enroll, so long as they meet the admission requirements and have exceptional academic records. Some online PhDs also waive the master’s degree requirement.
7. Can you complete a PhD in 2 years?
Yes, it is possible to complete a traditional PhD program in a shorter amount of time than anticipate. This usually means dedicating yourself to full-time study or taking on a larger course load and increased research hours. It takes significant work, but it can be done with the right schedule and commitment.
8. What is the quickest PhD to get?
The fastest PhD programs are the short, 1-year accelerated programs. These programs have fewer credit hours to complete, and some have no dissertation requirement, only qualifying exams to finish. However, there are not many programs out there, and they are not available for every field of interest.