How Long Does IT Take to Get a PhD?

Jul 09, 2019

How long does it take to get a PhD? A Ph.D., or Doctor of Philosophy, is among the highest of degree levels and takes 5-6 years to earn. The exact length depends on how much time you must spend on your courses, exams, and dissertation. Learn more about how long it takes to get a doctorate, along with the courses and examinations involved.

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How Long Is a PhD Program?

Earning a Ph.D., also known as a Doctor of Philosophy, regardless of the subject of study, requires a set of tasks that typically take 5-6 years to complete. Students must first take advanced courses in their field for a few years and complete a set of comprehensive exams. After this is accomplished, Ph.D. students must produce a dissertation project, which can vary in its time to completion.

Degree Levels Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Field(s) of Study Varies by institution
Prerequisites Master's degree (some programs will accept a bachelor's degree)
Program Format Coursework; comprehensive exams; dissertation and defense
Program Length 2-3 years for coursework and exams followed by 2-3 years dissertation work

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Courses in Ph.D. Program

Full-time Ph.D. candidates typically take advanced courses during their first 2-3 years of study. The number of course credits required to get a Ph.D. may vary widely, depending on the university's semester or quarter schedule and the doctoral program. For example, the University of Akron requires 36 semester-hour credits to earn a Ph.D. in Polymer Science, whereas DePaul University mandates 60 quarter-hour credits for a Ph.D. in Computer and Information Sciences.

Universities offering PhD programs typically require doctoral students to take nearly all of their courses in a specific discipline, although they may have the option to take elective courses, both in and outside of their department. For example, doctoral candidates in speech pathology may be able to take electives like anatomy, and students pursuing a doctorate in psychology might have the option to choose electives such as psychotherapy. Additionally, schools may require Ph.D. candidates to speak a foreign language, which they demonstrate via an oral exam.

Exams in Ph.D. Program

Doctoral students periodically take a series of exams until they complete their Ph.D. program. During the first year of Ph.D. studies, candidates typically take a comprehensive exam to gauge their knowledge in a chosen field of study. Additionally, students take a candidacy exam to test their general knowledge of a specific Ph.D. discipline.

School departments typically create the exams, but some allow students to choose the specific subjects within a discipline that the test will cover. For example, Stanford University allows candidates for the Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering to consult with their advisors and choose among set topics for the qualifying exam. Many schools allow students who fail the test to retake it, but that may delay the time it takes to get a Ph.D. by an additional semester.

The Dissertation

After completing coursework, Ph.D. students must research and write a dissertation, which is a book-like document that shows thorough knowledge of a discipline and contributes new research to the field. Candidates must defend the dissertation's assertions before a faculty committee. The length of time it takes to write and defend a dissertation depends on factors such as the dissertation topic and whether the candidate is a full- or part-time doctoral student.

Ultimately, earning a Ph.D. takes around 5-6 years to complete, usually involving 2-3 years of coursework and qualifying exams followed by a number of years to complete a dissertation.

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