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How Long Does It Take To Earn a Doctoral Degree?

Usmann Farooqui

Written By: Usmaan Farooqui

Published: 1/31/2022

Key Insights:

  • Doctorates take multiple years of graduate study to achieve, with most programs lasting an average of 7.5 years
  • Students must meet several requirements to earn this degree, including completing advanced coursework, passing multiple exams, and successfully completing a practicum or dissertation project
  • Times to completion vary based on many factors, including the chosen discipline, type of doctorate, specific program rules, and individual circumstances
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As the highest possible level of formal education, a doctorate trains students to become experts in their chosen field of study. Those interested in pursuing this terminal degree should note that it is a significant undertaking, with students having to meet multiple academic milestones as well as navigate many practical considerations along the way.

Given the rigorous, often challenging nature of higher education at the doctoral level, it is no surprise that it takes an average of 7.5 years to achieve this credential after starting graduate school. However, completion times vary on a case-by-case basis. Many factors can affect the length of a doctorate, including the nature of the discipline, individual program rules, and the type of doctoral degree a student is pursuing. The time it takes to earn a doctorate may also depend on a student's specific research topic, access to financial aid, and personal commitments. This article provides an overview of the steps to earning a doctorate as well as information on how different considerations, such as the program type and individual circumstances, may affect completion periods for individual students.

Given the rigorous, often challenging nature of higher education at the doctoral level, it is no surprise that it takes an average of 7.5 years to achieve this credential after starting graduate school.

Check out our ranked list of the best online doctorates.

Steps to Earning a Doctoral Degree

In general, a doctoral program consists of coursework, exams, and a final research project. Each of these requirements can take several semesters — or even years — to finish, which is why a doctorate can sometimes take twice as long as a bachelor's degree to achieve.

Students typically spend the first 2-3 years of graduate school taking advanced classes and training in multiple research methods. The precise number of credits varies, but most doctoral degree programs are 60-120 credit hours long. Once they gain a solid foundation in the theories and methods of their discipline, students take comprehensive exams in specific subfields to demonstrate their mastery of the subject matter. This process can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of semesters, depending on the student's chosen degree specialization and subject area. For instance, while qualifying exams in the physical and life sciences usually culminate in a written test after students meet coursework requirements, other disciplines — particularly in the humanities and social sciences — take longer because the exams often include researching and writing an academic paper.

After meeting these prerequisites, graduate students advance to degree candidacy, also known as the all-but-dissertation (ABD) phase. This is typically the most research-intensive part of a doctoral program, with candidates having to convene a committee of faculty and propose a suitable topic before researching, writing, and publicly defending an original, book-length capstone project that advances original knowledge in their field. Given that it involves multiple overlapping steps, a dissertation may take several more years to finish after achieving candidacy.

Applied Doctorates vs Research Doctorates

Not all doctoral degrees emphasize research, and those that don't may be achieved comparatively quicker than those that do. Applied doctorates — also known as professional doctorates — usually don't include a dissertation element. Instead, they require students to finish advanced classes and pass exams. Examples of such degrees include medical doctorates, juris doctorates, and business doctorates. Unlike a Doctor of Philosophy, these credentials are designed to be completed in 3-4 years of full-time study.

Completion Times Vary by Discipline

The length of time a student spends in graduate school can change depending on their field of study. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates — a yearly report compiled by the National Science Foundation — the time frame of a doctoral degree in the U.S. varies considerably by discipline. For example, it takes an average of 7.9 years to earn a doctorate in psychology and the social sciences compared to 6.3 years in physical and earth sciences. By contrast, humanities and arts doctorates can take significantly longer, with students finishing their degree in approximately 9.6 years. Meanwhile, students pursuing a doctoral degree in education may take over a decade to complete their program.

On average, students can earn doctorates in science and engineering quicker due to a greater emphasis on research earlier in these programs. For example, students pursuing a Ph.D. in biology or physics may finish coursework relatively fast, spending the majority of their graduate career taking part in research assistantships with faculty and peers. As these factors likely lead to more research and networking opportunities sooner in a doctoral student's career, they can also result in more rapid degree attainment.

By contrast, those in disciplines such as history or English may spend more time taking courses, honing their research skills, and settling on a research topic. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates mentioned above, humanities students pursuing their doctorate also rely more heavily on part-time work, such as teaching assistantships, for funding. In some cases, this may limit the time a student can spend on individual research and slow their progress.

Completion Times Vary Due to Program Requirements

Completion times may change depending on specific program rules at a given university. Ph.D. programs tend to reflect an academic department's methodological and theoretical focus. As a result, programs within the same discipline are likely to have additional requirements based on faculty members' strengths and research interests. For instance, Ph.D. programs in political science that emphasize research in other countries may require students to learn a foreign language and take oral exams in order to demonstrate their verbal proficiency, thus increasing the time it takes to earn a doctorate after enrollment.

Online doctorates, which are designed to be completed in 3-5 years, offer accelerated classes to help students achieve the necessary 60-120 credit hours in fewer semesters than traditional Ph.D. programs.

Several other program-specific factors can also extend the length of a doctoral degree. One such factor is on-campus residency. Defined as a set number of semesters during which Ph.D. students must conduct research on campus, the residency requirement varies between 1-3 years and can significantly affect a student's timeline to completion. Additionally, many departments expect enrollees to complete a certain amount of teaching hours while also meeting coursework and research goals, which can take extra semesters.

Though extra prerequisites can affect a doctoral degree's length, some programs are specifically designed to be completed on a shorter than average timeline. For example, competitive programs may impose strict deadlines for students to complete coursework, thus shortening the number of semesters it takes to reach ABD status. Similarly, online doctorates, which are designed to be completed in 3-5 years, offer accelerated classes to help students achieve the necessary 60-120 credit hours in fewer semesters than traditional Ph.D. programs. These programs typically eliminate residency requirements and employ an embedded dissertation model. So, rather than waiting for ABD status, students begin making progress toward their dissertation while still taking classes.

Situational Factors That Affect Program Length

In addition to discipline and program requirements, an individual's previous education, research goals, and personal situations may also greatly affect the number of years it takes to graduate from a doctoral program. Below are some examples of individual circumstances to consider that may extend the length of a doctorate program.

Students who have a master's degree from an accredited institution may transfer credits to shorten the length of their doctoral studies as long as they meet coursework requirements for their particular program.

Depending on their research topic, some doctoral candidates may have to conduct extended fieldwork trips — usually in a foreign country — to collect the necessary data. These trips can last several months, resulting in a dissertation that can take significantly longer to write and defend. In comparison, students who complete the majority of their research on-campus, either in labs or by using readily available data sources, are likely to finish in less time.

While most programs guarantee a set number of funded years in the form of teaching or research assistantships, departmental support can dry up completely after five or six years. In these circumstances, students may need to spend additional time identifying and applying for external sources of funding. Furthermore, external financial assistance is particularly crucial for Ph.D. candidates who need to conduct research abroad or pay for equipment and software that isn't available on campus. Failure to secure a grant or scholarship for an academic year can substantially increase the time it takes to complete a dissertation and graduate.

Students who pursue a part-time doctorate due to personal or professional commitments are likely to take much longer to obtain their degree. While accelerated and online programs can reduce the length of a program, a research doctorate typically requires a full-time commitment.

Conclusion: Earning a Doctorate is a Substantial Time Commitment

Achieving a doctoral degree can be a rewarding experience, as it may not only expand an individual's career opportunities but perhaps also increase their earning potential. While the time it takes to earn a doctorate can vary based on many factors, prospective students should expect to spend several years researching, writing, taking classes, and working toward their degree. Individuals interested in a doctoral degree should therefore carefully consider whether they are willing to spend an extended period of time in graduate school.

Unsure about pursuing a doctoral degree but still interested in attending graduate school? Check out our ranked list of the best online master's programs.

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