Updated 4 August 2020
A PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) is one of the highest and most respected educational qualifications in the world. PhDs have an academic focus and involve the production of a lengthy thesis.
Studying for a PhD is a complex and involved process that can take many years. It lasts considerably longer than an undergraduate degree (which takes three years) or a master’s degree (which takes around one year). This is largely due to the time it takes to plan and carry out the research necessary to write a comprehensive thesis.
So, how long does a PhD take to complete?
In the UK, a PhD typically takes between three and six years, depending on whether you are studying full or part-time. This time frame can vary depending on many factors such as where and how you study, and the nature of your research.
In reality, a PhD can be (and often is) extended by a year or more to allow extra time for completion. Many students start with the intention of completing within the allotted time frame and then find that their studies drag on for many years longer than they planned.
A PhD is a complex and original piece of work. No two PhDs are the same and the student directs the research and produces their thesis as they see fit, adapting it along the way as necessary.
The PhD process itself can be split into stages:
The first part of the PhD study process is to submit your research proposal. This is usually done in the application process so, once your PhD actually starts, the planning phase is largely done, although amendments will be made as you progress.
Your proposal can take time to work through as it needs to be well thought out and carefully outlined, so although this stage isn’t generally counted when discussing the length of time a PhD takes, it should be factored in.
Once your PhD starts, you will be expected to conduct a thorough literature review to show your expert knowledge and grasp of the current situation in your field. You then take this overview and use it to explain how you are going to offer your own contribution with your original research.
This stage is usually carried out during the first year of the PhD course and creates a solid foundation to build upon when moving to the next stage.
If required, you may also need to complete any training or professional placements during your first year.
Your original research project will usually take place in the second year of your PhD programme and makes up the biggest portion of your PhD.
The format of your research will depend on the type of subject you are studying. For example, social science research may involve case studies and qualitative data, whereas mathematical research may use complex research methods and quantitative numerical data.
This will often determine whether you can write up the thesis chapters as you go, or whether you’ll need to wait until you have produced a full set of data before collating your findings.
Once your research has been completed, you will move on to the thesis and dissertation phase. The third year of your PhD will largely be dedicated to this stage.
Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, the thesis is essentially the conclusion you come to as a result of analysing the current literature with the results of your research. The dissertation is the written document that you present that details the full research project and explains how you arrived at your thesis.
The dissertation itself is an extremely comprehensive written document. Universities often set an upper word limit, commonly at 80,000 to 100,000 words, with a minimum expected word count of 40,000 or so.
Your PhD subject will have a large influence on your final word count, since a mathematics thesis will typically need fewer words than a sociology thesis, for example.
You may also be expected to give talks, make presentations and speak at public engagements throughout the process. This allows you to demonstrate your expertise and also share your findings with other academics who may then use them to inform their own research.
Your PhD won’t be completed until you have taken the viva voce examination. This is an oral exam where an examiner will ask you questions about your research and your conclusions.
If you pass your viva, you will pass your PhD. However, the examiner may ask you to make minor or major changes to your work, requiring further time to be dedicated to your qualification.
Many PhD students at UK universities do not complete their PhD in the average three- to four-year time frame. Students at some institutions take more than ten years to finish their PhD.
This has been attributed to various factors such as lack of research participants, poor organisational skills, substandard supervision and unexpected research findings forcing a change in direction.
With a course spanning such a long time, it’s easy to see how it can be thrown off course at some point. Below are the key factors that can affect the length of your PhD.
The biggest impact on the length of time it takes to achieve a PhD is whether a full-time or part-time option is chosen. In the UK, a full-time course takes three to four years and a part-time course takes five to six years.
Most students choose to study full time and will follow the timeline outlined above. However, for students who have family commitments or other employment, a part-time approach may be their preferred option.
Through the part-time route, the same amount of work and standard of research is expected from the student. This can prove difficult; some PhD graduates and their supervisors find it hard to maintain the level of involvement and enthusiasm over a five year period (or more).
If a student is dedicated to obtaining a PhD, however, part-time study can be the difference that enables them to achieve their goal, so this route does prove valuable for some.
Offering even more flexibility is the distance/online learning method of studying for a PhD. This method also takes around five to six years, as it is usually studied on a part-time basis.
Your chosen discipline or dissertation topic can have a big impact on the length of study.
Technical subjects such as architecture take considerably longer than social sciences. Common part-time PhDs are in subjects such as medicine and veterinary medicine, due to the student working as a qualified practitioner in their field alongside their studies.
Delays in completing your research should be expected, as many factors can influence how long this takes. You may have issues finding suitable research participants or your data may require longer analysis than you first thought. You may have external delays such as waiting for a decision from an ethics committee or for the results of an external study.
Some PhD programmes require time spent in training or may require a significant proportion of teaching, all taking time away from your thesis and extending your overall PhD.
Your funding arrangements will have a big influence on how long your PhD might take. Securing funding can be a lengthy process in itself and this must be done before starting. Charities and trust funds are common sources of funding and universities themselves can sometimes offer grants.
Once funding has been arranged and you have started your PhD, you are likely to be on a strict countdown until the funding ends. Some funds are only made available for a set time, meaning that you must complete your course within the specified time (usually the expected three years).
Of course, if you are self-funding, the time constraints are less rigid, but the financial burden of a lengthy PhD must be carefully considered and will be prohibitive for some students.
A ‘new route’ PhD now exists in the UK and can involve a rigid time frame in which to complete your studies with funding from the UK Research Council.
UK students should be aware that PhDs can take longer to complete in other countries. A PhD in Germany, for example, typically takes three to four years to complete. This is similar to other European and Asian countries, including Singapore and Saudi Arabia.
However, for scholars wishing to undertake courses in the US or Canada, PhD programmes are structured differently and usually take up to six years to complete.
In some rare cases, students have completed their PhD programme within one year. It is thought that this is only possible when previous research papers have been published to alleviate some of the workload of the PhD, or where the student starts a research project for their undergraduate degree, extends it for their master’s degree and finalises it as a complete project for their PhD thesis.
Although the majority of students will take the full allotted time, or even longer, to complete a PhD, some things can be done to influence how quickly you can get a PhD:
A PhD is a significant undertaking and scholars dedicate many years to achieving this impressive award. You should expect to devote at least three years to dedicated study.
Ultimately, the suggested time frame is based on decades of institutions supporting scholars throughout the PhD process. As long as you keep moving forward and making progress, following the advice of your supervisor and the framework of the process, you should make consistent progression.
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