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

by Elissa Hansen

In 2011, 555 students graduated with anthropology Ph.D.s in the U.S., according to the National Science Foundation. Anthropology doctoral students’ median time to degree since beginning graduate school was 9.6 years, the longest in the social sciences. However, most anthropology doctoral programs are designed to take five to six years to complete.

Master’s Program

87 percent of students who received doctorates in anthropology in 2011 earned a master’s degree before entering their doctoral program, according to the National Science Foundation. After four years of undergraduate study, then, students typically go to school for another two years before beginning their doctoral course work. Some programs that offer both master’s and doctoral degrees admit graduates of their master’s program directly into their doctoral program, which can cut down on the number of credits needed in the doctoral program and on the time to degree.

Course Work Phase

Students take two to three years of course work while enrolled in an anthropology doctoral program. In addition to core courses in theory and research methods, students generally choose course work in their area of interest. For example, the subfields of sociocultural and archaeological anthropology each encompass further subspecialities. Students who study, say, the African diaspora take different courses than those who focus on South Asian language change. Students work closely with their program coordinator and their academic adviser, once they’ve chosen one, to select courses that prepare them for their dissertation research.

Dissertation Phase

Students who pass their qualifying examinations and demonstrate comprehensive knowledge of their field enter the dissertation phase of the program. Most U.S. programs give students five or six years of doctoral funding, meaning they have between two to four years to produce the dissertation. In anthropology, students conceptualize, carry out and write up original research in their field, with the goal of producing a book-length study containing several chapters. Anthropology doctorates take longer than average social-science doctorates because the norm in the field is to write a long dissertation. At the University of Minnesota from 2007 to 2013, for example, anthropology dissertations were exceeded in length only by history dissertations, averaging just below 300 pages.

Staying on Track

Prospective doctoral students can use several tactics to stay within their degree program’s time limit. They should choose their academic adviser as early in the program as possible, ideally arriving at the school knowing with whom they want to work, so they can begin planning the dissertation project. Once students begin drafting chapters, they can form small writing groups with other students to keep themselves accountable by setting frequent deadlines. Students who meet regularly with their adviser also tend to complete their doctorates faster, according to Rosemary G. Feal of the Modern Language Association. And because many students must teach as they earn their degree, they should ask faculty and more advanced students to share course materials with them to reduce their preparation time for each class period.

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