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How Long Does a PhD in Physics Take?

by Maria Magher

In order to teach physics at the university level or to conduct your own research in the field of physics, you need to complete a doctorate program. This terminal degree gives you the training you need to be considered an authority in your field. The amount of time it takes you to complete a PhD in physics will depend upon a number of factors, including the subject of your research and your own personal pace of study. However, a typical timeframe is five to eight years.

PhD Course Work

Most PhD programs in physics include two years of coursework. Courses cover a broad framework of physics theory and application. Sample courses may include quantum field theory, electromagnetism, condensed matter physics and computational physics. The offerings at each college and university will usually depend upon the program focus and on the research interests of the faculty teaching there. It is important to review the course offerings before selecting the right PhD program for your interests.

Completing the Dissertation

The dissertation is what takes up the bulk of time it takes to complete the PhD program. A dissertation is typically a book-length manuscript, and it encompasses original research. A dissertation in the sciences is on an uncertain timeline since progress usually depends on the outcome of experiments, which may need to be redone if results are not as expected. According to the American Institute of Physics, the majority of students -- approximately 33 percent -- complete their PhD in physics in six years. About 22 percent finish in five years, and 19 percent finish in seven. A small percentage, 9 percent, take nine or more years to finish.

Advantages of a PhD

Almost all colleges and universities require applicants to have a PhD in order to be considered for a teaching or research position. Those who complete a master's degree in physics may be able to find work teaching at a community college, but not usually at a four-year undergraduate institution. A PhD can also make candidates more competitive for jobs that don't require the higher degree, such as teaching posts at community colleges.

Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not predict large growth for jobs for physicists over the next few years. The agency estimates that jobs for physicists and astronomers will grow about 14 percent by 2020, which is about as fast as average for other industries. In 2010, the median pay for physicists and astronomers was $105,430.

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