How Many Years of College to Get a Doctorate Degree?

by Elissa Hansen

Doctoral study is a demanding process and comes with no guarantees of how long students will take to complete their dissertations. The time that it takes to earn undergraduate and master's degrees are far less variable than the time it takes to earn a doctorate. The median number of years to earn a doctorate is 5.7, ranging from 5.2 years to earn a doctorate in engineering to 6.9 years to earn a doctorate in humanities. However, students can keep several strategies in mind when trying to shorten their time to a doctoral degree.

Possible Paths

Two main avenues exist for students pursuing a doctorate. For both, students begin by completing a bachelor's degree, usually in a discipline related to their intended graduate field of study. In 2015, bachelor's degree earners from four-year public institutions took an average of 5.6 years to earn a bachelor's degree, with 37.5 percent of students finishing within four years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Students with a bachelor's degree can either apply to master's programs or directly to doctoral programs. Those who earn a master's degree before entering a doctoral program take one to three years to finish their master's, but can usually transfer about a year's worth of course credits to their doctoral study.

Time to Doctoral Degree

The National Science Foundation tracks how long students take to complete their doctoral programs. According to NSF, after students have entered their doctoral program, their median times to get a doctoral degree vary dramatically by field. The shortest times to degree are in the physical sciences, engineering and life sciences, which hover around 5.5 years of study. Students in the social sciences add about half a year to that time, at 6.0 years. The median time to degree in education is also 6.0 years, while doctoral students in the humanities have the longest median duration at 6.9 years.

Complicating Factors

The median times to degree do not reflect doctoral programs' plan for students. Usually, those who take more than five years in the sciences and seven years in the humanities and social sciences have run into difficulty with their research or in their personal lives. Possible complications in research include a series of failed experiments, the unwitting replication of existing research, difficulty synthesizing existing information in a new way or making new observations about primary sources, lack of funding that necessitates outside employment and failure to pass preliminary or qualifying examinations.

Streamlining Degree Progress

To stay within target times to degree and maintain funding throughout doctoral study, students use a variety of tactics. Some are able to use work that they did for their undergraduate or master's degrees as a basis for dissertation chapters, or they publish revised versions of that research during their first or second years of doctoral study to relieve the pressure to publish later in the program. Similarly, some students focus their research during the coursework phase to fit with their intended dissertation topic. Students who enter programs knowing which faculty member they'd like to work with generally finish more quickly as well, since they can begin conceptualizing their research project immediately upon entering the program or even before.

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