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How Many Years Does It Take to Get a PhD?

written by: John Garger•edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch•updated: 6/18/2010

The PhD is an often misunderstood college degree because most people don’t understand why it takes so long to complete. Learn how many years it takes to get a PhD and why it takes so much time beyond a Master’s degree.

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    Unlike other specialized graduate degrees, the PhD is a general name for a doctoral degree that is conferred upon students in a variety of disciplines. Unlike a Master’s degree program that takes two years to finish, it takes a much longer time to complete a PhD.

    It typically takes about four years to do a PhD, but this number is dependent on the subject the student is studying, the university’s requirements, and the student’s motivation to get through the program in a timely manner. These factors can easily drag out a doctoral program to anywhere from five to ten years. Read on to learn what a PhD degree program requires and how many years it takes to get a PhD.

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    What is a PhD?

    To understand how long it takes to do a PhD, you must first understand what a PhD degree is and the components that make up a doctoral program. The abbreviation PhD stands for Philosophiae Doctor, which is Latin for Doctor of Philosophy. Here, philosophy is an ancient term taken to mean science or knowledge, not the kind of philosophy where people ponder the existence of God and the nature of man’s place in the universe.

    A PhD is a type of doctoral degree in which a student intensely studies just one subject. Including subjects such as engineering, management, psychology, sociology, and many more, the PhD is a dedication to becoming an expert in one’s chosen field. In fact, a PhD student is not just becoming an expert in a field, he/she is becoming someone who is capable of conducting research in the field to create knowledge that didn’t exist before.

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    Why Does a PhD Take So Long?

    In preparation for becoming an independent scholar and researcher, the PhD student must traverse a number of difficult obstacles. The first part of any doctoral program typically includes two years of intense coursework. Unlike coursework in other degree programs, the PhD student is often required to read an insurmountable number of articles and published research to acquire mastery of the subject.

    Most doctoral programs offer assistantships to their students in which the student enjoys a modest stipend and a tuition waiver in exchange for teaching and research assisting. Assistance in these areas is usually a requirement for completion of a PhD. In fact, some universities do not allow their doctoral students to self-fund their way through a program for this reason.

    Before the final stage of a PhD program, the student must complete a series of comprehensive examinations that often spans several days. However, the final stage in a PhD student’s journey through a program is completion of a dissertation. The dissertation is the most common stage where the student fails to finish the program. In essence, the dissertation provides proof to the university and the student’s professors that the doctoral candidate is capable of producing new knowledge through research.

    More than just a demonstration of raw knowledge, the PhD student must use the dissertation to show every step involved in the creation of something new. The dissertation must significantly push the relevant literature forward and contribute to the body of growing knowledge in the student’s chosen field. It is for these reasons that a PhD dissertation can easily take one to four years to complete.

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    A PhD program is a long journey that transforms an individual from a student into an independent researcher and scholar. The process of doing a PhD takes so long because of the various requirements placed on the doctoral student before the university will consider the individual to be an independent scholar. If you are thinking of doing a PhD, be prepared for at least four to six years of intense study.