Graduate School Completion Timeline for Master's and PhD Students

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Grad school is like a quest or a game: there are thresholds to cross and tasks to complete and they get tougher with each level you cross. Here’s a look at the steps you need to take and the levels you need to reach before you get that stamp that says Master of … or see the magic words PhD on a certificate with your name on it.

Obviously, you don’t want to spend the rest of your life accomplishing these tasks. At the same time, while the Master’s can be worked into a schedule, the time it takes for a PhD degree cannot be accurately predicted. The graduate school completion timeline provided below gives you an indication of the average time you should plan to spend on each level and task. Your actual time taken will vary according to your talent, capabilities and your luck!

Step One: Coursework

Time: 18-24 months

Although course requirements differ from school to school and across departments, graduate programs generally ask you to complete upwards of 60 hours of course credits for Master’s and PhD programs. Most grad students are also, at the same time, working 20 hours a week on teaching or research projects as Teaching or Research Assistants.

Of course, there are a minimum number of credits you need to take in order to be considered a full time student at your university. Even if you take on more load than the minimum stipulation, you would need at least 18 months to complete your coursework for a Master’s degree. Those in integrated programs who don’t have their Master’s but are committed to a PhD degree will need to complete the Master’s requirement on coursework and may also need to take a few extra credits towards their PhD coursework. The Master’s will then be awarded to them as they work towards the PhD degree.

So plan a minimum of 18 months and a maximum of 2 years to complete your coursework.

Graduate students should also, during this time, set up and complete the paperwork for the advisory committees that will supervise their research and thesis/dissertation.

Step Two: Master’s Thesis/Comprehensive Exams

Time: 6-12 months

For those intending to finish with a Master’s degree, a research-based thesis needs to be completed before the degree can be conferred on them. Unlike the PhD dissertation, this thesis does not need to show original research but it must satisfy your advisory committee that you have achieved a special expertise in a specific area within your subject. You would also need to go through an oral defense of your Master’s thesis.

Master’s students: your graduate school completion timeline ends here.

For PhD students, however, the actual work is just beginning. Now that your coursework is done, you will need to take your written Comprehensive Exams. The actual syllabus for this examination will differ from department to department but it is bound to be an exhaustive review of the literature in your subject. A huge body of knowledge must be read and assimilated before you announce yourself ready to take these exams and how long you will take will depend entirely on your own pace and confidence.

After you’ve taken your written comprehensive examinations, you will need to defend them orally to your committee. In the oral defense, your committee will also ask you about the focus of the research you would like to undertake. After you’ve passed the comprehensives, you are effectively ABD and officially a PhD candidate.

Step Three: Dissertation Proposal and Defense

Time: 3-6 months

You will now have to work with your committee members to hone the focus and scope of your research. Once everybody is satisfied that you are going in the right direction, you will need to sit and actually write your dissertation proposal. This is also the time for you to make any final changes on your committee. Your committee may ask you to present and defend your proposal at a meeting. Once this is done and ratified, you are ready to begin filling in all the paperwork your University asks of PhD Candidates.

Step Four: The Dissertation

Time: 6 months-3 years

This is the period when your graduate school timeline will need to become a bit flexible. How long you take on finishing your research to the point when you are ready to write it depends on your subject and yourself. I’ve known this time to be absolutely thrilling for some and totally frustrating for others.

Writing your dissertation involves an intensive period of time when you’re steeped in your lonely task. You should also format your work according to your University’s guidelines and get each chapter approved by the members of your committee as you go to omit major rewriting at the end.

Once you’re done, your dissertation must be bound and submitted according to your university’s rules. You’re almost at the end now.

Step Five: The Dissertation Defense

Time: 30 minutes-3 hours

Intimidating it may be, but your dissertation defense is also the last formality before you are conferred the title of “Dr.” The defense comes in varying styles. You may have to make a formal presentation and field questions from your full department. Or you may have a round table question answer session with your committee. Whatever the style, it will be memorable and you will be nervous.

With the defense, the academic requirements for your PhD are over and now you only have to clear all your financial dues, finish the paperwork, empty your office and say your goodbyes.

Parting Words

Before I finish this graduate school completion timeline, let me remind you that it’s not all over until the convocation happens. Don’t forget to add the day you’ll stand proudly in your gown and mortarboard to receive your doctoral certificate to your timeline!