Regardless of the subject, the doctorate degree is the highest level of educational achievement. It qualifies you as a top expert in your field and opens the door to a wide range of career paths. Not all programs are the same, and time to completion can vary quite a bit. Some doctorate programs may be longer or shorter due to the nature of the subject, with some taking just a few years and others taking much longer. In many cases, though, you have some control over the length.
While some aspects of doctoral program length are unchangeable, there are some specific actions you can take to make your program shorter or longer depending on your needs. This guide outlines reasons why prospective students might want to choose longer or shorter doctorate timelines given their goals and background. You’ll also find out what components are involved in earning a doctorate, examine subject-specific differences, and learn what the typical timeline for study is.
Components of the Doctorate Degree
While doctorate programs can differ a little or a lot depending on the school and other factors, there are some common elements including main requirements and general timelines. Most schools typically require some combination of the following components, and each will impact your length of study in different ways.
For most PhD programs, this is the final requirement. Dissertations can be conceptual in nature or more practice-based depending on the field and topic of study. In either case, the project pursues an approved research question outlined by the student. It synthesizes gained insight, presents research findings, and offers contributions that further the discipline and drive broader scholarly conversations.
Programs that administer professional doctorates sometimes require a doctoral capstone instead of a dissertation (business, education, and nursing, for example). The outcome is essentially the same — it prepares candidates for expert work applying gained skills and knowledge. Capstone projects interact with existing research and develop an actionable solution to real-world problems.
Some schools may require students to declare a chosen specialization up front. Others offer opportunities for exploration to help you select where you want to stake out your expertise. These specializations often draw upon related disciplines for additional insight. For example, students pursuing a doctorate in anthropology may choose a specialization in archaeology, medical anthropology, or cultural anthropology.
Core coursework occurs at the beginning of a doctoral program and establishes a foundational baseline. These classes also serve to survey the primary methods of inquiry and research specific to the discipline you’re studying. The expectation is that students will become conversant in these conventions so they can apply them in their dissertation or capstone project.
Residency requirements usually happen concurrently alongside coursework and normally last at least 1–2 years. In most cases, students are required to complete a certain number of credits in residency at their institution, making additional progress toward degree completion in the meantime. Specifics vary quite a bit, even for online doctorates — some forgo it altogether; others may require residency visits. It is also an opportunity for students to network with peers, meet alumni, and establish connections with faculty and other industry professionals.
Dissertation defense or capstone presentation
Often the final step in doctoral study, this element gives candidates the opportunity to present their findings before a committee of faculty experts as a newly minted peer. For capstone presentations, students field questions that deal with how their work effectively solves a pressing problem. In dissertation defenses, students are asked to defend their analytical choices and demonstrate how their research impacts the discipline.
Once students finish all coursework requirements, they normally complete qualifying or comprehensive examinations. These exams may be oral, written, or some combination of the two depending on the program. The purpose of this requirement is to evaluate core areas of competency and to ensure that students are ready to move into the final stages of their program.
Before conducting independent research and creating a dissertation or capstone project, doctoral students must develop a proposal. This proposal is subject to approval by their department and faculty advisor who may request revisions or adjustments. The expectation is that the proposal will clearly outline the research question or real-world problem the doctoral candidate plans to address in their work.
Typical PhD & Doctorate Timeline
Timelines for completion vary for any program, but this is especially true at the doctoral level. Some candidates can fast-track and finish in as few as two or three years, but many take up to six years or more. Factors to keep in mind include field of study, residency components, and whether a dissertation is required. Here’s what a typical timeline might look like.
Students start by getting acquainted with their program, their cohort, and their faculty advisors. Most begin core coursework requirements that address program-specific learning outcomes. They also identify electives and other potential opportunities that will help facilitate their research interests including conferences and professional development events. Some programs may also require filing an individual plan of study with an explanation of academic intentions.
Candidates finish core coursework and begin completing electives that sharpen their interests and deepen their specialization. This may mean selecting an appropriate subfield or establishing connections with cognate disciplines. Some schools may also ask that students begin conducting preliminary research that anticipates their dissertation or capstone project.
At this stage, students begin to complete integrative practicum requirements. In many cases, this will likely entail teaching in some capacity, and it could also involve additional research requirements or a lab component. Some programs may place students with senior faculty members as teaching assistants, others could ask that students design their own course as a sole instructor.
Once coursework is complete and degree-seekers acquire additional experience, they move to qualifying or comprehensive examinations. This requirement evaluates gained skills and technical knowledge. It also assesses the student’s readiness for independent scholarly research and may involve an oral component depending on the program.
Candidates begin to plan their dissertation or capstone project. Most schools will require a written proposal that must be reviewed by a panel of faculty experts. That proposal should clearly articulate the question or problem the project will address along with tentative hypotheses.
In some fields, this time is spent conducting research, writing and revising the final project in light of findings, defending the project, and preparing for life after graduation. Other fields could require further service for the university, additional lab work, or a field placement. If a dissertation is required, once it is complete the candidate must complete an oral defense before a committee of faculty members that can assess its merits.
What Can Make the Time to Earn a Doctorate Faster?
There are a number of reasons why you might want to select a program that takes less time. Earning a doctorate can be extremely demanding, but finishing your program quickly can put you in a good position to reap the benefits and advance your career. The list below looks at some elements that might expedite your path to completion.
Embedded dissertations or no dissertations
For most students, the dissertation is the single most time-consuming element of a doctorate program. Earning a doctorate in a field that does not require a dissertation can significantly shorten program length. Some programs use an embedded dissertation model to help reduce length. A popular option for education doctorates, an embedded dissertation lets you begin working on your project early in your studies.
As with other degrees, accelerated doctorate options let students complete program requirements ahead of the normal schedule. Students who can study full time with little to no outside commitments will find this an ideal path. It usually involves enrolling in extra classes up front or taking advantage of winter terms to satisfy core coursework requirements.
Many online doctorate programs eliminate extended residency requirements in an effort to expedite your graduation timeline, though some programs may still require in-person components depending on the school. If you are open to taking online classes or moving through a doctoral program using virtual tools, an online program could be the key to finishing your program faster.
Some doctoral programs use a cohort model, which means you enter with a group of peers and move through your studies together. By contrast, self-paced options let you pursue your degree at a rate that makes sense given your circumstances. This can be especially useful near the end of the program when students pursue dissertation and capstone projects that may differ in terms of length or demand.
If you carry relevant, transferable credits earned at an accredited institution, you can bring those with you as you begin working on your doctorate. This could save a lot of time, depending on the classes and the school’s transfer policy. If you plan ahead, you could even satisfy some core coursework requirements before you begin the program.
Fewer language requirements
Some doctorates require students to come to the program with significant prowess in additional languages or research methods (this is usually the case in the humanities). This could make a program take longer depending on your background and experience, so progressing through a program with fewer requirements can definitely help reduce your time in school.
3 Fast Doctorates
Under the right circumstances, these doctorate programs tend to move faster than others. If you’re pursuing one of these doctorate degrees, you may already have a master’s degree in the subject, which can make the program go even faster.
Doctorate in Education
Unlike a PhD in education, a doctorate in education (EdD) is a professional degree that prepares practitioners for high-level leadership roles in the field. This doctorate is less research-focused and instead builds on previous life and work experience to deepen skills necessary for administrative or instructional design positions. Most full-time students can complete study in approximately three years.
Doctor of Public Health (DrPH)
Like other options mentioned in this list, the doctor of public health is a professional program. It prepares candidates for senior-level roles as safety engineers, epidemiologists, and health services managers. Most students receive their credentials in three to four years, and many are able to leverage current professional experience to accelerate their studies and reduce their time in school.
Psychology Doctorate (PsyD)
This course of study prepares candidates for work as psychologists, counselors, and expert clinicians. Like other professional doctorates, it is a practice-oriented degree and because of that designation it takes less time than other options. In fact, if you already work in the discipline or have significant hands-on experience in a relevant setting you may be able to bypass supervised fieldwork or clinical placement hours.
What Can Make Earning a Doctorate Slower?
Depending on your circumstances, a slower pace may be unavoidable and could ultimately be more advantageous. For example, in more research-based fields, it may take longer to conceptualize your dissertation project and analyze all the data. This puts you in a good position to hone your expertise. Here are a few additional factors to consider.
Doctoral students sometimes enroll on part-time basis due to a number of reasons. Some need to balance work and personal commitments with their studies. Others may need to take their research at a slower pace due to the nature of their proposed project. Regardless of the reason, part-time study almost always extends your timeframe, especially in the late stages of programs that require original scholarship or data reports.
Research-focused doctorates that require a standard dissertation are among the longest terminal programs out there. Producing a well-researched dissertation doesn’t always mean extra time, but there are a lot of variables and factors that could extend your timetable such as program-specific objectives, research detours, and revision requirements.
Some doctorates may require certain prerequisites before you can begin completing core program requirements. Specifics on this can vary quite a bit, but if your previous academic credentials are in a different subject then it is likely that your school may ask for additional coursework. That will put you in a better position to be successful further down the line, but it will also add time to your studies.
Not having a master’s degree
This will also extend your program length. Not having a master’s degree in your field isn’t a dealbreaker but it does mean you will need to fulfill some extra requirements. For example, some PhD programs admit candidates that only have relevant undergraduate credentials, but this almost always means they will need to earn a master’s degree along the way. Those programs have clear pathways to accomplish that, but it takes extra time.
Clinical/residency component, etc.
Many doctoral programs stipulate up front residency requirements that last several years. This means you will need to reside in the area for a set amount of time and in most cases those requirements cannot be waived. Some professional doctorates may also require a clinical rotation or fieldwork placement. If you do not hold any previous professional experience in your field this could also extend your time frame.
3 Doctorates That Take More Time
Due to a variety of factors, these programs can take more time. Not only do they have more requirements, but they can be slowed down for students who want to take more time to get their degree.
PhD in Education
Unlike the EdD discussed above, this program is more research intensive and thus takes longer. It prepares candidates for roles as professional researchers and data analysts, consultants, and college professors teaching future educators. It almost always involves a theory-based dissertation project, which often takes extra time to complete.
PhD in Psychology
Similarly, this doctorate correlates with the PsyD, but unlike that program this one offers a more academic focus with more time-consuming requirements. It qualifies candidates for work as scientists rather than clinicians and usually entails additional training to meet those demands. Prospective students should expect to add an extra year or two to their plan of study.
PhD in Anthropology
One of the longer programs out there, the PhD in anthropology can take up to seven years to complete, according to recent data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates. Like other programs in the humanities and social sciences, it requires coursework up front, an original dissertation project and independent research near the end, and additional rigor throughout.
Use our short quiz to see if your past education, experience, or circumstances will make it faster to earn your desired PhD or professional doctorate.
T or F: I have some postgraduate work completed.
You will be in a good position to finish faster, especially if you have a graduate degree. You may still need to satisfy residency requirements but should still be able to complete your program more quickly.
Doctoral programs don’t always expect new students to have a lot of postgraduate work under their belt. But your study may take longer because you will need to develop additional skills and knowledge.
T or F: I will need to work full time.
Doctoral students often need to work full-time for a number of reasons (career advancement, financial stability, etc.). This extends your timeline because it means balancing professional responsibilities with rigorous study.
You are in a better position to complete your doctorate quickly because you can focus on program requirements. It will also be easier for you to take advantage of available accelerated options.
T or F: I have personal obligations that take more than five hours a week.
This may not make as big of an impact as full-time work, but could still extend your timeline, especially if the obligations lack regular structure and frequency.
You’re good to go. It’s always a good idea to plan ahead, but you should be able to progress through your studies without deferral or delay.
T or F: I plan to pursue a professional doctorate, not a PhD.
Professional doctorates tend to take less time. You will still need to complete a capstone project but should be able to graduate faster than you would otherwise.
Timelines vary quite a bit, but you should plan for things to take a little longer. This is because you will be asked to produce original scholarship and conduct independent research.
T or F: I want to complete my studies online.
You may be able to earn your doctorate much faster, depending on your program, academic background, and professional goals.
Studying in-person doesn’t automatically extend your time to completion, but you may need to satisfy additional requirements that take more time, like a residency.
- Council of Graduate Schools
A national consortium, this organization promotes graduate research and education. It maintains a best practices portal designed for doctoral students and recent graduates.
- Education Resources Information Center
This site helps support doctorate candidates by making new resources available and disseminating education-related reports and white papers.
- Inside Higher Ed
This site is a leading source for the latest news and developments in higher education. It publishes data reports and extends a career board for educators and graduates.
- Institute of Education Sciences
This independent, nonpartisan institute gathers scientific data and evidence used to promote education and public policy. It often publishes evaluative findings from the U.S. Department of Education.
- National Association of Graduate-Professional Students
The only national organization of its kind, this student-run organization offers support to doctoral candidates across the disciplines.
- Postgrad Forum
Graduate students across the globe rely on this resource as an outlet for discussion and support. Popular topics include funding, general help and advice, and professional development.
- School-based Resources
Most schools provide research and education resources specifically designed for their doctoral students. UCLA and East Carolina University offer especially good examples.
- Survey of Earned Doctorates
Each year, graduating doctoral candidates complete this survey (a census, essentially). It is a great place to learn more about doctorates in your field, including how long it might take to earn one.
- The Chronicle of Higher Education
A premier news source, this publication covers higher education in the U.S., offering analysis and trend insights. It also publicizes available career opportunities.
- The PhD Project
This organization strives to increase diversity in education and workplace settings. It focuses its efforts on support for under-served populations in business and leadership.