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How Long Does a PhD Take?

Philosophy, physics, public health—whatever your passion may be, it’s grown enough to bring you to where you are right now: researching PhD programs on the internet. 

You know your heart’s in it but is your calendar on the same page? How long does a PhD take exactly?

As you may have expected, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. That’s because a PhD program varies widely between programs and course loads. However, to give you a better idea of what to expect in terms of the time commitment, you’ll want to factor in a timeline ranging anywhere from 5 to 8 years.

In this article, we’ll break that number down a bit more, outlining factors that may alter the overall time spent on your post-graduate studies. From there, you’ll be able to make a more informed choice about whether pursuing a PhD is right for you. 

What is the Average Time it Takes to Get a PhD?

5.8 years—that’s the average amount of time a student spends on their PhD program, according to a US News report on the Survey of Earned Doctorates in 2017. The specific field of study, however, may tilt this average higher or lower. Based on their findings, for example, programs in the humanities took longer, averaging closer to 7.1 years to obtain a PhD.1

So why do some students take longer than others? This can be due to a variety of factors. Reports show that the average time it takes to get a PhD is getting longer, usually due to the obligations the student has on top of their course load. In years past, students could expect a standard 5-year PhD program. Now, however, there may be more competing priorities that are vying for their attention.2

Today, PhD students tend to be a bit of mixed batch—from those emerging right out of graduate school to those obtaining their doctorate while still working or maintaining a family. Because of these extra obligations, students may:

  • Opt for a less rigorous course load each semester
  • Take a semester off entirely to focus on a career opportunity or family
  • Be faced with less time to work on their dissertation

Regardless of the field of study, factors such as these may cause some PhD programs to extend longer than others.

A Rough Timeline of the PhD Program

If you’re struggling to wrap your head around seven or more years spent in a PhD program, then it might be helpful to lay out a timeline of what the average PhD student spends their time on each academic year.3

Keep in mind that the specific trajectory may change from program to program. To give you a general idea, however, here’s an overview of a typical PhD track: 

  • Years 1-3 – During this time, students will usually take a variety of elective courses paired with some research components. At this point, they may work as a teaching aid or research assistant to help offset the costs of their program and to earn valuable, hands-on experience within the field.
  • Passing a comprehensive examination – After their coursework has been completed, students will often be required to put their proficiency in their field to the test by undergoing a detailed evaluation, typically in the form of a written or oral exam. Preparing for this kind of exam can often take the better part of a year.
  • Year 4+  – Once a PhD candidate has succeeded in passing the comprehensive exam, they typically begin their research and dissertation. Depending on the field, this process can take several years and is typically subject to reviews and standardized requirements. Finally, most candidates must have their dissertation evaluated and approved by a panel of professors in order for their doctorate degree to be officially granted. 

What Else to Consider Before Pursuing a PhD

Time isn’t the only thing you should consider before embarking on a PhD program but it is closely linked to a few other factors you’ll want to consider, such as:

  • How long you’ll want to live in a particular place
  • How long you’re willing to commit to studying a particular subject
  • What institution and faculty members will help make sure your time is well spent

Before you take the plunge into a PhD program be sure to weigh out the pros and cons of things such as:

  • Topic – If you’re going to invest nearly half a decade in a particular subject matter, you’ll want to make sure it’s something you’re truly committed to. PhD programs can be quite varied, so don’t settle for something unless it’s the right fit for your particular interests. 
  • Location – Unless you’re pursuing a doctorate degree online, location will likely come into play when deciding where to advance your studies. In addition to meeting your academic interests, the university at which you pursue your PhD should be located in a city or town you’d be comfortable living in for an extended period of time. 
  • Faculty support – You may think you’ve found the perfect university but have you gotten the chance to learn more about the faculty members who are at the forefront of your program? Since you’ll typically work closely with an academic supervisor throughout your PhD program, make sure your research interests are supported by people who you get along well with—and who are experts in your field. 

Explore PhD Programs With Alliant International University

Now that you’ve got a clearer idea of a typical PhD timeline, you may be ready to take the next step forward. Finding a program that fits your interests and your schedule is easy when you explore the options available to you at Alliant International University. 

Here at Alliant we offer a number of PhD programs in Clinical Psychology, Leadership, Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Plus, you can choose whether to study online or in person at one of our six campuses in California. 

For better insight into our PhD, PsyD, DBA, and JD programs, check out our page that details the specifics of our doctoral degrees today. 


  1.  “How Long Does It Take to Get a PhD Degree?” US News. August 12, 2019.…. Accessed January 31, 2021.
  2.  “What Is the Average Time to Obtain a PhD?” GradSchoolHub. June 3, 2021.…. Accessed January 31, 2021.
  3.  “What Is the Average Time to Obtain a PhD?” GradSchoolHub. June 3, 2021.… Accessed January 31, 2021. 

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