Part-Time vs. Full-Time PhD: Which One Is Right for You?
Returning to school can be a huge decision, especially if you’re a working adult. There are many factors to consider, including how you’ll find the time to do the required work. Because of this, many people may struggle to decide between a full-time and part-time PhD program.
The good news is that the only true difference between the two types of programs is the length of time it’ll take you to complete your work. The coursework and other components are typically the same.
This guide will help you weigh the pros and cons of committing to a full or part-time PhD program so that you can decide which option is best for your goals and lifestyle.
What’s the Difference Between a Part-Time and Full-Time PhD?
The only notable difference between a part-time and full-time PhD is the amount of time it takes you to complete your degree. You’ll still be responsible for completing the required research and coursework.
That being said, the experience of a part-time PhD program may feel significantly different from that of a full-time student because:
- Full-time PhD candidates have more time to spend on their research and coursework
- Part-time candidates may have other commitments competing with schoolwork
- Financial assistance opportunities may vary depending on your program choice
- Research for a full-time student might be more immersive
The best choice for you is going to be the option that allows you to balance your educational commitments with the rest of your life. To give you a better understanding of what these educational obligations might be, let’s take a deep dive into full and part-time PhD programs.
The Ins and Outs of Full-Time PhD Programs
A full-time PhD program is similar to a full-time job. It’s typically an immersive experience with two main goals:
- Grow a student’s knowledge about an important topic
- Provide training to improve skills through research and collaboration
The path to these outcomes can be quite lengthy. Although your specific road might look a little different based on the institution and field of study you choose, the typical PhD program includes:1
- Coursework – You’ll likely begin your program by taking graduate courses in your field to expand your knowledge base. Courses in research methods and scholarly writing will also be part of your curriculum. These are important preparation for the writing you’ll be expected to do as you progress through your program.
- Research – The time you spend outside of the classroom will mainly be used to research for your dissertation. The skills you acquire through your coursework will help you unearth sources, conduct experiments, or perform other research tasks.
- Meetings – You’ll also have regularly scheduled meetings with your PhD supervisor. The frequency and length of these meetings will depend on your institution and program. Here, you’ll discuss your progress, review your research, and get advice about your work.
- Teaching or fieldwork – Some PhD candidates are required to teach a certain number of classes during their time with an institution. Others must complete an internship, fieldwork, or another project. Your requirements will depend on the program you’re enrolled in and the institution you attend.
- Writing the dissertation – The pinnacle of your PhD program is, of course, the dissertation. This can take years to complete and is often the factor that extends the length of time it takes someone to finish their studies. It’s the compilation of all of your hard work, research, analysis, and writing.
- Defending your dissertation – Once you make that final edit to your dissertation, you’re almost finished. However, there’s one crucial step remaining: your dissertation defense. This is an oral exam where you present and answer questions about your research to a committee. The committee then decides if you have passed or if corrections are needed.
After the defense and committee approval, you’ll submit the final copy of your manuscript and be awarded your coveted degree.
Every PhD program is going to look a little different depending on your field of study and institution. A very general example of required coursework for a full-time student might look something like this:
- Year 1 – Two full semesters of coursework, including some specialized courses in your areas of study. More generalized research design and research methods courses may take up a significant portion of your classroom time.
- Year 2 – The second year will also contain two full semesters of classes. You’ll take more courses focused specifically on researching and developing a proposal. This will prepare you to begin working on your dissertation.
- Year 3 – Your course load will be smaller as your dissertation research and writing begins. If teaching, clinical work, or lab work is required in your program, you’ll work on these tasks while also working on your dissertation.
- Year 4 and beyond – You might have a few remaining courses to take, but your time after year three is primarily dedicated to your research and writing until your dissertation is complete.
A full-time PhD program can be an intense endeavor. It requires approximately the same amount of time as a full-time job each week—about 35 to 40 hours. The way those hours are distributed depends on where you are in your program. For the first two years, the bulk of your time will likely be spent in the classroom.
After that, you’ll likely be researching, writing, and completing other required duties.
According to the National Science Foundation’s “Survey of Earned Doctorates”, there were 55,283 completed doctorate degrees in the United States in 2020.2 The median length of time from beginning to completion was 5.8 years. At a minimum, most PhD programs take about 4 years, but even full-time students can take longer.
The time it takes you to complete your PhD as a full-time student is heavily dependent on how quickly and effectively you complete your dissertation. Factors that can delay completion include:
- You struggle with your research
- Writing takes longer than expected
- Your dissertation requires significant edits
- Life circumstances interfere with your studies
It’s important to remember that taking longer to finish your degree doesn’t diminish the accomplishment. Don’t get discouraged if you need to make revisions or if your research isn’t finished as quickly as you’d hoped.
A Full-Time PhD Program Might be Right for You If…
Students who successfully enroll in full-time PhD programs do so with the understanding that it’s a significant time commitment. Full-time programs might be best suited for students who:
- Don’t hold a full-time job
- Have the financial support needed
- Can commit as many as 40 hours per week to their school work
- Have significant schedule flexibility to accommodate classes, research, and other obligations
You might also begin as a full-time student and later make the switch to part-time if your circumstances change.
The Ins and Outs of Part-Time PhD Programs
Part-time PhD programs can offer students a little more flexibility. In fact, no two part-time PhD students are likely to have a program that looks the same. However, there are a few common traits among part-time PhD programs, such as:
- More flexibility in coursework
- Less of a financial burden all at once since costs are spread out over a longer period
- Less disruptive of your other life commitments
- More time to research
In a part-time program, you’ll likely have more time to attend to your other obligations. The trade-off is that you’ll be a student for far longer than you would if you attend school full-time. The work you must do is the same as if you attend full-time, it’s just spread out over more years.
Some key differences in the time commitment include:
- Classroom time – You’ll take the same classes as a full-time student but instead of finishing most of the core work in the first year or two, it might take you three or four years.
- Weekly hours – If you’re a part-time student, you’ll likely spend half the hours working. This equates to about 15 to 20 hours per week that you’ll need to dedicate to school. Of course, this time might change depending on how your program and institution define part-time.
- Years to complete – The timeframe for part-time students to complete a PhD varies. The “Survey of Earned Doctorates” doesn’t differentiate between part and full-time students in its completion data. Anecdotally, a part-time PhD student might take anywhere from 5 to 10 years or more to complete their degree.3
The biggest takeaway about part-time PhD programs is that they’re highly variable, especially when it comes to completion times.
A Part-Time PhD Program Might be Right for You If…
Many students can benefit from the flexibility offered by a part-time PhD program. You might be the perfect candidate if you:
- Have a family
- Need time for other obligations
- Prefer to work more slowly
Keep in mind that you might be able to start slowly and increase your workload as you go through your programs and life changes.
Find Your Perfect PhD Match
A PhD program can be a challenging and time-consuming commitment, whether you’re a full-time or part-time student. In fact, there isn’t a significant difference between the two, other than the time it takes to finish your degree. A part-time option can allow working adults or those with other life obligations to work toward a doctoral degree at a slower pace that’s more conducive to their needs.
If you’re considering a full or part-time PhD program, Alliant International University might be the right choice for you. Check out our offerings today to see if we’re a perfect match for your educational goals.
- “The PhD Experience: A Review of the Factors Influencing Doctoral Students’ Completion, Achievement, and Well-Being.” International Journal of Doctoral Studies. 2018. http://ijds.org/Volume13/IJDSv13p361-388Sverdlik4134.pdf. Accessed January 27, 2022.
- “Survey of Earned Doctorates.” National Science Foundation. November 30, 2021. https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf22300/data-tables. Accessed January 27, 2022.
- “How Long Does it Take to Get a PhD Degree?” U.S. News and World Report. August 12, 2019. https://www.usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/articles/2019-08…. Accessed January 27, 2022.