This question concerns PhD programs that, unlike most U.S. programs, don't start with a 2 year coursework program. That is, programs where you're expected to do a 2 year master before the PhD and then finish your PhD in about 3 years consisting solely of research. Let's say this concerns a PhD program at Oxford or Cambridge, UK.

I came to this question after reflecting on the fact that some PhD students finish their PhD in significantly shorter amount of time than average. I thought: What if we carry this to the extreme:

Consider the following scenario: Let's say that after obtaining a master's degree, a student spends 3 years working independently on their own research, and produces papers that in amount and quality would be sufficient for obtaining a PhD. Would it be acceptable for this student to simply register for a PhD program, and immediately hand in this work?

  • In this way, the student is registered for the PhD program for only a very short time (the time required to hand in the work, and do the thesis defence). Therefore presumably the student has to pay tuition only for this short period rather than for 3 years.

This question is not about whether trying this is advisable, but solely about whether universities will accept this.

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    More context please. Many PhD programs do not actually get any tuition from students, but rather pay them a stipend for their work in the department.
    – sessej
    Apr 15, 2018 at 14:39
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    Why not ask your potential supervisor at Oxford or Cambridge?
    – astronat
    Apr 15, 2018 at 19:55
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    At my university (in Australia), there is a minimum time in which students need to be enrolled before applying for graduation. I had a student who did exactly what you said and he/she managed to complete all required materials in one year. This student then left to do other things before coming back to hand in his/her thesis at the two year mark. Apr 15, 2018 at 21:18
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    I feel like this question has been asked and answered. For example: Can students finish much of their PhD thesis before applying to a PhD program?
    – 1006a
    Apr 16, 2018 at 0:09
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    @sessej: But (in the US, at least) that stipend is not paid by the university. Rather, it comes from research grants, and the university takes a chunk of the grants to fund overhead.
    – jamesqf
    Apr 16, 2018 at 3:50

6 Answers 6


Your question is based on a false premise.

In many countries (virtually all?) where the nominal PhD duration is 3 years, students are actually paid during their PhD, through a scholarship or a salary, and there is no tuition at all or a minimal one.

It doesn't make any sense, thus, to spend 3 years working independently, with no support from the adviser and for free.

Whether that would be accepted is highly dependent on the country or on the specific university regulations, and we cannot give a general answer. It seems that in my country, Italy, it was once allowed, but now it is no longer possible, by law (I didn't check very carefully though).

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    It is not based on a false premise. Not all universities give a stipend, and some ask for a non negligible tuition.
    – user56834
    Apr 15, 2018 at 15:10
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    Yes, but paying for a PhD is stupid. Why would you do that?
    – JeffE
    Apr 15, 2018 at 15:18
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    @MassimoOrtolano I think that it's fair to assume that every country which complied with the Bologna process and uses the ECTS system demands a minimum time engaged in a PhD program as requirement for the title. Despite the lack of classes, a phd candidate in the EU still needs to obtain ECTS through "courses", such as "Project of Thesis" and "Thesis in Topic X", which officially counts the research time as credits. In my university you can't achieve the minimum number of ECTS before finishing three years of doctorate.
    – The Doctor
    Apr 15, 2018 at 16:40
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    @JeffE In the UK, a lot of students, specially international students, do not get paid for doing a PhD because international fees are very high (~20K£/year) and its hard to get funding for them. Most of the non-EU PhD students in the UK I have met where paying for their PhD. Apr 16, 2018 at 10:05
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    @AnderBiguri Interestingly, in my research lab in the UK, not a single international PhD student is self-funded (nor would they consider it an option) and we have a healthy mix of EU and non-EU students. I'll admit hearing how finding funding for non-EU PhD's in the UK is a pain, but even that person was persistent (going through two funded Masters while searching for a PhD offer) and considered a payed PhD the only acceptable option (they got an offer and are happily enrolled in a PhD programme now).
    – penelope
    Apr 16, 2018 at 15:52

Since Cambridge is mentioned explicitly:

The regulations for PhD students in Cambridge require being enrolled and resident in Cambridge for (almost) three years. The residency requirement can be partially waived for fieldwork, but it is not possible to submit one’s thesis any earlier than 2 years 9 months after the start of the PhD studies.

The regulations do not prohibit the inclusion of any work done prior to the starting date into the thesis (except if they were used in the dissertation for some other degree), so if one wanted1 to, one could work ahead to ensure that one meets the 2-year, 9-month minimum time. The average time to completion is closer to 4 years, so this is non-trivial.

If the goal is to show up with an almost complete dissertation at some real university and get a doctorate asap, I’d look at German universities.

1. As specified in the question, I do not discuss whether this is a good idea.

  • Are you thinking of anything in particular in your last non-footnote paragraph? In particular, juxtaposing your suggestion with @TheDoctor 's comment on another answer would be interesting. Apr 15, 2018 at 21:27
  • I think you're looking at the wrong regulations. The special regulations for PhDs do not require residence, and even the "normal" PhD regulations (further up that page) allow a one year reduction in certain circumstances. Apr 15, 2018 at 22:37
  • @PeterTaylor : My answer is based on the info material I got when I was a PhD student at Cambridge. I believe the special regulations you found are for cases where people who ought to have a "proper" PhD (meaning Cambridge, Oxford, or Trinity College Dublin) don't have one. Similarly, Cambridge grants MAs to faculty members from elsewhere for ceremonial purposes.
    – Arno
    Apr 15, 2018 at 23:01
  • @O.R.Mapper Not really. It might be that my intuition here is based on outdated (ie pre-Bologna) data.
    – Arno
    Apr 15, 2018 at 23:02
  • @PeterTaylor Afaict cambridge's "special regulations" require you to be a cambridge graduate. Apr 16, 2018 at 0:26

Universities are unlikely to support the extreme scenario where a student is registered just for 1-2 years, even in the rare scenario that the advisor is in on such an agreement. There are a few reasons for this:

(1) Administrative requirements: Most universities require periodic meetings, reviews and approvals from the doctoral committee. In a very short time, it is unlikely that these will be met.

(2) Academic requirements: Some universities require students to attend a certain number of conferences as a mandatory requirement. This may not be possible in a short time. Same goes for symposia, colloquium and seminars to be delivered by the student.

I think 3 years would be the minimum required for all this, barring exceptions. It is a good idea to start some work in advance if you want to finish early, but what you are proposing may be unrealistic.


That is, programs where you're expected to do a 2 year master before the PhD and then finish your PhD in about 3 years consisting solely of research. Let's say this concerns a PhD program at Oxford or Cambridge, UK.

I don't know where you get the idea that you are "expected to do a 2 year masters" before starting a UK PhD. Only an undergraduate degree is required though many students in the UK will do a 4 year "undergraduate masters" (Meng, Mmath Mphys etc) instead of a traditional 3 year bachelors degree and having such a degree is likely to be a plus when applying (I have seen PhD positions advertised as first class bachelors or 2-1 undergraduate maters).

This question is not about whether trying this is advisable, but solely about whether universities will accept this.

Trying to do this under a traditional PhD program is likely to be problematic. Many UK PhD programs, even those that don't have any taught component will have a minimum time requirement or things like end of first year and end of second year reports that must be completed and marked.

There is another option, many universities in the UK offer special PhD programs designed to allow people with a PhD standard body of published work to convert that work into a PhD.

Cambridge have such a program under the name "special regulations" https://www.cambridgestudents.cam.ac.uk/your-course/examinations/graduate-exam-information/higher-degrees/phd-special-regulations but it is limited to Cambridge graduates. My google-fu isn't turning up whether Oxford have a similar program.

I suspect the reason for restriction to Cambridge graduates is one of workload. The university has a limited capacity for such requests and opening them up to anyone would result in them being inundated. According to https://www.independent.co.uk/student/postgraduate/postgraduate-study/the-alternative-way-to-get-a-phd-1942607.html such a restriction is quite common.

However as you move down the list to lower status Universties you will find ones that don't have such a requirement. Warick's for example seems to be open to any "graduates of at least seven year’s standing normally holding a Bachelor’s degree or equivalent." (I presume they mean people who graduated at least 7 years ago, but i'm not 100% sure on how to interpret that phrase) https://warwick.ac.uk/study/postgraduate/research/phdbypublishedwork/


This question is not about whether trying this is advisable, but solely about whether universities will accept this.


Ramanujan got a degree from Cambridge (described here as equivalent to a PhD), and was even elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, without satisfying any of the usual formal requirements some of the other answers mention. This shows that universities (and Cambridge specifically) “will accept” basically anything in extreme, highly unusual situations in order to grant someone a degree that they feel the person is intellectually deserving of.

This is of course not a typical or realistic example, but the scenario described in your question isn’t much more realistic than that.

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    Ramanujan’s degree was awarded in 1916. I doubt such an arrangement is possible today.
    – aeismail
    Apr 15, 2018 at 21:09
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    @aeismail if a genius of Ramanujan’s caliber came around today and did similarly groundbreaking work as an independent researcher, I think it is not only possible, but in fact overwhelmingly likely, that that person will have many important academic honors (a PhD and much more) bestowed on them. So I don’t know what you mean when you say it is not possible. Of course, the initial set of events setting such a story in motion is extremely unlikely, but so is the general premise described in the question.
    – Dan Romik
    Apr 15, 2018 at 22:22
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    @aeismail, here is the relevant section from the current Statutes and Ordinances. Ramanujan wouldn't qualify, because he didn't have a bachelor's degree, but I think you may still be surprised at what is possible. Apr 15, 2018 at 22:34
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    @DanRomik I don’t believe OP’s question assumes a six-sigma talent such as Ramanujan.
    – aeismail
    Apr 15, 2018 at 22:39
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    @aeismail it’s not a matter of belief. I answered the question as it was asked, it’s up to OP to specify the number of sigmas if that’s something he/she cares about. And yes, obviously the answer is of little practical value, but as I once said in a comment to another answer, it is always worthwhile to bring Ramanujan into the discussion...
    – Dan Romik
    Apr 16, 2018 at 2:36

Another angle is that universities* think of themselves as nurturing scholarship, not certifying work.

*All true universities. :) My sense is that wholly exam-based models, or of certifying past experience, are more limited to undergraduate study.

Let's say that you produced a set of papers of exactly the same quality as the doctoral thesis student S successfully submitted and defended for a university's program. There are many reasons why the two are not the same (at least in the eyes of the university).

  • S contributed to the academic community for several years (being mentored and mentoring), and this matters.

  • The supervisor will have watched S develop these ideas and is reassured not only that the work is original, but also that S knows how to think through problems. The supervisor can vouch for S's potential for further research but does not have the same information on you.

  • Every supervisor and committee will ask for something different, and a high-quality thesis you developed independently will not necessarily match the standards/preferences/whims of these particular academics.

    • This need not be a superficial or petty thing: some departments have different methodological or theoretical histories and leanings, and it is important to them that their graduates all demonstrate fluency in the "correct" way of doing things.
  • Making a regular practice of granting doctorates for work completed elsewhere would create horrible incentives. Some people would enroll as doctoral students at low-ranking universities, spend however many years it takes there to write a good dissertation, and then shop their thesis around to the most prestigious school they can to get their stamp of approval. The low-ranking universities would probably suffer, and students at the high-ranking schools would be disgruntled that their exact same degree is being offered to so many other people in a different path.

  • Finally, and most importantly, professors and universities often have a goal of imparting skills to people and fostering the growth of knowledge. If you have the talent to come in with a complete dissertation, then they will (ideally) want to challenge you further and see what you can do surrounded by other brilliant minds and with the institution's resources. They want you to perform further research under their aegis, though it's only in the rarest cases (cf. Ramanujan) that they would approach this by awarding you a doctorate and making you a fellow.

Based on the model of the university proposed in the question, it should be of equivalent value to get a doctorate as to publish three strong papers in a top journal as an independent scholar. (Or to publish a peer-reviewed book, say at a university press, if that is in line with one's disciplinary norms.) If you do not believe that the two are equivalent, then examining the differences might tell you what is lost in this process and/or why universities would rarely grant doctorates for work conducted prior to enrollment.

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