I'm an undergrad who plans on applying to PhD programs in an EECS area very soon. I have some questions about the time it takes for a PhD. 5-6 years seems like a very long time to do a PhD. My question is: why does it take that long? I thought that you just needed to publish a sufficient amount of new research.

In that case, why would it be very hard to finish in about 3 years? I've known a chunk of undergrads applying to grad school with 1-3 publications in good journals acquired by working several months over the summer or doing part time work in a lab (me included co first authoring from a summer research), so I don't understand why finishing in 3 years is so rare (according to what is said online). Also, since GPA doesn't matter at all for grad school, I would think a PhD student could put in minimal effort for some C's and pass the class, and if they have a stipend, they wouldn't need to teach.

I looked at a PhD thesis from a good university, and it only has about three papers in it. Furthermore, the PhD candidate himself wasn't sole author so I can assume he had plenty of help.

Also, I'm just curious, if you happen by luck to stumble on something groundbreaking during your first month there, is it possible to finish your PhD in less than a year?

  • 1
    Every school is different. You'll need to complete coursework, pass qualifying exams, begin research, pass prelims, write your dissertation, and defend. That's why the timeframe is usually four to six years. Jun 27, 2018 at 22:48
  • Not every PhD project is created equal either. I know people in physics who needed ~6 years to build the experimental setup they needed to start taking data. Getting said data and analyzing it is hardly an immediate matter either. For others, they needed to schedule time at a facility to conduct their experiments. After a long lead time, tough luck, the machine's down during your scheduled time, and it'll be shut down the next 1.5 years for upgrades...
    – Anyon
    Jun 27, 2018 at 23:03
  • I know plenty of people in the human sciences that require two years easy just to collect data, that doesn't include design or analysis time Jun 28, 2018 at 0:04
  • This topic might be of interest. And teaching at my place is obligatory - up to 90 hrs/year.
    – user68958
    Jun 28, 2018 at 5:06
  • Why do you want to rush? There's nothing to be gained from a fast PhD. Jun 28, 2018 at 5:49

1 Answer 1


The requirements for a doctorate in the US vary both by state and by institution, but you seem a bit misinformed as to the general process. Some institutions have required courses and you can be asked to leave if you don't do very well. A C in a doctoral level grad course is like a D- or F in an undergrad course. It is not acceptable. One or two out of the set might be ok but more and you will not be invited to continue as you don't show sufficient seriousness. While the GPA itself may not be too important, you need to demonstrate that seriousness.

Even if there aren't specific required courses (which are there to assure you have knowledge of the breadth of the field, primarily), you will certainly be required to pass Qualifying Examinations. There is usually a set of these (maybe three or four) and again they cover breadth, primarily, but at an advanced level. They are normally hours long. Fail any of these and you can (probably will), again, be asked to leave. The courses, required or not, prepare you for these exams. The exams are quite rigorous as are the prep courses. It is even possible to be asked, in an oral, a question on an unsolved problem, just to see how you attack it.

The "sufficient amount of new research" is required, also, to be of a fairly high quality and you will need to show in this research that you have delved quite deeply into some, usually small, area of the field. This normally requires spending time in seminars with a professor (and group) who specialize in that area. All of this takes some time. It isn't just a paper count, but something that the faculty considers significant.

It used to be regularly doable in about four years, but that has been extending for quite a while. Often this is partly due to the fact that students support themselves working in labs or teaching, which, again, takes time and adds to the total. If you are self funded and can devote yourself full time (60-80 hours per week) then you can shorten the time.

My doctorate had two requirements. Pass the qualifiers (both written and oral) and write an acceptable thesis. I don't think I knew anyone who did it in four and this was many years ago. No professor will want anything to do with you unless you show seriousness of purpose. Poor grades and low expectations won't get you there. It is quite a bit more than putting in minimal effort and checking a few boxes.

On the other hand, it can be exhilarating to be associated with a community of scholars, both helping and being helped by smart and dedicated people.

Every once in a while an Einstein or Feynman comes along and if they are lucky and recognized early, may have a shorter path. But likely not. Seriousness of purpose.

  • Most US doctorates now have credit requirements (some number of classes), some sort of qualifying exercise, and the thesis as requirements. The seminar is highly field-dependent (unless you mean the “group meeting”-type as opposed to the seminar course (as is often encountered in the humanities).
    – aeismail
    Jun 28, 2018 at 0:20
  • @aeismail, I studied mathematics, actually. The seminar was very small, led by our common advisor. It was intended to get us deep into the weeds of the esoteric subject area we worked on. It wasn't for general consumption, but gave the few of us the depth we needed to solve our dissertation problems. One professor, two students, with another professor or two who also wanted to go deep. This was in a department with 70 full time faculty and 140 teaching grad assistants. When I studied (around 1970) many programs had credit requirements. Mine did not.
    – Buffy
    Jun 28, 2018 at 0:35
  • Fair enough that it also applies in math. But you don’t have that in a lot of engineering fields, for instance. You tend to get group meetings where people present and discuss their ongoing research once or twice a semester.
    – aeismail
    Jun 28, 2018 at 0:39
  • So is most of the time spent on classes and preparing for exams? I had thought that classes, exams, and the such was abandoned at the PhD level. I thought a PhD was merely a low paying job producing research papers rather than being a student needing to pass exams.
    – 123movies
    Jun 28, 2018 at 1:57
  • Just a note for potential students reading this: if you want to finish faster, working 60-80 hours may not be ideal.
    – hejseb
    Jun 28, 2018 at 4:40

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .