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Can someone finish a PhD, say, in 2 years in the USA or in 1.5 years in the UK?

Can someone take, say, 16 years in the USA or 12 years in the UK to finish a PhD?

  • 1
    I certainly knew some 10+ year PhD students. Not normal though... – Jon Custer Aug 17 '18 at 1:40
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There are no definitive rules. However, some general guidelines apply:

  • Usually students must be in residence ("on campus") for at least one or two years.
  • Students in the US must often complete coursework as part of the PhD that may require a year or more to finish.
  • Some schools may have a time limit beyond which a student is no longer automatically considered "in good standing."

So it is unlikely to be at either of the extremes you mention, and particularly not on the short side.

  • Some schools may have a time limit beyond which a student is no longer automatically considered "in good standing." --- for instance? – user84565 Aug 17 '18 at 2:56
  • In the UK, a time limit of 7 years used to be quite common. It made sense to have a limit, because students might leave the university for a job in industry before finishing writing up their thesis, and finishing the thesis might then get "delayed indefinitely" by higher priority tasks. – alephzero Aug 17 '18 at 9:30
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What limitations a given student will face presumably depends on the policy of the institution in question, and in some places possibly national regulation.

At US universities, the graduate program often has mandatory courses, making it hard to finish very fast unless some requirement are waived. On the other end of the spectrum, many institutions limit funding after a certain period to try to push stragglers over the line (of finishing or quitting...), or at least make the PhD candidate jump through some hoops (e.g. petitions). Certain institutions have a limit on how long a student can be registered, but it's not clear to me whether this would block someone from submitting a thesis after finishing it on their own.

However, let's try proof by example. Here are some very short PhD durations (I think it will be much harder to finish this quickly nowadays):

  • Stephen Wolfram of Mathematica fame earned his Ph.D. from Caltech in a year
  • Robert Wagoner got his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees from Ohio State University in 1974, 1975, and 1976, respectively.

I'm less willing to list regular people who took a long time getting their PhDs, but I personally know some in the 10+ years range. A couple of more extreme example are

  • Theodore Streleski who ended up murdering his advisor during his 19th year. I don't think he ever received a PhD, but he was still pursuing it at the time.
  • Ingeborg Rapoport probably holds the record for the technically longest doctorate. She submitted her dissertation in 1938, but was stopped from defending it by the Nazi regime. Eventually, she was awarded her degree in 2015.

Obviously most people aren't going to be like these examples, so let's turn to statistics. In the US, NSF publish reports on e.g. time to degree of doctorate recipients. In education the median is 11.7 years. Presumably there will be some that took e.g. the 16 years you mention.

  • Or push stragglers into an master's degree – Azor Ahai Aug 17 '18 at 22:14
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Speaking from experience at my UK university: there is no formal minimum time limit, but you would be very hard pressed to do the amount of work required for a thesis in 18 months.

In my university (and I believe the same is true in many others) you have to pass a review at the end of the first year, after which you are upgraded to full PhD candidate status. You can't sit this review any earlier than 1 year after starting, so this makes it basically impossible to finish in 1.5 years. Additionally, why rush? If you have funding for 3-4 years, you might as well use it.

As for an upper time limit, this is often determined by the funding. In my case, I am funded for 3.5 years with a possible 6 month extension, but additionally the University imposes a hard 4 year limit on PhD durations that you are not allowed to exceed.

  • In the UK the universities get penalised if their full-time PhD students take more than 4 years, which is why many of them introduced the hard limit at 4 years. At my university there was a minimum time of 2/4 years for full- and part-time respectively, which I assume was to stop students (at least those without funding) enrolling as part-time and then just being full-time in order to pay less fees. – KraZug Aug 17 '18 at 8:31
  • @KraZug even the "hard" limit may not be hard if the university has some reason to work with the student on extensions and extenuating circumstances. I did know someone who finished in about 2.5 years, but his previous writing experience and skill meant he could write a thesis in a few weeks while most of us take a few months. This was on top of a lot of hard work and some luck. – Chris H Aug 17 '18 at 8:41
  • @ChrisH, sure, extenuating circumstances allow for the 'hard' deadline to be extended. – KraZug Aug 17 '18 at 8:58

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