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This question is partially inspired by the question about degree nostrification.

In some countries a PhD is a 3-3.5 year degree (Denmark and the UK for ex) whereas in others like Sweden a PhD is usually 4.5-5 years. Quick disclaimer, I don't mean the time by which a person takes the degree, but rather what is considered "normal pace".

Additionally in the US many PhD programs include some overlap of masters-level courses, I have heard.

Does this get taken into consideration later down the road, when applying for positions, in academia or in industry? If so, how? I am thinking specifically in terms of: a) work experience, and b) age/seniority limits for applying for grants etc.

Edit: Reading some of the answers, I perhaps need to clarify a couple of things:

  1. It's not a matter of whether shorter/longer is better? Just a simple question is whether a PhD is the same wherever, regardless of the length of the program

  2. I did not mean the time it takes an individual to finish the program, but rather what the program is intended to include.

    In Sweden, when I was doing my PhD the departments define what a PhD program from that department includes. For me it was 1 years worth of coursework, 3-6 months of department work (teaching, outreach, IT support etc) and the remaining 3 years corresponding to research (not necessarily in that order), totaling a 4.5-years long program. In other departments the teaching was 1 year long, and their PhD program 5 years in total. It's this "planned time" what I a referring to.

  • I do not take into account the time to complete a PhD because every project is different; unless the applicant says it took him/her 10+ years to get a PhD degree :) What I look for is the quality of an applicant's publications. – Prof. Santa Claus Sep 25 at 8:41
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    @Prof.SantaClaus I think you missed the disclaimer in the question. It's not about any individual, but rather the education system in which the said individual gets their degree – posdef Sep 25 at 13:28
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    Nitpicking, but "MSc level courses" seems overly specific, "master's-level" would be more correct, it seems. – Azor Ahai Sep 25 at 15:40
  • @AzorAhai good point, edited to change that. – posdef Sep 26 at 11:35
  • I'm not sure about Denmark, but in Japan or I believe the UK where PhDs are typically 3 years, essentially all of that 3 years is for research (not coursework or teaching), so I believe the amount of expected time on research during a PhD is comparable with Sweden, as well as the US. – Kimball Sep 26 at 11:42
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As far as I have ever seen, the length of your PhD program is irrelevant as far as considerations of future employers, etc. People (in academia) will mostly look at your publications, and possibly reference letters and reputation of your supervisor(s)/university. In particular, in all cases I know of seniority/age limits for grants count from date that your PhD was issued. (The only exception I have seen to this is the seniority limit for junior (W1) professors in Germany, which is some cases include your experience during your PhD, but this is state (Bundesland) dependent I believe.)

In some cases, your time as a PhD may (or may not) count as relevant work experience. In Germany, for example, this can factor into the determination of your salary scale, and the length of time that you can be employed under fixed term contracts.

Since one of the primary criteria by which freshly minted PhDs are judged for post-doc positions, is their publication output, as short PhD program can put you at a competitive disadvantage compared to PhDs coming from longer programs due to have less high quality publications out by the time you are applying (which also will have had less time to make an impact). A knowledgeable selection committee may account for this, but that is not guaranteed.

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    I had heard on occasion that people that have done shorter PhDs are generally expected to do longer/more postdoc research, but that's just anecdotes. I would love to see some figures or more concrete statements of requirements – posdef Sep 25 at 13:37
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    @posdef but is that just to buy time to build up a publication record? – Chris H Sep 26 at 8:27
  • There's a case where it could matter: you are not eligible for some postdoc/research grants after some years have elapsed from the time you were awarded your PhD. Of course you are not eligible for other jobs without the PhD, so it goes both ways. – user000001 Sep 26 at 16:10
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It is relevant, but only to second order. Your degree is your degree, what matters in academia is your publications, what matters in industry is your skills.

Say you want to go further in academia. You will be judged primarily on the amount and quality of your publications. Clearly, if you did a 4-5 year PhD, you would have more time for research, and in my experience a good 4-5 year PhD come out with a publication record comparable to that of a 3 year PhD who also did a 2 year post doc.

If you want to go to industry it is a bit less clear, as you will primarily (but definitely not always) be hired for a particular skill set developed during PhDs and post docs, and not so much the degree in itself.

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    But don't a lot of the US 5 year PhDs have a not insignificant coursework component? – curiousdannii Sep 25 at 23:13
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    Clearly, if you did a 4-5 year PhD, you would have more time for research Not if the PhD took that long because of an excessive teaching load – Chris H Sep 26 at 8:28
  • I am answering considering the countries mentioned by OP. – nabla Sep 26 at 18:30
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No, it should be valued equally through all the countries, especially in the Europe.In 1999 in Bologna the Ministers of Education of 29 have signed an act for European Higher Education Area. The main keys of it:

  1. European students and graduates would be able to move easily from one country to another with full recognition of qualifications and periods of study, and access to the European labor market;
  2. European governments would fit their national higher education reforms into a broader European context;
  3. Higher Education (HE) in the European region would increase its international competitiveness, as well as enter into dialogue and improve cooperation with HE in other regions of the world.

This is why Europeans has an opportunity to go study abroad with Erasmus and many other things. For this purpose ECTS system was created and many other things had happened.

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    True, the initiative was there, but at the end of the day whoever thinks that a 3 year PhD program is worth as much as a 5 year one, is plain silly.. Also ECTS grading system never really stuck: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ECTS_grading_scale – posdef Sep 25 at 13:35
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    The number of years spent in a PhD program is totally unreleated to its worth. Think about spending three years in a Graduietenkolleg vs. having a 5 year full position including teaching obligations. Even after Bologna. – kap Sep 26 at 9:10
  • @Posdef thinks I'm silly, I guess. – JeffE Sep 26 at 18:16
  • @JeffE I get the subtle jab, but if we are being more explicit, are you seriously suggesting that an intended 3 year program gives you as much as a 5 year program? If that was the case, it would be idiotic to spend the extra two years, wouldn't you say so? – posdef Sep 27 at 11:35
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    Yes, I am seriously suggesting that (1) a three-year PhD program with no teaching obligations, where all students enter with a masters degree and (2) a five-year program with significant teaching obligations, where most new students enter with only a bachelors degree produce researchers with roughly equivalent skills and research records, on average. Ultimately, PhDs are judged by the strength of their record, not the duration of their PhD program. – JeffE Oct 2 at 23:32
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Disclaimer: I am not in a PhD program, but my wife is and she has brought this issue up before. I can only speak from what she's told me and from what I heard from my advisor when I was in my Master's program. (We are from the U.S.)

There doesn't appear to be any hard and fast rule that shorter PhDs are worse, other than maybe less time to publish works and build your portfolio (as mentioned in other answers). In the U.S. there may be some preference for U.S. students and graduates when looking at jobs if all else is equal. This makes sense, considering potential complications of international work visas, etc. Obviously plenty of academics, researchers and professionals from other countries are able to find jobs in the U.S.

However, what my wife has heard from people in her field is that if you get a degree in the U.S. and then leave the U.S. to teach in academia it can be much harder to get a teaching job back in the U.S. later in your career. She thinks it has to due with the reputation / prestige of U.S. vs non-U.S. institutions. I.e. you took an out-of-country job that must have been easier / not as difficult to get, so you may be less qualified than your peers who got a teaching job in the U.S.

I don't have any data to support that claim further (un)fortunately (and again, there are plenty of counter-examples, particularly for more prestigious academics). I don't know if that is true for U.S. students who choose to study abroad.

As with many subjects, the 'good schools' in your field will get recognized regardless of location. The best thing would be to ask around in your field, and obviously put out the best work you can during your degree.

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The purpose of a PhD is to advance scholarship through the production of original research, usually embodied in a thesis. Every PhD research project is unique, and some take longer than others, especially if the researcher needs to acquire new skills for the project. Ultimately, achievement is measured according to the thesis itself, as well as other outputs (especially peer-reviewed outputs). If someone cannot be bothered to even skim-read the thesis and/or other publications, the proxy criterion would be the reputation of the supervisor, not the programme.

As for PhD programmes, the shorter ones usually get started with the thesis immediately (reflecting the expectation that most people embarking on such programmes already have a Master's degree and have already decided what they are going to research), whilst the longer ones tend to have various preliminary courses before commencing the thesis itself (reflecting the expectation that many people embarking on such programmes do not have a Master's degree -- those who complete the preliminary courses but then leave the programme may be entitled to claim a Master's degree as an exit award).

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I am an American who did a PhD in the UK where they are very short. My colleagues in America who did a similar, biomedical engineering type PhD often took seven years whereas I was in and out in less than 4.

My experience was that the UK system has somewhat adapted to this and a one or two year post-doc in the UK, in the same department you graduated from or perhaps have been collaborating with, is extremely common. It is to everyone's advantage to have this arrangement as it gives the young researcher the needed time to continue research momentum and produce a portfolio of solid publications before moving on.

It is of course very important for one's career to move onto a post-doc at another institution, for Americans this is more frequently done right after the PhD (with perhaps a bit of RA employment in the lab, to make ends meet between graduation and the next position) while in the UK there is more often a local post-doc first.

My answer corroborates the other answers which point out that publications are what going to matter. No one is going to care too much about the PhD credential. You may have written only one solid publication in seven years or several in three, and that will determine whether you make the cut and move on. Not if your PhD is more "light" or "heavy", long or short.

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