I am trying to find out what the average duration of PhD studies are in the USA. Here in Spain it used to be 4 years, but it seems that Europe is moving towards a 3-year scheme since students are expected to do their MSc before they start. What is it like in the USA? Is some kind of shortening also occurring?

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    In my university, 4 or 5 in Economics, 5 or 6 in Finance. – Akavall Mar 24 '14 at 15:53
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    Keep in mind that, in many fields, the time to PhD in the US also includes the coursework (master's) component, so the research phase can be anywhere from one semester to almost two years shorter than the "time to PhD." – aeismail Mar 24 '14 at 17:02
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    In the experimental sciences, the time it takes to get a PhD can depend heavily on how a particular experiment or program of research works out. In physics it's not uncommon for people to do their coursework, then take several years trying to get an experiment to work, then give up and start over with some other experiment, which takes several more years. At the school where I got my PhD in physics, I think about 30% of my peers took 9 years total. – user1482 Mar 25 '14 at 0:29
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    The dean of social sciences at my school is an archaeologist and mentioned offhand that his students typically take 9+ years to finish due to fieldwork. – Tim Aug 7 '14 at 8:42
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    "it seems that Europe is moving towards a 3-year scheme" - I am not sure this applies so generally. In Germany, there is a certain movement towards structured doctoral programs, but newly introduced programs are quite sometimes designed to take four years. Moreover, the practical way these are sometimes conducted is that the doctoral candidate goes through the structured doctoral program for four years, and then remains with his or her department for another year or so, funded from other sources, to complete their doctoral thesis, thus maintaining the original duration of roughly five year – O. R. Mapper Sep 17 '15 at 8:57

Each program is going to be different. Usually, the first couple years of a PhD program involves taking graduate level classes while the later years are dedicated to academic engagement in the discipline (for example, in Chemistry, you would do research in a lab.) If you have a Masters degree relevant to the PhD, you may cut off some or all of the classroom portion of the PhD program.

The qualifications for actually receiving the PhD also differ. You may need to get approval from an academic board (this is usually at least part of the process in any case), you may need to write a thesis, you may even be required to be published in an academic journal. (In the hard sciences, this is common.)

Because the requirements for getting the degree differ, the time may as well. For the most part, PhDs (with no Masters) should take between 4 - 6 years. Getting a Masters degree first may cut off about a year or so of that. While this is generally true, you will find many examples of people taking longer and I've known at least two people who graduated in less than 4 years with a PhD.

While this is an average, you'll want to get info specific to your desired University, the degree, and even the group (or academic adviser) that you choose to work for.

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    It also varies by discipline. Some take substantially longer than others. – vadim123 Mar 24 '14 at 16:32
  • For US PhD recipients in 2018, the median years between starting graduate school and earning a doctorate was 7.3. Do not rely on the 4-6 years. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 18 '20 at 2:21

This varies so widely by discipline that asking for an average across all disciplines is unlikely to be very helpful. Most individual disciplines do keep careful records of this statistic, and it should be easy to search for them on (e.g.) google.

However, I would say with some confidence that no American PhD program requires or even expects its students to complete a PhD in less than four years. In some programs the "party line" is that it is desirable to complete the degree in four years, but in my experience this means that you start to feel the squeeze of increased teaching and/or decreased funding after four years, not that you get ejected from the program or forced to graduate.

I work in a discipline, mathematics, with a high entry cost but for which, once you acquire the necessary background and skills (with which a small minority of students do enter the program), there is no specific reason why you couldn't do all the work for a great thesis and write it up in a rather short amount of time, say on the order of a semester. Nevertheless I have met very few people who have completed a math PhD in fewer than four years. When we get to the upper echelons of talent, preparation and work ethic, this surely must mean that the culture of a PhD program strongly encourages students to stay for this amount of time.

To answer your final question: yes, many programs are trying to shorten their average time to degree as funding is being cut. In my own PhD program (mathematics at UGA) I was involved in an initiative to do just this: up until recently we guaranteed six years of funding to incoming PhD students without master's degrees and five for students with an incoming master's. We now guarantee five years to all students. Note that this does not mean that we do not have funded sixth year students: we certainly do. But it means that students will, throughout their time in the program, have to keep their eye on the five-year mark, which is something that our former arrangement was not doing: even very strong students would often stick around for six years for no especially good reason.

Finally let me also note that we changed (with my involvement) all our requirements to be independent of whether students arrive with master's degrees. We have found that the difference in the level of preparedness of such students is not significant enough to justify more stringent time-to-degree requirements.

  • Many thanks. I find it amazing that you fund people equally regardless of whether they have a masters's; it's very generous. Very informative answer. – CesarGon Mar 24 '14 at 21:59
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    I would +1 except for the 4-year hard minimum. I know several people who did the PhD in three, in STEM fields. If you're not looking for an academic job afterward, and you know what you want to research, 3 years is realistic in many fields. – David Ketcheson Mar 25 '14 at 3:41
  • @David: There are people who got their PhDs at 20 years old; one presumes they spent a short amount of time in the program. When I say four years is a "hard minimum", I mean I know of no program in the US which requires or even expects (e.g. by decreasing funding) its students to complete a PhD in fewer than four years. Do you? – Pete L. Clark Mar 25 '14 at 8:10
  • @CesarGon: In mathematics most students don't get a master's on the way to a PhD. – Mark Meckes Mar 25 '14 at 10:14
  • @PeteL.Clark I don't know of any such program. But expectations and hard minimums are very different, in my mind. Anyway, <4 is certainly unusual. – David Ketcheson Mar 26 '14 at 13:03

The Survey of Earned Doctorates (http://www.norc.org/Research/Projects/Pages/survey-of-earned-doctorates-(sed).aspx) has detailed statistics. A summary report is http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf06312/ with breakdown by field, year etc.

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    We generally prefer to have more than just a bare link in answers, since the answer then becomes useless when the link decays. Can you please add a brief summary of key information at the end of the link? – jakebeal Nov 7 '15 at 21:14
  • Thank you. Would you be so kind to add a summary of what the report says, as suggested by @jakebeal? – CesarGon Nov 9 '15 at 19:40
  • For US PhD recipients in 2018, the median years between starting graduate school and earning a doctorate was 7.3. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 18 '20 at 2:19

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