I know people say in Europe (say in Computer Science) a PhD normally takes three to four years. My concern is: is there no way to know the number of years in advance? Is it not something I can "agree" with the supervisors before hand how long it will take? Exactly? Not approximately, rather exactly. In other words are three year long phd programs common?

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    First you agree to make a major discovery within 3 years. Then we'll talk about a guarantee that you will finish within 4 years...
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 21:26
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    You will not receive this guarantee in any reputable school. Doing a PhD is mostly your work. Nobody can guarantee how long it will take you do generate the necessary research results.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 23:45
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    You could fix in advance an agreed time when you will stop being a student. You just wouldn't be able to guarantee that you would graduate at the end.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 15:35
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    I hate to have to tell you this, but the "client perspective" metaphor is utterly inapplicable and misleading here. Why do you see fit to adopt this perspective? Developing and applying field-specific research skills, coming up with novel ideas, and publishing them in a suitable outlet is nothing like "going to a shop to buy a blue ball" -- or any other product that already exists. I'm starting to become concerned that you have no idea as to what may be awaiting you should you enroll in a serious Ph.D. program -- whether in Europe or anywhere else in the world.
    – Mico
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 19:26
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    Of course you can choose to view anything in any way you wish, and you are free to attach whatever labels you can think of to whatever you call a "product". The question, though, is whether the chosen perspective provides an understanding that's helpful or misleading, and whether the labels are useful or not. Nobody "buys" a Ph.D. -- at least not from a reputable organization. Clearly, though, there's one thing we seem to agree on: I am quite unable to dissuade you from maintaining the perspective you've chosen to adopt, and thus further conversations are certain to be pointless.
    – Mico
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 19:52

9 Answers 9


Almost certainly not.

Even in programs where the PhD research phase is supposed to have a defined length (for instance, when students receive a fellowship to cover their work for a certain period of time), it is not possible to guarantee that the PhD program will actually be completed in a certain period of time.

It can be possible to finish; however, without knowing how well a student will perform in advance, advisors can only estimate how long a PhD program will take. There is simply no way to guarantee in advance how long your student will need to finish her program. The main issue that we have is that research is inherently unpredictable, and if things don't work out right, it's difficult to say people can finish.

We can try to work with a student to plan to finish in a certain period of time, but we wouldn't try to guarantee that until the middle of the student's PhD progress.

  • @aesmail: Although I've seen advertisements about "three year" programs too. Is that a "lie"?
    – user27316
    Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 21:40
  • @aesmail: Although I understand your point of view, for people doing phd in different country, it might be beneficial to know that time frame in advance.
    – user27316
    Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 21:42
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    @user300234: No, they're not a lie. I work in such a program, and I try to get my students to finish in three years, and some of them do. However, not all of them finish in the regular time. And while I would like to be able to guarantee a time frame, I can't: if the student doesn't have enough results to merit getting a PhD, I can't in good conscience let them graduate just because there's some sort of "agreement" in place.
    – aeismail
    Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 21:47
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    @user300234: For example, in Italy there are three-years long PhD programs, but if at the end of three years your work is deemed insufficient by your advisor or by the PhD examination board, you are required to do one more year, possibly without funding. This is not a common event, but it happens. It can also happen that your work is considered insufficient after one year and you are not allowed to continue. Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 21:54
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    @user300234 Nobody is arguing that it would be not "good" (for everybody) if you knew exactly how long your PhD would take in advance, but due to the nature of a PhD work, that is simply not possible (no matter how great this would be for any of the involved persons). And, yes, doing a PhD can take literally forever if your results are never satisfactory.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 23:43

I think you have the hidden assumption that a Ph.D. "program" is similar to a Master's "program". This is a very dangerous assumption, which is not true at all, and can cost you a lot of time if you don't "get" it quickly.

As a Master student (or similar degree), you are presented with knowledge somebody has compiled for you, and asked to learn it, as many people before you have done. At the end, you are given a well defined task of modest dimensions and difficulty, which is related to a possible job to the field you are majoring in. It's not a research level task, it's more of a task of the type which is typically solved by a professional in your field. And your supervisor knows how it should be solved, and can guide you if you are stuck. In the end, you finish it, document it, and this is your master thesis.

A Ph.D. position is a job position as a researcher (at least in Europe - I think it involves some credit taking in the USA). You are doing original research. You have to first find a topic which is interesting enough for the research community to get published, Goldilock-dimensioned so that the answers are not trivial but can hopefully be found in a reasonable amount of time, and fits with your supervisor's interests. Then you start finding the answers to your research questions. You are hampered by two things: 1) You have never done research before, so you are learning by doing, and 2) Nobody has ever found the answers to these questions before, so neither you nor anybody else can tell you how long it will take. Your supervisor will only be able to help so much.

The bottom line is that, if you manage to do very little mistakes, and also work overtime to correct the mistakes you've made, you'll just about manage in 3 years. If it takes you longer to figure out how to produce good research, and/or you don't work overtime, it will take you longer. And you will make mistakes. Most prospective Ph.D.s spend their time from 6 to 23 learning how to learn efficiently - but this skill is very different (although a prerequisite for) the skill of doing research efficiently.

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    +1 Exactly this. Also, most PHD programs require the publishing of results in journals (or conferences in CS) and even if you have done the actual work and submitted an excellent work, it might still take another 4-12 months to get it accepted.
    – Alexandros
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 18:06
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    I sure understand why you want to know it. It's still a fact that, if you ask them, they can't answer you, because they don't know, and cannot make an estimate, for the reasons I explained here. It's like asking for next week's lotto numbers: a very valuable information, but not available to any one until the process is over.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 19:07
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    If you do ask, you should ask them what they mean by the number they are advertising. It is probably the length of time for which you get a contract and/or financing. This is completely independent of whether you will have the title (or at least completed the required work) by the time the contract ends. In my experience, a very small percentage of PhD candidates are finished by the time their first contract is up, although it varies by institution and field. You don't have to worry much about not getting finished, it is customary to get follow up contracts. But you can't plan the length well.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 19:25
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    I'm currently finishing a PhD in Germany, I also work for a research institution different from the one I'm graduating at (which also awards PhD degrees), and I have many acquaintances doing or having completed a PhD in Europe. Neither during my job search at the beginning, nor in any case I've seen since, is there a guaranteed maximum length of the "program", but timelimited contracts are the norm. That's why I suggested this explanation. You can choose to see the ads as a promise that you will have finished in 3y, but if this interpretation is wrong, there's nothing you can do about it.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 19:53
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    Three years PhDs do happen, but in my experience, not so frequently, even though both profs and candidates try for it. I agree that my knowledge is skewed towards Germany, but before Massimo's comment, I hadn't heard of anything indicating that the situation is different in other eu countries. And frankly, if you planned to work on one of your research questions for three months, but it turns out to need 9m, then I don't see what you, or the university, can do except accept that your project needs 6 months longer. They certainly won't accept an incomplete thesis.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 20:17

In France there is a relatively strong policy of enforcing a fixed time frame for PhD theses, at least in STEM (things are very different in different fields, notably humanities tend to have longer PhD studies). The official duration of the PhD is 3 years, as in most Europe (the LMD system has uniformized that), and in many university a PhD student and her advisor will have to ask for a derogation and find additional funding in order to be allowed a fourth year. So, in principle it is possible to start a PhD with a three-year time frame planned, and it should in fact be the norm (but see below).

The above fact will probably astonish other answerers, as one in principle cannot pledge to find new pieces of knowledge in any given amount of time. I therefore feel it necessary to make a few observation about this before going on.

  1. Please have a look at your last grant proposal before claiming that no one can pledge to make a significant discovery in a given amount of time.

  2. There are two points of view on PhD duration: either we decide what is worth a PhD and have PhD students continue until they meet that standard or quit or are sacked; or we decide how much time should be spend for a PhD thesis and at the end of that time, depending on what was achieved it is decided to award the PhD or not (with the possibility that the PhD is awarded but with reports that make it clearly insufficient to continue in academia, a common event in my experience). Both points of view are conventions, none is intrinsically the good one. It happens that France has mostly the second point of view, with the provisio that derogations for a fourth year is pretty common, and even without it many applicants only defend a few month after taking another job (many European post-docs can be started before the PhD is awarded, provided it is close enough to completion).

  3. These considerations are strongly field-dependent. Fields where researchers work on large teams can in principle (but see below) more easily have PhD student participate in projects whose completion in the next years make little doubts, while still having them learn how to do research. Some fields may be richer in subjects with low competition and high chance of success than others, etc.

However, I know from a very close relative that even making it clear at the beginning that a three-year long PhD is strongly wanted by the applicant, and even a clearly and definitely stated agreement by the advisor may not be sufficient to have your advisor really doing her best to make it happen¹. In experimental fields in particular, PhD students are close to free labor for the teams getting them, so it is a strong temptation to have them stay another year to have a stronger paper, and it is very difficult for a PhD candidate to measure by herself whether she has a case for defending earlier. In other words, my conclusion is even worse than that of other answers:

you should not consider a three-year PhD granted even if such a promise is made to you.

To end in a slightly more positive word, one of the key point is, as mentioned by another answerer, to choose your advisor wisely; in your case, this includes having a look at how long her former PhD students needed to defend, an information not always easy to track down.

¹ Which would include: assess honestly the difficulty and uncertainty of the proposed subject, giving access to tech help and helpful kits when time comes short, be available in a timely fashion for helping writing papers, accepting completion of a lesser, still publishable paper instead of a better paper that would take much more time to complete, etc.

  • hmm... I see. though a bit confused now, will look at your post more carefully later; initially you seem to say three years is a norm but later seems you are deviating from that opinion. thanks for input anyway
    – user27316
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 20:29
  • Well, I say that it should, officially, be the norm. Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 21:27
  • Kloeckner: officially yes, but in practice might be tricky it seems
    – user27316
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 21:52
  • +1, but here in Belgium the default time frame is 4 years, with the mean actual duration somewhere between 4 and 5 years; so I'm not so sure about that uniformization due to the LMD system (never heard of it). Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 19:18
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    @MarcClaesen: I may have taken for granted too easily what was said during the reforms in France (basically, Europe said it should be like that), or Belgium might have chosen not to enforce part of the European harmonization program. Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 20:03

If anyone knew in advance how long it would take to produce meaningful research results, it wouldn't be research worthy of a PhD Adding something worthwhile to human knowledge takes as long as it takes, and is subject to variation either because candidate capabilities vary or because unexpected problems arise. It is entirely possible that the research project fails entirely due to a basic flaw, and does so in a way which is not itself publishable, in which case you get to try again from the beginning.

Remember, even a BS degree sometimes runs over the nominal four years, and that should be much more predictable. (My BS thesis missed the due date by three days. And I should probably have dropped a few classes (and in retrospect should have changed majors slightly, which could have extended things.) PhD is, by design and intention, a larger and less predictable commitment.

You can probably find a school which will absolutely graduate in three years with a PhD... if you don't care that nobody else in the academic or business communities will respect that as a real PhD.

Your plans should allow for these possibilities. If you can't tolerate that risk, you may want to think again about whether you really want the PhD.

And, in fact, that's an important question: Why are you looking for this specific degree? It sounds like you're not patient/dedicated enough for this kind of research to be your career, so perhaps you should be looking at other paths such as engineering. For that purpose, an MS -- or a second MS -- might serve you better.

For that matter, even in academia there are fields where an MS is considered a "terminal degree" and -- together with some real-world experience -- would make you a suitable candidate for professorship. I know someone who's been looking at "Professor of Practice" positions, which are exactly this.

Take a step back, ask yourself whether you really want to earn a PhD or only to have earned it. If the latter, you probably aren't a good candidate for any respectable program.

  • :it's not about being patient. It's connected with doing it in foreign country. Be it in mine it would be easier. Former is associated with long stay abroad which some people might not tolerate that well?
    – user27316
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 20:52
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    If you can't afford to do it in a foreign country, don't. There's no promise that this option will be affordable for everyone. There's no promise in your own country either; it's just a bit less expensive to run past the target date. You need to decide whether you can afford the costs and risks or not.
    – keshlam
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 21:10
  • affording not from money point of view. Just some people might not prefer staying for long period in abroad country? Is that familiar to you? only from that point of view. That issues doesn't exist when you are in your own country. Is that understandable now? So I am stuck in such situation :((.
    – user27316
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 21:16
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    That's still the choice you have to make. If you aren't willing to take that gamble, that's fine, but then the answer is "don't study abroad." Only you can decide whether it's worth the potential cost or not, but those are the potential costs.
    – keshlam
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 21:23
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    I wish I had an answer which would make you happy. I don't. I'm sorry, but the world is what it is. Either find a way to make it happen, or find another plan.
    – keshlam
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 21:28

In many places there is an limit after which you stop receiving funding (in Europe typically 4 years).

You can ask what are official PhD times and what are typical (usually: longer).

It is a great idea to talk in advance when it comes to advisor's expectations (e.g. how many papers and in journals of which rank) and expected time span. But at best, he can give you a honest estimate (perhaps: lower limit).

He cannot guarantee that you will do it at all, much less - in a given timeframe.

Yet, it is certainly possible to set a time and act accordingly. It may be wise to set it 6-12 month before the final deadline, as delays are rather a norm than an exception. So, if you want a contract which is de facto for 4 years, in many place it is doable.

  • :I think its best still to discuss it with school beforehand, because like I said I've seen advertisements saying three years.
    – user27316
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 12:14
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    @user300234 an advertisement for a three year program means that you'll get a chance to graduate in three years if your results are good enough, but it doesn't mean that they'll allow you to graduate after three years if at the end you haven't achieved and published any novel research. A significant proportion of students don't make good research results during those first few years, and no amount of other work or discussions can overcome that. It's also entirely plausible that you did a lot of work, but no results came out of that - still, that means no PhD.
    – Peteris
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 13:10
  • @Peteris:that variability is tricky. I think they better spot that slow progress from the beginning say after 1 year, then tell you in the end you are not fitting in three years.
    – user27316
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 13:33
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    @user300234: This is hard to predict. If your first year hasn't produced anything whatsoever they should, in principle, through you out. But this almost never happens. There is also a bit of economics behind it - if you get a paid studentship the university may risk losing some of that funding. For instance, UK funding bodies consider the graduation rate as part of their decision to award/extend funding to phd programmes. So, many, if not most, European unis won't really hurry to chuck you out even if you suck.
    – Nick
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 20:07
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    @Peteris: I find "It's also entirely plausible that you did a lot of work, but no results came out of that - still, that means no PhD." to be a bit misleading. In most cases I know of this still means a PhD if the student manages to write up a somewhat convincing thesis and manages to not disappoint too much during viva/thesis defence. Generally, the connection between "achievement" (as in "discovering something original") and "getting a PhD" is very, very weak.
    – Nick
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 20:16

I concur with the answers to the negative above. However, I would like to mention that most (+80%) of those who get their PhDs don't discover anything of value during their studies. This percentage may be somewhat lower at the more prestigious universities but is still well above 50%. So getting your PhD is mostly the result of you convincing your supervisor (and the committee) that you made the effort and learned something in the process. I got mine in less than 3 years and while I still managed to get a publication past the peer review I don't think Computer Science is any better as result of it. And while my uni is not prestigious I also happen to know similar cases (less than 3 years with modest or even non existing publication record) at top universities. So, nobody would expect miracles from you. At least, most supervisors wouldn't.

You have to be, however, very careful when choosing a supervisor. A supervisor can make or break a PhD. I know some who treated their students as rubbish and some who were father figures of sorts. So the quality of support varies drastically within the same university - and, again, this applies to top universities, too. I would advise you to talk to students of your prospective supervisor and find out how happy they are.

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    How are you judging "value"? I mean, yes, most things don't change the world, and many are never even cited, but that doesn't mean it was a waste of time. Instead, it may be a dead end, something overshadowed by other work, or just plain not noticed. And with research, there's often just no way to tell in advance...
    – jakebeal
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 13:33
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    @jakebeal: I didn't say "waste of time". I learned a lot as result of working on my PhD - I just don't think others did. If you remove 80% of the scientific publications we still would have about the same useful knowledge. So most of the PhDs don't discover anything that is of use to someone else.
    – Nick
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 13:49
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    I don't think "useful to someone else" is one of the criteria for PhD research. It must demonstrate mastery of the area, have a novel component, and be substantial enough to satisfy the committee. "Useful" is a natural way to view things, but it is rather too stringent in most cases. Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 17:51
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    While I concur that most doctoral theses are not exactly of the ground-breaking/earth-shaking variety and that it's very important to choose a good thesis advisor, I don't think that these observations are related to the OP's query.
    – Mico
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 18:07
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    @Mico: You are right if you consider my post on its own. My post is, rather, a response to the few comments/posts above that put too much stress on "discovery" and "enlarging the human knowledge". I find that this may appear overwhelming to a novice like the OP.
    – Nick
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 19:52

Judging from your comments on some of the answers, you did not ask the question you want answered. Your actual question seems to be:

I am not willing to spent more than three years in a PhD program abroad. It there a way to guarantee that I will obtain the degree in that time?

The answer is: No, there is not even a way to guarantee you'll get a PhD worth having at all!

Here's the basic concept behind the PhD degree: A PhD certifies that you have demonstrated the ability to conduct independent research that produced new results. And the duration to produce new results is inherently unknowable. It may take you one year, three years, or you may not be good enough to do it at all.

Any program that is guaranteeing that you will obtain a PhD in three years is either lying, or the corresponding institution is willing to set the bar for the degree so low that the degree wouldn't have any worth, because it does not certify your ability to do anything. In the former case, you wouldn't necessarily obtain a PhD in three years; in the latter case you would essentially just be guaranteed to obtain a worthless piece of paper with your name and the text "PhD" on it. The degree would only certify that the institution stood by their guarantee to award you the degree after three years. It would not certify any ability on your part.

But I don't think the lack of a guarantee should stop you from pursuing a PhD abroad even if you are not currently willing to spent more than three years abroad: I am guessing you did not have a guarantee that you would obtain a Master'a degree either. You just had to try. And if you hit any serious problems or delay, you had to decide for yourself whether the Master's degree was still worth pursuing. It that respect, the PhD is not less certain than the Master's was. You just start despite the uncertain outcome, and you continuously evaluate whether the goal is still worth achieving along the way.


Reading more of your comments on already given answers, I think two of your underlying assumptions on this issue are wrong, and lead you to have unrealistic expectations.

The first assumption seems to be:

Master's degrees have a fixed time frame. If a PhD program does not, then that is due to organizational deficiencies on part of the supervising professor or the institution.

And thus you seem to look for an institution or supervisor that does not have that deficiency, or a way to mitigate its effects.

But there is no deficiency! A master's program can have a fixed time frame, because it only teaches stuff that is already known and has been taught before. Your job as a Master's student is to learn that pre-determined set of abilities and apply it to pre-determined problems in a pre-determined time frame.

But a PhD program is nothing like that. There is nobody telling you what to learn, and which knowledge or abilities to apply to which problem. And that lack of a structure is not a deficiency, but is the core idea of, and therefore inherent in a PhD program: A PhD certifies that you were able to produce new scientific results independently and under these uncertain conditions. If a PhD program was structured like a Master's program, the PhD degree would only certify the same abilities as the Master's degree you already have, and thus would be pointless.

Your second assumption seems to be

I got a "degree either in X years or not at all" guarantee for my Master's. Such a guarantee is useful, and I therefore want it for my PhD as well.

But that guarantee for the Master's was no guarantee of success at all. Rather, it was an additional restriction! All degrees certify that you achieved a certain level of proficiency in a given field. For your Master's, that "degree either in X years or not at all" guarantee was simply the additional restriction, that they will only give you X years to achieve that level of proficiency, and won't give you any degree at all if it takes you any longer. A PhD simply does not have that additional restriction. So not having what seems to be a guarantee actually makes obtaining the degree easier.

The bottom line is: You don't need that 3-year guarantee. It only means that somebody else is allowed to force you to abort your efforts of obtaining the degree. Not having that guarantee actually gives you the freedom to decide when and whether to abort, or to continue your efforts. If you need it, you can easily give you your own "three years at most or no degree at all" guarantee by deciding beforehand that you will leave the PhD program after three years. That would have exactly the same consequences for you as the guarantee you are trying to obtain.

  • Dear Robert: again you are explaining to me why this is not possible. I understand it more or less. Just from point of view of someone who should do it, and do it in foreign country: it matters to know in advance whether I am leaving somewhere for four years, vs. three years? You see? I understand your arguments. Debating against that doesn't make sense I guess and would take us far away. But to say it is impossible to design phd program which is aimed at three years, is it also true? See other comments where people say in some countries three years takes place.
    – user27316
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 13:20
  • One could try have program which is more aimed at three years, and say in 1.5 year applicant is evaluated to see if he/she can continue etc. More effort could be geared also towards fitting inside these three years, etc. Again these are theoretical considerations which I talk about - not sure if it makes much sense to dive into these kind of things
    – user27316
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 13:22
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    @user300234: I understand why it matters to you to have a definite time frame. But PhD degree requirements won't change just to make them more suitable for you. They exist in their current form to establish a certain standard of quality for that degree, and can't (and therefore won't) be change without reducing that standard. Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 16:49
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    @user300234: There are surely PhD programs that are aimed at a three year duration, but that aim doesn't really means anything. And as I argued in my original answer, it is inherently impossible to have any guaranteed duration for any program that certifies your ability to do independent original research (as is the case with PhDs). Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 16:56
  • Good answer, but I would add one provisio. One thing with PhD is that you can get caught in a "piège abscon" (I am unable to translate that at all), where you are told that "one more year and you'll be good" repeatedly. This should not happen but does, so to enforce to oneself such a "3-year and either I defend or quit" needs a very strong will and planning ahead. Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 12:53

FUNDING and duration of PhD work are, as some other commenters point out, are two different things. In Switzerland, at least, many PhD students in the sciences have 3 years of funding if they receive money from the Swiss National Science Foundation. The Teacher Training Universities offer 4 years of funding. Of course, how long it takes to complete a PhD program depends so much on the student and on the advisor AND on how well they work together. Advisors can sometimes offer office space and/or additional funding to support students when their PhD work goes beyond their originally funded period.

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