Or put simply, 3-year vs. 5-year PhD?

Many programmes in UK (and EU) take up 3 years, as opposed to a minimum of 4-5 years in North America. For a masters degree holder, with a goal to stay in academia, is a 3-year Ph.D. too short to prepare one for postdocs and academic roles? Or would the extra year(s) in a 5-year programme be a repetition of the masters?

Is the short duration enough in preparing an academic and his/her career? While the additional year(s) in a longer programme costly and dispensable? This question is informed by the many discussions here and elsewhere lamenting the competitiveness and difficulty of staying in academia, especially in the UK. I am asking from a UK/EU point of view (more specifically, social science), as I am not sure if this (potentially unwarranted) concern is generalizable in other countries and disciplines.

  • 4
    Notice that usually what is called a PhD in the US usually corresponds to master degree + PhD in Europe, that's why 2 + 3 = 5 years.
    – gented
    Jan 22, 2016 at 8:45
  • 1
    @GennaroTedesco not necessarely. In Canada, (most) people do a master + PhD (2 + 5)
    – Emilie
    Mar 14, 2016 at 23:46

5 Answers 5


The thing about a PhD is that you should end up in roughly the same place. The length is therefore determined by where you come in. US PhDs tend to be longer than UK ones primarily because in the UK we specialise much earlier, so there is less left to do to reach PhD standard in your field.

In deciding what is best for you, the key factor will be you. How much do you still need to learn to complete your apprenticeship as an academic? That covers many aspects: knowledge for your research, research skills, how to write papers and give talks, personal management, career management, teaching, student supervision, probably some I've forgotten. If you have suitable funding, your PhD is a good time to learn these things while you have relatively little in the way of responsibilities. Also, at least in maths, your research record is generally considered relative to when you finish your PhD, not when you start.

My understanding is that the extra time in a US PhD is taken up completing taught modules/passing exams, not extra time on research. I would investigate whether having already done a masters would mean you could skip some/all of that and so shorten the total time.

Of course there are other factors to consider, finances and family often being the biggest ones. Also consider where you will be happy living, and who you want to work with. I was advised that the right supervisor is the most important thing in choosing a PhD. Personally I like to add that choice of supervisor should include preferred working patterns and personality, not just research topic, because you need to work closely with that person for a sustained period of time.


Any number of UK social science academics have PhDs from UK universities (and UK PhDs work in other countries obviously), so it's clearly sufficient in a technical sense. Apart from the coursework component in a US PhD - covered by the Masters - there are two other areas that make US PhD holders more competitive in junior academic positions, teaching experience and publications.

In the UK, teaching experience during your PhD is a sort of 'optional add-on'. There are probably opportunities as a tutor, but there might not be. It's also poorly paid and time consuming, so many PhD students don't do it. This means you don't have teaching experience on your CV.

Similarly, the US programs seem to have more emphasis on getting some publications. Whereas UK PhD students may have a conference presentation or two, but are unlikely to have much else by the time they finish (particularly in social science).

So if you are intending to apply for UK lecturer positions, you would be competitive with a 3 year UK PhD. Possibly not for US positions though you could apply for US post-docs and then lecturer positions later on if you did some teaching and focussed on publications during your post-doc.


There is a (large) difference between the nominal and the actual length of the degree program: Most social science PhD students in the Netherlands and Germany (the cases I am most familiar with) take 1 or 2 years longer than the nomial duration of the program (regardless of what the nominal duration is...).

As long as everybody is realistic about what can be obtained in 3 years, then 3 years is enough. The PhD program is there to teach students the basics about doing real research (imaginary/ideal world research is taught during the bachelor and masters program), and gaining experience is what postdoc positions are for. I don't think prolonging a PhD program will be all that helpful.

(Disclaimer, I took 7 years to finish my PhD, but that was still within my nominal + 2 years bound)


I think it depends on what you value along with various other considerations.

I can't realistically think or, nor describe, all of the things you might value here, but I guess some of the big ones would be earnings, training, status, and freedom.

From this perspective:

A five year PhD is more likely to leave you better trained, but also likely to lead to you earning less overall, spending more time as a PhD (not quality time for most people) and having less freedom (e.g., you are trapped within that PhD). The three year PhD offers the converse.

However, all of this should considered in light of important considerations which mediate the importance of these differences, such as your ability, the complexity of the area, the quality of the job market, and the type of job you want.

For instance if you are i) a below average intellect relative to your peers in the area, ii) in a very complex area where you will need to learn a lot to succeed (relative to other types of PhD), iii) in an area where (relative to other types of PhD) the job market is poor and only the very best will get employed, and iv) interested in working in areas where a five year PhD is expected, then that increases the argument for the five year phd.

Please let me know if you would like any further clarification.


I think Jessica B is the only one to hit the nail on the head so far. US and UK PhDs start from significantly different levels, due to the fact that UK degrees focus on your specialisation right from the outset, whereas the US system explores a much broader swathe of subjects, before honing in on a speciality. There are merits to both approaches, and I think that you will find that most people are partial to the system they went through. However, this has an effect if you move on to a doctorate. It would not be a great idea to move from a US undergraduate degree straight to a UK PhD programme, without first doing a masters. However, it is quite common for UK students to skip a masters, or to do one integrated into their undergraduate degree. As a result, the UK PhDs essentially trim off the course work component that usually takes up the first two years of a US PhD.

It is entirely possible to do a relatively short PhD and then do well in a postdoc and onwards from there. I am a rather extreme example of this: I submitted my DPhil (Oxford's equivalent of a PhD) thesis after around a year and three quarters. Prior to entering that PhD programme I had done a BSc in Ireland (which is similar to the UK system). I also spent around 8 months as a PhD student at a different university before moving to Oxford, but had to leave when my initial supervisor moved to another position.

There may be a disadvantage in applying to US based positions initially, since they sometimes prefer people coming from US style PhD programmes, but I have honestly not really felt held back at all by having done a short PhD.

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