More specifically in finance/economics. As I understand it, spending at least 5 years in the program is highly beneficial if one intends to work in academia. However, if aiming for industry positions instead some would argue that it might not add as much value as the forgone salary would justify.

This leads me to my question. Let's consider a person who has completed M.Sc prior to entering a PhD program in US in Finance/Econ or another similar field and is on par with the average candidate in, say T20 school. With hard work and long nights, how quickly could such feasibly expect to complete their PhD?

Furthermore, are there major differences between programs in e.g how fast the coursework can be finished, and between requirements one needs to fill before being allowed to graduate? How about supervisors, i.e. are some less willing to let you graduate ahead of time at the risk of suffering some personal reputational damage if it turns out that the candidate falls short of the standards typically expected from a fresh PhD graduate? Any other factors I fail to consider?

  • 7
    I don't know about finance/economics, but for the types of Ph.D. programs I'm most familiar with -- math, physics, philosophy -- coursework is not much of an issue, at least in the U.S. The main hurdles are passing your Ph.D. qualifying exams, obtaining sufficiently significant research results for a Dissertation, and finally writing the Dissertation. Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 14:08
  • 3
    A PhD is not a job with specific requirements and milestones that you can accelerate by working longer or harder. You might start a project that proves a dead end, other people might finish sooner what you intended to do, a journal rejection might take more than 12 months in extreme cases and so-on. Even the ones who do finish in 5 or 7 years or the ones who do not finish their PhD at all, might have invested long hours and hard work. Your focus should be to actually get your PhD and not getting it sooner.
    – Alexandros
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 15:24
  • If time is a major issue for you, you could study in the UK, where a typical PhD takes 3-4 years. Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 16:27
  • 2
    The UK would cost OP a ton of money. OP could go to France, where tuition is pennies and it takes 3 years max. Or other European countries with similarly short times and negligible tuition Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 17:40

3 Answers 3


The first thing you need to ask yourself is: do you really want a PhD? At its core a PhD is nothing more and nothing less than "vocational education for researchers". In a PhD program you will learn about and get some experience in doing real research. If you don't want to become a researcher, then what is the value to you? There is the status that some feel comes attached with the title, but is that really worth a couple of years of your life?

Assuming you really want to go through with this, then you need to realize that it will take at least 3 years and probably more. That is a long time, so you need to approach that more like a marathon than as a sprint. So don't go in and start burning the midnight oil, because you will only burn out yourself before you are done with your PhD. This is a very common mistake among PhD students.

The only PhD student I know who made it in about 3 years had a completely different approach. She had a plan that was realistic, and she stuck to it. Making a realistic plan for your thesis is very hard. She managged because she already had experience doing research and was already well versed in her topic. She was also extremely disciplined in how she managed her time, and this ment that while at work she worked very hard, but she would not work in the evenings and not work in the weekends. She was able to work that hard and that focussed for 3 years on end because she did not work in the evenings and in the weekends.

I am not that person. I whish I was that disciplined, but I am not, and it took me 7 years to finish my PhD...

  • +1. I'm not sure how much value the PhD in finance is going to add over the MSc person who knows they want to go to industry. My sense is that the time is probably better spent networking, interning and gaining relevant work experience than trying to kill your self flying through a PhD program gaining a certification for a job you don't want. I don't work in finance though, so I'm not 100% certain that's the case for this particular industry, but something doesn't make sense to me about the OP's question.
    – user10636
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 14:16
  • There's a handful of jobs where a PhD is almost a requirement, even more so when it comes to economics. In the end, career-wise probably not worth the time, but I enjoy doing research and in the positions I am aiming for education on doing good research would have great carry over. Furthermore, as a European it would greatly ease the trouble I'd have to go through to get visa. I'm just not sure how feasible it would be financially to put 5 years in to this, as there are other people who depend on me as well. Thank you for the answer!
    – Ana
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 5:48

Completing a PhD sooner: what does it take?

Hard work, the right kind of advisor*, and a good chunk of luck.

*Namely an advisor that would rather let a good, hardworking student graduate early with a medium thesis than in the regular time with a great thesis.

The main trap that you seem to fall into is that you think of your dissertation as a number of defined of boxes that need to be ticked. Strictly speaking this is of course true, but it is also not a very valuable way of thinking about your PhD studies. In practice, most of the boxes are either little effort to tick (coursework) or more or less tick themselves automatically while you are at it, while some boxes (most importantly your research) basically last for your entire PhD studies. Unfortunately, "do PhD research" is in practice a time-bound task rather than defined over specific results. That is, very rarely your PhD project will be defined as "if you achieve X, you are done" (where X is something clearly measurable). Much more likely, your underlying PhD research question will be a little open and fluffy, and you spend 5 - 7 years conducting various studies into this direction, and hand in once you have learned enough that your committee is happy. This cannot easily be sped up, as getting good results early will usually mean that your committee expects more results from you.

  • Can you elaborate on what hardworking means?
    – user18072
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 14:51

It depends.

As the others have noted, you should enter into a program with the assumption that you will be in for at least three years (post-Masters) minimum. Beyond that though, you have a certain degree of control over things while being at the mercy of luck for others. If you are in a field where you don't need much in the way of fieldwork, then the biggest limiting factor might be you own productivity. Even more so if you are doing dissertation by publication.

For dissertation by publication you might be able to reasonably expect to have three solid papers going through the publication process or even in press by the time you defend. Having a well defined problem helps and mitigating your own expectations will as well. As much as a lot of PhD students want to write, say, the next "Non-Cooperative Games" for their dissertation, it is an extremely high bar to try and reach. This approach also also the dissertation to be more "bite-sized chunks" and has you checking off chapters early on in the process.

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