How Long Will It Take Me to Get at Ph.D.?

This post is joined at the hip with the prior post on University Job vs. Dissertation (Ph.D.) Work. If you haven’t read that one, please do so first. This post mostly applies to the German system.

Depending on who you ask, you will get different answers. A professor may say: “You can get a Ph.D. within three years and regular working hours,” while a wistful Mike Slackenerny may say: “Seven years at least with no hope for personal life.” Both are right, it depends on the circumstances.

I see three main factors contributing to how fast someone will be able to finish a doctoral degree:

  • Project. Some projects have more research substance than others. You are clearly better off if you find a project that generates a lot of useful research output.
  • Effort. You will obviously be faster, if you put more effort into your dissertation work. That effort may go beyond the required work-time of your University job, but this is your choice then.
  • Focus (a.k.a. not procrastinating). A great project and lots of effort are all for naught if you are not focusing on the right things and are wasting your time on unrelated work.

These three factors combine. A project with little research substance can be compensated for with effort and focus. With a good project and focus, you may be able to finish your dissertation while working regular hours rather than on the weekends. With a good project and hard work you may be able to afford spending time on fun work unrelated to your dissertation.

The project choice typically happens early on, and you can change little later on. Effort is something you can scale up or down, depending on your situation. I have found focus to be the most difficult aspect, as not procrastinating can be really hard for some people. The one primary driver that I see that prevents procrastinating is really enjoying your work: You want to achieve results because you see real meaning in your work. If you don’t, something is probably wrong.

There is a simple test on how well you are focusing: Are you finishing your research papers well in advance of the submission deadline or are you racing up to the last minute? If the later, you have not been focusing on what’s most important: publishing papers. I preach it every time I teach Nailing your Thesis, my course on how to perform research: Get outside feedback on your paper before you submit it. It is the single most important thing you can do (beyond doing good research work) to improve your chances of getting your paper accepted. To ask for this feedback and make good use of it, you need to finish early. Yet many researchers (not my students!) drag themselves to submission right before the deadline, and the papers tell.

A corollary is how long it takes you get that grant proposal or journal paper out the door. If it takes forever, you are probably not motivated enough and are not focusing enough.

So: Find a project you really care about. Effort and focus will follow, and you’ll enjoy your time as a Ph.D. student.