The Short Answer
While a doctorate in English is helpful in any field where the ability to communicate is essential, a recent survey of individuals who completed doctorates in English found that more than half of respondents took more than 9 years to complete the degree. Slightly fewer than half took from 5 to 9 years and a minuscule 5 percent managed to complete the work in just 3 to 5 years. Unemployment rates among holders of English doctorates are lower than the general unemployment rates. While tenured professorships are a little scarce, many English Ph.D.s find success in professional-level jobs in management, writing and editing, public relations, publishing and even politics, in addition to academia.
Why So Long?
If you pursue a stand-alone master's degree first and then reapply to a Ph.D. program, you'll have a completed master's in 3 to 7 years depending on how hard you work. Getting the master's degree first may help improve your financial situation if you are teaching. Plan on another 2 to 9 years for the doctorate. Often, but not always, you can count all your master's work toward your doctorate. If you go directly into a doctoral program, you may spend less time getting your degree, but the financial cost without the pay "bump" of getting the master's may actually slow you down in the long run. Few can afford a full-time doctoral program because of tuition costs. Many elect to take coursework in the summer and at night on a pay-as-you-go basis while working at full-time teaching jobs. This accounts for the 51 percent who take more than 9 years to finish.
What You Can Do to Reduce the Time It Takes
If your family can't help you financially, look for programs that offer graduate teaching-assistant jobs or other types of work-study. To finish a doctorate in 3 to 5 years, live as simply as possible, study hard, and focus on your graduate work. Go easy on the student loans if you can. It may take a few years after graduation to get your career on track.