If it were quick and easy to get a doctorate, everyone would get one. But it isn’t, which is one reason why not everyone goes for their Ph.D. There’s no prescribed length of time for any particular student to get a doctorate, since different programs may take longer than others, but a full-time student can expect to spend between three and six years finishing their doctorate.

Overview

Most doctoral programs -- no matter the discipline -- follow a standard process. The doctorate begins with one or two years of course work. This is often followed by a prospectus, which is a proposal for your dissertation, including research agenda, sources, the main issues and the general structure of the dissertation. Some programs also have written or oral exams after you complete your coursework. Some programs, especially in the sciences and social sciences, have an expectation of research or field work that can take an additional year or more, depending on the program. After the prospectus comes the actual dissertation writing, which is followed by a defense. All of this depends on having money, too. If you have to find funding and write grant proposals, that will add to the length of your study.

Coursework

Coursework is the first stage of a doctoral program and can last between one and two years of full-time study. Most programs expect two years of core study upon entry, and even full-time students can’t go much faster than that. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania has a two-year minimum for coursework in all its doctoral programs. All programs are different, so some might put less emphasis on course work and more emphasis on research, but the first stage of a doctoral program rarely takes less than two years.

Comprehensive Exams

After the first year or second year, some universities require that doctoral candidates sit for comprehensive exams, or comps. Depending on your field of study, these exams might involve studying from dozens (or hundreds) or texts that you’ll choose with your supervisor and an exam committee. Other programs choose the topics and books for you and expect you to demonstrate that you know the core concepts of the program. The exams are common in the humanities, though some science and business degrees, like the Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Northern Iowa, require comps too. Full-time students may study for months for their comps before moving on to dissertation writing.

Dissertation Writing and Defense

After coursework and exams, most doctoral students move on to research and writing their dissertation. An actual time frame for dissertation work is difficult to pinpoint, since this is self-guided research and writing that moves at the pace you set. If you work quickly, full-time, without distractions, you could finish your dissertation in 12 to 18 months. This largely depends on the amount of individual and independent research you need before you can write your dissertation. If you have to do field work, the process could require a year or two. You then need to schedule a defense, which could take an additional six months to a year. Some schools, like the School of Public Health at the University of Georgia, have a mandatory teaching assignment that may slow down your studies.