How Long Does It Take to Earn a Doctorate?

No matter how long it takes, earning a doctorate is a major achievement.
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A doctorate is the highest form of degree -- called a terminal degree -- that educational institutions award. Students usually enter a doctoral program after earning a master’s degree. Doctorates come in two varieties: professional, such as the Juris Doctor or J.D., and academic, such as the Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D. Most schools estimate that it takes between three and six years of post-master’s-degree work to earn a doctorate, although some students need more time.

1 Academic Doctorates

Some individual programs give their own estimates that differ from the three-to-six-year standard. The University of California at Berkeley, for example, offers Ph.D. programs in history that have an expected completion of seven years. However, according to a study by the National Science Foundation, students take, on average, 8.2 years to earn a Ph.D. This lengthening is often not due to coursework requirements but to the necessity of completing and defending a dissertation, which is an arduous process.

2 Professional Doctorates

Students in professional doctoral programs often must complete residencies or practicums before they can practice in their fields, which lengthens the overall time between starting a doctoral program and entering the workforce. A medical student, for instance, completes four years of medical school before graduating with an M.D., but she cannot practice medicine until completing a further three to seven years of residency. A J.D. or professional law degree, takes a full-time student three years to complete, but she then must study for and pass the bar exam in the state where she plans to practice law.

3 Full or Part Time

Some, but not all, doctoral programs offer students the choice between studying on a full-time or part-time basis. While full-time students take a full course load each semester, part-time students usually enroll in half or fewer credits, which adds two or more years to a student's overall time spent in a doctoral program. Spending more time in a program may seem undesirable, but students choose this option for many sound reasons: They already have careers to attend to, for example, or they don’t want to struggle to achieve good grades.

4 Picking up a Master’s Along the Way

Some students enter combined master’s and doctoral programs to shave off some of the overall time they will spend in postgraduate study. In these programs, earning a doctorate is the overall goal, but the student is awarded a master’s degree after completing an amount of coursework predetermined by the school. Students usually need about four to five years to complete a doctoral program with a master’s en route, which is about the average for a doctoral program; however, students don’t have to put two years into a master’s program beforehand, which means the total study time is shortened.

Melissa Harr is a writer and knitting pattern designer with a range of publication credits. Her latest work includes blogging for Smudge Yarns, judging fiction for Ink & Insights 2015 and creating patterns for I Like Knitting magazine. Harr holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a CELTA.