How Long Does It Take to Get a Doctorate Degree?

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How long does it take to get a doctorate degree? Since PhD programs can be specialized, how long your own journey will take will depend on a number of factors, including your preferences.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Doctorate Degree

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It may also be beneficial to reflect on your motivations and goals for pursuing your PhD before making this kind of commitment.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Doctorate Degree?

Doctorate Degree students in library

The answer to the question “how long does a doctorate take?” will vary for lots of reasons, but it generally takes around 3 to 5 years to complete.

Credit Hours Required

Unlike in a master’s degree program, which normally requires about 30 credits beyond a bachelor’s degree, most Ph.D. programs require 58 to 60 credit hours beyond a bachelor’s degree, and most will require a dissertation as well. This means it may take an additional 3 or 4 years to complete a doctorate if you already have a master’s.

Full-Time Enrollment

If you are enrolled in an online program with more self-paced doctoral studies options as well as full-time and year-round course options, you should be positioned to make quicker progress.

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A longer-than-expected doctoral dissertation writing process or an unexpected life change outside of school may cause your initial pacing plan to go off track.

Part-Time Enrollment

If you are enrolled in a part time doctoral program, earning your PhD will obviously take longer. A program that would normally take 4 to 5 years with full-time enrollment could easily take 6 to 8 years part-time.

You might find that timely completion is more realistic in a professional doctoral program if you plan to keep your job while you study.

Online vs. Campus

Doctorate Degree student studying online

In most cases you’ll find that the most accelerated PhD programs are those offered online or those using a hybrid format.

If speed is an important factor for you, you may want to shop around for accelerated programs. The University of South Carolina, for example, offers a number of PhD programs online that may allow some students to finish in as little as 36 months.

It can help to keep in mind, though, that getting through capstone projects and dissertations can involve unexpected variables and delays based on individual circumstances.

Dissertation vs. Capstone Project

Doctorate Degree students studying together

When calculating completion time, you have to factor in both classes and time for completing a doctoral dissertation or capstone project.

Generally, these projects will have a shorter and more predictable timeframe than most PhD dissertations. Many qualified PhD candidates have made the mistake of underestimating the time and dedication it takes to research, write, and defend a dissertation.

Types of Doctorate Degrees

Doctorate Degree students studying together in library

Depending on the field you wish to study, you may find yourself wondering if you should pursue a more traditional Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or a more work-oriented professional doctorate.

If your focus is scholarship as such, a PhD may be your avenue of preference. If you’re seeking actionable knowledge in your industry, you may want to go for a professional doctoral program if given the option.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

In a PhD program, students develop deep theoretical and academic knowledge and engage in extensive research in preparation for ongoing scholarly research. A doctoral student interested in university teaching and research careers will typically seek out a PhD.

Professional Doctorates

Doctor of Business Administration student studying in his office

A professional doctorate typically focuses on extending and developing professional competencies for applications in managerial settings.

These doctorates are less common in the humanities but are frequently an option in many industries:

  • Doctor of Education (EdD)
  • Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)
  • Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
  • Doctor of Public Administration (DPA)
  • Doctor of Information Technology (DIT)
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
  • Doctor of Public Health (DrPH)
  • Doctor of Social Work (DSW)

In these practice-oriented doctorate programs, you’ll typically develop a high-level project that extends your current workplace experiences by applying research and leadership competencies to real workplace challenges.

3 Steps to Completing Your Doctorate

Doctorate Degree student studying in library

Most doctoral programs will lead you through three distinct steps: completion of required course work, comprehensive exams, and a PhD dissertation or doctoral project.

1. Courses

You may start your doctoral program by enrolling in a set number of required and elective courses.

During the first few terms, it’s common to take a number of foundational courses alongside other students in your cohort before enrolling in courses specific to your academic concentration.

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Doctoral coursework also usually includes research methodology courses supporting the dissertation or capstone project.

2. Comprehensive Exams

Although requirements vary by program, coursework is often followed by a comprehensive exam requirement.

Comprehensive exams help your professors evaluate your broad academic competency before you’re approved to move on to the last step.

3. Dissertation or Capstone Project

PhD students in university classroom

Once you’ve impressed your professors by your comprehensive exam results, you’ll be ready to start the last phase of your program: a dissertation or capstone project.

At this stage, if not before, you’ll most likely be assigned a faculty advisor who may mentor you and play a central role in approving your completed dissertation or project.

Advantages of Online Doctorate Degrees

PhD student studying online

A growing number of universities offer fully accredited online doctoral programs. While on-campus experiences can be appealing, online learning programs offer a number of advantages worth considering:

  • Convenience. Online programs offer exceptional flexibility, so you can study when you want, wherever you are.
  • No commute. Reduced travel and living expenses can save you money.
  • Flexible pacing. A number of online programs offer accelerated doctoral programs, and many online programs also offer flexible pacing if you plan to continue working or have other commitments.
  • Enhanced communication. Virtual learning and messaging tools can reduce geographical barriers and increase opportunities for exchanges between students and faculty.
  • Acquired computer skills. Engaging in extended online learning can help students develop an array of universal IT skills and competencies supporting success both in school and beyond.

You may want to keep these advantages in mind as you decide what kind of doctoral program is right for you.

How to Earn Your Doctorate Degree in Less Time

PhD students researching in library

Here are some options that may help you earn your doctorate in less time:

  • Get your doctorate without a dissertation. Dissertations take lots of time and can present unexpected stumbling blocks, so getting a professional doctorate instead of a PhD is one option that might save you time.
  • Choose an accelerated program. Many universities now offer accelerated doctoral programs. These programs typically require 8 week and year-round course cycles, helping you finish in less time.
  • Plan ahead. If you have the knowledge and experience to pick a valid research topic or capstone design early in the process, you may be able to begin your scholarly research sooner, accelerating your progress later.

Most doctorate programs, by design, require lots of time, dedication, and perseverance. You may want to consider the above factors if you aim to earn your doctorate in record time.

Should I Get a PhD?

If you want to do scholarly research in your field or teach at a university, you may need a PhD to equip yourself for realizing those goals. If you want to explore and acquire core technical competencies quickly, a master’s degree program might be a quicker and more suited route.

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You may be seeking advancement in a career that depends heavily on a doctorate. In this case, if you don’t plan to continue doing scholarly research, you may want to consider getting a professional doctorate instead of a PhD.

Do You Need a Masters to Get a Doctorate?

Have you been wondering whether you need a masters to get a doctorate? Having a master’s degree may be required or may help you gain admission at some schools, but there are a number of PhD programs out there that don’t require a master’s degree.

That said, if you’re still not certain about your academic commitment to more advanced research, getting a masters before a PhD is one way to test the waters.

How Hard Is It to Get a PhD?

PhD students using computer in library

A doctoral degree program often entails intensive study and research. Even in your introductory or survey courses, you may be expected to apply lots of prior knowledge, including in the easiest doctorate degree programs. In the hard sciences, trying to get a PhD without solid prerequisite knowledge might be especially difficult.

In the humanities, time to completion is sometimes longer, but you might find that sheer perseverance and good study skills go a long way toward success. Most degree programs also require additional courses in research methodologies.

In the humanities, dissertations are likely to require extensive bibliographies. Students in the social sciences may need to apply advanced statistics and engage in fieldwork. Doctoral projects in science and engineering may require both scholarly and hands-on research.

What Can You Do with a PhD?

business consultants in a meeting

With a PhD you may qualify for careers in research, consulting, and postsecondary education.

In science, engineering, and technology fields, your PhD may equip you to work in well-paid senior research and development roles. In business, finance, and management fields, a PhD or other doctorate may qualify you for lucrative roles in organizational leadership or private consulting.

How Much Does a Doctorate Degree Cost?

Tuition rates for doctoral programs will vary greatly by school and program. For a regionally accredited university, you can expect tuition rates to start around $600 per credit hour. At many universities, rates tend to be higher, ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 or more per credit hour.

You may find public universities that offer significant tuition discounts for qualifying state residents. Also, a number of regionally accredited university online programs are designed to offer students savings through highly competitive tuition rates.

What Is the Quickest Doctorate Degree to Get?

Doctorate Degree students studying together

The number of credit hours required for a doctoral program will vary widely by university. A doctoral student able to commit to an intensive, full-time, and year-round doctoral studies schedule may find degree programs with accelerated pacing.

Other advanced degree program components that may impact your timeline will be comprehensive exam requirements and whether you need to also earn a masters as you go.

Whether your program requires a dissertation or other capstone project will also affect how long it takes you to earn your doctorate. A dissertation is often a significant time commitment, so a project is often the quicker option.

Is a PhD Worth It?

Business executives meeting

Yes, a PhD or professional doctorate is worth it for many students. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs needing a doctoral degree for entry are set to grow at a 6% rate over the next ten years, faster than the average job growth for all occupations.

In addition to opening doors to postsecondary teaching jobs, holding a PhD can help equip you to pursue high-level innovation, research, advocacy, consulting, and management roles in many industries.

Some people also enjoy the prestige bestowed by a doctorate or find gratification in advancing knowledge and theoretical practice in their field.

Getting Your Doctorate Online

Getting Your Doctorate Online

If you have a love of learning and want to apply theoretical training as a leader or consultant in your industry, you may want to consider the numerous benefits of getting a doctoral degree.

A doctorate may also be a necessary qualifier for you if you aspire to be a university professor. Many accredited universities offer engaging doctoral degree program that are tailored to your specific needs and interests. With online programs offering more advanced degree options than ever before, why not start exploring schools today?

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Keith Nickolaus
Keith has a Ph.D. and Master's in Comparative Literature from the University of California - Berkeley and a Bachelor's in Literature from the University of California - Santa Cruz. A retired educator, Keith lives in Berkeley and researches and writes about trends in innovation, policy, and education leadership.