Academic Achievements: How Long Does It Take to Earn a Doctorate Degree?

If you’re reading this blog post, there’s a good chance you’re thinking about getting a doctorate degree. After all, it is the pinnacle of academic achievement – the confirmation that you’re an expert in your chosen field. While you’re not sure how long it will take to get a doctorate, you know that it’ll contribute to your career and personal growth, as opposed to only having an AB degree.

Right now, you’re probably receiving advice from dozens of students, professors, and administrators about pursuing further studies. It’s hard to know which piece of advice to focus on, especially when the things they say clash with one another.

That’s what we’re here for – to help you get on the right track. Let’s talk about what you need to do and how long it’ll take you to earn your doctorate degree.

What is a doctorate degree?

According to administrators and professors of doctoral programs, there are two different types of doctorates:

  • Doctor of Philosophy/Doctor of Science

    Commonly known as a PhD or ScD, this doctorate is designed to prepare you for careers in research — either in an industry or at a university. PhDs and ScDs are offered in a wide range of academic subjects, including highly technical fields such as math, physics, engineering, or biology; humanities disciplines such as philosophy; and social sciences like economics and sociology.

    While a PhD or an ScD is typically pursued by tenure-track college and university faculty, the academe is not the only career path you can take with this doctorate. For instance, if you pursue a ScD degree in biology, you can work as a researcher in the pharmaceutical industry. Many government expert positions in various departments and agencies also require a PhD.

  • Professional/Clinical Doctorates

    These doctorates are designed to provide you with the practical skills you need to be an influential leader in your employment setting or industry. Common examples include business, nursing, and psychology. For instance, most states require licensed psychologists to hold a doctoral degree in psychology.

What are the requirements for earning a doctorate degree?

In most academic settings, earning a doctorate includes completing coursework and submitting an original dissertation. Some doctorate degree programs also require written or oral comprehensive examinations.

Application Requirements

Most doctoral degree programs accept candidates who have earned AB degrees from reputable colleges or universities, but there are programs that require candidates to hold a master’s degree. You will need to submit all college or university transcripts as well as letters of recommendation, college admission test scores, and personal interviews. Some programs will require a high school diploma.

The admission test will depend on the doctorate program’s academic field. The Miller Analogies Test (MAT) and Graduate Record Examination (GRE) are the most common. If you’re applying for a business school, they may require your Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) scores.

Coursework requirements

If you already hold a master’s degree, you will have fewer course requirements than those with AB degrees. Your doctoral-level coursework will include classes in the chosen field, with a strong focus on research design and methods.

If you want to become a professor in the future, you might be required to teach undergraduate classes.

Research Requirements

In the first or second year of study, you will begin conducting research with your professors. From the third year on, you’ll focus on original research and writing, otherwise known as a dissertation. A committee of professors will advise you on your research concepts and proposals.

Examination Requirements

You will be required to pass comprehensive examinations in your chosen subjects at the end of your first or second year. If you pass, you advance to the candidacy phase.

The Oral Defense

When you finish your dissertation, you’ll submit it to a special committee that will review your work. They’ll ask questions about your research methods and conclusions. If you’ve worked with a committee from the start of your research process, your dissertation defense should go smoothly. Once the committee approves your dissertation, you’ll be awarded your doctorate degree (hurrah!).

How long does it take to get a doctorate degree?

Statistically speaking, earning a doctorate will take you twice as long as a bachelor’s degree. According to Joseph Berger from the New York Times, the average time for students to complete their doctorates is 8.2 years.

Averages by Field of Study

Terminal degrees in the hard sciences usually take a shorter time to complete than degrees in education and the humanities. For example, the field of physics currently has an average of five years while psychology averages five to seven years. If you’re a doctoral student in the field of history or science, expect to spend up to eight years completing your degree.

Some fields of study require a significantly longer time to complete. For instance, in the field of education, the average is currently at 13 years.

Why does it take so long to get a doctorate degree?

student taking notes
Image from Pixabay

The average length is influenced by several factors, namely:

  • Today’s doctoral students face more demands as most of them are earning their degrees while working full time and raising a family.
  • The first two to three years are likely spent taking electives and required classes. Many of these courses have advanced research components that can be time-consuming.
  • Most students are often working second jobs as research assistants or teaching assistants. They can’t always find the time to fully focus on their studies.
  • Specific fields of study, like psychology and teaching, require an internship or a residency during the doctoral program.

When deciding to pursue a doctorate program, it is essential that you consider a significant amount of time and money. You can expect to spend almost an entire decade devoted to studying and researching. However, the highly demanding process can be immensely rewarding when you finally earn the title “doctor.”

Why earn a doctorate degree, even if it takes so long?

Aside from being able to add a professional designation after your name, there are solid career-related, academic, personal, and interpersonal skills that you will acquire through doctoral-level education.

  1. Equipped to impact your industry

    With a doctorate degree, you have the potential to influence, and even transform, your chosen field. Doctoral candidates typically take an existing problem or concept in their industry, conduct extensive research, and then propose possible solutions.

    As the main goal of the doctoral process is to uncover new findings within a field or expound upon existing knowledge, the results of your dissertation can have an economic and social impact.

  2. Qualify for top-level positions

    If you’re a strong doctoral candidate, you might already be fairly well-established in your career or field. But, there’s nothing wrong with developing your skills further to move onto the top levels of decision-making.

    A rigorous doctoral program will push your boundaries and teach you how to analyze and solve complex problems related to your industry.

  3. Demonstrate higher-level skills

    Holding a doctorate degree proves you’ve mastered top-level skills in research, analysis, and writing. Many careers in various fields now demand professionals to have these advanced abilities.

    Obtaining a doctoral degree demonstrates the time and effort you’ve dedicated to achieving the highest education level in your field, positioning you as a master in the skills relevant to your field.

  4. Grow your professional network

    When you pursue a doctorate degree, your classmates represent a wide swath of sectors and fields. Just like you, they’re all in school to improve themselves professionally. These people will not only become a great professional network, but they can also act as an effective support system. They can provide you with industry expertise and even aid you in securing a job in the future.

  5. See an economic payoff

    Earning a doctorate could increase your salary’s potential with your current or future employers. According to a report by the Council of Graduate Schools, the expected lifetime earnings for a professional with a doctorate degree is $3.3 million.

    After sacrificing money and time to earn your degree, this might be music to your ears. But do remember that some fields will have a higher payoff than others. When calculating your return on investment, consider your future earning potential carefully.

How to prepare before pursuing a doctorate

Before embarking on your path to a doctoral degree, here are some tips that may help you make better decisions.

Make sure the program has various research options

Even if you’re currently committed to a narrowly focused research area, you may find yourself interested in other areas in the future. As such, find a doctorate program where the professors aren’t all working in the same specific research area. Make sure there are at least three to four professors working on an array of topics that you see yourself working on as well.

Develop your time management skills

In a doctorate program, time management reaches an entirely new level. You will not only have lectures to attend and assignments to finish, but you’ll also have to make time for research. This includes scheduling with other students to collaborate on projects and spending extended periods of time in the lab analyzing data.

To top it all off, you will most likely have to teach for a number of semesters and attend seminars related to your research. Be ready for schedules to go awry and to sacrifice certain activities. But, don’t panic when things don’t go according to plan. Just anticipate possible delays and be prepared to adapt.

Yes, pursuing a doctoral entails many sacrifices. You don’t really know how long it will take you to earn your doctorate degree, and there will be times that the light will seem faint at the end of the tunnel. However, it’s important to understand that this course of action will help you achieve both your professional and personal goals.

If you have big and bold ideas, you’ll most likely thrive in doctorate degree programs. And if you have the time and the dedication, it won’t be long before you have that coveted Ph.D., MD, ScD, etc. title beside your name.

About the Author



Scroll to Top