The final piece of the PhD journey is the PhD dissertation. It takes many years to accumulate enough original and new data to fill out a dissertation to the satisfaction of experts in your field. Interestingly, the PhD dissertation length and content vary significantly based on the field you are studying and the publishing conventions.
A PhD can be anywhere from 50 pages to over 450 pages long. This equates to between about 20,000 words to 100,000 words. Most PhD theses are between 60,000 and 80,000 words long excluding contents, citations and references.
A PhD thesis contains different sections including an introduction, methods, results and discussion, conclusions, further work, and references. Each one of these different sections will vary in length depending on the field of study and your particular topic.
It is very rewarding to see your thesis come together as you are writing day after day. When I was writing my PhD dissertation I wrote the sections separately and my heart filled with joy when I finally put them all together and compile them into a single PDF document.
Counting the pages should not be the way to determine a PhD dissertation’s value but it certainly helps when your thesis is starting to look substantial in thickness.
How many pages should a PhD dissertation be?
A PhD dissertation should contain as many pages and words as it takes to outline the current state of your field and provide adequate background information, present your results, and provide confidence in your conclusions. A PhD dissertation will also contain figures, graphs, schematics, and other large pictorial items that can easily inflate the page count.
Here is a boxplot summary of many different fields of study and the number of pages of a typical PhD dissertation in the field. It has been created by Marcus Beck from all of the dissertations at the University of Minnesota.
Typically, the mathematical sciences, economics, and biostatistics theses and dissertations tend to be shorter because they rely on mathematical formulas to provide proof of their results rather than diagrams and long explanations.
On the other end of the scale, English, Munich Asian studies, political science, history and anthropology are often the largest theses in terms of pages and word count because of the amount of words it takes to provide proof and depth of their results.
At the end of the day, it is important that your thesis gets signed off by your review committee and other experts in the field. Your supervisor will be the main judge of whether or not your dissertation is capable of satisfying the requirements of a PhD in your field.
Can a PhD dissertation be too long?
A PhD thesis should contain enough evidence and discussion to report on the most significant findings of your PhD research.
A PhD dissertation should not contain everything that you have done during your PhD. It should only include the data and information required to convince your PhD examining body that wraps up and tells the full story of particular lines of investigation.
Including random results, thoughts, or superfluous explanation can result in a dissertation that is unfocused. I have heard of music PhD is being described as too verbose and physical sciences PhD dissertations as being unfocused.
One of my colleagues during their PhD removed an entire chapter from the thesis after writing it as the supervisor said that it needed more experiments to be a full story. They did not want to spend the next six months gathering the data and simply removed the chapter altogether.
How short can PhD dissertation be?
The shortest PhD dissertations are typically found in mathematics.
George Bernard Danzig was an American mathematical scientist who made contributions to industrial engineering and many other mathematical-related fields. An interesting miscommunication led to 1 of the shortest PhD theses ever.
In 1939 his professor wrote two problems on the blackboard and Danzig thought they were homeless assignments. He stated that they were harder than usual but handed in solutions to the surprise of the professor.
They were, in fact, open mathematical problems in statistics.
His professor said to bind the solution to the two problems together and submit them as his thesis – the total thesis length = 14 pages.
Obviously, most PhD theses and dissertations will be so much longer than that!
I would say that most people’s PhD thesis experience will be closer to mine than Prof George Bernard Danzig’s.
Why PhD dissertations are typically so long
PhD dissertations are often over 200 pages long.
One of the primary reasons they are so long is that it is a single document that summarises many years of hard work. Also, summarising the research field to date and making sure that all of your references and citations are included so you avoid plagiarism will bolster the word count of the thesis dramatically.
Here are all of the reasons PhD dissertations tend to be so long.
Many years of work
PhD theses or dissertations contain many years of research and analysis.
In many of my YouTube videos I recommend that a PhD student work towards their PhD thesis by doing at least three hours of focused work every work day.
This amount of work quickly adds up.
Of course, not every bit of work makes it into the PhD dissertation but a lot of it does. It can be difficult to work out what to include or leave out of your thesis.
As a PhD student, I perfected the art of turning one experiment into many different types of grafts and schematics to fully explore the limits of my data. The graphs can take up a lot of space in your PhD thesis and, therefore, bolster the page count significantly.
In depth literature review
One of the most substantial parts of a PhD dissertation is the literature review.
The literature review can take up a huge portion of the early part of your PhD dissertation depending on the amount of data and publications in your field.
Writing an in-depth literature review requires just as much meticulous data analysis and searching as the central part of your dissertation.
Figures and schematics
Some fields end up producing a lot of figures and schematics.
My thesis had many full-page figures of atomic force microscopy experiments with much more explanation on subsequent pages.
As they say, a picture paints a thousand words and a dissertation can really benefit from having many schematics to highlight the important aspects of your findings.
References and citations
The recommended PhD dissertation word count from an institution or university does not include citations, references, or other thesis parts such as summary of abbreviations, table of figures, et cetera.
However, these components of your dissertation can take up many pages and add to the overall thickness of your PhD dissertation.
University formatting rules
University formatting rules will also dictate how you many pages your words take up.
I often get roasted on my YouTube channel for having doublespaced lines and wide margins. Unfortunately, this layout was dictated by my university before printing.
PhD dissertations often end up going into long-term storage and therefore, need to adhere to archival and standardised formatting rules.
Deep in the depths of the University of Newcastle, there is a copy of my thesis on a shelf. The formatting and binding rules mean that my thesis looks like everyone else’s.
Universities will often have their own requirements for PhD dissertation cover colour, quality, and type of paper. Even the quality of the paper can change the thickness of the PhD dissertation significantly.
PhD by publication
It is becoming increasingly common to submit a number of peer-reviewed papers bound together with supplementary information in between instead of a PhD dissertation.
The benefits of this to the researcher and university are:
- More early career peer-reviewed journals for career advancement
- an easier review process – they have already been peer-reviewed
- an early focus on publishing means better research outcomes for the researcher, supervisor, and Department.
- No mad rush at the end to finish a thesis
- continually writing peer-reviewed papers throughout your PhD helps with timely analysis and communication of results
Even though this option has been available to PhD students for a number of years, I have only known a handful of students actually submit their PhD via publication.
Nonetheless, having this option will suit some research fields better than others and lead to a more productive PhD.
This article has been through everything you need to know about the length of a PhD dissertation and the common lengths of PhD dissertations for various fields.
Ultimately, there is no predefined length of a PhD.
A PhD thesis is as long as it needs to be to convince your examiners that you have contributed significantly enough to an academic field to be awarded the title of Dr of philosophy.
Mathematical and analytical theses tend to be shorter and can be as short as 50 pages (with one of the shortest being only 14 pages long). At the other end of the spectrum, PhD students in anthropology and history tend to produce the longest dissertations.