How many years of school does it take to get a PhD? How long does it take?

Embarking on a PhD journey is akin to strapping in for an intellectual rollercoaster ride.

From the buzzing classrooms of the USA to the revered halls of European universities, the timeline for earning this illustrious degree can dramatically vary. But what exactly does this journey look like, and how much time should you anticipate devoting to it?

In terms of time commitment for a PhD, the United States tends to require the most, with students typically taking between 5 to 8 years to complete their degree. On the other end of the spectrum, countries like the UK, Germany, France, and Australia generally require less time, typically between 3 to 4 years, with other countries like Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, China, India, and Brazil falling in between.

Is it a matter of years, or should you be prepared for a commitment spanning a decade? Moreover, why does it differ so much between countries?

Whether you’re a curious observer or a prospective doctoral student, this deep dive into the heart of PhD programs across the globe promises to be enlightening!

How Long Does It Take to Complete a PhD?

The response is not cut-and-dry as it largely varies, but especially so between different regions of the world.

Generally speaking, a doctoral program in the USA tends to take longer, with a timeline usually falling between three to six years, and in some cases, it may take even longer.

This is contrasted by the shorter duration of PhD programs in Europe, the UK, and Australia, which typically spans three to four years.

Here is how long a PhD can take in different countries:

CountryEstimated Length of PhD
USA5-8 years
Canada4-6 years
Australia3-4 years
UK3-4 years
Germany3-4 years
France3-4 years
Netherlands4 years
Sweden4-5 years
China3-6 years
India3-5 years
Brazil4-5 years

The first step of a USA PhD journey involves completing coursework.

This phase takes around one to two years, with the goal of deepening the PhD student’s understanding of their chosen field of study and providing a solid foundation for their impending research.

The unique and often challenging aspect of a doctoral program is the original research, which forms the basis of the dissertation.

Depending on the complexity of the chosen research topic, this phase can take several years in the USA, while it may be slightly quicker in Europe, the UK, or Australia due to the structured nature of these programs.

After writing the dissertation comes the defense phase, which can take another year or more in the USA, and this too can be somewhat quicker in other regions.

Once I submitted my PhD in Australia I had to wait 6 months before the decisions were made – luckily I have a job!

How many years of school to have a PhD in total? 

Acquiring a Ph.D. degree requires several years of dedicated study and research.

Here’s a rough estimation of the years of education needed to earn a PhD starting from kindergarten:

Education LevelEstimated Years RequiredCumulative Years
Elementary School67
Middle School29
High School413
Bachelor’s Degree417
Master’s Degree*219
PhD4-7 (USA), 3-4 (UK, EU, AU)23-26 (USA), 22-23 (UK, EU, AU)

*Note: Master’s Degree is often not a requirement for enrolling in a PhD program in the USA but it is common in other countries. In the USA, you can usually proceed directly from a bachelor’s degree to a PhD, in which case the total cumulative years would be less.

  • Generally, a minimum of 8-10 years of education beyond high school is required to earn a Ph.D.
  • Bachelor’s Degree is the first step towards achieving a Ph.D., which takes around 4 years.
  • After getting the Bachelor’s degree, one needs to complete a Master’s degree, which typically takes 2-3 years.
  • Following this, the academic journey continues with a doctoral program, which takes another 4-5 years.

During this time, students are engaged in coursework, comprehensive exams, and extensive research work, culminating in a Ph.D. dissertation that represents their original contribution to their field of study.

Why Does It Take So Long to Complete a PhD?

To begin with, a PhD isn’t about skimming the surface; it’s about diving deep into your chosen field. The degree is a testament to your advanced knowledge within your area of study, and this requires time. Picture it as a winding tunnel of discovery, from which you emerge as an authority within your field.

The second, and perhaps more intriguing reason, is the element of trial and error. Every PhD student has a unique tale of failure and success; it’s essentially a rite of passage. From refining research questions to troubleshooting experiments and revising dissertations, the road to earning a doctorate is peppered with challenges.

It’s a dance of adaptability and resilience, and it takes time to perfect.

In essence, while earning a PhD may take around four to seven years, or sometimes even a decade, it’s a testament to a PhD student’s perseverance, deep knowledge, and invaluable contribution to their field. The time to completion may seem daunting, but the rewards it brings are worth the journey.

What are the benefits of earning a PhD? 

The time it takes to earn a Ph.D. equips students with critical thinking and problem-solving skills, preparing them to tackle real-world challenges.

Here are some of the benefits that can come from doing a PhD.

  • Expert Problem Solver: A Ph.D. equips you with the skills to tackle complex problems in your chosen field. This makes you a specialist problem solver, adept at overcoming unexpected challenges.
  • More Opportunities: Holding a Ph.D. can open up numerous career opportunities, from academic roles to advanced positions in industry and government. It’s a degree that can provide an extra edge in the competitive job market.
  • Recognition as an Expert: Earning a Ph.D. grants you the title of ‘Doctor’, signaling your expertise in a specific area. This recognition can be satisfying personally and professionally.
  • Perfected Learning Skills: Ph.D. students become expert learners, honing the ability to self-learn and adapt, skills that are invaluable in every aspect of life.
  • Improved Communication: A Ph.D. involves presenting ideas, writing complex papers, and participating in debates. This improves your communication skills, enabling you to articulate your ideas effectively.
  • Identity and Personal Growth: The challenges faced and overcome during a Ph.D. journey significantly contribute to personal growth and identity formation. This experience often results in increased resilience and a sense of accomplishment.

While many Ph.D. students enroll with academic aspirations, the doctorate degree can unlock opportunities across industries. A Ph.D., after all, symbolizes the apex of academic achievement and positions its holder as an expert in their field.

Do PhD students get holidays

PhD students, like any other student or working professional, do get holidays during their academic journey.

The nature and duration of these holidays may vary significantly depending on the institution, the field of study, and individual needs and commitments.

I know that many institutions expect their PhD students to treat it as a job and only have minimal time off during their studies.

That being said, it is important to note that PhD students often maintain a high level of commitment and dedication to their research, irrespective of holidays.

The flexibility and autonomy offered in doctoral programs mean that many PhD students continue their research or writing tasks during these vacations, either out of sheer passion or to meet pressing deadlines.

Additionally, some PhD candidates may use the holiday breaks for conferencing, networking, or attending workshops to further develop their skills and knowledge within their research area.

Wrapping up

As we reach the end of our exploration into the world of doctoral studies, it’s crucial to remember that the journey to a PhD, while rigorous and time-consuming, is a unique and rewarding endeavor.

It’s not just about the title or the prestige; it’s about the knowledge you gain, the skills you develop, the resilience you build, and the contribution you make to your chosen field.

The path to earning a PhD is not a race; it’s more of a marathon.

The differing timelines across countries further emphasize that this journey is not one-size-fits-all, with each nation having its distinct approach.

Whether you are a high school student considering your future, a bachelor’s graduate thinking of further studies, or simply a curious reader, it’s essential to understand that a PhD journey is no walk in the park.

It requires substantial investment in terms of time, energy, and often, personal sacrifice. But, the sense of achievement and personal growth that accompanies such a monumental accomplishment can be transformative.

It’s more than the learning; it’s the lifelong skills you acquire and the person you become in the process. The sense of purpose, the adaptability, the strength of character, and the capability to critically engage with the world are perhaps the most significant gains from this journey.

If you are considering this path, know that it takes more than intellect – it takes courage and an unwavering dedication to the pursuit of knowledge.

So, if you’re prepared to strap in for this intellectual rollercoaster ride, know that it’s a journey worth embarking on.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.