Friday, May 7, 2010

How Long Does A PhD Take?

Every spring I usually get a flurry of questions from prospective students about how it's like to do a PhD. They vary in content, from how many courses are required to how expensive it is to live in Toronto (expensive!).

There is one question that I have a problem with: How long does it take to do a PhD? Don't take me wrong, it's a pertinent question, you embark in a long journey and you really want to know how long it will take to reach the end. I get that. The problem that I have is that this question hides a misconception about the PhD process.  Or two, depending how you look at it. I've seen many students, both undergrads and early grads, that think at least one the following:

  1. If you spend enough time enrolled as a PhD, you get a degree in the end.
  2. You need to spend X number of years in the PhD to get a degree. 
It's perfectly justified to think this way. After all, all degrees that we get before the PhD can be quantified in years. Four years of primary school, four of secondary, four of high school and five of undergrad (that's my case in numbers). And really, in my case, there was no way around it. It had to take that long (which I don't think it's a good idea, but that's a totally different conversation). But when it comes to the PhD the story changes drastically.

In my opinion, none of these ways of thinking (i.e., number 1 and 2 above) is right. The PhD doesn't take time, it takes results. And how long it takes to get results depends on many, many things. Among which: your domain, your topic, how quickly you find a topic, your enthusiasm and your grain of luck, what you want to do once you are done with the PhD, how much your work is appreciated by the research community, how much help you need and get from your supervisor. And the list could go on for a while. 

I have seen students that take 2-3 years to finish and I've seen 10 years as well. Ok, 5-6 is a common number. My .2$: you should focus on the process and the results, rather than on the time. If you're in a hurry, maybe a PhD is not the right answer to your question. No matter how long it takes, it usually requires lots and lots of patience.  =)


I discovered my definition of success during my first trip to New York some four years ago. Every time I read it, it reminds me of what I want to achieve while here...

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
                                                            -- Emerson