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How to Cut Your PhD Program in Half

Updated on September 8, 2012

According to the NY Times, the average student takes 8.2 years to get a PhD degree. That's the average. In other words some PhD students have a PhD program that is over ten years long in duration. That includes European writing only PhD degrees and online phd degrees! Talk about a depressing thought. Barring a relatively small percentage who experience tragic interruptions or debilities, nearly every PhD program can be done in half that time. This article won't be an iron clad guarantee that you will finish your PhD in 4.1 years, but it should jog your thinking in the right direction.

Start Your PhD Degree Differently

Most students start their PhD degree simply happy to have made it in. In the North American system students work on language requirements, start classes, and try to keep their eyeballs ahead of the reading schedule. You can start a PhD degree in a way that gets you ahead of the game. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Try to knock out one or two language requirements (humanities) before matriculation into your PhD degree. If it is statistics or empirical research that serves as the "language" then don't wait until you show up to figure them out. Pay the money to take a course, or get a tutor. 
  • Have a preliminary dissertation idea in mind and talk it over with your advisor quickly. You may not stick with it. But just thinking through an idea reminds you that your reading list is just a reading doesn't get you a dissertation. 
  • Use every paper or research assignment as a thought experiment toward your doctoral thesis. You won't be able to cobble together these papers into a dissertation, but they will get your research started and help you find dead ends before you are stuck. 

Keep on the Front Edge of the PhD Program

Every PhD has a typical timeline you will follow. Traditional North American PhD programs move from classes through comps to proposal to writing and dissertation defense. Online PhD programs often progress in modules, or milestones. Usually, these have a time range with an earliest time zone. Work ahead so that you can turn in your portion at the earliest possible time. 

  • Turn in topic proposals (pre-dissertation proposal stage) as early as allowed. Your advisor will likely bounce it back an almost-pre-deterimined amount of times. So you might as well get the first few knocks out of the way. 
  • Schedule your classes so you have a light load the semester before comprehensive exams. This allows you to study ahead and do the next item...
  • If there is an early and late option for taking comprehensive exams, take them early. (Many students lose four to six months by waiting to take exams later.)
  • Have your dissertation proposal written and ready for your advisor to see the first day your program allows it to be reviewed. Some students lose six months by waiting six weeks only to find out their advisor isn't available over the summer. 

Be Your Own Dissertation Boss

Many PhD students fall into the trap of thinking their advisor is the boss of their dissertation. They are the quality control personnel, not the manager of your dissertation. You are the only one who can manage the workflow of your dissertation. Here are some suggestions to keep your dissertation moving even if your advisor is not:

  • Ask your advisor to set tentative deadlines for turning in chapters. Set these deadlines months in advance and put them on both of your calendars. This way your advisor can block time for the week after your chapter is turned in to work on your chapter. It also keeps you accountable. It lets your advisor know you have structured your thought and are ready to move.
  • While your advisor is reading, work on the next chapter. Otherwise you receive response and are discouraged (PhD advisors are not paid to be encouraging), and all progress has been stopped.
  • Once you receive feedback, let it sit two days. Give yourself two days for self pity and self care. Then force yourself to do every single revision they asked for that you can do with integrity.
  • Stick to the deadlines you created even if your advisor has not returned previous chapters. This signals your advisor that they will only get more behind if they do not return your work. (They set these deadlines with you, remember? So you aren't forcing something they didn't agree to do.)
  • If you are not getting response from your advisor, schedule a meeting with them. The meeting on their calendar often gives them the sense of urgency to get it done. (Dissertations sit on desks, not calendars, and therefore are forgotten).
  • Remember, this is a dissertation. It is not your life work.
  • Start applying for jobs early. It is amazing how much motivation a teaching position can be. Some PhD students work for seven years and have no dissertation to show for it. Give them a job and three months later it is all written.

* Look at other resources and related articles on this page for more help in your pursuit of a PhD


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    • helpingfriends profile image


      7 years ago from Midwest

      I know a few friends who are ten years in and still struggling. This is helpful information for those who are wrestling with a dissertation. No wonder why so few get PhDs.


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