Getting that Ph.D.: How Much of Your Life is Involved?

Posted: May 04, 2017

Getting that Ph.D.: How Much of Your Life is Involved?

The short answer? It depends on you and your grad program. The longer answer is there are several scenarios that can take anywhere from 3-4 years beyond your Bachelor’s to as long as 8-9, or more. So, let’s take a look at your options.


If you are lucky enough to hit it full-time straight through, you are probably looking at 3 years of coursework beyond your Bachelor’s. Most programs require about 80 semester hours of coursework beyond that Bachelor’s, so you are looking at 6 semesters at a minimum. The dissertation is beyond that, of course.

This is a difficult path, because you will be looking at 4-5 courses a semester. And you may actually have a teaching assistantship on top of that. This is a grueling schedule, and you will need to dedicate the bulk of your life to classes, coursework and preparation for the class you may be teaching.

Obviously, this is the way to go if you can hack the schedule and the work. You will be finished with the coursework within that 3 years, and then the 12-18 months on the dissertation will almost seem like a bit of relief.


This is the most common option, because so many students have jobs, family obligations, etc. The amount of time to finish the coursework will obviously depend on how many courses you can reasonably take each semester. It is not unusual for those who work full-time to take as long as 8-9 years, especially considering that the dissertation takes an average of a year.

This option takes a major commitment, sometimes more than that of full-time students. It’s easy to just say, “I’ll just take a semester off and then go back.” When you get into that mode of thinking, the chances of ever finishing decrease. Taking at least one course a semester, even in the summer, will at least keep your mindset in the right place.

The other thing that will keep you from getting discouraged is to stop looking at the long-term end goal. It can seem so far off that you begin to wonder what the point is. Look at each semester as a goal in itself and focus only on your current coursework. And set up some small reward as you complete each semester.

That Dissertation

This is the proverbial “elephant in the room” that everyone realizes is coming but tries to avoid thinking about until they are in their final 15 hours of coursework. They know how much time and effort will go into this final project, but also that their degree depends on getting it done.

You need to plan on 12-18 months of work on this, but it will be part-time work. It’s just that it needs to be consistent and scheduled, so that you do not let things slide. About 40% of those who finish all of their coursework for that Ph.D. are sitting out there not having completed the dissertation. They are known a ABD (All But Dissertation), and there is no degree for that.

Most institutions will allow 7 years for completion of the dissertation, which is really quite liberal. Don’t look upon this as a “ticket” to just lay back for a few years. The longer you wait to get started, the harder it will be (Remember that 40% who never finish). Get with your advisor, select a topic area and a research question, at least start your initial research, and get your research design mapped out. Once that is done, you will feel much more like getting on it.

So…How Long?

The answer it totally up to you. But hear this…time is both your friend and your enemy. While you may need to go a bit more slowly than others who have the luxury of a full-time program, you must commit to a steady schedule of coursework and dissertation work. It really is worth it.