How long does a PhD take?

This title could well read ‘How long does a PhD take!’ That would perhaps reflect the sense that though I have travelled a great distance towards completing my PhD in the last three years, it is not finished yet. I am entering my continuation year, or ‘writing-up’ period as it is also known. The terms of my funding mean that I will soon stop receiving the payments that have sustained me for the last three years. I am looking for work to fill the gap and know from colleagues who were never lucky enough to get funding that this will mean new pressures to deal with.

However, that is not what has me blogging today. I am blogging because it has become clear to me over the last year that expectations of how long it takes to complete a PhD thesis vary and sometimes contradict each other. This has meant confusion, pressure and doubt about myself which has not helped me get any nearer to submitting. In writing this post I want to start a conversation about how we set expectations with PhD students and how we develop systems and processes that deal with the variation between PhD students and theses.

Funding Body

My funding body provided me with three years funding. This is standard in my field. The two largest bodies consider full funding as fees, plus three years maintenance. Financially, a PhD takes three years. This contradicts the expected submission date in the paperwork, which is a full year later (September 2015). My thesis is not considered late as long as it is handed in before then, regardless of my funding stopping a full year earlier. What does this twelve month gap mean in terms of setting PhD expectations? And how will I work full time on my PhD and fund it?

A further contradiction comes in the details of a data gathering and data sharing exercise the funding body recently sent me, which states that the time taken to complete a PhD they are using for their calculations is 3.5 years. If this represents an average, I would like to see more detailed figures and more acknowledgement that three years is a minimum and not a standard target for completion. I’d also say that perhaps we should not call three years funding and fees ‘a fully-funded PhD’ when more often than not this is not the case.

The department

It is not just my funding body who use different goalposts for different things. My department and faculty give three years as the registration period, plus a continuation year if needed. There are different standards applied in the continuation year regarding fees, use of facilities etc. which leave me uncertain what my status actually is during this time.

In September 2013, I was told in no uncertain terms that there was an expectation I should be ready to hand in by September 2014. A Professor from the department where I did my Masters also said that being finished in three years was the most important thing I could do for my career. I was doubtful at the time, but ready to give it my all to meet this deadline.

Unfortunately life intervened and it became clear that a three year hand-in was unfeasible. In an attempt to offer support and pastoral care during this difficult time I was told not to worry too much as most students go beyond three years at least a little bit. While I felt some relief at this, and was grateful for the support, it did make me wonder why the earlier pressure had been applied.

Varying expectations are formalised too. At the end of three years, my department requires students to go through a procedure called a ‘Submission Review’. Why, if so many of us need longer than that, is this expectation set as the official title of the review? Filling it in at the same time as my application to enter a continuation year was not great for my morale or confidence. While I understand the need for monitoring PhD students, perhaps how this is done could consider what students, as well as departments need from the process in a more balanced way.

Managing expectations

The expectations of my funding body and university have made me feel under a lot of pressure and for a while I felt a sense of failure that I would not have a thesis ready to go in September 2014. Could I have done it? A few months ago, I would have said yes, with the caveat that it would only have been possible if I had never done of any of the committee, conference and teaching work I have done to begin building my CV, and which I have enjoyed and felt enhanced my research greatly.

Now I would say no, because I’ve needed time to develop the themes and methods in my research, do career development activities, and deal with personal pressures that often there is not much wriggle-room to accommodate in PhD life. Even research running smoothly and to schedule can be disrupted. Life might have other plans for you such as illness, financial problems or family problems. In those circumstances you can intermit, struggle along, or maybe go part time, depending where you are in your studies. In my experience, again, systems lacked the flexibility to reflect what my actual circumstances were.

I can see that funding bodies, departments and faculty staff have processes and expectations for a reason. They need to know funding is being wisely spent on research that is progressing to completion. They need PhD students to be accountable for their time and the investment being made in them. They have completion rates to worry about. Departments have to monitor students and it is in everyone’s interest to have some expectations set. My concern is about how these are communicated and how fit for purpose some of these expectations and systems are. How well are they adapted to consider the people doing the PhDs, as well as the variety they come in? Did I need a big talk about expectations to build the pressure going into my third year? No. Might some students? Perhaps.

Reflecting and looking forward

I am now facing my fourth year unfunded and with frequent deadlines to meet to achieve my expected submission date, regardless of the work I have to do to fund myself over this year. It has taken me some time to reflect on my PhD journey to date and realise that for me, a PhD would have taken three years only in an ideal world where the expectations of the skills and experience you have at the end are different. Teaching, conferences etc would all have had to wait for me to be able to finish in three years.

I understand this is not the case for everybody, and this again is part of the issue. Though we come under a set of similar terms and processes, there is a lot of variation between PhD topics, students and theses, which makes comparison difficult and possibly not even helpful.

It seems as though some of the structures and expectations around the PhD are designed to negatively reinforce that is it possible to complete in three years, rather than offer students a realistic and balanced sense of what a PhD is supposed to accomplish and how long this might take in their case. I think this builds an expectation that does not match the experience of many students, and can leave students feeling like they have failed and under a lot of pressure, often while trying to earn enough money to sustain themselves.

DSC06216For me, conflicting expectations meant a lot of additional pressure. I occasionally felt like I was inadequate. Sometimes I felt like I was being processed along a conveyor belt, subject to form-filling and procedures which were designed to spit me out, fully PhD’ed in three years. For a while I felt like I had little control over my PhD. It would be unfair to suggest this was entirely because of the bureaucracy I was facing but I would say that it did not help. It has taken a sustained period of feeling like my research was going better to address some of these negative feelings, and remind me that completing a PhD is as much about emotional resilience as it is about hours spent in libraries.

How long does a PhD take?

Should we challenge the notion of the three year PhD? Or consider an additional period at the end of a PhD to develop those complementary areas which are now so important to getting jobs? (in which case how do we fund this?) How do we reconcile the needs of funding bodies and departments; to spend the money of funding bodies wisely and minimise the number of PhD students who drift away without completing and the needs of PhD students to receive support and the flexibility many need?

In selling a PhD as a three year research degree are we fundamentally failing to communicate what it is supposed to achieve? What is that? Did you achieve that and how long did it take you?

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7 thoughts on “How long does a PhD take?

  1. Gregor Maxwell

    Interesting piece. I’m struck by the fact that the UK still seems stuck to the idea that a PhD takes three years when it clearly doesn’t. Sadly I suspect that money is the influencing factor in not expanding UK PhDs to the four-year European standard.

    Reply
    1. cclements29 Post author

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, I do think money is at least partially behind some of the conflicting expectations. When funded by one of the main research councils this often leaves an unfunded gap such as the one I am currently facing. I’m not sure how we get the research councils and universities to address this though. I’d like to hear suggestions!

      Reply
  2. teriinthought

    I think this is a growing problem, especially with more PhD’s self funding (as I did) and taking up part time work to make up partial funding. I naively thought at the start, “3 years and done”, but even if you do submit exactly 3 years to the day you started (presuming you are full time), there’s still the wait for the VIVA, with some people taking up to 6 months to get to that stage, followed by potentially several months making corrections… never mind the other pit falls this article excellently raised. I wish I had more fully understood this aspect before I started. Conversations like this will however make it more apparent to future doctoral candidates so they can take the time to decide how much time are they prepared to give to make it to the other side (and their families too).

    Reply
  3. cclements29 Post author

    I think this issue links strongly to the issue of how to balance your PhD and other areas of your life. I’d like to see more discussion of sustainable workloads and working patterns. Another area ripe for discussion is the expectation of the number of hours PhD students are expected to be putting in – as this does link to how long it will take to complete. As someone who was recently forced to confront this issue in my own life, I have found altering my work patterns has made me more productive, and importantly – happier, and maybe if I had realized this a while ago I’d have saved myself from some worry and self doubt. Thanks for your comment – it has been heartening to feel like I am not alone in some of my feelings!

    Reply
  4. Mick

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, and for sharing your experiences. I’ve got three contributions.

    I think Charlotte’s point about conferences, teaching, CV points, policy engagement, blogs, etc, is an extremely important one. To produce a PhD thesis which will be of publishable (and therefore employable) standard is a three year task in itself, particularly if the field research involves much travelling or labour-intensive data gathering such as oral history interviews. We are always told the standards of theses are slipping, but it takes time to produce quality work. The best British PhD I read as part of my research, which dated from 1982, took eight years to research and write, and came in two volumes filled with fantastic data I used to great effect (the archive on which it was based was destroyed in the 1990s). Now, it is unlikely the thesis would have been good enough to turn it into a great book, and the fantastic data would have gone up in flames.

    Moreover, we are then told to ‘publish or perish’ to set ourselves apart from the crowd, who will also all have PhDs, not to mention the people who finished three years ago and have scraped by gathering a list of publications together.

    On the point above about mainland European PhDs being given four years. The last time I spoke to Germans and Americans about the issue of the length of time allowed for British PhDs, they both said that their faculties are gazing at the British model and calculating how much money they could save by cutting down on the amount of time allowed to complete. ‘We don’t know how you Brits do it’, they remarked, ‘but it seems to work’.

    Reply
  5. carolbea

    I have just submitted my thesis, in just under three years. I worked full time for two and a bit years, self funded my fees for two years and was awarded and ehs/ihr bursary which I used for fees for the final year. Have organised and attended conferences, given papers, attended training days and undertaken lots of teaching. Have given up television and reading novels for pleasure. For me my studies became my hobby and my obession is this the right way to go about ‘doing’ a PhD nope but it was the way I chose to do it. Everyone has to find their own path.

    Reply
    1. cclements29 Post author

      I absolutely agree that everyone has to find their own path and I’d add that theses also vary so much that a more rigid approach to PhD expectations is unhelpful. As of the documents I saw referred to a 3.5 yr average that means some are getting it done in 3 years, some in 4 and some somewhere in the middle. That is perhaps my main issue with the system I am in; it isn’t flexible enough to people to feel like they can make their own choices and find their own path.

      Well done on getting your theses submitted and thanks for your comment!

      Reply

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