For full-time students, a PhD in the UK typically takes three to four years. For PhD candidates who opt to study their doctoral research around work or other commitments, completing a PhD can take six to seven years. Thesis deadline extensions can be granted for up to four years; however, this will always be at the university’s discretion.
Whether you want to complete your PhD in the UK full-time or part-time; it is a big commitment, which shouldn’t be taken lightly. The gratification may not be immediate, but the rewards can be lifelong when considering the professional careers that are more accessible for PhD holders, the increased earning potential and the sense of satisfaction that comes with creating unique knowledge and gaining a title only a minute fraction of the global population will only acquire.
How Long Is a PhD UK?
In addition to the average durations for part-time and full-time PhD study, there are additional time limits on how long students can be enrolled on a PhD program; this applies to students who have self-proposed their research idea and students who have been selected for a PhD program with pre-defined aims and objectives.
Full-Time and Part-Time PhDs in the UK
Typically, from start to finish, a full-time PhD in the UK will take 3 – 4 years to complete. Most full-time PhD students will spend the first three years undertaking independent research with the support of PhD supervisors, designing research methodology, collating data and analysing it. Most students will then take an additional academic year to write their thesis and sit their oral examination.
Of course, these timelines will vary with every PhD candidate. Some PhD students start their doctoral research with a solid idea of how they will approach their methodology and thesis, while others will need to go through more of a process of trial and error. Some PhD students get to the writing up stage quicker than others, writing a thesis should never be a race to the finish; doctoral research is a valuable and vital contribution to academic knowledge.
More often than not, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dedicate your time and energy to research. Although, it isn’t unheard of for people to have multiple PhDs.
For part-time PhD students, researching, collecting data and outlining it concisely in your thesis typically takes twice as long. This timeframe is based on the assumption that part-time PhD students will dedicate 20 hours weekly to their doctoral research, while full-time students will, on average, spend 40 hours a week on their PhD.
Of course, there is no clocking in or out when you are a PhD student. The vast majority of your time will be spent partaking in independent research, and there will always be periods that are busier than others. Many PhD students find that the writing-up stage is the busiest.
How Long is a PhD for Distance Learners in the UK?
Completing a PhD by distance learning is similar to being a part-time PhD student. Many distance-learning doctoral students need six to seven years on average to finish their research, thesis, and viva. This timeframe typically boils down to how much time PhD candidates need to spend commuting to universities, which usually restricts the ability for full-time learning.
The duration for distance learners is also highly dependent on the research in question. For example, PhD students digging into STEM research will take longer to complete their doctoral degrees – compared to those conducting research into non-STEM disciplines, such as the arts, humanities and social sciences. For non-STEM disciplines, students can conduct the majority of their research remotely, whereas STEM students will need access to labs or other equipment to carry out their experimental work.
Does Funding Affect PhD Duration in the UK?
In an ideal world, funding wouldn’t affect how much time a PhD student can dedicate to their research and thesis. Unfortunately, for many full-time, part-time, and distance-learning PhD students, funding is a primary factor in the duration of their studying.
Typically, funding and studentships will only cover PhD students for three and a half years for full-time students, while part-time students can expect funding for seven years at a rate of half the stipend. However, this depends on the program you have applied for, and who is providing the PhD funding.
For example, if you are a physical sciences or engineering student and your funding is being paid by the EPSRC, you will need to follow the timescale which is indicated on their length of PhD Studentship guidelines. Due to this timeframe, most students funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council aim to complete their PhD within 3.5 years. Failing to complete the PhD within the 3.5-year timeframe could incur additional fees, which need to be independently covered.
Furthermore, several funded PhD positions and programs have additional components attached to the eligibility requirements that require PhD students to undertake duties such as undergraduate teaching, laboratory session hosting or attendance at conferences and presentations. Even though these additional conditions shouldn’t prolong the duration of your PhD to an excessive degree, they can marginally add to the time it takes to complete a PhD program. For PhD candidates with these kinds of studentships and funding agreements, it is vital to have exceptional time management skills.
Finally, self-funded PhD students can also feel constricted by their financial situations and feel the pressure to complete a PhD quicker than students who enjoy the security of attached funding. In addition to annual tuition fees, there are other associated costs and living expenses to account for. However, this isn’t always the case; some self-funded PhD students feel free to take their time to ensure their research is as valuable as possible.
PhD Deadlines in the UK
Each university in the UK has its way of setting deadlines. However, typically, the PhD deadline for full-time and part-time students is the date by which you need to submit your final thesis.
For most UK universities, the deadline date is four years on from the start of your doctoral degree for full-time students and seven years for part-time PhD students. The start date will be when you were registered for the PhD program. Some UK universities also opt to set a minimum period of years or adjust the timeframe around relevant integrated studies.
Can PhDs Be Completed Faster Than the Average Timeframes?
While full-time students can complete their PhDs within two years or even 12 months from enrolling on their program, it certainly isn’t something that you should realistically aim for. Completing a PhD in under three years is a significant achievement, so much so that it is rarely heard of in the UK.
The only students who have managed to complete their PhD thesis and pass their viva are students who enrolled on a program with extensive pre-existing experience and knowledge.
It is marginally more common for part-time students to complete their PhD in under six years. This largely depends on existing experience and knowledge and which commitments you are studying around. If you are a PhD student with part-time employment, it is highly unlikely that you will have the time to complete your PhD a year sooner; attempting such an achievement could leave you at risk of burnout. Alternatively, if you are a freelancer and your workflow often permits you to dedicate more time to your PhD, it can be possible for you to allocate more time to your research and writing.
Other Factors in the Rate of Progression for PhD Students
Many international students who choose a UK university to complete their doctoral research wonder if it will take longer to complete their PhD compared to domestic students. The good news is, as an international student in the UK, there is no indicative data to dictate that your period of study will be longer.
Similarly, students who chose direct entry into a PhD program from a bachelor’s degree instead of studying a master’s degree beforehand are often anxious that they will find it hard to keep pace with their master’s degree-holding counterparts. Again, no evidence only holding an undergraduate degree will limit the rate of progression. A PhD differs from a bachelor’s and most master’s degrees due to its independent research focus; there are no right answers or curriculums to follow. With that being said, studying a Master’s degree before a PhD could help you to get more acquainted with a speciality topic, which was only briefly introduced to you in your bachelor’s degree.
EU & US vs UK PhD Durations
UK PhD programs follow the same structure and timeframes as European PhD programs. However, there is a slight difference compared to US PhD programs, which take longer to complete, based on a 2017 study. The study revealed that it takes 5.8 years on average to complete a PhD in the US.
The average timeframe is even longer when looking at arts and humanities PhDs in the US; they typically take 7.1 years to obtain. The primary reason for this is the additional directed study requirements imposed on US PhD candidates.
Is a PhD worth it?
So, you might be asking yourself, is a PhD worth it? Well, that’s subjective. career prospects for students upon finishing their PhD will be influenced by the nature of their research as well as their prior experiences and skills. While we can’t outline all potential job opportunities, it’s important to recognise that numerous diverse paths and organisations typically seek individuals with specialised expertise and advanced educational qualifications.