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Is six years long enough to complete a PhD?

The continuing debate over the PhD time limit.


Most graduate school calendars have something explicit to say about how long students have to finish their programs, especially PhD programs. The Dalhousie University calendar, for example, says that the PhD is a six-year program and for full-time students only. This time limit is shared by many other schools, including the University of British Columbia, University of Toronto and University of Calgary. Our calendar goes on to explain the general policy around part-time studies, leaves of absence, and extensions. But, eventually you read, ominously: “Under no circumstances can a student be registered in a program for more than 10 years.”

Why is that rule in place? There is no shortage of discussion about how to shorten time-to-completion, but not much has been written on why this is desirable. But, after combing through the available literature, I arrived at the following observations.

A long time-to-completion makes it more likely that the candidate won’t complete their PhD, and it undermines the focus necessary for a successful outcome. There is an old rule in project management: “If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done.”

A longer time from the initiation of studies to finished dissertation makes it riskier that what the candidate learned for the comprehensive exams is no longer a sound basis for the research. Very few fields of studies would be willing to assert they aren’t making material progress over a decade.

A longer time time-to-completion may also make it possible for a student to receive ongoing funding when they’re not making enough progress. Funding for doctoral students is limited, and this funding could have been used for more productive and focused students. Long times-to-completion also dilute the supervisory help available to other students.

When he was a graduate student in psychology at Dalhousie University, Frank Elgar wrote a report (PhD Degree Completion in Canadian Universities, PDF, 2003) for the Graduate Students’ Association of Canada that concluded the key to cash-strapped graduate programs may be in helping students finish sooner. “Low completion rates deter prospective graduate students,” he wrote, “thus creating long-term staffing and academic consequences, and long times-to-completion reduce the time graduates may potentially spend in gainful employment, which is particularly hurtful in an era of crippling student debt loads.”

There are still other arguments why time-to-completion is an issue, including the following:

  • Delayed graduation can affect student career progression.
  • Long program timetables makes it possible for faculty to exploit students in their effort to generate research outcomes for their own labs.
  • Time-to-completion figures are a measure used by governments and most universities as one proxy for university effectiveness. By permitting extensions, the department, faculty members and university all risk hurting their reputation. (In the U.K. time-to-completion data is considered so germane that it is one of the factors used by governments to set funding for individual institutions.)
  • PhD-completion delays are often a sign of supervisory problems.
  • Extending time-to-completion generally produces much higher debt for the student.
  • Higher time-to-completion rates reduce the number of excellent students who may take the program.

In the end, giving one student an extension is not going to end Western civilization as we know it, of course not. But it undermines the policy and makes it more difficult to apply the rule at all. So, we let one through, and two other student files land on my desk with a case for appeal (consuming more resources better allocated elsewhere). So I let three students through. Now we enter a debate about whether any deadline (15 years? 20 years?) is necessary. One thing is certain: whatever deadline you set, someone is going to ask for an extension.

One lesson I learned from this research is going to be put into action. At Dalhousie, we plan to take a much more proactive approach from now on. We are going to find the students who are at year five in their PhD program, and ring the bell. We don’t care whether the students perceive the bell as the signal for the last lap, or the warning bell that it may be time to drop their studies. But we want them and their supervisors to pay attention to the time-to-completion issue well before the 10-year deadline.

Sunny Marche is a professor in the faculty of management at Dalhousie University.

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  1. David Newman / April 11, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    An issue closely tied to this is funding/support for PhD students.

    When students are relying on TAships and teaching for their support, and they are in a trimester system, they are effectively only part-time students even if for university purposes they are full-time. Without sufficient financial support for non-teaching semesters to allow a focus on the research and funding, the time to completion will always be longer.

  2. Andrea J. Woodburn / April 11, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    It may be worth considering groups that might be deterred from engaging in a PhD due to such a rule, for example:

    (1) Full- and part-time teachers within the university who are trying to complete a PhD while teaching

    (2) Mothers or fathers trying to balance family and school

    (3) Professionals engaging in a PhD to further their expertise in and make a research contribution to their given field, but who cannot entirely quit working except for limited time windows

    All three groups may bring something to the table that compensates for the extra time, support, and latitude they require to make it. At least I hope so, because I fit into category one, and it will have taken me seven years.

  3. Dr.Doinglittle / April 11, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    10 years is more than plenty to finish a PhD. It’s too long if anything. I think there should be a seven year cutoff, at which point a student can apply for a one-year extension up to two times. This way, the pressure would be greater to get down to work on the dissertation right after comps. I’ve seen it so many times – a student becomes a candidate and then spends the next three years doing research before putting a pen to paper… when maybe a years worth of research is what’s needed to meet dept guidelines. No dept handbooks call for students to write a 700 page dissertation, so why students spend a decade producing one is beyond me.

    Having 7 year+ students around a dept does no-one any benefit.

  4. Andrew Park / April 11, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    While teaching duties do take time away from research, it is essential for PhD students to do soem teaching if they intend to pursue academic careers. However, as David newman points out, there has to be a balance. Too much teaching will delay graduation.

    A far more pernicious source of delay, however, is indifferent to bad supervision. It is relatively routine for supervisors to give contradictory advice, fail to return thesis chapters in a timely manner, or mis-read the degree of independance that individual students can bring to their studies.

    I know of a number of cases of friends still in PhD programs, who were either misled or neglected by supervisors. I know of one instance in which a student left a program, and was never even contacted by the “supervisor” to find out why.

    Finally, if a PhD is supposed to take 4 or 5 year program ( I don’t know where 6 years comes from), then the amount of work given should be doable in that space of time. There is no point trying to fit a decade’s worth of work into 5 years of study.

  5. John Marsh / April 11, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    Failure to complete a Ph.D. within 5 years may simply reflect a lack of ability. Giving students longer will not solve this problem.

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