Welcome to College Confidential!

The leading college-bound community on the web

Sign Up For Free

Join for FREE, and start talking with other members, weighing in on community discussions, and more.

Also, by registering and logging in you'll see fewer ads and pesky welcome messages (like this one!)

As a CC member, you can:

  • Reply to threads, and start your own.
  • Post reviews of your campus visits.
  • Find hundreds of pages of informative articles.
  • Search from over 3 million scholarships.

Why does it take so long to get a PhD in certain fields ?

bruno123bruno123 Registered User Posts: 1,390 Senior Member
edited July 2007 in Graduate School
According to the US Department of Education, the median time lapse between earning a bachelor's degree and earning a PhD degree in the US is 8 and a half years in the Humanities and roughly 7 years in Mathematics, Physics, or the Life Sciences. These figures seem excessive, especially by international standards.

In the European Union for example, the standard time to complete a doctorate under the new 3B/2M/3D Bologna system is 5 years beyond an initial bachelor's degree . In certain fields, especially engineering and hard sciences, students usually take longer, but never more than 6 years counting from the year the bachelor's degree was awarded (government funding is normally discontinued at this point and degree-granting institutions are heavily penalized with a reduction in research funding if doctoral students do not graduate within a reasonable amount of time).

The most often heard explanation for the excessive time American students take to get a PhD is that, unlike their counterparts in Europe, doctoral students in the US are required to take a large number of graduate classes and prepare for a series of screening and qualifying exams in the initial years of the program before choosing a thesis topic. That same argument is sometimes used to suggest that US PhD programs are somehow "stricter" or "tougher" than equivalent doctoral programs in the European Union. That is however not exactly true.

First of all, in several European universities, especially in certain deparments in the UK, PhD students now do take classes (and associated final exams) in their first year in the program. Furthermore, it is standard practice in the UK for students coming into the program with a 4-year undergraduate degree (MSci, MEng, etc.) to enroll initially as Master of Philosophy (MPhil) candidates and then be promoted to PhD candidacy following an oral Transfer Exam. Still, they are able to complete the whole program in no more than 4 years beyond their initial undergraduate degree.

Second, although that may be controversial, the standard continental European opinion is that the American model of requiring extensive coursework and multiple preliminary exams from PhD students is just a way to compensate for the deficiency of both secondary and undergraduate college education in the US when compared to Europe. In other words, a French commentator would probably argue that a student who holds a "Licence" from a French university or an "Ing
Post edited by bruno123 on
«1

Replies to: Why does it take so long to get a PhD in certain fields ?

  • Milton RoarkMilton Roark Registered User Posts: 397 Member
    You are correct on the fact that Europe has superior secondary education. However, any review of international rankings shows U.S. universities and the undergraduate education they provide to be superior (although both offer a comprehensive education on the whole). The Economist also supports this conclusion as well comparing European universities to America’s secondary schooling system (on the whole). I understand that this may not be your personal view and is instead the view of another person or group of people; however, it makes it clear that the U.S. Ph.D. system is not extended simply because the U.S. is trying to “catch up” with Europe
  • bruno123bruno123 Registered User Posts: 1,390 Senior Member
    Do you have a link to the article in The Economist where the comparison between US and EU undergraduate education is made? I'd be interested to read it.
  • ehiunnoehiunno Registered User Posts: 878 Member
    I know of two people who went to two different universities for their grad school studies in Aerospace engineering. One went to Cornell, the other went to Cambridge (I know, its not EU, but its still Euro), both PhD recipients in aerospace engineering (similar concentrations as well).

    The one that went to Cambridge had a much, much narrower education, even in terms of a PhD sense. If you think that american PhD's are narrow and focused, the european ones are rediculously more so. The American PhD takes a lot longer because many of the classes are broader than the euro equivalent, even if they do take classes. In the US, the reqs for passing the entrance eams are much broader than the classes the euro's take, and thus you get a different, arguably better, arguably worse education.
  • Milton RoarkMilton Roark Registered User Posts: 397 Member
    "As for the richer world, it is hard to say which throw more talent away—America's dire public schools or Europe's dire universities. Both suffer from too little competition and what George Bush has called “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. "
    http://www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=8000879
    http://www.economist.com/surveys/displaystory.cfm?story_id=7961894
    They both cover the upcoming "War for Talent." This of course is good news for us (the youth).
  • ehiunnoehiunno Registered User Posts: 878 Member
    hot damn I love the economist
  • ReallyOldSchoolReallyOldSchool Registered User Posts: 73 Junior Member
    From your description of what is being measured here, at least part of the difference is that the statistic is not controlled for time spent working between earning the bachelor’s degree and the PhD. All US PhD programs that I know of have similar requirements. Course work and qualifying exams can almost always be completed in the first couple of years. In principle, most US PhD programs could be completed in as few as three years. There are certainly exceptions, such as Clinical Psych, which usually includes a lengthy supervised clinical practice requirement.

    I can’t point to any data to support this conjecture, but based on my discussions with people from various disciplines, I expect that you would find an inverse correlation between the strength of the PhD job market in a specialty and the average length of time to completion. That is, in fields with very strong PhD employment, especially outside of academics, average times to completion tend to be shorter. Applied Computer Science and most Engineering disciplines would be the best examples. When your committee knows that you’re not going to pursue an academic research position and that they will not be required to back your application to their peers, they may not be quite as strict in their interpretation of the significance requirements for your dissertation. Likewise, there is little incentive for the students to hang around in order to pad their CVs with publications before going on the jobs market.

    At the opposite extreme, there are disciplines with very poor PhD employment prospects. In such disciplines, students would be foolish to go out on the academic job market without very strong dissertations, multiple publications, extensive teaching experience, etc. These same disciplines are also those that are likely to be relatively poorly funded, with students piling up large student loan obligations. Staying in school as long as possible delays the start of loan repayments. Searching for a rare tenure track position is a way to delay facing one’s alternate career opportunities, such as waiting tables or part-time teaching at a community college (the former is usually more lucrative and may offer better benefits). These less well funded disciplines are more often done part-time, which also lengthens the average time to graduation. See:
    http://chronicle.com/free/v53/i31/31a01001.htm
    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2006/12/08/gradstu

    From what I’ve heard, these sorts of self-funded programs are at least much less common in Europe and may not exist at all in some countries. Obviously, if funding is required and it’s limited to six years, average time to completion will be less than six years. This is true of some programs in the US. Taking 7 or 8 years to complete a program is unheard of in those programs.

    A good rule to follow for PhD students would be to not accept entry to a program unless you are fully funded and not to continue past the point where funding ends. Unless the PhD employment prospects in your discipline are very strong and the compensation is adequate, don’t take out loans. If you can’t live off of your stipend, it’s not a good bet. Even in the disciplines with strong employment prospects, successful completion rates are often low. You might beat the odds, but where will you be if you end up ABD with tens of thousands of dollars in debt?
  • NeutrinoNeutrino Registered User Posts: 81 Junior Member
    It's simply because in the US, if you are planning to complete a Ph.D, you don't need to complete a Master's Degree first. You can skip the MD, complete your Ph.D, and go on to post-doc afterwards.
  • InquilineKeaInquilineKea - Posts: 2,309 Member
    Heh heh heh - good post. Anyhow - in Europe - there are more opportunities for academic research without being an alpha scientist with tenure. In the United States, however, there are fewer academic non-tenured opportunities.

    "Physics is becoming so unbelievably complex that it is taking longer and longer to train a physicist. It is taking so long, in fact, to train a physicist to the place where he understands the nature of physical problems that he is already too old to solve them" - E. Wigner
  • DespSeekPhdDespSeekPhd Registered User Posts: 991 Member
    To weigh in...

    Firstly, and undergrad degree in the UK is generally 3 years long, as they do not usually have the extensive required core that US unis have (they cover the core in secondary school, but they also attend secondary school longer). Many grads then take an extra year for a post-grad diploma if they are planning on going to grad school, but not all. It's certainly not required.

    Going from an MPhil to the PhD is not a big leap. Both are purely research degrees, so basically for the MPhil you take a couple years and produce a lengthy thesis, then for the PhD you expand on said thesis. Therefore, the vast majority of research is completed, the outline and thesis is finished and critiqued - at which point I would wonder if it took more than 3-4 years to finish the diss.

    In the US, however, it is very different. We have not such thing as a pure research degree. If a person goes straight to the PhD from BA/BS, there are 2 yrs coursework, then comps, THEN research. The research portion of the program generally consists of an initial proposal defense, then the research/writing of the diss, then sometimes meetings or readings/comments by committee, then more revisions, then defense, after which sometimes there are more revisions. My understanding (and this could be incorrect) is that at least in the UK, comments/revisions/etc. take place mostly between primary advisor and student only until defense.

    If a US student chooses to do the MA/MS before PhD, that's adding another 2 yrs to the process, as PhD granting institutions rarely transfer more than a couple courses' worth of credit from MA/MS to PhD.

    The result is that UK scholars are, first and foremost, researchers, while the US system focuses on balancing the research and teaching training. Attending classes is seen as necessary, not only as a broader base of knowledge (especially since all PhD students, at least in the humanities, need to also have at least one totally distinct minor field, which isn't found frequently in Europe), but also as training for the way a class should be run and learning the skills of critique and debate.
  • Ky-anh TranKy-anh Tran . Posts: 259 Junior Member
    Are you guys serious? Seven years for a PhD after undergrad seems superfluous to me. It just doesn't seem realistic. My father, for example, had his PhD at 27 years old, and thats because he spent 2-3 years teaching between undergrad and grad school. Same for my cousin (27 years old, PhD)
    My father was doing research in math, while my cousin was doing research in biology.
  • DespSeekPhdDespSeekPhd Registered User Posts: 991 Member
    Sorry. I'll try to learn my three languages faster for you. I think, also, you meant a different word than "superfluous."

    Anyway, humanities degrees, esp. history and lit, often have language requirements, some particularly demanding. As a medievalist, I need to have a pretty good grasp of Latin, French, and German - the medieval forms (Occitan may be beneficial as well, althogh it will depend on the ultimate direction of my research). Plus, before I really sink into my diss research, I need to learn medieval Irish enough to translate documents. So I figure I'll be happy if I get my PhD within the next 10 years.
  • bruno123bruno123 Registered User Posts: 1,390 Senior Member
    Firstly, and undergrad degree in the UK is generally 3 years long, as they do not usually have the extensive required core that US unis have (they cover the core in secondary school, but they also attend secondary school longer). Many grads then take an extra year for a post-grad diploma if they are planning on going to grad school, but not all. It's certainly not required.

    BA degrees normally take 3 years to complete in the UK. In engineering/CS and natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.), it is now common though for students to enroll (BrEng enrol) in 4-year programs (BrEng programmes) that lead both to a BA (Honours) and a so-called "undergraduate master's degree", e.g. an MEng or MSci degree.

    If a student graduates with a 4-year undergraduate degree, he/she may be allowed to go straigth into a PhD program without having to obtain a postgraduate master's first. Students in arts and humanities, who normally hold a 3-year BA only, are however usually expected to get a 1-year MPhil before being accepted as PhD students. For example, with only very few exceptions, the Faculty of History at Cambridge requires a postgraduate master's degree for all applicants wishing to read for a PhD. In any case, all accepted PhD students remain on probation during their first year in the program and are only confirmed as PhD candidates after a "research evaluation exercise" (similar to a US PhD Thesis Proposal) by the end of the third term.
    Going from an MPhil to the PhD is not a big leap. Both are purely research degrees, so basically for the MPhil you take a couple years and produce a lengthy thesis, then for the PhD you expand on said thesis. Therefore, the vast majority of research is completed, the outline and thesis is finished and critiqued - at which point I would wonder if it took more than 3-4 years to finish the diss.

    Terminology varies from university to university. In the "new" universities, taught master's degrees are referred to as an MSc (not to be confused with the undergraduate MSci) in science/engineering or an MA in the humanities area. An MPhil on the other hand is a research degree as you've described. In Oxford and Cambridge however, an MPhil is usually a one-year part-taught, part-research degree with assessment based on a combination of written exams and a dissertation. The research master's degree for example in History at Cambridge is referred to as an MLitt instead.
    In the US, however, it is very different. We have not such thing as a pure research degree. If a person goes straight to the PhD from BA/BS, there are 2 yrs coursework, then comps, THEN research. The research portion of the program generally consists of an initial proposal defense, then the research/writing of the diss, then sometimes meetings or readings/comments by committee, then more revisions, then defense, after which sometimes there are more revisions. My understanding (and this could be incorrect) is that at least in the UK, comments/revisions/etc. take place mostly between primary advisor and student only until defense.

    I'm not sure, but I think your understanding is incorrect. From what I know, if anything, the final oral exam ( Viva Voce ) is a much bigger deal in the UK than in the US. First of all, it is not a public exam and the candidate's supervisor cannot normally serve as an examiner (although he/she may be present as a matter of courtesy only). Furthermore, the examiners may not only fail the candidate (which is very rare though), but also, depending on the thesis, may recommend that the candidate be awarded a master's degree instead of a PhD (that is also rare, but it is known to happen to a handful of candidates every year). The most common outcome though is, like in the US, for the thesis to be accepted subject to extensive revisions as required by the examiners. It may take an additional term in residency at the university for the candidate to complete all necessary revisions before he/she can graduate.
    The result is that UK scholars are, first and foremost, researchers, while the US system focuses on balancing the research and teaching training. Attending classes is seen as necessary, not only as a broader base of knowledge (especially since all PhD students, at least in the humanities, need to also have at least one totally distinct minor field, which isn't found frequently in Europe), but also as training for the way a class should be run and learning the skills of critique and debate.

    I can't really comment on that, first of all because humanities is not my field and, second, because, having done my PhD in the US, I don't really have a good basis for comparison (other than what I heard from friends of mine who got their degrees in Europe). It is true though that, all together, a student in the UK may get a BA, a master's, and a PhD degree in seven or, more likely, seven and a half years. By comparison, it would normally take 8 years to do the same in France and at least 10 years (most likely more) in the US. As someone wrote in this forum before, I suspect the pressure for degrees to be completed in shorter times comes from the fact that UK universities are not as well funded as their US counterparts and institutions are heavily penalized (BrEng penalised) with government funding cuts if PhD students graduate in more than four years.
  • Ky-anh TranKy-anh Tran . Posts: 259 Junior Member
    The fact that fund is lacking stems from the fact that there people in France and UK don't pay for their undergrad (and graduate) education. Also, the study in undergrad is a lot more focused than in the US. On the other hand, high school education is also more advanced, and focuses more on the liberal arts.
    For example, France requires 2 foreign languages to be learnt in high school (some students learn 4 languages), a philosophy course (6 hour essay for the baccalaureate), calculus, advanced chem and physics (calculus based for some) just to GRADUATE. Also there is a major emphasis in literature. In the US, you just don't write essays (in french, it is called "dissertation") on Existentialism or Realism with the depth french high school students does. Needless to say, French secondary education is much more superior than US secondary education.
    That's why they can allow focused studies later on in college (a bio major no longer takes literature after high school).
    It's much more efficient that way, and also allows students to get their degrees faster.
  • UCLAriUCLAri Registered User Posts: 14,740 Senior Member
    Ky-anh Tran,

    Yes, we all know that secondary schooling in the US is lagging behind many countries.

    But that still doesn't explain why it seems that it takes Europeans just as long to finish their PhDs in the US as it takes Americans.

    And different doesn't necessarily mean "much more superior" (just "superior" works better, FYI).
  • bruno123bruno123 Registered User Posts: 1,390 Senior Member
    The fact that fund is lacking stems from the fact that there people in France and UK don't pay for their undergrad (and graduate) education.

    I don't know about France, but people in the UK do pay for their education. British and EU undergraduate students are charged up to 3,000 pounds/year (roughly 6,000 US dollars) for tuition (adjusted anually for inflation), although they may take a governnment loan instead and pay nothing until they graduate (the loan has to be re-paid later).

    Tuition for international students on the other hand may go up to well over 10,000 pounds (20,000 US$)/year. On top of that, in Oxford and Cambridge for example, internationals must also pay additional college fees (something between two and three thousand pounds/year depending on the residential college to which you are admitted) and all students, regardless of their nationality, must pay for room and board while in residency. If I'm not mistaken, domestic graduate students also have to pay full tuition at the same level as internationals, although most of them are probably supported by Research Council or European Union scholarships/fellowships.
    Also, the study in undergrad is a lot more focused than in the US. On the other hand, high school education is also more advanced, and focuses more on the liberal arts.

    Yes, that is true, although some UK undergrad degrees can actually be quite flexible. At Cambridge for example, the Natural Sciences Tripos allows a student to take a combination of physics, chemistry, and biology classes plus math in the first year and specialize in one single science later (second through fourth year). Similar arrangements apply to the Social and Political Sciences (SPS) Tripos where one typically studies political science, sociology, social psychology, and social anthropology together in the first year and specializes in one or even a combination of two social sciences in the second and third years. It is also possible in some cases to move between triposes. For example, one can start in the Math Tripos in the freshman year and then move to Natural Sciences or Computer Science in the second year. Likewise, a first-year (SPS) student may move to History, Law, or Management in the second year.

    Oxford University on the other hand offers several joint undergraduate degrees (similar to a major/minor combination in the US), for example, Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE); Physics and Philosophy; Engineering, Economics, and Management; Mathematics and Computer Science; Mathematics and Philosophy, etc.
This discussion has been closed.