Doctoral programs, also called Ph.D. programs, can take between three and eight years to complete. The range of time varies because depending on the discipline, a doctorate program may include years of fieldwork or clinical work outside of the classroom.

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Doctorate degree programs take a varying amount of time, but generally, a doctorate degree requires four years of undergraduate study, at least two years in a master's program and between three and eight years, approximately, in a Ph.D. program.

How Many Years Does It Take to Complete a Doctorate Degree?

Doctorate degree programs are programs that confer a degree at the highest possible level of study for a discipline or a particular profession. Programs vary depending on the discipline. Typically, a program that is directed at a specific professional goal or for a specific and highly specialized field has a longer and more time-consuming program than a doctorate program in a liberal arts subject.

Physicians must earn a Doctorate of Medicine to be licensed to practice medicine in the United States. Earning a Ph.D. in medicine requires four years of medical school and three years of residency, which requires working in a teaching hospital as a doctor under the tutelage of a senior physician. If a doctor wants to become a specialist after his residency, he will need to go through a couple more years of additional schooling in the area of his chosen profession.

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The field of psychology also requires a significant time commitment for students pursuing doctorate degrees. There are two available degrees in psychology at the doctorate level: a Ph.D. and a Psy.D. A Ph.D. is a degree in psychology with a program that emphasizes research, teaching and publishing academic papers. A Psy.D. is a degree in psychology that emphasizes clinical fieldwork and is specifically tailored to students who are planning a practice in therapeutic psychology.

Doctors and psychologists are chief among those whose professions require a Ph.D. in their discipline to be licensed to practice in their field. The Doctorate of Medicine is known as an M.D. and the Doctorate of Law is known as the J.D. Both degrees are required for the licensed practice of an individual working either as a doctor or a lawyer.

History of Ph.D.s

Historically, Ph.D.s, aside from the exceptions discussed above, rarely took more than five years to complete. Generally, your experiences during the Ph.D. program would be hours spent engaging in research, reading new material, teaching undergraduate courses, working in the field or in a lab, depending on your discipline, and then completing your dissertation. In the past, these programs took around a full five years, including a dissertation. Nowadays, it is much more likely that a dissertation-centric graduate program will take between six and seven years.

Generally speaking, a degree in a hard science will take somewhat less time to earn than a degree in the humanities or education, which generally require students to discover a new theory or idea in order to successfully complete their dissertation. A degree in physics or chemistry can take approximately five years, while a degree in humanities fields like literature or history can take upward of seven years and in some cases, a full eight. Often, people who are pursuing degrees in the field of education will spend over 10 years in school in order to earn their degree.

This length can be attributed to the significant number of components that these graduate programs require. Initial semesters of graduate programs are typically spent taking courses, doing reading and writing papers. Gradually, the Ph.D. candidate will move on to teaching for part of the time, doing research and supporting this research with fieldwork, lab work or clinical work, if that is applicable. Following these components, most Ph.D. candidates will have to take an exam. This exam will be assessed by her department in an effort to determine whether the candidate has a sufficient and satisfactory command and ability to apply the material learned during the prior part of the program. Once this has been established and the exam is completed to the satisfaction of the department, the candidate then embarks on the process of researching and writing a dissertation.

Why Does It Take So Long?

The answer to the question "How many years is a Ph.D. course?" varies just as much as the reasons for the change in length. While the actual components of the program might not require a six- to seven-year time investment, generally speaking, there are a number of reasons why a graduate program might take as long as eight years to complete. Some people have families and other work that needs to be done in order to pay bills and buy necessities. These people tend to approach their Ph.D. programs from a part-time perspective. Though Ph.D. programs are often funded by a university, for many people with children or a spouse who does not work, it's necessary to have certain times free in order to tend to the needs of life outside of school. Some people find that they take on additional teaching responsibilities that cause them to delay their studies or delay the start of their dissertation.

Do You Call a Person With a Ph.D. Doctor?

A Ph.D. is another name for a doctorate degree. For that reason, many people with doctorate degrees are addressed as "doctor," particularly in formal or academic settings. The prefix "Dr." is traditionally used to identify medical doctors, but if someone has earned a Ph.D. in his respective field, he is a Doctor of Philosophy in that particular discipline, and addressing him as "doctor" confers the respect for his years of study and devotion to the field.

How Long Is a Doctoral Dissertation?

A doctoral dissertation varies in length from topic to topic and from discipline to discipline. While candidates for a master's degree typically need to complete a thesis, candidates for the Ph.D. must complete a dissertation, which is a significantly longer, more granular version of a thesis. While a thesis is an extensive paper, a dissertation is often book-length and can run several hundred pages. A doctoral dissertation is the culmination of years of reading, research, fieldwork and scholarship on a specific topic within the discipline or field of the candidate's study. In almost all cases, except when the degree in question is a J.D. or an M.D., the doctoral dissertation is intended to prove a new discovery, a new theory or a new way of examining something that has not been illuminated prior. This is the scholar's contribution to the field. It is not simply a report or evidence of research accomplished and learning acquired in the way that a master's thesis typically is. Instead, a doctoral dissertation offers or adds something to the field of study in the sense of being an invention of sorts that the candidate has discovered or created.

Doctorate Degree Online

While most traditional universities do not offer their doctoral programs to students online, there are some online universities that do offer doctorate degree programs. These programs tend to focus on reading, research and coursework, with credit-bearing online seminars and lectures. In terms of credibility and respect, online degrees do not hold the same clout as a degree from a traditional university. There is also the factor of the research quality to consider. Students pursuing a Ph.D. are typically drawn to a particular university because of the quality of its professors, its research facilities or its connections to the field. Generally, online universities, which are much newer, have a very limited connection to prestigious professors and no research facilities of which to speak, as the classes all happen online and students are expected to do their own research independently of anything the school can provide. There is also the question of a stipend. Most university Ph.D.s come with a salary or stipend to subsidize the candidate's lifestyle during their tenure as a student and candidate. Online universities rarely have access to this kind of funding, and the students may find themselves required to foot much of the bill for their doctorate degree themselves.

How Much Money Does a Person With a Ph.D. Make?

As your education level increases, it is expected that your income will increase as well. Job seekers without a high-school diploma on average make a salary of about $26,000 per year, whereas earning a bachelor's degree can help your salary jump to over $59,000. A master's degree can help you pull in a salary of around $70,000. A professional degree (an MBA, a library science degree or a degree in journalism, etc.) can increase your earning potential and give you a salary around $90,000 per year. Interestingly, doctorate degree holders do not earn much more than those with a professional degree and in some cases earn less. This is because professional degrees tend to be in highly lucrative areas like business, technology or finance, whereas academic salaries tend to be significantly lower. Ph.D. holders also face an unemployment rate of 1.6 percent, which can be startling to many students who believed that a doctorate degree virtually guarantees employment.

Because a Ph.D. is generally the first step on the road to a career in academia, all of the people in a given academic cohort who are pursuing Ph.D.s are vying for the same small amount of professorships or postdoctoral opportunities. This can make it difficult to land a job in your field. It can also make it difficult to switch gears and try to get a job in a field that is not related to your work because your degree is so specialized that it might have been earned at the exclusion of pursuing a more general degree that could have made you eligible for a wider variety of employment. There can be a danger in academia in limiting yourself to work that is closely related to your field. Many people find that their particular discipline is so specific that getting a job outside of it in an industry or organization that is nonacademic is very difficult. In addition, academic jobs are difficult to come by, are rarely tenured and have a fluctuating salary. This means that getting a job post Ph.D. in a position that allows you to make a living while still utilizing your advanced degree is not a foregone conclusion.

Advantages of a Ph.D.

The advantages of a Ph.D. are numerous, but the greatest by far is the opportunity that a doctorate degree program offers you to study the subject of your greatest interest and to spend all of your time focusing on it. This is no small achievement. Many people wish that they could spend all day studying the subject that interests them more than any other in the world, but that is a tall order and quite a challenge for the majority of the population. Most people have neither the time nor the financial freedom to pursue their particular passion, so those who have chosen to stay on the academic track and pursue what they love the most despite the challenges a Ph.D. program poses are in a unique position to live fulfilling and happy lives.

About the Author

Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience writing about education for a variety of organizations and educational institutions as well as online media sites.