What Affects your PhD Completion Time?

If there’s one question that I hated being asked during my doctoral research, it was: “How long have you got left?”

That question is impossible to answer. The doctorate isn’t a course with an end date. You’re not held to the academic year the way you were as an undergrad. And while there is an exam, it’s not tethered to the end of a particular semester.

Yet even after I explained all that, my friends and family kept asking: “How long have you got left?” What I especially resented about that question was the subtle undertones of judgement contained within it. It always sounded to me like: ‘It’s been ages.’ ‘You’re taking too long.’ ‘You must be wasting your time.’

There are formal expectations for completion times, of course. The AUT Postgraduate Handbook 2019 specifies that the minimum timeframe for a 360-point thesis is 3 years; the maximum is 6 years; and the ‘normal’ timeframe is 4 years (p.70). This assumes a full-time workload.

But there’s a lot of variation around this idea of the ‘normal’ timeframe. The bottom line is: we can’t know exactly how long we have left. Unfortunately, few people understand that. Not scholarship funders, not immigration officers, and certainly not my nosy parents circa Year 4 of my enrolment.

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

As my PhD dragged on, I came to feel quite judged for how long it was taking. And certainly, I could have managed my time better (the two ‘wild tangent’ chapters I wrote, and then cut, are testament to that).

But you know what? Completion times are not just about how efficiently or inefficiently you manage your time. That’s a factor, of course; but there are many others.

A pair of Swedish researchers analyzed 145 doctoral completions in the political science department at Stockholm University (Agné & Mörkenstam, 2018). They found that doctoral students’ time to completion (TTC) varied greatly based on several factors that have nothing to do with individual work ethic:

  • Students joining a pre-existing research project completed an average of 13 months earlier than those beginning a new project
  • Students who were funded from day one completed an average of 22 months earlier than those who secured funding later
  • Students with foreign citizenship completed an average of 26 months earlier than those with national (in this study: Swedish) citizenship
  • Students who spent at least their first year working alongside other students under collective supervision* completed an average of 35 months (!) earlier^ than those receiving individual supervision

These findings can’t be directly applied to doctorates here in NZ – after all, this study only examined PhD completion times in one department in one university in Sweden. But other international studies support the idea that completion times are about more than just time management. Researchers studying doctoral completions in library programmes in Nigeria found that demographic factors such as age, gender, work status, and marital status all impacted upon completion times (Yusuf & Aina, 2018). Another recent study out of the United States analyzed completions in over 5,000 doctoral programmes and found financial support to be strongly associated with timely completion (Zhou & Okahana, 2019).

These findings illustrate the common-sense notion that the time required to complete a doctoral research project is only partly under the control of the individual candidate. There are external factors which can speed up or slow down completion. Positive influences like quality supervision and support from fellow students can encourage you to complete quickly. But then so can financial or visa pressures, and those aren’t exactly fun.

All of this means that your completion time is not necessarily a reflection of your skill or dedication as a scholar. Now if only I could go back to Year 4 of my PhD and tell my Mum that.

*In the context of this study, ‘collective supervision’ referred to “supervision models in which several students working on related but different research projects are supervised at the same time by one or several supervisors” (p.670).

^ If these variations seem huge, bear in mind that the political science doctorates studied in this research included both a coursework and thesis component, and therefore would take longer than a traditional PhD in New Zealand.

Sources cited

Agné, H., & Mörkenstam, U. (2018). Should first-year doctoral students be supervised collectively or individually? Effects on thesis completion and time to completion. Higher Education Research & Development, 37(4), 669-682. doi: 10.1080/07294360.2018.1453785

Yusuf, F. O., & Aina, L. O. (2018). Demographic factors as correlates of doctoral degree completion in Nigeria library schools. Annals of Library and Information Studies (ALIS), 65(3), 177-186.

Zhou, E., & Okahana, H. (2019). The role of department supports on doctoral completion and time-to-degree. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 20(4), 511-529.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink. She has a research background in science and narrative. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. She has previously researched fictional representations of evolution and quantum mechanics. She has taught such diverse texts as Blade Runner and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and her most obscure skill is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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