What are the shortest PhD programs?

Most PhD programs require a minimum of 5 or 6 years to complete under ideal conditions. In reality, however, the actual time to completion can vary depending on student ability and focus, specific program requirements and a variety of other factors.

According to a 2006 study by the National Science Foundation, the average time required to complete a PhD program is 7.5 years for students in all subjects. While many students manage to complete a degree within the minimum expected time, most end up taking longer.

As you get ready to work on your PhD application, be sure to contact your favored schools for information about recent degree completion times for program students. This will help you form better expectations. Also be aware that some online PhD programs can be completed in less time than comparable on-campus programs.


In the healthcare field, expected completion times for PhD programs range around 6 or 7 years. However, some programs are shorter than others. In pharmaceutical science, PhD programs average around 60 to 70 course credits and take 5 or 6 years to complete. Graduates of the PhD program at Rutgers Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy have a median completion time of just 4.5 years, among the fastest in the field.

A PhD in immunology typically takes about 60 course credits and 6 years to complete. However, students at some schools regularly complete the program in significantly less time. The microbiology and immunology PhD program at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, for example, reports a median degree completion time of 4 years.

Business and Finance

Most PhD programs in business require around 70 credit hours and take a minimum of 4 or 5 years to complete. PhD students take 2 years of coursework followed by a further 2 years of work on a dissertation. Some subjects may follow a different curriculum.

Many students at the University of Missouri Robert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business need 4 years to finish a PhD degree in business administration with a specialty in management, finance or marketing. Similarly, PhD students in accounting at the Stanford Graduate School of Business can finish a degree in 4 years.


Most PhD programs in education require 60 to 90 credit hours and anticipate at least 5 or 6 years to complete. In reality, the National Science Foundation reports an average completion time of over 8 years. PhD students can select from a variety of specializations within the education field, though there is not a significant difference in expected completion times between the various specializations.

Public Service, Law and Government

PhD degrees in public policy and public administration typically include 2 years of coursework and 2 years of work on a dissertation. Students at Ohio State University finish the PhD program in public policy and management in 3.5 years on average.

PhD degrees in public health include 45 to 70 credits and generally require 4 or 5 years to complete. However, if you have a background in a related subject, you may be able to finish faster. Students in the Harvard University health policy and management program report a median time to completion of only 3 years.

Technology and Computers

Most PhD programs in computer science and technology subjects require 4 to 6 years, including 45 credit hours of coursework scheduled for the first 2 years of the program. In most cases, program completion length depends on the dissertation. If you can complete your dissertation research and writing in 2 years or less, you will likely finish the program at the low end of the timeline.


PhD programs in many engineering subjects require 3 to 5 years to complete, including about 45 credit hours of coursework. Some programs in subjects like chemical engineering, materials science and mechanical engineering report median degree completion times of only 3 years. Such programs include the Virginia Tech PhD program in chemical engineering, the University of Central Florida PhD program in materials science and the University of Memphis PhD program in Mechanical Engineering.

Communication and Arts

PhD programs in communication generally operate under a 4-year model that includes 2 years to complete 48 to 60 credits of coursework and 2 years to work on a dissertation. Some students are able to complete such a program in less than 4 years.

Though PhD programs in the arts are usually designed to be completed in 6 years, art students regularly take more time to finish their degrees. According to the National Science Foundation, PhD students in the arts require an average of 9 years to complete a program. For students who stay on schedule, art history, music and film studies degrees can be completed in 5 years.