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Programs PhD in Europe in 3 years? Where come this mythos from?

  1. Apr 26, 2016 #1
    Hi everyone,

    I have read here several times that in Europe you only need 3 years for the PhD, but almost every person that I know has needed between 4-5 years for completion. This added to the 2 years for the master, gives an average of 6-7 years for the PhD, which is the average time in the US.

    So, I am curious about the reason why everyone thinks that in Europe a PhD would take shorter than in the US.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 26, 2016 #2


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    Depends on the student's efforts and luck. Sometimes your researches just go as planned and most apparatuses you need can always be available in time, this can boost your advancement in your PhD finishing time. Some other students is either lazy and/or not lucky enough - he/she has to encounter problems like ordering time of some equipments which takes weeks or broken apparatus or the experimental data just don't make sense that he/she has to design another approach to the problem. Nevertheless I know a person who finishes his PhD in 3 years and 4 months, just for your information before you can do the defense your dissertation must go through weeks or even months of review from your supervisor.
  4. Apr 26, 2016 #3


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    In Australia (not Europe, but the systems are somewhat similar, except for the lack of the compulsory masters), the "three years" thing comes from the fact that standard scholarships initially last for three years, and any time after three years is a "scholarship extension". Most people I know in physics here have taken 3.5-4 years, yet a PhD is "supposed" to be three years. So there's a thing.
  5. Apr 27, 2016 #4
    The three years are correct in theory. As far as I know that is what most PhD contracts aim for, initially. I think in the Netherlands universities are given incentives that their students finish within 3 years (i.e. the faculties are given money) so the rate is probably much higher there. In older German programs it was indeed common to take 4-5 years, but 3 years is still far from being unheard of - I took 3.5 and my office-mate who knew he was not staying in academia took 3. I see three main reasons why people take longer than expected:

    1) Lack of results: That has already been mentioned. It can be caused by bad luck, laziness and incompetence. Fun fact: I know a person who finished his PhD in three years as the first person with the respective professor - because he was so incompetent that the professor put a lot of effort into getting rid of him (see point 3)

    2) Underestimating time for writing: Almost everyone mis-estimates the time it takes to write a thesis. I think I spent at least nine months in the writing process despite already having had a lot of results and publications to take them from.

    3) Taking longer is often considered a win-win situation: The professor keeps a trained employee who already generates new results for longer. The student has the time to explore some of the many open questions that arised during the last years a bit more, can stay on the job he (EDIT since it was requested: or she) already has and is paid reasonably well to do so. Fun fact 2: A PhD student once told me that he wanted to delay his PhD to investigate a few extra ideas. I told him that he could also finish his PhD and do so as a post-doc - even in the same group. He did not understand that concept.
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2016
  6. Apr 27, 2016 #5


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    1) Or the results may prove to me more complex to interpret than anyone realised, and the student is neither lazy nor incompetent. This may fall under the category of "bad luck" but it's a bit more nuanced than "the experimental apparatus broke". This may or may not be what happened to me. :headbang:

    3) Definitely true. I think it takes a good year or so before a PhD student actually becomes more useful to a research group than a drain - staying for longer means you maximise your usefulness.

    (As a side note, it's best to not use "he" as a generic pronoun for PhD students. Some of them are women!).
  7. Apr 27, 2016 #6
    Well, I think not many PhD advisors would allow that, since it is cheaper to have a PhD student than a Postdoc. It could also be that, since research projects are externally funded, the PhD advisor has some money available for PhD Fellowships, but not for Postdocs. If the student has an external fellowship, the situation is even worse, since he/she would have to apply for a new fellowship, which is more difficult than extending the already obtained PhD fellowship.

    Anyway, I think PhD students have normally not voice in deciding when graduation should take place. At least in Germany, the advisor alone decides when "the student has made a significant contribution to the human knowledge", which could be synonymous of when "I have not more money to keep him/her as a PhD student". The good part is, however, that PhD students in Germany are relatively "well paid" and, if you are not living in Munich, you will have enough money for a family and a nice 60 m^2 apartment, so it is not so bad.
  8. Apr 27, 2016 #7
    You are right that simply going from a PhD position to a post-doc could become an issue with the controlling. In the particular case I was referring to, that was, however, not the case (would make the fun fact much less fun).

    It is correct that the professor's voice in when someone has done enough to finish is important. In my experience, however, that is usually not the limiting factor. The professor saying the results are insufficient would fall under my point 1 ("lack of results"). But I have never experienced an incident in which the PhD student considered the results sufficient whereas the professor did not (although admittedly: how should the student know whether the results are sufficient or not?). The student being more ambitious in doing these few extra calculations/experiments/sanity checks than the professor seems to be the usual case to me.
  9. Apr 27, 2016 #8


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    Here in the UK it used to be quite common for 3-year PhDs to actually take four years. However, in the past few years the rules have gotten progressively stricter and unless you actually have a four years contract you won't get any money after the third year year. Hence, nowadays most people do have to finish in 3 years.

    There are some exceptions. Some universities will accept BSc students as PhD students (rare. but it happens) and then they can get an extra year to do coursework (essentially MSc courses). Also, most of the new CDT programs are 4 years with the first year being courses and projects.
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