A PhD in 2 years… or less?

This post is by Dr Carmen Blyth, who completed her PhD in 2015 on ethics in international schools at the University of Cape Town and was a postdoctoral fellow with the Decolonizing Early Childhood Discourses research project at the same university. She has worked with international schools and universities in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East for over 20 years as an EAP/ESL/EAL teacher, teacher trainer, and department founder. She currently enjoys mentoring PhD and IB Diploma candidates and is working on an anthology that explores the links between posthumanism and the autoethnographic turn. Her thesis was published in 2017 by Palgrave MacMillan as: International Schools, Teaching and Governance: An Autoethnography of a Teacher in Conflict . Connect with her on Twitter: @teacher whispers

I used to get raised eyebrows and looks of disbelief, when I responded to the question: ‘how long did it take you to get your PhD’ with the answer: 2 years. I could have said 14 months to submit and 22months if you include the graduation ceremony, but that would have been pushing the limits of most people’s credibility so I stuck to the round number: 2 years.

I have always been in a bit of a rush: 3 years for my BSc (Hons) in Physics, 9 months for my Masters in TESOL and now a PhD in less than 2 years. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the studying – I loved every minute of every degree. When I was young I had felt the pressure of time: there were places to go to, people to meet, and that I had better get on with it. However, this could not be said of my last time around the academic maypole with my PhD. I was 59 when I registered and now the rush was on exactly because I was literally running out of time. I had been everywhere I wanted to go, met everyone I wanted to meet, but this last academic goal had remained outstanding. I was worried it might remain permanently outstanding if I didn’t get my skates on and set a target for the very foreseeable future, which in my case turned out to be graduating at age 60.

But how exactly does one go about completing a PhD by thesis only in less than 24 months? The answer lay in knowing exactly what I wanted my dissertation to address (the research problem and questions) and how (methodology). I did a large amount of relevant reading prior to registering (the initial proposal had a reference section bordering on 30 pages), and most importantly finding the right fit in terms of supervisor and university.

A year before I intended registering I started my search for a supervisor. I wanted someone willing to join me on this marathon task tackled at a sprint.  They had to be knowledgeable about my research area (ethics) and have enough time to supervise me (ie: not already supervising a lot of PhD and MA candidates, or teaching a lot of courses). I found 3 possible candidates but after a series of long email exchanges, it was clear that only one had the time, knowledge, and willingness to give it a go.

I duly sent in my pre-proposal, was accepted and registered, and within a month had submitted my formal proposal (you are given up to 6 months to submit at this particular university) with the 2 year timeframe for completion included (one of my proposal readers thought this timeline was ‘overly ambitious’).  The process for proposal approval turned out to be quite long. I was on to writing the final chapter of the thesis when the approval came through! (‘Thank goodness for that’ was my only thought, a thought verbalized by my supervisor!). But the wait had been productive. I put in 6 hours a day (usually from 6pm to midnight) and submitted chapter drafts and redrafts virtually every Friday for my supervisor to look at, comment on and return the next week. We spoke once by Skype and once face-to-face at the university but apart from that it was all written feedback. I preferred this approach as it minimized costly (time-wise) mis-understandings and gave me comments I could respond to in detail.

I worked solidly every evening, including weekends (it really was so much fun and a real challenge to turn drafts around in record time). I was sure to fit in a swim and a run everyday – even if that meant getting up before the crack of dawn. It was during those swims and/or runs that I would solve some of my most pressing writing problems: issues with wording, clarity of expression. Sometimes I would re-organize whole sections in my mind as I swam or ran. And invariably every night before switching off my lap top I would back up all my work, including papers and/or books downloaded, drafts written and anything else pertaining to the PhD thesis (far better safe than sorry!). I would then make a list (pen and paper) of what needed to be tackled the next evening: readings to be reread, chapter sections to be reworked, notes to be read, references to be rechecked.

During this process I also started researching the university’s submission process: was it all done online or by hard copy? If online what did the process entail and how long would it take? Similarly if it was by hardcopy what was the timeline” How long did it generally take from submission to examiners’ report? And how long before the graduation date would I need for amendments (if needed) to be made and approved? My research showed that I would need to submit 6-7 months before the graduation date I had set myself (ie 14 months into the PhD journey) to give myself the necessary leeway should the unthinkable happen: the need to rewrite a substantial part of the thesis. In the end I made it to the deadline of 7 months pre-graduation date with a couple of days to spare – phew!

In the end I only had a very minor rewrite to do – it took me just a Sunday afternoon to complete and submit. Three pieces of advice were I think key to this easy turn around. Firstly: throughout the writing of the chapters I was constantly aware of the need to keep bringing the readers back to my research problem and research questions so that at no point would the examiners not understand how that particular chapter/section was relevant to the study. Secondly, I turned the notes on everything I read into a piece of writing that addressed my research problem and questions so that when I came to write a section on that particular topic I already had large chunks of writing I could copy, paste, and amend slightly. Thirdly, I was meticulous in proofreading my final dissertation and the citations. The moral of this third and final piece of advice is that mistakes/typos/misquotes/wrong citations make an examiner nervous.

I used to get raised eyebrows and looks of disbelief, when I responded to the question: ‘how long did it take you to get your PhD’ with the answer 2 years. But completing in less than 2 years is achievable even if you’re 60 – honestly!

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30 thoughts on “A PhD in 2 years… or less?

    • Peter Bentley says:

      Australian universities tend to see the PhD as a “process” that requires at least three years, rather than an evaluation of a piece of research and a researcher as being of a PhD standard. This is why previously published material (often) cannot be included in a PhD. It is the same sort of principle for 3-year bachelor degrees (i.e. time spent, not purely the knowledge of graduates). In my case I had an absurd (IMHO) outcome that the University of Melbourne (where I worked FT as a researcher and was to be enrolled) advised me to withhold publishing research on my PhD topic until after my official enrolment date so that it could be included. The bureaucracy wins these battles.

      Some universities get around this by having “PhD by prior publication”. This allows someone to enrol when the PhD is done, have it evaluated and then awarded quickly, but can come at a financial cost. Potentially one could withdraw their university of PhD and just enrol in another if they were in a hurry (see example here:
      (https://intranet.secure.griffith.edu.au/research/griffith-graduate-research-school/preparing-your-thesis/program-specific-information/phd-by-prior-publication).

      I can understand the rationales for the PhD as a “process” vs PhD as an outcome/competence, but ultimately PhD candidates need to find the best that suits them. There are many options if one is willing to look around.

  1. Andrea Morris- Campbell says:

    Wow, that’s amazing!
    I’m trying to get from first draft to submission by December, but I have been part time since 2013. I am 55 and have had to juggle work( as an academic) and family commitments. I often wonder how long it would have taken if I had been able to go full time. I also believe my university discourages early submission.

  2. David says:

    I managed 3.5 years including a year of coursework, working as a teaching assistant for a year and moving back to Britain from the US and starting a post-doc. Really, PhDs are taking too long to do. They don’t need to be that long if people are well prepared and work efficiently.

  3. Amy Bohren says:

    Wow – that’s super impressive Carmen! When I began a masters (which I later upgraded to PhD) I thought I’d need much less than three years too. At the time I was a full-time research fellow and spent a lot of time reading/writing in a closely related area, which I think was key to my progress. As soon as I moved to a non-research job (also full-time) a few months later, my progress slowed, and in the end it took over a decade of part-time enrolment to finish. Your advice is spot on and I can see how important a good supervisor is in hindsight. I had seven in total. One of the first few was good for moral support, but worked in a different discipline, and it was really only the last one who was a scholar in my field, with sufficient time, knowledge, supervisory experience, and interpersonal skills to guide me. Perhaps PhD proposals should incorporate more questions in regard to whether the supervisor is appropriate, and the other tips you give. It would certainly have saved me time.

    • Peter Bentley says:

      One of the key problems in Australia is universities admit many PhD candidates primarily based on generic attributes (e.g. GPAs, prior research or experience not directly relevant to the PhD), rather than a research proposal and supervisor alignment. This is because the Australian PhD sees the 1st year or so as a time to develop a PhD project and have it “confirmed” at a PhD confirmation. This is not the case in Europe where research proposals are core elements and often paid positions as part of bigger research projects, even in Humanities and Soc Sci.

  4. Marie says:

    Wow Carmen – amazing! Thanks for the hints.
    Like you I have fast tracked? my PhD (similar age bracket) into the minimum requirement (3year FTE) but part-time and not as organised as you! For that I am glad. I and my research have able to ponder on and be responsive to the shifts in knowledge and new research that has come out of the past 4 and a bit years. I feel I have developed breadth and depth in my understanding of my topic and its place in academia/research that wouldn’t have happened if I had raced through it.
    So to the others plodding along – don’t despair. It’s not a race!

  5. Peter Bentley says:

    Great post for those who face time pressures and just want to get on with it. Two key takeaways for me are: 1. Having a pre-defined research problem aligned with existing background knowledge and supervisor; 2. A supportive university (or at least not an unsupportive one).

    I had the first point covered, but needed to find a different university in another country to submit my PhD while retaining the same supportive supervisors. Worked very well because everyone (myself, supervisors, host university) had a common goal to get the PhD completed quickly. It took ~ 5 years to write part-time, PhD was submitted when completed, I was externally enrolled for ~ 9 months during PhD review and award process.

  6. DrWho? says:

    Like Carmen, I also completed my PhD in 2 years while working full-time (and training, too!). However, also like Carmen, I did a LOT of reading before I enrolled. I knew the literature. I knew what problem I wanted to address and how. I also chose a supervisor I had worked with previously who had the time and motivation to work at my pace. There are a lot of variables when it comes to completing a PhD and many of those are outside of your control. The only piece of advice I give is that while you wait (and there is a lot of waiting – for access to data, for ethics approval, for supervisors to get back to you, for your thesis to be marked), write. Write journal articles, conference presentations, chapters, your reference list, anything! Just keep writing and you will get through it; however long it takes.

  7. Dr. Unni Krishnan says:

    Thanks for sharing the experience.
    I received my PhD (Engineering) when I was 60. It took me four and a half years of hard work since I was working full time.
    I did considerable background preparatory work before I registered. One of the success factors could be that I knew exactly what I wanted to do, based on my work in the field of Safety engineering.
    Thanks & Best Wishes
    Unni Krishnan

  8. Karma Tenzin says:

    Dear Dr. Mewburn

    I have been following The Thesis Whisperer for quite sometime now and i enjoy every post in it.

    This one is another inspiring one – A PhD in 2 years!

    Since i am thinking of doing PhD, your blog is very useful in preparing myself for that journey. Ofcourse, i have no idea (as of now) of my research problem and question at this stage.

    I would love to read some of the PhD thesis, especially of Dr. Blyth.

    Karma Tenzin Bhutan

    >

  9. Louise Sarsfield Collins says:

    Well done to Carmen on completing within two years but this post really flies in the face of what I’ve come to expect from the Thesis Whisperer who earlier this year wrote about care in the academy and last year vowed to make ‘Less’ the aim for the year. A timetable that generally includes working until midnight and getting up “before the crack of dawn” to fit in a swim or run is not sustainable or healthy. Sleep and rest are so important.

    I am also astounded by the level of privilege evident in the post and some of the comments that is largely unacknowledged. Many of us would love to do extensive reading prior to starting our PhD but the expensive firewalls around most academic journals makes this incredibly difficult and cost-prohibitive. Similarly, it is not always possible to spend months courting supervisors and while I would always advocate choosing your own supervisor often the options are limited by many factors beyond the student’s control. Reading this post it seems to me that a significant chunk of the work was done prior to registration, so while officially the doctorate might have been less than two years, in effect the work started prior to enrolment which is not always possible for a variety of reasons. Even when it is possible, it shouldn’t be discounted so bluntly.

    Perhaps opinions differ between disciplines but I have always considered that a PhD is a learning process as much as a degree where we get the chance to really immerse ourselves in the literature and our research topic in a way that we never have before and probably won’t again. While it may be possible to do in a shorter time frame than the four years that is standard here in Ireland (structured programme, usually with rather a few classes to take in year one) it is not a process that should be rushed. Thinking, developing ideas and arguments, not to mention transcribing interviews, trawling through archives or running experiments in a lab all take time. PhDs should be about the journey, not another box to be ticked in the academic game of life.

    • Amy Bohren says:

      All excellent points Louise. I have to say that my PhD would have been an entirely different project, had I completed on time. Taking more than a decade part-time meant that I had to stay across the literature (from different fields) for an extended period, and I really felt as though I went through the process of ‘becoming’ a person with a PhD.

      In hindsight, I know that my original theoretical framework was rather superficial, and it was only via extensive reading over an extended period that I realised I couldn’t bring myself not to take the hard path and tackle the more complicated theories in my field.

      The process was gruelling, as I couldn’t afford to go full-time and not work elsewhere (and the number of hours of work allowed by graduate schools is restricted in Australia anyway, not that everybody abides by those rules).

      It’s also rarely acknowledged that students who have taken longer than they should often battle to retain library access, which further slows the process.

      Overall, academically I think my long enrolment/lapsed candidature was good for my academic development. But I would have seen much more career progression and been financially better off, had I completed within the allocated timeframe. So in this way, I suspect that disadvantaged students who take a long time to complete can become further disadvantaged, just as advantaged students who complete quickly are able to compound their advantage. And as long as both groups pass, it appears to employers, academics and others that the learning undertaken was similar.

    • Peter Bentley says:

      The risks of advocating that the PhD “should” be about a journey of 3-4 years (minimum) is that it locks out those who do not have the “privilege” of time and financial resources for this. There are many personal circumstances that make the 4 year PhD journey not an option for some. Those completing in a shorter timeframe are likely well aware of the compromises involved (e.g. pursing a topic with prior knowledge or feasible within the shorter timeframe). But allowing people to pursue a PhD in a shorter timeframe through building on existing knowledge and experience, universities are broadening the potential pool of PhD candidates and extending the impact of PhD knowledge into other areas of society (e.g. increasing the recognition, ties and number of PhDs in industry and society, potentially supporting the transfer of knowledge from society back into academe).

      The PhD shouldn’t be just “another box to be ticked in the academic game of life”, but we should be careful not to discredit or make assumptions about the motivations, privileges and learning outcomes of those who seek to complete PhDs in shorter timeframes.

    • Jeffrey says:

      I agree. Jokingly, the OP felt like “a personal attack”, but each time i’ve come back to this site and I’ve seen that post, it has made me feel really bad about how long i’ve been in the program for. It took me a long while into the program to figure out my topic, and i’ve had several huge personal set backs and a few set backs with my field studies.

      It’s great that some people can complete within a couple (or even 3-4) years. However, the post has left me with dread about the time i’ve used up, and what employers will think of my long candidature (without teaching) after I finish.

      • Thesis Whisperer says:

        I’m sorry you feel that way. It certainly wasn’t the intention to shame people. I do want to showcase the wide range of experiences of the PhD – and this is one of them. I finished in three years myself, which is early for Australia. The reason I could do that is I was already working in the field of PhD support and had a lot of support. I do want to say again – everyone is different. If there’s anything to learn from this post it’s that a lot has to go right for someone to be able to finish on time, especially supervision. I wish you all the best on your journey.

      • Keegan Anderson says:

        I have been busy with my PhD now for almost six and a half years (doing it part-time while lecturing full-time). It also took me a long time to find a topic (which I realized only much later I didn’t enjoy) and I’ve also had setbacks (completely threw out my first year’s work because I changed topic).

        The biggest lesson I’ve learned only recently (and I am still struggling to apply) is to not look at the PhD as a mountain, but to focus on the smaller details and steps to complete it. And I think that’s the lesson I learned from the OP’s piece and which I shall use in my career forward.

        I also think, at the end of the day, employers don’t look so much at how long it took you to do your doctorate; just the fact that you have one is already a big plus.

        You’re not alone in your journey. Don’t lose hope. Just keep fighting the good fight.

  10. Crystal Harris, PhD says:

    This efficient timeline is inspiring. My own process was tedious but the degree was funded so I couldn’t complain. Nevertheless, your strategies in the post would certainly accelerate the process in any program. I shopped for a good chair, but there were other challenges with the feedback process. Thanks for sharing. I enjoy your blog!

  11. pronounblogger says:

    Maybe it’s exactly because of the already acquired academic maturity that the thesis was finished in such a quick pace, and maybe the type of the project is a factor as well. Still, very impressive and praiseworthy! However, being aware that a lot of PhD students struggle to finish “in time” and always feel like they’re not working hard enough, I just really want to highlight that not all PhD projects can or should be done in 2 years; don’t let this post get you down and make you feel like you, too, should be able to finish sooner rather than later. A 2-year PhD sounds only doable to me if it is a meta-analysis of previous studies or some sort of theoretical work; the author also says they did a lot of reading (and I imagine planning) before officially registering, and I think that should be counted as well. If you are for example collecting your own data, and need to learn new methods to analyze it, that will take time (data collection alone from planning to execution can easily take a full year!). Furthermore, if you are starting your PhD soon after your undergraduate studies, in your mid or late 20s for example, you will also need some time to gain academic maturity, not to mention that this is also the time most people are getting into serious relationships and starting families, and just in general trying to figure out life. So while this text is quite inspiring in some ways, to me the subtle implication that “I could do it, so you can do it as well” is problematic because it takes quite a special situation to be able to finish your PhD, from scratch, in 2 years.

    • Louise Sarsfield Collins says:

      Yes, this is where I was coming from when I wrote my comment above. Great if you can do it, but most can’t and should not be expected to. Unfortunately, posts like this add to the pressures that researchers put on themselves as well as the pressures and expectations that are heaped on by universities across the globe.

  12. multimodaled says:

    The biggest problem with taking too long over a research project is getting bored with it and losing motivation to finish (because you’re now bored with the whole topic). Timely completion would help to overcome that issue I feel.

  13. Jennifer govender says:

    Hey I so admire you. I’m a graduate and funding seems to be the constant problem . I work with heroin users and I would love to work around that

  14. Void says:

    Cool but this doesn’t apply to all PhDs. For some PhDs fieldwork, collecting data, visiting institutions etc. is part of the process, which takes a lot of time and can also dependent on other people. I had to develop my own database in Access, collect 3000 data entries, do some teaching, present at conferences, supervise Master students, do some fieldwork, learn new software to analyse my data etc.
    If you ‘only’ have to read, think and write for your PhD, then you can do it in a few months if you already worked on your topic before or did some reading and thinking. But other PhDs can not be done in that time frame. For the writing process it all comes down to focus and knowing what you want to say. Especially people who have already worked on their subject have a smoother transition into the PhD since they know the basic literature and can possibly just re-write some of their old chapters. My PhD deals with a subject I never had anything to do with, so I had a lot of reading to do just to get started.

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