Midlife PhD Series

The question of whether you should finish your business Midlife PhD in 3 or 4 years must be answered at the onset because it helps you determine the program, school, and professor to work with. To decide, you have to weigh the pros and cons. But once decided, you can use the information to find the right program and then settle into completing your work, freeing you from second-guessing your every move or motive.

The duration of most PhD programs in business schools in the US and Europe is 4 years. A few programs are 5 years. However, the average duration of PhD studies is 7.5 years, starting from graduate school (Statista 2022).

It goes without saying that if you’re getting a PhD in your 40s and 50s, you want it completed in less time. It is possible to complete it in 3 years. I started my PhD in my 40s, so it was natural that I wanted to. Moreover, I was familiar with a few individuals who completed their PhD in 3 years, so It seemed attainable.

But you must consider other factors than the fact that it’s attainable. The structure of a business PhD program is one in which 2 years are dedicated to completing your course work. The other two to three years are dedicated to the dissertation and publishing of 1 or 2 good research studies.

Duration of Midlife PhD Program – Business

  • The program’s first half (2 years of course work) is usually set in stone. This means there’s more or less no wiggle room to reduce the duration. You could receive credit for some courses if you’ve already taken similar courses in another PhD program. Even so, there’s usually a limit to the number of courses the program allows you to claim as credit.
  • The second half of the PhD program is usually dedicated to your dissertation and research. This is when you collaborate with your advisor to identify and streamline your dissertation topic. In this period, you defend your dissertation proposal and your final dissertation. Within this period, you should also be actively submitting manuscripts to conferences and journals, hoping that a paper will be accepted and published. One of the unwritten requirements of a business PhD is to have one or two published pieces of research by graduation. This is one of the main reasons some PhD programs go for 5 years. That extra year after your dissertation is for writing and publishing papers.

Conditions For Getting a PhD in 3 Years

Now that I’ve outlined what occurs within the 4 or 5 years, let me share with you some conditions under which getting a PhD in 3 years is possible.

  • The coursework period could be reduced if you have completed similar PhD courses. By this token, you’re not reducing the overall time; you’re transferring your sunk (cost) time to another program.
  • You are in a 4-year business PhD program. Being in a 5-year PhD program makes it much harder to reduce it to 3 years.
  • You are in a PhD program that has graduated other students who finished their PhD in 3 years. Without precedent, it’s more challenging to make it happen.
  • You have an advisor who (1) is a full professor with strong social capital, meaning they can withstand pressures from others without the pressures negatively affecting their careers (2) believes in graduating students in 3 years, and (3) can commit to helping you graduate in 3 years.
  • You have little or no obligations to family (e.g., no school-age kids, no one needing your constant care). The younger PhD student or those in their 40s and 50s may fit this profile.

The Cons of Completing a PhD in 3 years

  • Advisor commitment: In working with your advisor, you may be in a perpetual state of worry, wondering whether your advisor would fulfill their commitment. It may lead to second-guessing every interaction with your advisor.
  • Your commitment and intensity: The decision to complete your PhD in 3 years is one you must make at the onset. It cannot be an … “oh, by the way., I’ll like to complete in 3 years if at all possible” kind of conversation. Your commitment to completing in 3 years will meet challenges along the way. Consequently, you’re constantly trying to put out fires, and meet your own deadlines, which differ from your PhD program. Without going into much detail about mental health, this has the potential to wear on your emotions.
  • Family and personal commitments: It’s obvious that you’ll have constraints on your time availability for yourself and family members. You’ll miss birthdays, cruises, vacations, and most of all, time to volunteer and give to others. Aka, life! To be realistic, consider this: however much time you think you’ll have for yourself and your family should be halved!
  • Academic social life: Because you’re on a tight timetable, socializing with faculty and other PhD students may be limited. You’re laser-focused on graduating in 3 years. This may or may not have a long-term negative effect on you as an academic. Socializing with others increases your network and especially your collaborative research network. Hence, not socializing may have the opposite effect.
  • Quality of research: Because you’re in a hurry to graduate, it is possible that your dissertation and research have been streamlined (simplified) to allow you to complete it in a reduced timeframe. As a result, your research portfolio may not have the level of depth observed in dissertations. This might affect the research you do in the future.
  • Academic productivity: At the end of the day, your research productivity is defined by how many papers you publish. Doing your PhD in 3 years hinders that. Recall the timetable for a PhD program. Cutting the last 2 years in half may result in fewer publications, low-quality publications, or no publications at all. This is because there is little time to develop your research enough to publish.
  • Employment after graduation: This point is for you if you hope to work in academia after graduation. Due to the above point (no or low-quality publications), the quality or pool of academic institutions that want to hire you also reduces. In general, research and teaching-based universities want to hire faculty members who are productive in research and teaching.

The Pros of Completing a PhD in 3 years

  • The joy of a reduced completion time. On face value alone, doing anything in less time has its own joy, let alone completing a PhD! It is commendable to complete a PhD in 3 years. For some of my friends who have done so, it’s a topic that starts with a “Wow, how did you do it?”. They deserve an accolade, and I’ll be the first to congratulate them on accomplishing such a feat.
  • Shorter student-to-earnings timeframe: Completing in 3 years instead of 4 or 5 means one starts earning an income sooner than later. Living as a traditional PhD student with no real income comes to an end quicker. Who doesn’t want that? Going from $24,000 a year to over $100,000 is an appealing proposition.

Depending on your motives for pursuing a PhD in your 30s, 40s, or 50s, the pros and cons may mean different things to different people. So, choose wisely how you want to proceed with the duration of your study. Please note that there may be more scenarios not identified here. In that case, consider sending them to me.

Overall, for me, the cons outweigh the pros. I chose to do mine in 4 years after considering the family and intensity of commitment. At the time, I wasn’t privy to the other factors. In my 40s, the time-to-income was not as big a factor as the intensity. I didn’t think I wanted to expend that energy on trying to complete a PhD in 3 years. Instead, I wanted to reserve the intensity for making the most of the PhD program (a.k.a, publications).

What’s your story?

Midlife PhD Series: Should You Complete Your PhD in 3 Years Rather Than 4?

Post navigation