It’s a common question. A REALLY common question!
Many countries throughout Europe and the Southern Hemisphere (e.g., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Singapore) have 3-year PhD programmes (or programs for the US spellers). Meanwhile North Americans typically opt for 5+ years. Why is there such a difference, and is one system better than the other?
The irony of it all
Obviously, European countries were producing PhD degrees before North America but, back in the 19th century, those degrees were handed out for advanced scholarship rather than original research. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that North Americans really started getting on board with PhD’s… and guess what? Those early advocates went to the UK to obtain their PhD in 3 years! Then they went back to North America, got high paid positions and began training their own PhD students.
Why Europe has 3-year programmes
Many European countries push for a 3-year PhD as part of the Bologna Process. This process ensures a ‘standard’ in PhD’s across Europe. I’m guessing that many other countries follow suit because they have strong ties to the UK. Why North America shifted toward a longer program, I don’t know – maybe someone else can tell us.
How to devalue a PhD
I did my PhD under a 3-year system in Australia. Like others who completed degrees under these timeframes, I have heard the criticisms and sometimes snide comments about how a 3-year degree is not comparable to a 5+ year degree. I have heard people say things along the lines of “3-year PhD’s are easier”, “look how few publications that person has”, and “no one takes those degrees seriously”.
What does a 3-year PhD look like?
Let me just say, anyone doing a PhD works hard for it. There are definite pros and cons to each system. To provide some context on my 3-year PhD experience, I did a 3-year BSc in which we basically selected our specialization from the beginning. In fourth year, I did an Honours programme – this was an intensive 9 month research project resulting in a thesis, two seminars, a literature review and a grant proposal. To qualify, you needed a credit average (>70%). You hoped for First Class Honours so that you enter a PhD programme. If you didn’t get First Class it was a bit more difficult – you would probably have to start with a Masters and see if you could upgrade later.
My PhD didn’t comprise any course work. Instead I basically had one year to work out what I was doing and collect samples, one year to do lab work and data analysis, and one year to write. Obviously, those timeframes were shuffled around as things went wrong or right. We were still expected to publish. I didn’t verbally defend my PhD, I didn’t have a committee, I wasn’t required to TA. I could extend to 3.5 years, but after that my ‘fellowship’ dried up. I sent my thesis off to external reviewers who treated it like a giant scientific paper and ‘graded’ it that way. Thankfully mine came back with “accept with minor changes”. My project was designed and executed by me – it wasn’t (as some people assume) pre-planned by my supervisor. I believe this is essentially the same sort of process for other 3-year PhD programmes.
Now, is one programme better than the other? I put together the table below to try and work that out. (This is biased toward a degree a science).
So, which is better?
Personally, I don’t think anyone can answer that. There are people that succeed, fail and ‘drop out’ under both systems. I loved doing my PhD, it was incredibly challenging – but to be honest it was nowhere near as stressful as my Honours year. Sure, I probably had some mini-meltdowns like pretty much everyone does, but I loved doing it. I learned to get in there and get things done because time is short and no one is going to help you. I do wish that I had had the freedom of the North American system to take a few more classes of interest and spend a few months chasing somewhat random topics because they were interesting and might somehow be related. Think how much more could have been crammed into my brain!!
There are arguments that the 3-year system is failing students because they can be locked into very specific projects, have very little time for publishing and have the constant fear of financial hardship and potentially expulsion if they take too long. I agree with all of these points – they are legitimate concerns.
I think the 5+ year PhD also has some serious drawbacks though. For example, not having a tight deadline allows some students to labour on topics they should have dropped months ago. It can also open them up to ‘exploitation’ from advisors who want to see more data/papers at the 11th hour. Some other really good points are raised here.
I think perhaps the biggest drawback is just committing to that amount of time in the first place. When you are young (add a few more adjectives like naïve) three years seems manageable, but suddenly telling people to double that… that is a fair chunk of early years that likely going to impact on your life in other areas, especially financially.
Stop thinking one system is better than the other
Like I said, both systems have their good and bad. Every PhD programme is hard regardless of the timeframe – they are meant to be! They both demand a high level of commitment and sacrifice, and anyone who has obtained a PhD can tell you that at the end of the day when it is all over, no one suddenly cheers your name and bangs on your door offering you a job. It’s time to stop thinking that 3-year PhD programmes are somehow inferior. They are different, yes.
Instead ask yourself – “what would my PhD look like if I cut the time in half and removed all course work?”
I guarantee it would look different… maybe even a little European ;-)