How Many Years For A PhD? Really, That Many?!

When I tell people that I am a Business Professor, they often wonder how long it actually takes to get a doctorate in business administration at a major research university? Most people get how long it takes to get a PhD fairly wrong (this was me when I started as well), and most of the web sites on the inter-webs are somewhat misleading in how long it actually takes. Generally, the belief is that a doctorate degree in Business Administration takes 3-4 years, which is on the short side. Read this post on how to become a business school professor (You will love it).

But, really, how many years is a doctoral degree in Business? A Doctorate Degree in Business Administration takes anywhere from 3 to 7 years to complete. A PhD in Business Administration tends to be a bit longer than a Doctorate of Business Administration degree. If you want to know some more differences between a PhD and a DBA, I have a post of these similarities and differences. But, the norm is usually around 4-5.5 years. Of those that finish their PhD, here are my estimates from my experience (and what do I know anyway 🙂 ):

  1. <5% complete a doctorate in business within 2 years.
  2. 5-20% complete a doctorate within 2-4 years.
  3. 20-80% complete a doctorate within 4-5 years.
  4. 80-90% complete a doctorate within 5-6 years.
  5. 90-100% complete a doctorate within 6-8 years.

I performed a poll in the R3ciprocity YouTube community in August 2020. I had 114 respondents of current PhDs and people that have already received their doctorate. The average (mean) from this poll indicated that most people complete their PhD in 4.4 years. The mode is 4 years. Here is the histogram that shows how long it takes to complete your PhD.

How long to get your phd 2020

However, there are some important caveats with this poll. First, the poll is conducted with a global audience, and people in Europe take around 3-4 years to complete their doctorate, whereas in the USA, the norm is around 5-7 years. Why? The market is just very competitive in the USA as the salaries tend to be quite a bit higher. Second, the poll also includes expectation PhDs, and from my experience, most people are really bad at judging how long their research will take until it is done. Third, there are likely biases due to people wanting to appear more successful than they really are. Fourth, the market is becoming even more competitive, and requiring people to take longer than they do even now. In sum, there will be a downward bias on these numbers, and the true value of how long a PhD takes is likely longer.

As you can see, it is highly unusual to take 3-4 years to get a doctoral degree in business, and the norm is closer to 4-5.5 years. Some people may take 6 to 7 years – this is actually quite normal too.

Know that if you do a professional DBA degree, you will take much shorter than a PhD degree. How long does it take to get a DBA? Here are a couple of examples.

  1. Virginia Tech’s Executive PhD takes around 3-4 years: Check out program of study that shows length of time to get doctorate.
  2. Pepperdine’s DBA program is around 3 years: Check out the program of study that details Pepperdine’s DBA length.
  3. Georgia State’s DBA program is around 3 years: Check out the GSU program’s length of study.

Please note that executive DBA’s are not shorter because the DBA Degree is easier, but it is because the outcomes are different. The length of time it takes to get a PhD or Doctorate in Business Administration is largely a function of your ultimate goal. It will be hard to get a professor job without publications, so most PhDs take longer to get these publications. 

Keep in mind this is all of the people that actually complete a doctorate degree in Business Administration. At most programs (and this is my experience again – no hard evidence), the attrition rate before completion is anywhere from 10-30% of those who start their doctorate program never complete it. Where do these people go? Most people don’t ‘fail out’ of their doctorate degree, but find that research in business does not match with their personality and choose to do other things. They simply just learn that doing a PhD in business is not that fun for them. This is good, but it is a fairly tough career, and the quicker you know that it is not for you, the better off you will be. Want to know what it is like to be a PhD student or Professor? You need to read this post.

Also, if you think you are going to be in it for the long term, you should plan that the doctoral degree will take longer than you think. Knowing how long a doctoral program will take is like knowing how long you drug development will take: It just takes a long time, but you don’t know exactly how long. You should plan to hunker down with major life investments. You can see my post on buying a home in grad school.

Why Does It Take 4-5.5 Years To Get A Doctoral Degree In Business?

The length of time that it takes to complete a doctoral degree is usually related to the rigor of your program of study. More rigorous programs usually take longer than less rigorous programs, but of course, this is a general rule, and their are always exception to the rule. Some forms of research generally take longer than others. For example, if you expect to do ethnographies (going into the workplace for several months as a fly on the wall), you will likely take a bit longer than other people. (Want to know if a PhD is for you? You need to take this PhD quiz!)

Moreover, the length of time of your doctoral program can depend on the resources that are available at the university. Doctor of Business Administration Programs (both PhD and DBA) vary a lot in the resources that are available to them. Programs like Harvard, Stanford, and major state programs (Florida State University, Ohio State University, University of Michigan, etc.) might have more resources to allow you to work on your research longer than other programs. Remember how long A PhD takes is often a choice, and the people that do research in these programs often want to stay longer to look better on the job market.

Do you have self-doubts about doing a PhD? Read this post about dealing with self-doubts in a doctoral program.

Yes, these small choices about research matter to how long it takes to get a PhD, and most people underestimate how long things will take. By the way, there is actually a psychological bias that we all have called the planning fallacy. Anyway, if you are interested in more ideas about choosing methods in your PhD in Business Administration, I have a video on research methods:

What is the Normal Process of A PhD In Business Administration.

While a PhD program may vary across different schools and the programs within each school, a doctorate degree in business administration usually involves several broad stages of the PhD. By the way, this is fairly representative of how long does it take to get a PhD in general, as there is considerable standardization across university programs. University Administrators like to make sure there is equity across programs in most universities. 

1st Year: In the first year of a PhD in Business, students will do you a broad overview of business and statistics courses. You will also do coursework on research methods and the philosophy of science. These are really fun topics if you like this kind of thing. By the way, if you are interested in picking courses for a doctorate in business or other business grad school programs, check out the video below. It provides a fairly good analyses of how to choose your graduate school courses. Of course, this is your career, so you choose whatever you want to choose. Here is a great post about what PhD classes are like.

By the way, this would be a good time to decide if the PhD in Business Administration is right for you. You can also choose what you are interested in. It is very common for people to switch around and try different things at the end of the 1st year of the program. If you are interested in learning more about switching to different specializations in the PhD, you might want to watch video about what kind of PhD will make you most competitive in the job market:

2nd Year: In the second year of any PhD program in business, you will generally have to do area specific courses (for me – strategy and innovation) and finish the comprehensive exams. Comprehensive exams are tough, but if you are interested in the PhD in Business Administration, you will have to take the comps. Sorry, folks. 🙁 This is also a great time to leave a doctoral program. You ought to read this post to know when and why PhD students often quit their doctoral programs.

Here is a video about comprehensive videos in a PhD of Business Administration program might be like for you. To be honest, I actually did enjoy mine after I got through all of the work aspect of the comprehensive exams:

3rd Year: In the third year, candidates for a PhD in Business (ie. Management, Finance, etc) will work on a paper and their dissertation proposal. This is the year that can add a lot of value to you. If you work wisely, you can be very productive in this year. You can write a paper or two during this time. (Check out this guide post to writing research papers, which is a work in progress). However, don’t work on anything in this year, this could really hold you back as a scholar.

4th and 5th Year: In the final years of a Doctorate in Business, students will go in the job market and complete their thesis in their chosen field in a doctorate in business program. What is the job market? That is where you actually get a job as an assistant professor, or take a job as a post-doc. By the way, post-docs are becoming increasingly more common.

As you can see when you ask how many years for PhD, it makes sense that it will take at least 4-5 years to complete. If you are lucky, you can finish the PhD in 4, but more than likely, you will take 4.5-5. It is normal to see a doctoral degree taking longer than 5 years, particularly if the student flounders for year or encounters obstacles in the PhD. By the way, the biggest thing that I always say that harms students from doing good research is life. Darn life – it always gets in the way. 🙂

That is the complete answer to how long it actually does take to get a PhD in Business Administration. Doing a doctorate is very different from undergraduate programs. How long it takes to get a business degree in undergraduate programs and MBA programs are often fixed because the program is well defined (say 4 years).

The answer to how many years is a doctorate really depends on the person, and what they choose to do with their research career. Note that this is just my ramblings, and everyone’s experiences are different and unique. That is the one thing about a PhD, it is a very personal journey that only you can choose.

Take the academic research productivity quiz. Find out if you have what it takes to perform as a PhD.

By the way, this is all part of my r3ciprocity project, in which I am trying to give back as much as I can as ways to thank all of the people that have helped me become a professor. I created a sharing economy proofreading software, and continue to put out videos to help others advance their careers as well. The R3ciprocity Project started out as a side-project, where David Maslach created an App to help others get feedback on their work ( – it is seriously inexpensive and easy to use. You have to try it!), but it is beginning to grow into a real movement. Check out the YouTube channel! The goal with r3ciprocity is to solve problems that are relevant to behavioral and organizational sciences, and to eventually generate enough profits that I can create scholarships for graduate students and help others. Yes, its a pipe-dream, but dreams do come true. 🙂

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