Managing Your Time: How Long Does a Doctorate Take?

Many structured doctoral programmes give a duration of three to four years as the time needed to complete a doctorate (except in medicine, where, due to the different organisational framework, the procedures involved are usually significantly shorter). Doctoral scholarships are often awarded for a period of two years with the possibility of an extension for a further year or twice for half a year. Extensions may be granted if you have care obligations.

For many doctoral students, time management issues can arise at any stage during their project and present a major challenge. Planning and managing such a large project is a new experience and unexpected difficulties may lead to delays.

The following recommendations can help to keep the time frame of the project under control:

  • Familiarise yourself with the formal requirements and procedures involved at an early stage
    both on acceptance as a doctoral candidate (recognition of certificates, acquisition of specialist knowledge) and on completion (submission and assessment of your thesis, obtaining any necessary external assessments, finalising a date for the disputation, revision and publication of the dissertation if necessary).
  • Clarify mutual expectations and plan time management with your supervisor
    A Supervision Agreement and regular discussion with your supervisor can be very helpful.
  • Refine your research question and methodology, and narrow down the material dealt with at an early stage (corpus, sample, archival material)
  • Be realistic in assessing the hours you have available for working on your thesis
    Take into account the type of funding you have and your private circumstances. With a part-time doctorate you must reckon with longer periods of time. If you have a doctoral position at the university, you may be kept busy with teaching, research and other university administrative duties so that there will be periods when you have less time to devote to your thesis.
  • Keep a clear separation between work and free time and take time to relax
    Doing a doctorate in your spare time alongside a full-time job can mean risking becoming stressed and overworked. A high level of motivation for your doctorate, but also extra work as a research assistant, for example, can often mean work on the thesis being left till after work, weekends or holidays. External doctoral students with a job outside academia are often left with little time to dedicate to their research project. But you can only stay productive in the long run if you have enough free time to relax. Writing and planning work in particular are very demanding and exhausting. Whenever possible, it is helpful to undertake the most demanding tasks during the part of the day (or week) when you are normally most productive, and to use the rest of the day for less challenging things such as planning your bibliography, excerpting etc.
  • Give yourself a buffer
    allowing sufficient time for revisions, corrections and final proofreading/editing
  • Talk to your supervisor about the kinds of useful further experience and qualifications available
    Depending on your desired career goal, e.g. professional experience in your chosen field, committee experience, teaching experience, conference participation and publications, stays abroad, additional workshops, courses, etc. can be useful. You should be careful however not to let these interfere with the progress of your thesis.
  • Respond to difficulties as they arise
    Talk to your supervisor if possible, or to another trusted person, make use of the advisory services available if necessary. If you habitually cancel or postpone appointments with your supervisor, because you have failed to meet an agreed objective, you run the risk of gradually losing contact with the supervisor and ultimately also with your project.
  • Get in touch with other doctoral students and postdocs
    Support from colleagues (e.g. through a writing or reading group, regular get-togethers) is great for motivation and morale and facing up to common challenges is easier in company.


Where else can I turn to for support when time and project management problems arise?