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It's understood that U.S. Ph.D. programs are designed to be completed in 5 years (2 years of coursework/3 years of a thesis), whereas UK D.Phil programs are only 3 years (just a thesis) but require a Master's in admission (which are oftentimes only a year in say the UK). Is it possible in the US to complete a philosophy Ph.D. in 4 years rather than the average of 6-7 or is that idealistic?

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  • It's close to the same number of years if you are starting from your undergrad. But if you already have a master's degree in philosophy, and you decide you want to go to a different school for your PhD, most North American universities will still require you to do a year or more of course work, as well as comprehensive exams. So in that case, doing your doctorate at a UK university would be much quicker.
    – Avi C
    Aug 16, 2022 at 2:34

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It's possible to complete a Ph.D. in four years, but some things have to be true about you, and number of things external to you have to fall in place.

First, about you. You'll need to know exactly what you want your dissertation to be about from the get go, and you'll need to have a concrete, focused plan on how you will complete your dissertation. Many graduate students come into grad school not knowing what area of philosophy they want to specialize in, much less what their topic of dissertation will be. One reason you need to have a plan from the beginning is that in order to be as efficient as possible, you'll want to take seminars that are related to your dissertation, so that whatever you write in those seminars can be used in your dissertation.

Second, and this probably goes without saying, if you want to finish in four years, you'll need to hustle hard. Once you are in dissertation phase, no one will ever check up on you, nor will they micromanage you. There will never be any hard deadlines for anything. You have to be entirely self-motivated to finish your dissertation. This is one reason why many graduate students never finish.

Even if you have the drive and the plan, whether you can complete in four years will depend on things outside of your control. Every Ph.D. program will require that you pass something in order to transition from coursework to dissertation. It used to be that you had to take exams. Now it's fairly standard among programs that you have to submit a paper that the faculty accepts before moving on to dissertate. You need to complete this paper as quickly as possible, and how quickly you complete it will not be entirely up to you. You'll submit drafts to faculty members to get feedback, and how timely they are in providing feedback will vary. Multiple drafts of your paper with faculty taking forever to get bad with you about comments will delay this process.

Once your paper's passed you'll need to find someone to agree to supervise your dissertation and other to be on the committee. Sometimes things can go to shit here. You might have come to a program thinking that you were going to work with individual x. Then halfway through your coursework x accepts an offer at another university. You can't follow them to that university, so now you're stuck in your program without someone to supervise your originally planned dissertation. Once you have your committee, you'll need to submit and pass some kind of dissertation proposal. Your proposal will include a dissertation abstract, outline, and bibliography. Comments I made above about your paper apply here. You'll likely have to work through multiple drafts. After all that, you'll need to schedule a day and time for you to present your proposal to your committee and possibly other faculty members.

Once your proposal is passed you are officially ABD. How fast you complete your dissertation will not only depend on how productive you are, but also on your committee and how good they are about getting feedback to you in a timely manner. If you end up with a supervisor and committee members that are not only bad about timely feedback, but are also super hard to please, then it could take a very long time to finish your dissertation, and this is through no fault of your own. It's worth noting at this point that many individuals want to go to some grad program because they want to work with x, who is famous in some area of philosophy. What they might not know coming in is that such famous individuals may not be the best dissertation advisors for a number of different reasons. There are a lot of those stories going around at every grad program.

All said, if a necessary condition for you enrolling in a philosophy Ph.D. program is that you finish in four years, then I would recommend against going to grad school. Even with the best plans and intentions in place, finishing at that pace is unlikely.

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