Chris Bertram has an excellent post on the evolution of the professoriate over the last thirty-odd years from one where a scholar could earn a very nice living starting at age 23-4 into one into which, perhaps, one could aspire to a mediocre living by ones late 30’s. His example is based on the UK. Add another few years for the US, since getting the BA isn’t usually accomplished until age 22 and a PhD in three years is virtually unheard of.

Ironically, a subthread has developed in his comments section about what a shame that such intelligent people are consigned to such an existence. It rather begs the question, no?

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James Joyner
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James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I don’t think you _can_ get a Ph.D. in three years, at least after the BA/BS. I had to take three years of coursework just to take comps with no master’s. You might be able to pull it off in 4, if you took 4 seminars each semester and were really industrious writing. 5 seems more reasonable. I know very few people who earned a Ph.D. earlier than 30 (I should have mine essentially at 28: 27 and 350-odd days, actually).

    Bear in mind, though, that the 3 years Bertram cites is after the postgraduate degree (e.g. M.Phil). So the math in Britain is about the same as it is here.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Princeton has a 3-year program. But that’s highly unusual. I earned mine a bit before my 30th birthday, although it wasn’t awarded until a month or so after because that’s when the end of the semester was. That was after a three-and-a-half military hiatus, but required taking overloads, going to school throughout the summers, etc.

    The main difference in the UK is that one apparently finishes the BA earlier. Plus, a DPhil and an American PhD are rather different, with the DPhil essentially reading with a major professor and writing a dissertation whereas the US version is a lot of coursework and then the dissertation.

  3. The rules for PhD’s and the like are very different in different countries. In Australia it’s 4 years for a BA with honours, then (possibly) straight into a 3 year PhD program. (We don’t have coursework in the PhD, so it’s just 3 years of research.) I took a little time off and was still done at age 25. That’s earlier than average, but hardly unheard of. Of course, I came out with a much smaller knowledge base than my colleagues who went to schools with 5 year PhD programs.

    But maybe the Australian approach would be better adopted over here if we are worried about how long it takes to get going earning $$ and hence being able to support a family.

  4. It’s hard not to regard a doctorate as a sort of luxury. Though I do know a few people who seem to be doing okay, earning, as my husband puts it, “a living off of knowledge.”

  5. James Joyner says:


    The process has elongated over the years in the US as well. The problems with speeding it up at this point would be, off the top of my head, 1) a diminished credibility with senior scholars who had gone through the “long” program and 2) it would increase the number of people entering grad school since the tradeoff wouldn’t be as onerous and 3) it would be even tougher to get a tenured job at a good school than it is now.