A PhD in 2 years… or less?


I used to get raised eyebrows and looks of disbelief, when I responded to the question: ‘how long did it take you to get your PhD’ with the answer: 2 years. I could have said 14 months to submit and 22months if you include the graduation ceremony, but that would have been pushing the limits of most people’s credibility so I stuck to the round number: 2 years.

I have always been in a bit of a rush: 3 years for my BSc (Hons) in Physics, 9 months for my Masters in TESOL and now a PhD in less than 2 years. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the studying – I loved every minute of every degree. When I was young I had felt the pressure of time: there were places to go to, people to meet, and that I had better get on with it. However, this could not be said of my last time around the academic maypole with my PhD. I was 59 when I registered and now the rush was on exactly because I was literally running out of time. I had been everywhere I wanted to go, met everyone I wanted to meet, but this last academic goal had remained outstanding. I was worried it might remain permanently outstanding if I didn’t get my skates on and set a target for the very foreseeable future, which in my case turned out to be graduating at age 60.

But how exactly does one go about completing a PhD by thesis only in less than 24 months? The answer lay in knowing exactly what I wanted my dissertation to address (the research problem and questions) and how (methodology). I did a large amount of relevant reading prior to registering (the initial proposal had a reference section bordering on 30 pages), and most importantly finding the right fit in terms of supervisor and university.

A year before I intended registering I started my search for a supervisor. I wanted someone willing to join me on this marathon task tackled at a sprint.  They had to be knowledgeable about my research area (ethics) and have enough time to supervise me (ie: not already supervising a lot of PhD and MA candidates, or teaching a lot of courses). I found 3 possible candidates but after a series of long email exchanges, it was clear that only one had the time, knowledge, and willingness to give it a go.

I duly sent in my pre-proposal, was accepted and registered, and within a month had submitted my formal proposal (you are given up to 6 months to submit at this particular university) with the 2 year timeframe for completion included (one of my proposal readers thought this timeline was ‘overly ambitious’).  The process for proposal approval turned out to be quite long. I was on to writing the final chapter of the thesis when the approval came through! (‘Thank goodness for that’ was my only thought, a thought verbalized by my supervisor!). But the wait had been productive. I put in 6 hours a day (usually from 6pm to midnight) and submitted chapter drafts and redrafts virtually every Friday for my supervisor to look at, comment on and return the next week. We spoke once by Skype and once face-to-face at the university but apart from that it was all written feedback. I preferred this approach as it minimized costly (time-wise) mis-understandings and gave me comments I could respond to in detail.

I worked solidly every evening, including weekends (it really was so much fun and a real challenge to turn drafts around in record time). I was sure to fit in a swim and a run everyday – even if that meant getting up before the crack of dawn. It was during those swims and/or runs that I would solve some of my most pressing writing problems: issues with wording, clarity of expression. Sometimes I would re-organize whole sections in my mind as I swam or ran. And invariably every night before switching off my lap top I would back up all my work, including papers and/or books downloaded, drafts written and anything else pertaining to the PhD thesis (far better safe than sorry!). I would then make a list (pen and paper) of what needed to be tackled the next evening: readings to be reread, chapter sections to be reworked, notes to be read, references to be rechecked.

During this process I also started researching the university’s submission process: was it all done online or by hard copy? If online what did the process entail and how long would it take? Similarly if it was by hardcopy what was the timeline” How long did it generally take from submission to examiners’ report? And how long before the graduation date would I need for amendments (if needed) to be made and approved? My research showed that I would need to submit 6-7 months before the graduation date I had set myself (ie 14 months into the PhD journey) to give myself the necessary leeway should the unthinkable happen: the need to rewrite a substantial part of the thesis. In the end I made it to the deadline of 7 months pre-graduation date with a couple of days to spare – phew!

In the end I only had a very minor rewrite to do – it took me just a Sunday afternoon to complete and submit. Three pieces of advice were I think key to this easy turn around. Firstly: throughout the writing of the chapters I was constantly aware of the need to keep bringing the readers back to my research problem and research questions so that at no point would the examiners not understand how that particular chapter/section was relevant to the study. Secondly, I turned the notes on everything I read into a piece of writing that addressed my research problem and questions so that when I came to write a section on that particular topic I already had large chunks of writing I could copy, paste, and amend slightly. Thirdly, I was meticulous in proofreading my final dissertation and the citations. The moral of this third and final piece of advice is that mistakes/typos/misquotes/wrong citations make an examiner nervous.

I used to get raised eyebrows and looks of disbelief, when I responded to the question: ‘how long did it take you to get your PhD’ with the answer 2 years. But completing in less than 2 years is achievable even if you’re 60 – honestly!

Author Bio: Dr Carmen Blyth completed her PhD in 2015 on ethics in international schools at the University of Cape Town and was a postdoctoral fellow with the Decolonizing Early Childhood Discourses research project at the same university.