How to Complete an MA/PhD in 4 Years Part 1

Some of you are likely interested in how to finish your doctoral studies as quickly as possible, especially those of you just beginning graduate school and those still in undergrad. In my field of History, and in the humanities in general, completing an MA/PhD program usually takes at least 7-8 years, if not longer. I began graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill in 2006, received my MA in History in 2008, and completed the doctorate in 2010. I do not know of anyone else there who finished this quickly. A couple people did it in five years, but even that was rare. So how does one go about completing both of these degrees in such a short period of time?

The first and most important part of this process is being in a combined program that allows you to complete the MA on the way to a PhD. If you pursue a terminal MA and then go to another school for your doctorate, it will be nearly impossible to finish two years later, as you will most likely be taking comprehensive exams your second year and then moving on to the dissertation.

If you are in one of these combined programs, then you will be in a great position to finish both degrees quickly. For me, it was important to define not only my master’s thesis topic, but my dissertation topic during my first year in the program. I refined the topic along the way, moving from a study of black Atlantic abolitionists to one exploring northern black abolitionists to one that examined black abolitionists in one colony/state–Massachusetts. But during the whole process, I stuck with black abolitionist thought and activity and in this process of refinement, I made the topic more manageable rather than less.

As I began preparing my master’s thesis, I talked often with my advisor about how it would fit into my dissertation. I made sure that my master’s topic was exactly the same as what the dissertation would be, and that I would be able to use all my research and writing that I completed for the dissertation. Thus, once I began work on the PhD, I already had two chapters complete. Had I worked on completely different topics for the thesis and the dissertation, I would very likely have prolonged my time in grad school by at least another year or two, maybe more. If you are really planning ahead, you might even try writing your master’s thesis/dissertation on a similar topic as your senior thesis from college.

This approach is one important part of how I finished graduate school so quickly, but it is not without its disadvantages. Approaching a research topic primarily for utilitarian reasons can leave you studying something you are not really passionate about simply because it will allow you to finish more quickly. Or you may pick something too narrow that doesn’t speak to the central themes/debates in your field. In these instances, rather than compromise the quality of your eventual dissertation, it would of course be best to simply stay in grad school for a couple more years. But if you can find something that you are passionate about and represents a fresh contribution to the topic while allowing you to finish in a timely manner, then all the best to you.

Part 2 of this series will explore choosing the right advisor.


Comments on “How to Complete an MA/PhD in 4 Years Part 1

  • Chris! This is so near my plan, I thught we were in a Vulcan mind meld! I am impatiently waiting the next parts of yoour plan. I might add that when I have proposed this to my fellow classmates, most look at me as if I am crazed.
    (I’m actually finishing the MA in four semesters (one summer, one course). With a block of time for independent writing awaiting the PhD fall semsster. Bottom line, the dissertation will be a book in under three years of graduate work.

    • I can relate, my original plan was to finish in 5 years and people looked at me crazy for that. I ended up going on the job market with two chapters written in my 4th year and got a position so that helped convince my committee that they should let me finish if I could.

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  • Chris, I’ve really enjoyed your essay series on getting through the diss and landing a job (quickly). I’ve just started the diss and would like to get through the process as fast as possible. I am on fellowship for the next two years, so I’m thinking that should be enough time to finish up, right? Can you elaborate a bit more on the feasibility of your diss project (i.e. sources, years your dissertation covered, location of sources, number of archives visited, etc.)? I ask this because as historians there is always more to research and read. I’ve watched people take four+ years researching and writing just for the diss. How did you go about establishing research boundaries, then onto just writing?
    Everyone – please feel free to chime in if you can speak on this. Thanks in advance!

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