How Long Does it Take to Get a Anthropology or Archaeology PhD in the US?

Posted on October 7, 2011


Each year in the United States hundreds, actually around a 1000, people decide to undertake a PhD in all the sub-fields of Anthropology i.e. archaeology, cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, etc. Maybe you are considering undertaking such a PhD. What sort of time commitment are you looking at?

The median time from start of a PhD programme to the end is 7 years and 8 months. That means half of PhDs are obtained before that time and half after. So there is a range but less than 15% of PhDs are completed in under six years. The majority take 6-9 years.

This does not include obtaining your Masters, many PhD programs are actually Masters and PhD programs. You usually have to complete a Masters successfully before being upgraded to a PhD. From the beginning of a Masters program to a PhD the median time is nine and half years. Yes, you are looking at a decade of your life. The median age when one obtains a PhD is 34.5 years.

Anthropology. Median time to get PhD: 7.7years, % that finish under 6 years: 15%, median age at PhD 34.5 years.

Not All Programs the Same

First, that number covers all the sub-fields. Some commenters on this post raised the idea that Cultural Anthropology degrees take longer than some of the other sub-fields. I can’t tell that from the data (more on that below) but that is possible. Moreover, different Universities have different rates. At least two programs have a median completion time in the 5 year range, while one is 12 years!

A Decade in Heave or in Hell?

Time is subjective in the case of a PhD. It could be the greatest time of your life in which you can travel the world for your fieldwork, be paid as part of scholarship/fellowship etc., and have the time of your life. Or it could be a living hell in which you dread waking up every morning because it means facing your PhD.

The Data

I got these numbers from two different sources. The median age and time to completion comes for 2015 dataset, The Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED). (SED) is an annual census conducted since 1957 of all individuals receiving a research doctorate from an accredited U.S. institution in a given academic year. You can find out more about it here.

The data on programs and my extrapolation that less than 15% of PhDs are completed in under six years comes from analysis the National Academies’ A Data-Based Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States survey, which asked questions to degree programs (82 Anthropology PhD programs in the US). One question asked was what % of students completed their PhD in under six years (from start of PhD program- excluding any Masters). Taking the completion rate of different schools (ranges from 0% to 55.6%) and multiplying it by the number of students they had at the beginning of 2005 we find that 15% of anthropology PhDs are completed in under 6 years. By average number of students graduated it is 17%.

Yes, that data is from 2005. There should be another survey in the next few years but it does tell you that the data is a bit dated. The trend has been for PhDs to get longer so 15% in under 6 years may be optimistic now. At least that is the trend in Archaeology. A study of archaeologists found that with every passing decade the length of obtaining a PhD for archaeologists increases by about a year (Zeder 1997). Though this data is also old so is this still a trend…

Here is the median time of departments by percentage of graduates. Roughly 80% of Universities graduate half of their students in under 7-9 years. While not a perfect example it does show that most people can expect to finish a PhD in about 7-9 years, not including getting a Masters.

Median Time to Degree (Full- and Part-Time Graduates),
2006. Rounded to nearest whole.
Average Number of  Ph.D.s Graduated, 2002-2006
5 yr 2.1%
6 yr 9.4%
7 yr 23.4%
8 yr 29.2%
9 yr 27.1%
10 yr 6.1%
11 yr 2.5%
12 yr 0.2%


The American Archaeologist: a Profile. Melinda A. Zeder. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. 1997