How long does a physics PhD take?

  • Helena Kudiabor
  • May 05 2023

A PhD is the highest level of education you can receive in physics, and allows you to conduct independent research into a topic that fascinates you. But, how long does it take to finish a PhD?


What does a physics PhD involve?

A physics PhD is a full-time period of research which allows you to develop your research skills, and gain in-depth knowledge in a topic that interests you. Unlike undergraduate and master’s courses, which involve a number of lectures and seminars, a PhD is primarily made up of independent research. However, you’ll typically be assigned to a research group, with a team of scientists, fellow PhD students and other academics. 

Once you choose a research topic, you’ll be assigned to a supervisor. This person will have conducted research in your chosen specialism, and will help you refine your research topic, and conduct your research. Some universities provide students with two supervisors.

How long does a physics PhD take?

A full-time PhD typically lasts three or four years, while part-time PhDs can take up to six or seven years. This timeline is dependent on how long it takes you to complete your research. Many PhD students who intend for their PhD to last three years only finish their research after four years. Luckily, most universities are flexible, and the deadline can be extended for up to four years. 

What is the structure of a physics PhD?

Once you choose a research topic, you’ll be assigned to a supervisor (some students have two). In your first year, you’ll meet with your supervisor to talk about your research proposal, and will come up with some deadlines and action items. You’ll also complete your literature review, where you evaluate existing literature to see which topics haven’t been discussed, and to make sure your PhD is original.

In your second year, you’ll conduct research and develop your thesis. This is a long essay, similar to your undergraduate dissertation. There may also be opportunities for you to present your results for publication or at conferences.

In your third (and potentially fourth year), you’ll typically switch your focus to writing your thesis. The requirements for your thesis vary between institutions; however, most physics PhD theses are around 60,000 words. 

Once you’ve finished your thesis, and it has been approved by your supervisor, you’ll submit your thesis. The final step is to complete viva voce, a three-hour spoken exam. During this, you’ll discuss the process of writing your thesis and defend your findings in front of an internal and external examiner.