Is it possible to do a three-year PhD as an international student?

Some universities are now introducing three-year PhD programmes, but for international students this can present a unique set of challenges

April 23 2019
The pros and cons of a three year PhD.

One of the first things you should realise about a PhD is that the length of time it takes to complete can vary from country to country. In some countries, it can range from three to five years. In others, it can take more than eight years to finish a PhD.

However, my university, Macquarie University (and many others) has created a three-year PhD programme. I think that the reason behind this is that universities considered the number of PhD students they can produce and resources they need to invest for each student. The benefits of shortening the PhD time frame seemingly outweigh costs.

I would argue that a three-year programme has both benefits and challenges for students. But for me, as an international student doing a PhD, the challenges outweigh the benefits.

When considering the benefits from a student’s perspective,the biggest one is that it will help us to reduce income loss. Although some countries consider a PhD a job, many do not. Hence, it requires paying tuition fees and earning a living on top of that. I was fortunate to receive a scholarship that covers tuition fees and offers a modest stipend. Stipend, by definition, is not a salary. I receive 30-40 per cent less than a full-time salary. Hence, the faster I can get through a PhD, the more money I can save.

However, I depend on the scholarship and stipend. I am the sole breadwinner for my family, so I need to seek casual employment to earn enough to support my family. Of course, the time I spend at my job is taking time away from my research. Additionally, my scholarship will run out after three years. If I cannot submit by the finish date, the stipend will stop. Worst of all, I need to pay tuition fees for every day I delay submission. Again, as an international student, I cannot afford the substantial tuition fees.


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Finishing a PhD as quickly as I can is not really viable. Time pressure is another big issue for me as an international PhD student. To do a PhD in three years means that the margin for failure is slim, if not non-existent. Designing and managing experiments, the creation of primary datasets, analysis, and writing require sophisticated skills. They are time-consuming and strenuous processes.

On top of that, if I want to publish in peer-reviewed journals, I need to put in even more time. It often takes years from writing manuscripts to publication. Finally, I need the time to settle in a new country and get to know the system. Few would disagree that this takes time.   

The support from universities should be of the highest standard if they expect us to finish in time. It might sound dismaying, but our research needs are not always top priority. Academics are vigorously overworked, and although concerns have been raised the culture remains largely the same. Our research needs are often lost under many emails and piles of forms. So, I cannot expect my research requests and needs would be met immediately, which further adds to the time pressure.

To tackle these issues, I was forced to do a project that was less risky but yielded high output. I also needed to make a foolproof plan with safety nets. Thus, if things go wrong, they cannot fail my submission. I needed to make a substantial contribution to my knowledge fields. I sometimes wonder what possible contributions I could make with all these hindrances? If I want to get a PhD in three years with a novel contribution, everything has to be in the right place at the right time, in the right order. 

Finally, post-PhD job prospects are dizzying. The traditional landscape of graduates employed in academia has been changing over time. Graduates are often encouraged to find jobs outside academia. So the earlier I am finished with my degree, the sooner I can get into the job market, which is a challenge in itself. 

Read more: What is a PhD? Advice for PhD students

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