A persistent problem for higher education policy has been how to ensure a steady supply of doctoral graduates equipped to deal with today’s global challenges. In this post Hugo Horta, Mattia Cattaneo and Michele Meoli examine the relationship between PhD funding and research productivity during PhD studies with time taken to complete a PhD and suggest that a key factor in the time taken to complete a PhD is the role it plays in positioning researchers in post-doctoral job markets.

From a policy perspective, doctoral students are now recognized as a small but significant group contributing to knowledge advancement. Their role in creating new knowledge is seen as an important input into today’s knowledge societies, which constantly demand new, creative and efficient ways of transforming products, services and organizations, to compete in a global, uncertain and technology dependent world. A key area of concern for research policy has therefore been the difficulty of matching the supply of doctoral graduates with these skills, to the demand emerging from a knowledge society. In particular, despite wide-ranging reforms to doctoral training programs, a concern remains with respect to the time taken to complete a doctoral degree.

Indeed, time to completion of doctorates continues to be long in most countries and usually exceeds the standard 3 to 4 year timescale. According to the Higher Education Council for England it was predicted that around 73% of students who started a PhD in 2010/2011 would take 7 years to receive the degree. In the United States,  the National Science Foundation reported that completion of doctoral education for all disciplinary areas was above 6 years (median), but for some disciplines it was as long as 9 years. The same report concluded that completion times have remained stable over the past 20 years.

Long completion times are undesirable for all parties. For students, it leads to higher costs, demotivation, stress, and anxiety, as it creates uncertainty about the future and feelings of inadequacy compared to those who complete PhDs faster. Studies have also found that extended times to complete the degree predict higher incidences of dropout from doctoral studies. For universities, having students that stay longer than expected in doctoral studies, leads to inabilities to bring in new funding, overload of supervisory responsibilities for academics (with potentially adverse effects on quality), rejection of new candidates, and a negative image for prospective students and funding agencies.

Most studies on the time taken to complete doctoral degrees focus on case studies of single universities, or single disciplines, more often than not in the Anglophone world. To gain a broader understanding of this issue, we studied the factors influencing the time to completion of 2,253 PhDs, who undertook full time doctoral studies and were residing in Portugal on 31st December 2009. The sample was representative of the population of doctoral holders in Portugal, working in and outside academia, and from all disciplinary fields. Two areas we especially wanted to assess, were the effects of having obtained a competitive grant to support the PhD and for having published research during the PhD.

What we found was that students that were financially supported by grants or fellowships took longer to complete their doctoral studies compared to self-funded students. Research productivity, as measured by published research outputs, had the opposite effect: the greater the research productivity during doctoral studies, the shorter the duration of their studies. These findings suggest that funded PhD students tend to adopt a ‘wait-and-see’ strategy, as funding does not act as a credential to signal the post-PhD labour market, PhD students instead hold on to produce publications, which do seem to work in this way.

We also explored the link between funding and publication, in that one might expect increased research productivity to indicate decreases in time to completion amongst all PhD students. However, publishing papers only seemed to be linked to reduced time to PhD completion for funded research and had the opposite relationship with unfunded researchers, for whom higher research productivity led to longer times to completion. This may be because students combine the effects of competitive funding and publishing to face the job market with more confidence. Having prestigious funding and a track record of publications may give one an advantage in the job market and drive one to complete their PhD studies. Self-funded students may take more time to complete the PhD when they are productive, as they purposely draw out the duration of their PhD in order to acquire the necessary publications to be competitive in the postdoctoral job market.

Finally, we also looked at the differences of these effects across STEM and non-STEM fields. The findings suggest that funding and research productivity played a significant role only for students in STEM fields. This result may be related to disciplinary traditions, but is also linked to the expectations of students relative to post-PhD labour markets, which tend to offer better paid and broader sets of job opportunities in and out of academia for PhDs in STEM fields.

From a policy perspective, although time to completion increases if one has PhD funding, our results do not imply that support for PhD students should be reduced or constrained to improve overall time to completion. Without funding, the number of potential doctoral students would substantially decline, and it would almost certainly also lead to a decline in researchers from diverse backgrounds. This would certainly have detrimental effects for countries trying to raise their human capital, and for universities, where PhD students contribute to the quality of research and the global pool of knowledge.

What the findings do suggest is that alongside PhD funding support, policymakers and funding agencies should stress the importance of publishing during the PhD. This would provide students with the credentials needed to enter the postdoctoral labour market and also make contributions to national, regional and global knowledge. The findings of this study also underline the need to raise awareness of students starting doctoral studies about the importance of credentials, including what specific credentials mean and how they may benefit from them during and after the completion of PhD studies. Both points above are relevant considering the career routes that PhDs in STEM and Non-STEM fields can take, as well as their involvement in future work that may involve research activities or not, in and outside academia. In other words, the PhD needs to be perceived as a degree that besides providing intellectual and personal growth and stimulation, should be a springboard for a knowledge based career, students should be aware of this and the credentials that count towards their post-doctoral life, whatever that may be.


This post is based on the authors co-authored paper The impact of PhD funding on time to PhD completion, published in Research Evaluation.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below

Image Credit: Ant Rozetsky via Unsplash (Licensed under a CC0 1.0 licence).

About the authors

Hugo Horta is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Education of The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China.

See: https://web.edu.hku.hk/staff/academic/horta

Mattia Cattaneo, is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Management, Information and Production Engineering of the University of Bergamo

See: https://www.unibg.it/en_pers/?mattia.cattaneo

Michele Meoli is an Associate Professor at the Department of Management, Information and Producation Engineering of the University of Bergamo, Italy.

See: https://www.unibg.it/en_pers/?michele.meoli

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