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On the Fast-Track to a Ph.D.

Doctoral programs are one of the highest academic training programs one can pursue. It typically takes anywhere from four to seven years to complete a Ph.D. with two basic ways to enter into the doctorate system. One is to get a master's degree and then apply to Ph.D. programs. The other is to go directly into a doctoral program - fast-tracking.

Fast-tracking is a concurrent degree program resulting in either two graduate degrees or a graduate and a doctoral degree. Most graduate schools encourage such combining of programs, provided that academic standards are upheld. Fast-tracking and accelerated pathways present students with a number of options.

The fast-track option was a solution to a growing problem. Graduates with Master's degrees from well-known universities realized that graduation does not necessarily mean the career they wanted is waiting. So was their time wasted? Not when they can complete a second Master's degree or a Ph.D. leading straight to a high-demand career in less time than if completed separately.

The fast-track route to a Ph.D. degree is aimed at students who have demonstrated a superior record in their undergraduate program, and would benefit from a faster progression through graduate studies. Fast-tracking is commonly done in disciplines where students intend to go through to the Ph.D. level, and where the Master's is an accomplishment along the way rather than a goal itself. It is possible that more students would choose the Ph.D. if the time and courses could be fast-tracked. The Master's then becomes a preparatory step, with the emphasis more on course work and some work towards a doctoral thesis.

In most cases, the application outlining the reasons and justification for entry to the Ph.D. program will also have to include a preliminary research proposal. A committee then reviews the application to judge the likelihood of successful completion as a Ph.D. thesis. If accepted, the student proceeds with the standard Ph.D. preliminary oral exam, which must be scheduled within 6 months of acceptance. However, there is still a need to complete a thesis.

A Master's degree is not required before applying to a Ph.D. program. Most students interested in fast-tracking apply directly to a doctoral program, bypassing the Master's degree altogether. Going directly to the doctoral program can initially be a shock, but also exciting.

Students will find that those pursuing Ph.D.s generally fall into two categories: the "academic track" focusing on classic research and the "practical track" where the degree qualifies them to enter or advance in a field such as social work or biochemistry. In general, it is better to think of a doctoral program being comprised overall of research experience versus coursework like a Master's degree.

Although most students who enter the fast-track doctoral program continue on to get their degrees, admission to this type of program is no guarantee that you will actually earn a Ph.D. Students may be asked to leave, or strongly discouraged from continuing in the program if the faculty decides they cannot meet the requirements.

One observation that successful fast-tracking students make is that the time typically wasted on social activities does not exist. The clock is ticking and they want to get on with their career! For any graduate course, students begin with a wide variety of background knowledge, experience and skills. This is especially true of Ph.Ds, with some students returning to study after many years, and others not having left university at all.

Planning ahead means a fast-track graduate will have spent less time earning their degrees but have more qualifications to show for it. You end up better prepared for a profession and career path instead of discovering you need to be more competitive in the employment market and spend additional time back in school.

On average, a Master's degree will take a student two years to complete where a doctoral degree can take six years, sometimes up to seven. Combined in a program to fast-track your Ph.D., students may be able to save themselves at least one year, maybe two. While this may not seem like a huge amount of time, consider that these students will be out in the workforce two years earlier, accumulating their salary and paying down their debt.

Did you know...

The number of doctorates awarded nationwide ten years from now is projected to increase 10 percent, with a 3 percent decline in those earned by men and a 31 percent increase among female recipients.

In the U.S., the fields awarding the greatest number of degrees at the doctorate level were education with 6,800, engineering with 5,400, biological and life sciences with 4,900 and psychology with 4,300.

Statistics from The National Center for Education.

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