Let me tell you a little about being a Higher Degree by Research (HDR) student in Australia. As the name implies, it is a research only degree that is supposed to take three years – meaning you don’t have any courses to take and your “full-time job” is to do research. You can teach/tutor if you want to, but it is not a required part of the degree.
Most universities offer Masters Degrees and PhDs as well as Professional Doctorates by Research, while the regular postgraduate degrees that require coursework include Graduate Certificates, Diplomas, and Masters Degrees. However, since Australia has the Honours system for their Bachelors degrees which adds another year during which students undertake a research project and write a thesis, many students go from an Honours Bachelors degree into a PhD without getting a Masters degree. Obtaining a PhD can be done in seven consecutive years (3 years for Bachelors + 1 year for Honours + 3 years for PhD), though it is more common to start a PhD later in life than directly after a Bachelors degree. The average age of beginning PhD students in Australia is 28 for science degrees and 38 for humanities degrees.
I was lucky enough to receive a full scholarship and living stipend so that my tuition and health insurance are both already paid for and I receive a “salary” every two weeks to cover rent and living costs. It is not a high salary by American or Australian standards, but it is much more than I ever made working full-time in France. Scholarships are quite competitive for international students though, and you must be full-time and doing research on campus (internal, not external, student) in order to receive them. The application itself for admission/scholarships was quite long (a lot of writing on your proposed research, obviously), but did not require the GRE or any other standardized test scores. My program provides a research fund that includes reimbursement for books or equipment that I might need to buy (which includes home internet costs!) and travel funds to pay for plane tickets and accommodation when presenting at conferences. Since I am also attached to a Research Centre within my School and Division, there are other grants I can apply for if I need more funding.
On campus, I have my own desk and shared office with other PhD students, but since I am a student and not staff, I still get the many, many perks of having a student ID (discounts galore! MS Office for $99, for example, and half price bus tickets). I don’t have any office hours, nor do I actually have to use my workspace if I don’t want to. I am free to work at home or in the library if I wish to do so. It is essentially a Results Only Work Environment (or perhaps Learning Environment) which I love, as it allows me to work when I am the most motivated. I have monthly meetings with my supervisors to make sure I am on the right track and actually doing something, but other than that, I am free to do what I want. So Research Degrees are not for everyone – if you have motivation problems, I wouldn’t suggest them – but they are great for those of us who work best independently and on our own schedule.
The UN’s Education Index ranks Australia’s education system as tied for first place with Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand. Canada is next, but the US is down at number 20. The average length of Australian PhDs is 4.5 years, while Americans PhDs average 8 years because of the extra coursework (and perhaps teaching). About 50% of people with PhDs in Australia do not continue in academia, and students are not required to publish or teach as much as in the US (especially in the Humanities), so the push to remain in academia is not as great. Since I am still not sure what I would like to do after I finish my PhD (become a professor or researcher or leave academia altogether?), I like the flexibility of my program and not feeling as though I am already being forced towards a career in academia, which is the impression I get when reading about American Humanities PhDs.
I’ve only been a student for about a month, and these are simply my own experiences and observations at my particular university for a humanities degree. I’d love to hear from other HDR students and PhD students in the US to know more about different programs.
For more information on the various Australian universities, check out Universities Australia and the Group of Eight (the Ivy League of Australia) as well as the Australian Technology Network, which is the best bet for international students – though don’t let the name fool you; my university belongs to the ATN and my PhD is in Languages & Linguistics rather than science or technology. There is also a forum at Study Connect if you want to talk to other students and find out about life in the major cities.
Feel free to ask me questions if you plan to apply. The main deadline for the International Postgraduate Research Scholarship (for commencement in early 2012) is August 31, 2011. There are other scholarships at the Australian Postgraduate Awards rate available for international students starting mid-year as well (July), which is what I received.