Being a Higher Degree by Research (HDR) Student in Australia

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.

And don’t mind being buried under massive amounts of books and articles…

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 do have a plan!

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.

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  • http://www.superlinguo.com Lauren

    You’re lucky you live in a 

  • http://www.superlinguo.com Lauren

    oops! Weekend brain fail!

    Wanted to say – you’re lucky you live in a state of Australia where Postgrad students get access to concession public transport. In Victoria it’s only undergrads who get cheep travel! I guess all the walking and riding is a good way to get some exercise…

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    What? That’s unfair! Well come to SA and you can get cheap bus tickets too, though Adelaide is totally walkable so you won’t even really need them.

  • http://www.american-in-france.com Cynthia

    Jennie, it sounds a little like Paradise and is giving you exactly what you’ve been yearning for these past years in France.You made a great choice. Congrats. I do hope you can find a conference to present at in South Florida so you can visit me there. Or during the summers, visit me in France too. Cynthia, your ex-Chambery neighbor

  • Strine Spy

    Hmm. You are supposed to be promoting the ATN universities – they are less ‘old and crusty’, and dynamic enough to cut a good deal for a good student.  Recruit your friends!
    http://www.atn.edu.au

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    Is it MY job to recruit students? :)

    I will add the link!

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    Thanks Cynthia, have fun in Florida!

  • MK

    I’m an American academic in the UK, so, having been educated just about exactly 50/50 between the two countries, your observations are quite interesting! The university system in Australia is modeled on the British system, as are most Commonwealth countries’ (but not all), so it’s more or less the same here in the UK, though we call students either PGT (postgraduate taught students) or PGR (postgraduate research students). A few unis are now offering taught PhDs, but they are generally for more hands on/lab work based subjects and looked down upon, although I’m sure that will change as they become more prevalent. Of course, the three years’ of research is more flexible than it seems – most UK universities also give a provision for a year of ‘writing up’, generally the dreaded unfunded fourth year, and it is also possible to finish in two or just over two years, provided you have done the work and can get your internal assessor and supervisors to agree. Another thing to mention is that, while it’s research-only, assessments occur at set times (for example, your ‘upgrade’ or annual review). Personally, I think the downfall of the research-only system is that a lot can go horribly wrong is, for example, you are not being properly supervised or are not clear on what, precisely, your doctoral thesis will be about. On the flip side, with a requirement for a terminal MA before entering, the latter is less likely to be an issue. The former, unfortunately, can be a real problem for students, but it sounds like you will be able to get a good working relationship with your supervisors, so this hopefully will not happen. Most of my colleagues who did their doctoral degrees in the US have said that the big advantage there was that you don’t need to know for sure what you want to do, and, of course, you can go straight from your BA/BSc into the taught requirements. The downside to the US system, just in my opinion, is that you miss out on the experience of a long, research-intensive period of work and what that can bring. Good luck with your studies!

  • Emily

    Congrats on your placement in this program! I especially like the application of ROWE fundamentals! 

    When finding a program to suit you, did you happen to learn of other countries with this type of research PhD setup (length/types of programs)? I’ve been toying with the idea of getting an MBA or PhD at a European school in a few years, but have only found programs similar to those found in the US (but with cheap/free tuition). 

  • Russ

    Great article, very helpful. Thank you!

  • Ru

    Thanks allot for the write up Jennie.. I am contemplating on going for PHD in Australia and this is very helpful.

  • Gintare

    Hi there. I stumbled upon your article while looking for more info about HDR. You see, I am about to graduate from Vilnius University (Bachelor’s degree in English Philology), and I would be more than excited to study for a Master’s degree/work in Australia (one of my dream countries). However, I would definitely need to apply for a scholarship. As you’re an HDR student already, would you mind sharing your knowledge of possible scholarships, study programs, universities? How their system of admission works? How possible is to get a full scholarship? I would be incredibly grateful.

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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