Doing a PhD in Australia

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

Doing a PhD in Australia as a Higher Degree by Research (HDR) student

Let me tell you a little about doing a PhD in Australia as a Higher Degree by Research (HDR) student. As the name implies, it is a research only degree that is supposed to take 3-3.5 years before you submit your thesis – 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. So unlike North American PhDs, there is no coursework, no qualifying exams, and no oral defense with your thesis supervisors. You simply submit the examination copy of your thesis, one examiner from Australia and one international examiner tell you what corrections to make, you make those changes, and submit the final thesis. (This submission process can take anywhere from 3 months to a year though.)

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 Bachelor’s 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 Master’s 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 Bachelor’s 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” of almost $2000 AUD every month to cover rent and living costs. This scholarship is guaranteed for 3 years, with the possibility of a 6 month extension. 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. Don’t be fooled though – the cost of living in Australia is very high, and $2000 a month is actually less than minimum wage, so it doesn’t go very far!

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 is August 31 for commencement early the following year. 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.

UPDATE: I have now finished my PhD and left Australia. Since I started my program before November 2011, I was not eligible for the new post-study visa which allows you to stay in Australia for 1.5-4 years after graduation. I only had 3 months to find a job and with all the cuts to university funding because of changes in government, there were very few jobs to apply to. The cost of living and being so far away from family in the US were also major factors in why I left. (Check out 5 things I do not miss about Australia.)

A few things have changed over the years, which unfortunately made my experience worse. My school cut the funds for books and equipment after a year which was extremely disappointing. We had a few problems with PhD students’ offices being forgotten with regards to workplace safety regulations. It is much harder for international students to get scholarships now, and nearly impossible to get the 6 month extension. Although the stipend does increase slightly every year, the cost of living in Australia continues to spiral out of control. There was a also a lot of staff turnover in my school, which made things confusing for students who didn’t know who to talk to when they had questions.

Note that some Australian universities have one or two required courses for PhD students, and a few are starting to implement the oral defense in place of the traditional thesis examination.

Make sure to check with your division and school for funding opportunities, but beware that they can be cut at any moment.