August 23, 2014

Doctoral Education in Australia: Lack of academic positions affects interests for pursuing doctoral degrees among domestic applicants

By Anya Klyukanova & Roxana Chiappa

While Australia is one of the more popular countries for international students to receive a postgraduate degree, domestic applicants seem to be less motivated for continuing doctoral degrees at home. Dr. Richard Strugnell, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Graduate Research at the University of Melbourne, summarizes the phenomenon succinctly: “The universities are not hiring – they’re just growing their class size, and as a consequence, there are a lot of PhDs who are finishing their degrees and can’t find jobs in academic positions. Then they try to find a position in their respective field   of the corporate sector or government, but they do not necessarily have an advantage by having a PhD.”  Dr. Strugnell is an expert on doctoral education in Australia. His experience as a professor, lead researcher, administrator and advisory member for Australian and International universities make him an informed voice to elucidate the challenges of doctoral education in Australia.


How can you explain this phenomenon of the depreciating value of a PhD in Australia?

There are several causes, but I perceive that graduates know early on in their doctoral programs that it’s going to be hard to find a job in Australia. This leads to attrition and low completion rates in some disciplines and to lower and lower domestic supply of PhDs. Twenty years ago, maybe more, it was very common for doctoral graduates from Melbourne to go to the US or Europe for a postdoctoral stay. Then, those individuals remained in these countries and went on to academic careers.  These days, I don’t see students traveling so often. I see students operating under the assumptions that even if they go overseas for a postdoc, when they come back, they will not get an academic position, so they might as well accept that and go straight into some sort of profession here (or try to) and therefore give up the idea of an academic career pretty early on.

CIRGE: Quality of doctoral education has become a hot topic in the United States and in some European countries. What kind of quality assurance mechanisms exist in Australia?  

The process of quality assurance is very different in Australia. For example, doctoral candidates who are about  to graduate submit their thesis in a similar way as candidates at US universities, but the Australian candidates do not have an oral exam and thus, the candidates are not subjected to the in depth questioning that can occur through a viva. The thesis is read by at least two experts in the field who have an opinion about the quality of the doctorate, which is a proxy for the quality of the research and the PhD graduate. The principle is that the thesis is examined and not the student. Therefore, we send the thesis to two or three experts outside of the university and usually outside of Australia.  From a quality assurance perspective, the thesis is being examined by people who have no conflict of interest within the university. In examination settings where internal examiners are used, it is sometimes hard to get fully objective views of the quality of the thesis and you can start to get conflicting views. But this examination process is just a consequence of Australia being a long way from everywhere else. The view was taken early on that since we were so far away and it took such a long time to get here by plane or by boat, then we would examine the thesis, not the student. So that’s a different quality assurance process than the one in place in other countries. In Australia, while we accept there are weaknesses in this process, at the same time, there is reasonable quality assurance, because the dissertation is being assessed by someone  who doesn’t have any relationship with the university.  They read the argument and make an assessment.

The US model of doctoral education appears as a reference for several countries, such as Germany, which is promoting institutional and formative adjustments  in order to provide more structured conditions in their doctoral education programs. How does Australia address this process of creating structured doctoral programs? 

There are tensions around preparation. Our PhD is shorter than the American doctoral degree by two or three years and usually students don’t do as much teaching during their candidature. In many disciplines, they finish their undergraduate studies and jump right away into the research phase. We’re trying to make our students more like US graduates who have more and deeper discipline related coursework in either a bridging Masters program or in the first 1-2 years of the research phase. Employers are looking at the preparation of the graduate, and want to know about the types of experiences student received during the PhD. Was there any further preparation between the undergraduate degree and entry into the PhD program? And when there was not, there is a growing pressure on the preparation pathway to include coursework. Probably that pathway will be extended to have a deeper disciplinary understanding before the PhD candidates begin their research. While we are beginning to extend the process of receiving a doctorate, we do not want it to become as long as the process is in the United States. You can graduate with a PhD in Australia in six to seven years after you have started your undergraduate degree. That rarely happens in the US. So the pressure here is to extend the program and make our graduates look more like US graduates, who may have deeper discipline knowledge gained through coursework or teaching, by adding more disciplinary related coursework. We are harmonizing our model to the US.

International students are important actors in the doctoral education system in Australia.   We have developed strategic relationships with universities in particular countries like China, where China’s undergraduates will come to Melbourne to do their PhDs and then go back to China. There’s good investment from our side into these collaborations. We need a certain number of PhD students because in the Australian research environment, especially in the STEM disciplines, doctoral students do much of the research. This is also different than the US. We don’t have so many postdocs here; we have a lot of PhD students, relatively speaking. If we can’t get Australian students to do PhDs, then we need to get the PhDs from China, India, Europe, and sometimes from the United States. In this sense, international students provide both an important challenge and opportunity for Australian universities: they need to hire more international researchers and professors in order to internationalize our workforce to deal with larger numbers of international undergraduates.


Campus of University of Melbourne, one of the most important universities in Australia.

Is the Australian national government addressing any policy in regards to doctoral education?

Well, the government carries out an exercise looking at research strengths every two to three years, in order to see how strong the universities are from a research perspective. This program is called the ERA: Excellence in Research in Australia. This program assesses the research strength of universities by discipline. But then this program doesn’t restrict research training to those universities that can demonstrate a strong research culture. It allows every university to do what they want regardless of the quality of the research and research infrastructure. We think this is an ineffective policy that is potentially bad for the student. It’s hard enough to get a job as it is, but it’s hard to get one when you don’t really know what internationally competitive research looks like.  So the government is certainly interested in doctoral education, but it is not interested enough, in our view. The government should not only take a keen interest in the research production, but it should also be interested in the quality of research, and allow research and doctoral education in only those universities with very good research environments. A good doctoral training program can only happen in a good training environment. We have some places offering PhDs where the research environment is pretty skimpy.

CIRGE: Is the decline of PhDs seen as an important issue? How can this issue be resolved?

To support the increased higher education participation rate, the Australian academic sector needs to grow and there’s no evidence that anyone wants to invest in this country, in growing the academic sector. The federal government wants more students to go to university but they don’t want to spend more money on the universities on a per student basis – the government simply wants the universities to absorb the increasing students numbers with little additional funding and/or to transfer the major financial burden to students.  The Australian government bandies around the fact that university graduates have significantly increased lifetime earnings and therefore should pay more.  What they do not say is that, as a consequence, university graduates pay more in income taxes over their lifetime that more than offsets the costs of their education.

And the other area that needs a lot of work is explaining to potential interested students the value of doing a doctorate and the skills that doctoral students obtain during their training, thus becoming more employable in all sectors of society, be it in academia, or government, or industry. The value of their training needs to be understood both by the PhD candidates and by employers. This is not happening at the moment.

All we can see is that the number of Australian students who are applying is declining. This is a bit disappointing, but at the same time, it raises the question of the role of doctoral education and the value of a PhD outside of the academy.

In a study commissioned by the Australian Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, which is the department responsible for administering funding for higher education in Australia, 1,200 PhD researchers were surveyed in 2012. It was found that almost all of them enjoyed their work, but experienced difficulties with the employment system. In fact, more than half the respondents indicated that “uncertain job prospects” was the single worst aspect of a PhD career.

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