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Postgraduate degrees by research

In this section we discuss:

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What do research degrees offer?

The beauty of a research degree is that you can choose your study area and what part of it you want to explore — even the most abstract concept in a highly specialised field. The research degree you complete will depend on your current qualification level and how much you want to delve into your research area.

The 2013 Australian Graduate Survey shows that research graduates (those who completed masters by research and PhD programs) had a median annual salary of $80,000. This compares to $52,500 for graduates of bachelor degrees and $80,000 for graduates of masters by coursework programs. The overall rate of employment among research graduates was 78.7 per cent, which is similar to postgraduate coursework graduates and much higher than bachelor degree graduates.

What do research degrees involve?

Research degrees are generally academic or theoretical in focus and involve supervised (although often highly independent) research into a topic of interest in your field of study or professional niche. The research topic is usually proposed by the student, but in a number of programs the area of research is predetermined.

Research degrees can be long and painstaking, so completion takes a great level of commitment to your field of research and high levels of discipline — especially if you’re balancing research with work and family commitments. However, the rewards are certainly worth the sacrifices, with pay-offs including eligibility for jobs at the upper echelon of your field, admittance into academia and, last but not least, a great sense of personal achievement.

There are a few things to consider when choosing a research degree, including the institution, your supervisor, your research topic and your funding.

Choosing an institution

You should consider the following when choosing an institution:

  • the institution’s reputation in your field
  • the institution’s general research focus, research investment and prestige
  • the quality of laboratories, equipment and other facilities
  • the availability of scholarships, grants and industry projects
  • access to supervisors you would like to work with.

The extent to which you consider these will depend on your research field. If you are completing research in a humanities field (museum studies, for example), you may not be too worried about laboratories or equipment. It is recommended, though, that all students consider a university’s reputation and give some thought to its general research focus. While reputation isn’t everything, you will need to know that the university and its academics are active in your research field and that it will cater to your needs.

Choosing a supervisor

A major factor in the admissions process is whether a suitably qualified staff member is available to supervise your research. The process of choosing a supervisor can vary between institutions, so it is best to check with those you are considering. In some research programs, you may be free to choose your supervisor (or two). If this is the case, you need to consider your decision carefully. While a supervisor’s reputation in the field, research output and other academic credentials will be a major factor in your decision, it is also worth considering whether your personalities and working styles will be a good match. Research degrees can be stressful and demanding even with the most supportive team behind you. If your prospective supervisor is already known for being difficult, unreliable or impossible to get in contact with, things may only get worse during crunch time.

Choosing a topic

Supervisors say a good research topic is one that will sustain your interest over the next several years, in an area where you can identify gaps in the current knowledge. The scope of the project should be realistic for the time you have available — don’t choose something that will be finished in two months or something that will drag out over eight years.

Your topic should also be interesting for your supervisor and fall within their area of expertise. Discuss possible topics with several prospective supervisors to find the right match. You will generally need to submit a basic research proposal as part of the application procedure.

In some cases, instead of coming up with a topic by themselves, students will apply to work on a specific research project. This could be a large, ongoing research project in a university department or an industry-based research project where the host university collaborates with an outside organisation on a project with real-world applications for the organisation.

Sorting out your funding

Postgraduate research students can access a wide range of financial support options. There are schemes and awards designed to assist research students to meet their program costs, and others that provide a modest wage for the duration of their studies. See Financial assistance for research students for more information.

Types of research degrees

Masters degrees (by research)

The masters degree by research, or master of philosophy (MPhil), provides advanced skills and knowledge in a field of study or area of professional practice. They usually consist of the completion of a thesis and research training, as well as some complementary coursework. Research masters degrees consist of at least two-thirds research and include a substantial thesis, which is often externally assessed. If you choose to complete a masters by research in a more practical discipline (creative arts, for example), you can choose to submit a creative work with an accompanying explanation of your work (an exegesis) or combine this with a formal thesis. It is possible, and reasonably common, to upgrade from a masters by research to a PhD after one year of study.

Research masters degrees usually consist of one to two years of full-time study.

Entry requirements
Entry normally requires a bachelor degree (honours), a masters preliminary year or equivalent research experience.

Research doctorate

At the top of the research food chain is the research doctorate or doctor of philosophy (PhD). Doctoral degrees recognise a considerable original contribution to a given field in the form of new knowledge or the adaptation, application and interpretation of existing knowledge. Candidates are required to undertake a research project that results in a thesis of around 80,000 to 120,000 words in addition to supervised research training. The research topic is usually proposed by the student, but is predetermined in some areas. The PhD grants the formal title of ‘Doctor’ after the acceptance of a significant and original contribution, and has become the main requirement for a career in academia.

Research doctorates are usually completed over three to four years of full-time study.

Entry requirements
Entry requires a research or part-research masters degree or a bachelor honours degree.

Where are research degrees offered?

Research degrees are most typically offered by universities, but are also offered by private higher education providers in some areas. See Types of institutions for more information about universities and private providers.

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