Ed. Ross Woods, 2022 with thanks to Βαrbαrα Rοbsοn, Εναn Ηοckrιdgε, Μιchαel ΜcΒαιn, and Ραul Ηywεl-Εναns.
The US follows a quite different PhD model from Australia, which follows more closely the UK and German models.
To qualify any comparison, “models” of education are generalizations that are by nature not specifically accurate. Schools in both the US and Australia seek to be unique and create their own procedures. Even some departments in the same institution can be quite different. In the US, PhD programs vary greatly. Some are longer, some are shorter. Some people come in with projects; some schools expect students to design their projects from the ground up. Some are more rigorous than others and some require new knowledge, not just the skills to find it.
The Australian model of higher education has changed considerably in the last thirty years. There are now more four-year Bachelor degrees (in contrast to mostly three-year degrees), and more Masters degrees designed to cater for non-research aspirations and, probably, to create new revenue streams. Some degrees programs are specifically designed to attract foreign students who pay full fees. Like many other parts of the world, some parts of the system have shifted from being elite to mass education, in which some degrees are now designed for average good students rather than the elite.
It is not an overstatement to say that the purpose of a US PhD program is to train future university academics. As one of my examiners said “in the US, a PhD student has to have a good look. In the Australian and British systems, a PhD student has to actually find something.” A US PhD candidate is expected to show a capacity to do research, as part of their preparation for an academic career. An Australian PhD candidate is expected to have actually produced a piece of publishable research, and to have made ‘a demonstrable contribution to knowledge’.
Put another way, a US dissertation demonstrates a capacity to prosecute a piece of research. Not so the Australian PhD. The Australian PhD dissertation, taking from three to four years, is expected to demonstrate mastery in a particular field of knowledge, sufficient to warrant publication. That is also why a US PhD dissertation is typically 50–60,000 words, and an Australian PhD dissertation is typically closer to 100,000 words. Australian PhDs often surprise American examiners because dissertations are substantially larger than the US equivalent.
Australian Bachelor degrees tend to be more intensive, with the expectation that students enter into graduate studies with a more comprehensive background in their particular field. They have a deeper but narrower focus on the field, and often contain no general education. Having said that, Australian undergraduate studies vary greatly in rigor. When Australia had an elite education system, the rule of thumb was that an Australian bachelor degree required the standard of work of a US Masters degree.
The year-long Australian Honours is the crucial difference from the US, which does not generally have a comparable program. The Australian Honours degree “qualifies” students to conduct their own research, rather than an extra two or three years of coursework. Consequently, Australian PhD applicants are expected to already have enough training in conducting research and in his/her field to investigate a topic of moderate complexity.
The Australian assumption is that the PhD student has already completed a pass Bachelor's degree (often three years, although many are now four-year degrees), and an additional Honours degree, which is one year on top of the pass degree, and in which students complete a minor thesis of about 30,000 to 40,000 words. If students do well in the Honours degree (first class Honours or upper second class Honours), they can go straight into a PhD program. This has been the preferred path, so it has been relatively uncommon for Australian PhD students to also have a Masters degree. International students, however, are usually required to have a Masters degree before they begin a PhD in Australia, while domestic students need either a Masters degree or an Australian Honours degree. If a PhD applicant has a Masters degree, it needs to have a research component with a thesis of at least the same length as the Honours thesis. A research Masters degree has a thesis of 50–60,000 words, which is about the average length of a US PhD dissertation.
While a published journal article will definitely help an application, it is by no means compulsory; only exceptional Honours students have published anything prior to PhD candidature. Monash University in Australia once ranked the qualifications of applicants against a Monash first class Honours degree. For example, a research Masters from Imperial College London would satisfy that criterion, whereas a four-year pass degree from many US institutions would not, unless it contained a 30,000 word thesis. American applicants usually needed to hold a Masters degree, but publications would be counted, up to a maximum of three.
In the US, students complete a four-year Bachelor's degree and then usually earn a Masters on their way to admission to a PhD. US Bachelor’s degrees often follow the US “liberal arts” model with a larger component of general education with the aim of giving a “rounded” education.
Most US PhD programs combine coursework with independent research. It normally takes between five and six years to complete a PhD in the US. This difference in time is the added coursework in US PhD programs. Students spend two or even three years years taking courses that will leave them qualified to conduct their own research, take qualifying exams, and then two years for the research and dissertation. That in itself constrains how ambitious the research project can be. In the US, students complete graduate-level coursework and examinations before beginning their research, and the minimum duration is more like five years.
In contrast, Australian PhD programs are shorter. They usually contain no coursework; students begin their research on day one and are supposed to be finished within three years, although many actually take four years. Students spend the whole PhD designing and doing research and writing the dissertation, which in general means a narrower and deeper piece of research than would be countenanced in the US.
Australian PhD students do not attend classes because they are expected to already have had a rigorous education. If there is some coursework, it does not usually play any part in the final assessment. This is changing an increasing number of Australian universities now offer or require PhD students to take some professional development, research methods and research integrity classes. Even so, they do not expect these activities to take a significant proportion of students’ time and the coursework is nothing like the advanced courses found in US PhD programs.
To compare like for like. If a prospective Australian student did not do Honours and later wanted to do a PhD, the only pathway would be to do a Masters degree. In this case, the Bachelor degree takes three to four years, the Masters takes from one and a half years to two years, and the PhD takes from three to four years. Consequently the total time taken is roughly comparable to the time taken to do a PhD (including coursework) in the US.
In Australia, students apply to work with a particular supervisor, usually on a specific topic or area of interest, although it is often initially vaguely defined. In the US, students often apply to work at a particular school, but not with a particular supervisor, and choose an advisor during or after their coursework.
An Australian student might have one or several ‘supervisors’ [the trend in recent years is to have a principal and an associate supervisor, rather than just one], not ‘advisors’. Unlike the US, there is no ‘committee’, no ‘viva’ and the supervisors are not involved in the examination process.
US PhDs are usually examined internally by the dissertation committee. Students write a dissertation and present an oral defense when their committee thinks they are ready. They have passed if their committee (which often includes an external expert, but may be entirely comprised of academics from the same university) thinks they have successfully defended their work.
Examiners of Australian dissertations are invariably external, chosen for their expertise in the field, and may be from anywhere in the world. They are independent and have had no involvement with the candidate at all, with no conflicts of interest with respect to the university, the student or the supervisor, and who send back (nominally anonymous) written reports. Vivas are extremely rare.
The written dissertation is posted to the examiners, and the student can be waiting up to three months, sometimes longer, while examiners assess the dissertation. When it returns, there are five possibilities: (1) pass without change, (2) make minor changes to the satisfaction of the supervisor, (3) make minor changes to the satisfaction of the examiner, (4) make major changes and resubmit for examination, or (5) fail. Many institutions also have the option of a downgrade to a Master of Philosophy. Given that it is common to have three external examiners, the assessment outcome might have a combination of 1–5, some conflicting. In this case, a rapporteur may be appointed to resolve those differences and give the student a definitive set of changes that he/she must make. Corrections are made as necessary. If and when the external examiners and the university are satisfied, the dissertation is accepted and the student can graduate. In Australia, a student will usually be expected to present a seminar at the end of their research, but it is not part of their formal assessment.
In Australia, full-time PhD students normally receive a scholarship (either an Australian government scholarship under the Research Training Program, or a scholarship from some other source). They are funded at a survival rate for the three to four years of their PhD, and are not expected to work on anything else. If they are not successful in applying for one of these competitive scholarships, they are unlikely to be admitted to a PhD program at all.
In the US, students are more likely to have a Teaching Assistant or Research Assistant position, which probably pays a similar amount, but requires to student to earn their keep by either teaching undergraduates, grading papers, or helping their advisor with their research. If the student's PhD is closely aligned with the advisor's research, this might not be very different in practice from a scholarship. But it is another reason why US PhDs take longer but graduates might also finish with broader experience.