Impact Blog

HDR Candidates: Students or Researchers?

April 2021
Professor Justin Zobel,
Pro Vice-Chancellor (Graduate & International Research), The University of Melbourne


A university can be seen as comprising four main communities: the academic workforce, the professional workforce, coursework students, and Higher Degree by Research (HDR) candidates. The distinctions amongst the first three of these are well recognised. However, HDR are often referred to as ‘students’, a categorisation that primarily aligns them with people undertaking coursework programs.

Describing HDR in this way is not incorrect, in that they are undertaking a course of study, but doing so misrepresents their experience and their role in our institutions; and can mean that their specific concerns, opportunities, and challenges are neglected or unrecognised.

As a demonstration that HDR are very different from coursework students, observe that the experience of being an HDR is on a spectrum between that of coursework students on the one hand and postdocs on the other. Consider the following list of coursework–postdoc distinctions.

Coursework students v. Postdocs
Attend classes v. Have a workplace
Do assignments and exams v. Produce research
Pay fees v. Receive an income
Are taught v. Teach
Attend campus as visitors v. Comply with OHS and workplace obligations
Take subjects in a school v. Are members of a school’s academic community
Undertake short-term subjects v. Undertake long-term projects
Apply for courses v. Approach potential supervisors or respond to individual recruitment opportunities
Have lecturers v. Have managers or supervisors
Participate as individuals v. Are members of enduring teams
Have semester breaks v. Take leave and sick leave
Are learning a discipline v. Are in a fixed-term role that is often a stepping-stone to the next stage of a research career
Semester-based attendance v. Continuous attendance
Complete at fixed dates v. Finish at arbitrary end-of-position
Focused on learning v. Focused on innovating and producing
Formally assessed v. Periodically reviewed
Go on exchange v. Collaborate beyond the university, attend conferences as domain experts, visit institutional partners
Undertake industry placements v. Collaborate with industry
Attend lectures by externals v. Engage with external stakeholders, represent their university in the media


In each of these contrasts, the experience of an HDR is much closer to that of a postdoc than to that of a coursework student. While some of the above does not apply to every individual (not all HDR or postdocs teach, for example), the alignment of HDR to the right-hand side is strong. And while there are differences (a stipend is not a salary, and a program of research study is not employment), they are small compared to the sharp distinctions with coursework.

Moreover, HDR exemplify the interweaving of the different aspects of University life.

  • Nationally, they comprise 56% of the research workforce.
  • While they may be less productive as researchers than their more experienced peers – their candidature is comprised of research training as well as the doing of research – on average they produce a refereed output every 12 to 18 months.
  • In some contexts, such as team projects or laboratory settings, they often perform critical roles, doing the deep work of gathering and systematising data and materials. The cost of doing such work with dedicated personnel would in many cases make it infeasible.
  • They are the backbone of the casual workforce, in capacities such as sessional teachers, research associates, and laboratory maintenance personnel.
  • They are critical as the intermediaries in interdisciplinary and inter-institutional research relationships, nationally and internationally.
  • In some disciplines they are the interface with the coursework students and are highly influential on these students’ perceptions of the institution.

These arguments may seem obvious, but it is remarkably common for HDR and coursework students to be lumped together in administrative processes and so on, even when doing so is a disservice to both communities.

Thus, in keeping with their status as members of, rather than clients of, our academic communities, HDR need to be identified in ways that are consistent with their roles and experiences. Describing HDR as students, and thus implying that their experiences are largely the same as those of people doing coursework, can lead to mistakes in how they are managed, accommodated, and engaged with, while recognising HDR as members of the academic community helps to underpin their identities as researchers and supports their wellbeing. An essential step is to avoid the ‘student’ label and describe them, inclusively, as researchers.


Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash


Thank you Justin for a nice article. This is a dilemma we have all grappled with. It tends to make administration and integration into the academe more difficult. How do we change this or do we just continue to work on educating the staff that work within each school/faculty/department?

Jose Villadangos says:

A word means what the community of its users accept it means. An Assistant Professor is not an academic that assists professors. A Vice-Chancellor is not someone who works “under” the chancellor. A PhD student does what everyone in any university in the world knows PhD students do. Few people in the world know what a Graduate Researcher does, and most likely the people who came up with this term never put in the CVs where they undertook graduate research, but where they carried out their PhD studies. If the word “student” appears confusing (demeaning?) to some, may be “PhD scholar” would have been more appropriate, but to remove PhD from the description of an occupation that has as its main purpose to obtain a PhD is ridiculous and damaging for our, well, Graduate Reseachers.

Alastair McEwan says:

How we navigate the dual identity of HDR candidates as students and researchers is a significant challenge. Perhaps one way to approach this is to consider research as driving a developmental continuum from coursework (e.g. UG summer research project students, Honours students) through HDR (PhDs and don’t forget Research Masters) to research staff (postdocs/ECRs and beyond). If we approach the discussion in this way it helps us consider the types of activity and research project that would be appropriate for a graduate researcher at this stage of development. For example, I think that is important that industry-linked research projects for HDR candidates should not include go-no-go milestones with project deliverables and the degree to which projects should be aligned with activities beyond TRL2-4 is questionable (although there’s always the opportunity to learn through a placement/internship). Also, it’s important to recognise that there is a significant difference in what we can expect a PhD student and a postdoc to deliver – by ignoring these differences we may be undervaluing the research capabilities of our PhD graduates seeking employment and giving Industry a cheaper option (a PhD student) that may lead to disappointment. Justin mentions cost of personnel – but maybe business should pay appropriately and government provide the right settings to encourage investment. I also think that it’s time to revisit the role of HDR candidates in teaching relative to that of postdocs – the latter represents a huge talent pool that it not being fully utilized because of the continued PhD student/tutor focus. It’s time to think more expansively about what our postdocs can do and provide them much greater opportunity – after all not long before they were our PhD students.

Indra Mckie says:

Wonderful article – as a current HDR I agree that we get lumped with coursework students for administrative processes and communications. Which causes a lot of confusion and information overload.

I’m a HDR representative and working on the case to reimagine our HDR student identity – this article has put things in a clearer perspective. So thanks ~

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