Impact Blog

PhD Research – a means to an end…not the end itself

October 2021
Fiona Zammit, Executive Director
Australian Council of Graduate Research


On October 13th, The Australian reported a class action was lodged in the Federal Court on behalf of people who receive a scholarship under the Commonwealth’s Research Training Programme.

The claim in The Australian was that “PhD candidates in Australian universities spend most of their time performing research work rather than being engaged in learning and should be paid at least the minimum wage”.

As the peak body for graduate research training in Australia, the Australian Council of Graduate Research asserts there is no room for the PhD to be considered as an employment arrangement and below explains the nature of the research training which is undertaken by doctoral candidates in Australia.


The primary purpose of a PhD degree is the educative benefit of the candidate.

PhD candidates are enrolled in higher degree by research (HDR) degrees which are designed and delivered, like all other university degrees, in accordance with the Australian Qualifications Framework (the national policy for regulated qualifications in Australian education and training).

The research training and support that candidates engage in during their enrolment is the defining characteristic of all PhD degrees.  Many PhD degrees in Australia include coursework components which scaffold the research activities that PhD candidates undertake. Just as undergraduate and postgraduate coursework degrees define the number of hours or proportion of study to be undertaken on particular components of the degree, the research component of the PhD learning program is also defined. Typically, this is at least two thirds of the qualification requirements.

Candidates also have access to researcher professional development activities designed to support the development of their transferable skills.


Research projects provide disciplinary specific training

A PhD candidate’s research project is the vehicle through which they develop expert, specialised cognitive, technical and research skills in a discipline area. With personalised supervision and mentoring, doctoral candidates hone their graduate capabilities to independently and systematically:

  • engage in critical reflection, synthesis and evaluation
  • develop, adapt and implement research methodologies to extend and redefine existing knowledge or professional practice
  • disseminate and promote new insights to peers and the community
  • generate original knowledge and understanding to make a substantial contribution to a discipline or area of professional practice

To provide the best possible supervision and research environment, many candidates undertake their research degrees as part of a larger research project in a team.


Stipends are not a fee for service

Living stipend scholarships are provided to support students whilst they are undertaking these degrees, they are not provided as a wage/salary. Universities do not employ candidates to undertake their doctoral research projects, nor do they hold them accountable for specific research outcomes.

Any move to consider the living stipend as a payment for services rendered would be contrary to the purpose of the PhD degree and threaten the effectiveness of Australia’s high quality research training system.

The Australian Council of Graduate Research supports Dr Burt’s assertion in The Australian article that “PhD level of education is the “copestone” of the system – one of the highest rows of stones in a wall – which protects the rest of the wall underneath and stops it eroding”.


Stipends are funded by block grants

The Federal Government’s Research Training Program is one source of funding that universities utilise for stipend payments and tuition fee offsets to candidates. The number of candidates who successfully complete their research degrees drives the allocation of this block grant. This further demonstrates the educative intent of the Research Training Program – not the number of publications produced or patents issued.

Australia’s research training system is aimed at producing graduates with the skills to effectively contribute to Australia’s economic growth and societal development. The Australian Council of Graduate Research, does however, argue that block grant could be increased to better support candidates.

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