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

October 2021

The Australian Council of Graduate Research, the peak body for graduate research training in Australia, explains the nature of the research training in Australia which is undertaken by doctoral candidates.  This is in response to the media reports today claiming 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.

The Australian Council of Graduate Research supports Dr Burt’s assertion 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”.

The Australian Council of Graduate Research agrees there is no room for the PhD to be considered as an employment arrangement.

PhD candidates are enrolled in higher degree by research 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).

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

The research training and support candidates engage in during their enrolment is the defining characteristic of all PhD degrees.  Most 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, so too is the research component of the learning program defined as typically 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.

Candidate’s research projects are the vehicles 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.

The Federal Government’s Research Training Program is one source of funding that universities utilise for tuition fee waivers and stipend payments 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.

For more information:

Fiona Zammit, Executive Director

Australian Council of Graduate Research

14 October 2021