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Case study 25: Pathways into the doctorate: The Australian experience, Australian National University


 This case study outlines some recent developments in Australia regarding alternative pathways into the doctorate, including from a coursework (taught) masters. Such a pathway has not been common in many disciplines, with Honours or a research masters being the traditional route to a PhD. However, with greater numbers of domestic, mature-age students returning to postgraduate study and substantial increases in international student enrolments, universities are increasingly providing alternatives.


Pathways, coursework, research methods

The activity/initiative/practice

Until recently domestic students in Australia who had undertaken a coursework/taught masters consisting of two-thirds or more coursework did not generally qualify for entry into a doctorate. Rather, entry was through a research masters or more frequently a first or second class result from an Honours program. Honours in Australia follows the Scottish model of a fourth additional year of undergraduate study involving advanced disciplinary coursework, research methods courses, and a research project of 12-15,000 words.

However, with increasing numbers of mature-age students returning to postgraduate study, often to undertake a coursework masters, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of applicants seeking enrolment in a doctorate using their coursework masters as the entry qualification.

Through interviews with: PhD candidates who entered with a coursework masters; supervisors of such candidates; convenors of coursework masters programs where it was not unusual for graduates to enter a PhD; and Deans of Graduate Research this study set out to determine whether a coursework masters provided candidates with a supportable pathway into a PhD.

Background/context to the activity/initiative/practice

The Australian funding model for postgraduate degrees distinguishes between two masters options: the taught/coursework masters, which has at least two-thirds coursework and is a full-fee paying program, and the research masters which is at least two-thirds research and has all tuition fees covered by the government for domestic students. Until recently, issues related to this funding mechanism have caused quite distinctly different pathways for domestic candidates seeking entry to a doctoral program.

What made/makes it “Master’s” level?

In particular disciplines, e.g. business, computing and IT, it has not been unusual for coursework masters programs in Australia to have little in the way of research methods or a research project. However, this is changing due to a number of influences. The first is the revised Australian Qualifications Framework (2013) which now requires all masters (level 9) programs to include some research (the extent is not specifically identified). The second is the slow, but steady increase in the number of candidates who are seeking entry into a PhD following a coursework masters.
Therefore, it could be argued that in Australia, one of the indicators on “mastersness” is the exposure of all students to research through research methods and at least, a small scale research project.

What challenges were encountered/overcome?

In the study, the major issue reported by supervisors regarding the preparedness of coursework masters entry candidates for a PhD was their limited knowledge of research processes, in particular, research methods. Supervisors commented that they needed to spend more time with such candidates compared with those who entered with Honours or a research masters on ‘getting them up to speed’ regarding research. On the other hand, a strong positive reported by supervisors was that the coursework candidates tended to be more mature, self-motivated and professionally experienced than other entrants.

A second finding from the project related to the role of the coursework convenor or the research project supervisor in identifying student interest and ability in research and actively mentoring and encouraging them to undertake a PhD. The role of this sort of encouragement was significant, with many of the interviewees commenting along the lines that it would be very unlikely that they would have undertaken a PhD without such active encouragement. This finding suggests that many coursework masters students do not see themselves as researchers until they have someone explicitly identify and encourage this in them.

Where to next - in terms of mastersness?

One of the main recommendations from the research was the inclusion of at least one, preferably two courses related to research processes in each coursework masters program. The first, early in the overall program, to ensure that all students experienced research methods early in their postgraduate experience, allowing them to decide if they wanted to undertake a substantial research project, with a second research methods course, later in their program.

A second recommendation relates to support and development for academic staff involved in working with coursework masters students regarding the potential for identifying, nurturing and encouraging students who are interested in and have the potential for undertaking a research degree.


  • KILEY, M., BOUD, D., CANTWELL, R. & MANATHUNGA, C. 2009. The role of Honours in contemporary Australian higher education Canberra: The Australian National University.
  • KILEY, M., BOUD, D., CANTWELL, R. & MANATHUNGA, C. 2011. Honouring the incomparable: Honours in Australian universities. Higher Education, 62, 619-633.
  • KILEY, M. 2013. I’ve done a coursework masters, now I’d like to do a doctorate: Can I? Canberra: The Australian National University.


Dr Margaret Kiley,, Visiting Fellow, Interdisciplinary Humanities Group, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, The Australian National University