Ode to the Australian PhD

One of the enduring arguments in higher education concerns the importance of ‘content’ in a syllabus. Some academics will resolutely defend retaining all the existing content in a course. While others, recognising that anything included is really just ‘a drop in the ocean’ of world knowledge, will readily surrender material to make room for newer things or to provide time for synthesis, consolidation, skills, or community building.

Such debates occur less often when it comes to Australian PhDs. In Australian doctorates there really isn’t a standard syllabus. In the US, in contrast, PhD students typically do a lot of coursework. Periodically, it is suggested that Australian PhDs would benefit from including useful things like entrepreneurship, project management, communication, teacher training, ethics, or disciplinary knowledge. But beyond some essential training in safety and such, and targeted help provided in certain disciplines, additional formal components tend not to be major parts of the degree.

The reason that the Australian PhD has no syllabus is simple. For as long as I remember we never had coursework and there’s no strong evidence that we need it.

This leads to a rather remarkable situation. Our highest degree, the degree that is the main precursor to an academic job, is such that there is no syllabus, and no two PhD students will have done the same work. Attempts to standardise would be futile, so instead we happily accept that if two or three examiners indicate a threshold of achievement has been crossed – we don’t even grade PhDs – then the degree is awarded – end of story.

What a situation!

I love it.

I love it because it delivers. It delivers in many ways. Firstly, important research work is done. Research which is almost invariably in the national and indeed humanity’s interests is done by bright and aspiring students. The fact that research is a public good means I never worry that we are training too many PhD students.

Secondly, the training works. Doctoral students aren’t required to absorb specific foundational content – they did that in their previous degree or degrees – but they develop independence, perseverance, and grow in confidence, stature, and intellectual ambition.

The PhD training system is basically the age-old master/apprentice model. It’s a great way to learn and I’d speculate it is the way humans evolved to learn. It works automatically provided that both the guide and student are properly qualified and act in good faith. That is not always the case, so supervisory panels and various regulations have been introduced to keep an eye on standards, but much of the time the system does work.

It is somewhat surprising that it works as well as it does. One can see that three or four years of independent, but carefully supervised, research on a project owned by a PhD student might add up to a great training for research, but doctoral degrees do more than that. They also train people to be university teachers or administrators – and for a variety of other professions.

How can this be so?

There is a strange magic in doing a three or four year research project by yourself. Sure, you have a supervisor, but they can’t do the work for you. Yes, they care, but you have to run the marathon, and climb to the top of the mountain, right to the summit, yourself.

Earning a PhD gives people confidence that they can overcome pretty much any obstacle because in a PhD the obstacles that are thrown up are unforeseeable – there can be no preparation. One is out in the arena, fighting on the frontier of knowledge, in a race against competitors that are often as invisible as they are formidable.

In reality it’s seldom as hard as this sounds. Most students complete their PhDs, but at the time it is always a big deal, and confronting one’s demons and delivering a thesis, makes students stronger.

So battle-hardened PhD graduates do go on to lead in multiple professions. They often make good researchers, good teaching academics, or contribute in other professions. They develop confidence and pick up specific attributes by osmosis rather than via the direct instruction that works in the earlier stages of education.

While I can see the benefits of learning teaching and other skills during a PhD, I see no reason to inject large amounts of coursework or professional development into the program. Amazing as it is, Australian PhDs work, so we should confidently stick to the formula. I’ve supervised 30 or so PhD students and I am proud of every one of them and confident in their abilities!

Professor Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Quality at UNSW



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