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PhD Programs in Australia

by Mark Bennett

Interested in PhD study 'down under'? Australia has a lot more to offer than sun, sea and sand. With world-class research centres and internationally ranked universities, the country is a vibrant hub for research and scholarship.

Here you can read all about studying a PhD in Australia. Including advice on universities, course structure, application processes course fees and student visas.

Alternatively, you can jump straight into searching for your ideal Australian PhD.

Why study a PhD in Australia?

Australia may be well established as a gap-year destination, but should you commit three (or more) years to a PhD there?

There's more to postgraduate research than surfing, hiking and great food (sadly). You'll need to know that you're completing your doctorate at an excellent university, with the chance to get quality results and earn an internationally respected degree.

Thankfully, Australia ticks all these boxes. And you can still go surfing too.

Internationally renowned universities

Australian universities are well established as leading global research centres. This is reflected in their international rankings.

There are only 42 universities in Australia, but seven of them feature in the top 100 of the 2015 QS World University Rankings and six feature in the top 100 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

Which is to say, over 15% of Australian universities are ranked amongst the very best in the world.

Do rankings matter for PhDs? – International rankings can be a great help when choosing a university. But you'll need to know what to pay attention to (and what not to!) as a PhD student. Our sister site, FindAMasters.com, has a helpful guide to international rankings for postgraduates.

Large international student population

The reputation of Australia's universities makes them consistently popular with overseas students. Around 250,000 international students study abroad in Australia. That's a quarter of a million. More than any country in Europe except the UK.

Many of them study at Masters or PhD level.

Unique research opportunities

The strength of Australian research draws on the country's unique history, geography and infrastructure. As a PhD student in Australia you'll have the chance to study materials and use facilities that simply aren't available anywhere else.

After all, how many other countries offer their marine biologists a chance to work on the great barrier reef? Unless you're willing to travel fairly far, the answer is 'none'.

Research opportunities in ecology and life sciences extend beyond the oceans too, with universities and national parks working together to study Australia's exceptional biodiversity.

The history of Australia and its peoples also provides unique opportunities for students in the humanities, whilst the country's vibrant festivals and cultural events are a great inspiration for work in the creative arts.

Finally, there's the pioneering work carried out in Australia's state-of-the-art laboratories and other facilities. Australian research can take credit for leaps forward in solar power production, IVF pregnancy, antibiotic therapy and cancer vaccines.

So, whether you want to study marsupials or medicine, Australia is a place where your PhD could really make a difference.

Internationally recognised qualifications

The Australian degree system is closely modelled on a UK template. PhD degrees follow undergraduate and Masters-level study as the highest level of qualification a student can achieve.

This makes applying for postgraduate study abroad in Australia quite simple. Your existing qualifications should be recognised by Australian universities and further accreditation shouldn't be necessary.

Just as importantly, it means that the PhD you earn in Australia will be recognised around the world. Whether you return to your home country, or stay in Australia, your doctorate will be well-respected.

What's it like to study a PhD in Australia?

In many ways, PhD research in Australia is much like PhD research in the UK. The weather will probably be a bit nicer (OK, a lot nicer) and your friends may be slightly more jealous. But actually working on your doctorate will be a similar experience to that of students in other popular study destinations.

Universities in Australia

Australia is home to 42 public universities. These are supported by state funding and required to meet national standards for quality and accreditation.

Most are located on the country's eastern coast, in and around major cities such as Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

Other higher education providers in Australia are usually Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutions. These focus on vocational training rather than research. As such, they don't award PhDs.

All of Australia's universities do have the capacity to support PhD-level research, giving you a wide choice of institutions. Of course, the best university for your PhD will depend on the kind of project you are considering as well as the facilities and expertise you want to have access to.

The Group of Eight

Several of Australia's most prestigious universities are part of an organisation known as the 'Group of Eight' (Go8). All are research-intensive institutions, offering high quality postgraduate training.

The Group of Eight has a similar function to the UK's Russell Group, or the USA's Ivy League. It provides a lobbying force for top universities and a hallmark of research quality.

It may not surprise you to learn that the Group of Eight has eight members. They are:

A PhD from a Go8 member is an impressive and prestigious qualification, but don't overlook Australia's other universities. Many are equally renowned in their particular fields of expertise. And, after all, specialisation is what PhD study is all about.

The Australian Technology Network of Universities (ATN)

The Australian Technology Network of Universities (ATN) brings together five of Australia’s most innovative and enterprising universities including:

The ATN is a leading voice in promoting partnerships between industry and research to deliver significant economic, social and cultural benefits to local and global communities. More importantly for international postgraduates, it also offers its own unique PhD training programme.

The ATN Industry Doctoral Training Centre (IDTC) combines cutting-edge theory and traditional research training with professional and broad technical skills required by industry. It is the only innovative industry research training program of its kind in Australia. Its students focus on industry collaboration in order to develop valuable skills whilst working on problems with real-world impact.

When does the academic year begin and end in Australia?

The Australian academic year normally commences in February. It runs for two teaching semesters, but these will have relatively little effect on your daily routine as a PhD student. Unless you're doing some teaching alongside your PhD, of course.

Beginning the year in February may seem a little strange if you're used to an academic calendar running from Autumn to Summer. It will probably mean that your PhD in Australia won't start until a few months after your previous degree finishes.

This extra time can actually be very handy for international students. It will leave you space to sort your PhD application and visa - not to mention arranging travel and accommodation.

What's involved in an Australian PhD?

The Australian PhD is a pure research qualification. It consists almost entirely of work on an independent thesis and doesn't normally include any taught modules.

Of course, there's more to a PhD in Australia than just setting off and researching something.

You'll begin by carrying out a literature review. This is an evaluation of existing work in your field, related to your topic. Completing it allows you to see what other scholars have already done and ensure that your contribution is original.

You'll then begin your own research, with the support of an expert supervisor. This will be an academic with experience related to your topic. They'll be a big part of your PhD experience. In fact, Australian supervisors play an important role right from the PhD application stage.

How long is a PhD in Australia?

An Australian PhD normally lasts for three years of full-time study. Some students take longer, but this usually depends on registration and funding arrangements.

Part-time PhDs in Australia can take up to six years, but this mode of study isn't normally available to international students. The conditions of an Australian student visa mean that you must study full-time.

How are Australian PhDs examined?

PhDs in Australia are awarded based on the strength and clarity of a candidate's research. Unlike other countries, however, a PhD in Australia is not usually orally examined through a 'viva voce'.

At the end of your PhD you will submit a written thesis summarising your findings and the evidence for them. This is normally around 100,000 words in length, but may be slightly longer or shorter. In some fields (such as creative arts) your thesis may be accompanied by a practical project or presentation.

Your thesis will then be sent to two or three external examiners. These will be respected academics with relevant expertise in your field. They won't necessarily be based at Australian universities.

Australian universities don't not always allow PhD candidates to choose and 'invite' their own external examiners. You may have some input into the selection process, but the final decision will usually be made by your university.

Each examiner will receive a copy of your thesis and study it in detail before returning a written report to your university. This process can take several months, but a timeline should be agreed in advance.

The result of your examination will depend on the recommendation of your examiners. You may be awarded the doctorate without corrections, asked to make changes to your thesis, or, rarely, denied the PhD.

Unlike other countries, there is normally no viva for an Australian PhD.

A viva is an oral examination, or 'defence', in which examiners interview a candidate and ask questions about their thesis. Australia's relative geographical isolation has historically made it difficult to arrange this. Instead the process is replaced by the extended assessment and consideration of the written thesis.

However, more Australian universities are now considering adopting the conventional viva, sometimes via video-conferencing.

How do I apply?

International PhD applications in Australia follow a slightly different process to those in other countries. Before applying directly to a project, program or university, your first step should be to contact a potential supervisor with your ideas.

Universities will not normally consider your application until you have done this.

Finding and approaching a supervisor

Finding a supervisor for a PhD in Australia is actually relatively easy. One of the simplest ways to do it is to view the programs and opportunities listed here on FindAPhD.com. These include details of supervisors and contact details, as well as links to other useful university websites and resources.

Try to identify someone with similar research interests to yours, whose work can help guide and inform your project. After all, academics are far more likely respond to proposals that are relevant to their activities and expertise.

Again, the PhD listings on this website can help you. If a supervisor is associated with a project or program that interests you, you can safely assume your ideas have a good chance of interesting them.

Once you've found a prospective supervisor, you should contact them via email. Try to provide a clear and concise description of your project and make its relationship to their research obvious.

You don't need to provide a full research proposal if you're suggesting your own project. But you should show that you've put some thought into your ideas.

The same applies if you're interested in an advertised PhD project, or in working within an established laboratory or research group. Show that you understand and appreciate the work you'd like to contribute to.

Once you have an expression of interest from a potential supervisor, you can begin your formal application. This could involve contacting the university directly. Or, if you are applying from the UK or Ireland, you can submit your application through Study Options.

What qualifications will I need?

Admission to a PhD in Australia will normally require existing Bachelors and Masters degrees in an appropriate subject. Universities may admit you without a Masters, but this is less likely.

Honours degrees in Australia

Australian PhDs may ask for qualifications equivalent to an 'honours' degree. Australian honours aren't awarded as standard with an undergraduate degree. They require an additional year of study (usually research based). In practice, a foreign Bachelors plus a Masters will qualify you at the same level as an Australian honours student.

What supporting documents will I need?

Australian universities will normally request various documents as part of a PhD application. These will vary, but will normally include evidence of your previous qualifications.

You'll also need to submit some form of research proposal. This could be an outline of a PhD topic you are suggesting. Or it could be more like a CV, demonstrating your suitability for an advertised position or ongoing research project.

Official documents (such as degree results) will need to be certified. Submitting your own copies will not normally be acceptable.

Your university will be able to advise on its requirements. Or, if you are applying from the UK or Ireland you can request assistance from Study Options. They offer a certification service as well as application support.

Interviews

It's possible that an Australian university may wish to interview you for a PhD. This is usually a good sign. It means your application is strong and your prospective supervisor thinks you have potential.

Don't worry though - universities won't expect international students to travel all the way to Australia just for an interview. They'll normally be happy to arrange a chat via a video-conferencing platform.

What happens at a PhD interview? – Want to know more about PhD interview processes? Why not check out our guide to PhD interviews and our tips for answering common PhD interview questions.

Is there an application deadline?

A PhD in Australia can start at any point in the academic year. This means that there isn't normally a strict deadline for applications. Universities may prefer you to submit in time for the start of a term, but this isn't always the case.

Exceptions could apply if you are also applying for funding, such as a scholarship. This support will normally run for a specific period and funders may prefer you to start at the beginning of an academic year or term.

How long will my application take?

You should always allow plenty of time for an application for study abroad - particularly at PhD level. Universities will need to review your application carefully, spending time looking at your qualifications, transcripts and research proposal.

Remember that you'll also need to leave sufficient time to complete a visa application. You won't be able to do this until you have confirmation of a place at your university.

As a general rule, you should allow at least four months for an Australian PhD application.

Applying for a PhD through Study Options

Study Options is the official application support service for UK and Irish students who wish to do a PhD in Australia (or New Zealand).

Applying through Study Options is not compulsory but their advisors can provide a great deal of assistance. This involves supporting you with paperwork and providing additional advice and guidance. All of which is completely free.

For further information, visit the Study Options website.

Student visas

You'll normally need a visa to study in Australia as an international PhD student. Exceptions apply to citizens of New Zealand (and Australians, of course).

Note that you can only receive a visa to study full-time.

What visa will I need to study a PhD in Australia?

Australia offers two types of student visa:

  • The Higher Education Sector Visa (sub-type 573) is for taught courses.
  • The Postgraduate Research Sector Visa (sub-type 574) is for research degrees.

As a PhD student, you'll need to apply for the Postgraduate Research Sector Visa. This will allow you to stay in the country for an extended research program.

The Higher Education Sector Visa isn't suitable for PhD students, but it will allow you to study a research-based Masters in Australia.

Applying for a Postgraduate Research Sector Visa

The first step in applying for an Australian student visa is actually to be accepted for a PhD. Once you've done this you'll receive a Confirmation of Enrolment (CoE) document from your university. You may have to pay a tuition fee deposit before it is issued.

You can then begin your formal visa application. This can be done online, through the Australian immigration service.

Alternatively, you can submit a hard copy form. If you are applying from the UK or Ireland you can receive this form from Study Options.

What documents will I need to submit with my visa application?

Your application for a 574 visa will need to be accompanied by a set of supporting documents. Some of these are fairly obvious. You probably won't be surprised to learn that the Australian immigration service will want to see your passport, for example.

But you'll also need to submit your Confirmation of Enrolment (CoE) form (given to you by your Australian university) and evidence that you possess sufficient financial means to support yourself during your PhD.

The Australian government estimates that students require around AUS$18,610 per year to support themselves. This can be derived from savings, or from any funding you receive for your PhD.

Can I work whilst studying a PhD in Australia?

You can work whilst studying a PhD in Australia, but you can't rely on this income to prove financial means during your visa application.

The number of hours you can work with a type 574 visa isn't limited. But your university may set its own restrictions on the amount of work you do alongside your PhD. They'll want you to succeed, after all!

Will I need health insurance as a PhD student in Australia?

Yes, you'll need health insurance to cover the duration of your PhD. You'll need a policy that provides Overseas Student Health Cover (OSHC). These vary, but are available from a range of providers.

You can find more information on the Australian Department of Health website.

Fees and funding

The cost of studying a PhD in Australia is relatively high, but funding is readily available from universities and other sources.

How much does it cost to study a PhD in Australia?

As an international student in Australia you'll pay fees at a higher rate. This is because domestic students benefit from state subsidy of public universities through Australian taxation.

The Australian government estimates that typical international PhD fees are between AU$14,000 and AU$37,000 per year. This is approximately US$9,900 to US$26,000 or £7,000 to £18,000.

What funding is available for PhD study in Australia?

There's a good chance that you won't pay your full international fees as a PhD student in Australia. This is because funding is readily available from various sources, including university scholarships and government incentives. Many of these are specifically designed to attract students.

The main sources of PhD funding in Australia are:

  • Universities - Australian universities will often have their own studentships and funded PhD places. These will usually be merit-based, with support available for sufficiently promising students. You may be considered for this kind of funding automatically (this is likely if you are applying for a funded PhD place). Or you may have to make a separate application. The best way to find out more about university scholarships in Australia is to browse opportunities on this website. Many of the PhDs we list already have funding associated with them.
  • Endeavour Scholarships - The Endeavour Scholarships and Fellowships are a long-running program offering funding for international students in Australia. They are offered through partnerships between the Australian government and a range of other countries. Two schemes are available for PhD students. The Endeavour Postgraduate Scholarship offers up to AU$272,500 for PhD students in Australia. The Endeavour Research Fellowship offers up to AU$24,500 for a short period of research contributing towards a PhD or other project. You can find out more about these awards on the Australian Department of Education and Training website.

After graduation: careers and opportunities with an Australian PhD

Australian doctorates are internationally recognised as high quality qualifications. Your degree will enable you to seek further work as an academic, or in other professional fields.

Your time spent studying a PhD abroad in Australia will also enhance your CV in other ways. You will have demonstrated adaptability and a willingness to go the extra mile (or perhaps several thousand of them) to achieve your goals.

Can I remain in Australia after earning a PhD?

An Australian PhD doesn't automatically entitle you to remain in the country. But there are ways to apply for permission to stay and work in Australia.

If you are seeking work, you can apply for a Temporary Graduate Visa (sub-type 485).

This may be granted to international students seeking work in Australia for up to four years. More information is available on the Australian Department of Immigration website.

If you have already found work your employer should be able to sponsor you for a longer term visa.

This could apply if you have gained a position at an Australian university following your PhD, for example. Eligibility may depend on the occupation you are entering.

Ready to start looking for a PhD in Australia?

Hopefully this page has answered your questions about PhD study in Australia. If you've decided this is the right destination for you, why not get started browsing some Australian PhDs? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Last updated - 04/10/2016

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