Meeting the entry requirements of Australian PhD programmes

In Australia, there are four main pathways to getting admitted into a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree programme. Each of these pathways are typically only undertaken after completing a bachelor's degree. This article discusses these pathways, their pros and cons and my personal experience with entering a PhD programme. I would like to encourage everyone considering doing a PhD to seriously think about how they go about meeting the entry requirements. When I decided to study a PhD during my bachelor's degree, I kind of just assumed an honours degree would be what I would study next, and I did not really question this assumption until I learned about a major advantage of one of the alternatives. I will elaborate on this point later, but for now I will say that the alternatives to an honours degree can, for many people, be superior to the option of doing an honours degree.


The pathways to enter a PhD programme are (Macquarie University, n.d.; The University of Melbourne, n.d.; University of New South Wales, n.d.; University of Southern Queensland, n.d.):

  1. Research experience outside of a degree programme. Exactly how much research experience is required here varies between universities. This could potentially be as little as just getting a single paper published in a high-quality journal. In the sciences, this would typically be a Scimago Q1 journal.

  2. Honours degree with a sufficient research component and division A second-class honours or first-class honours. The minimum size for this research component varies between universities but can be as little as the equivalent to a single semester of 20–24 hours/week of study. An honours degree typically consists of a year of full-time study that includes independent study, research training courses (RTCs) and research culminating in the submission of a thesis (University of Southern Queensland, 2024a, 2024b).

  3. Master's degree by coursework (MDC) with a sufficient research component (as for an honours degree, the minimum size of this research component varies between universities but is usually the equivalent to a single semester of 20–24 hours/week of study). An MDC typically takes 1.5-2 years full-time study to complete. It typically consists of over a year of coursework and a research project that builds upon a topic learned as part of this coursework (Australian Qualifications Framework Council, 2013).

  4. Master's degree by research (MDR). These programmes typically take 1.5-2 years of full-time study. They are, as their name suggests, mostly comprised of research and they culminate in the submission of a more substantial thesis than any of the degree programmes listed above involve (Australian Qualifications Framework Council, 2013).

Additionally, students typically also require a prospective supervisor's endorsement, a written thesis proposal (which they will need to write themselves) and maybe, depending on the university, referee reports (Macquarie University, n.d.; The University of Melbourne, n.d.; University of New South Wales, n.d.; University of Southern Queensland, n.d.).

How does a student find a supervisor?

Before I proceed to list the pros and cons of each pathway, I thought I should address an essential requirement of each pathway, well aside from the option of conducting research outside of a degree, namely finding a supervisor. I found a supervisor myself by just asking the lecturers I got along with well during my bachelor's degree whether they had any research projects for me. Actually, I got offered one research project during my bachelor's degree without even asking.

So, if you are currently enrolled in the second or third year of your bachelor's degree programme (assuming you are studying a 3-year bachelor's degree full-time) and are hoping to do a research degree after it, I would recommend asking the lecturers you believe you get along with well whether they have any research projects available that you could do for your honours or master's. Then I would just decide which one you think is best for you, which interests you the most and perhaps also which would be best for your future career prospects. Something else to factor in is how well you work with the lecturer, as you will be working with them for a while.

Recommended prerequisites

Furthermore, before you enrol in a research degree it is advisable to have an idea for whether you actually enjoy research. This is especially true if you decide to do an MDR as spending a whole year researching will be almost impossible if you do not enjoy research.

You can get a taste for research by participating in undergraduate research scholarship programmes that you are offered. These scholarships typically come with at least $2,000 you are awarded and they can also include free travel to where you are to deliver your research depending on the scholarship.

At my university, the University of Southern Queensland (UniSQ), there's an undergraduate research scholarship programme that I was offered and participated in at the end of my second year. It showed me that I really loved research and was quite efficient at it. I conducted a 10-week project for it and found it so easy that I could have finished it in as little as 6 weeks.

I also later participated in the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) Vacation Research Scholarship (VRS) at the end of the third year of my bachelor's degree (and yes, it was after I had officially completed the degree). I loved the AMSI VRS, it also included an all-expenses paid trip to Melbourne for students that lived outside Melbourne (which included myself) so that students could attend the AMSI Connect conference which was held in Melbourne that year.

Pros and cons of each pathway

Each of these pathways has its pros and cons and there is no one size fits all approach to entering a PhD programme. Every person should ideally weigh the pros and cons of each of them and decide which one suits them best.

Honours degree

An honours degree is probably the most popular option among Australian students as it has usually the shortest duration and is kind of the unofficial standard. When you graduate an honours degree, you are assigned first-class (weighted average mark (WAM) ≥80%), second-class division A (WAM of 75-79.9%), second-class division B (WAM of 70-74.9%) or third-class honours (WAM of 65-69.9%) depending on your WAM. As such an honours degree is definitely graded, so students that stress about their grades may wish to factor this into their decision-making. I personally avoided an honours degree partly because of the stress I would likely encounter if I were to study another graded degree, as ever since doing my bachelor's degree I have endeavoured to get the best grades possible.

Master's degrees

Both the MDC and MDR can have their advantages over an honours degree. For starters, MDC and MDR are more internationally recognized as they conform to the Bologna Accord (Bologna Declaration (1999), n.d.), whereas an honours degree does not. Actually, Macquarie University has phased out all honours degree except those for engineering and psychology (and they have kept those for professional accreditation reasons) due to their nonconformity with the Bologna Accord (Macquarie University, 2015). Macquarie University's preferred pathway into their PhD programme is now their Master of Research (MRes) programme which is an MDR (Macquarie University, n.d.).

By coursework

An MDC also comprises a lot of coursework, which can be helpful for students that are unsure what area they wish to conduct research in as it can give them exposure to more areas within their chosen field. It can also give them more expert knowledge within their chosen field than their bachelor's degree did which can also be helpful for conducting research within the area.

That being said, some Australian universities do not offer enough distinct subjects in certain fields for it to be possible for students to study coursework subjects in that field for both their bachelor's and master's degree. For instance, undergraduate and postgraduate subjects in mathematics and statistics at my university, UniSQ, are not different and numerous enough for me to think it would be possible to study both a bachelor's and MDC majoring in mathematics and statistics at UniSQ. I have not found any information on this, but I would imagine it may be possible to get around this issue by taking AMSI ACE Network courses for one's MDC, either that or some independent study subjects. Although, this would need to be discussed with one's master's coordinator I would imagine.

It can also provide students whose bachelor's degree is in a different field to the field they wish to conduct research in an opportunity to gain the foundation of knowledge they need to conduct their research. Students that wish to conduct research need a solid foundation of knowledge in their chosen field in order to conduct research in that field, so MDCs provide an alternative way to a bachelor's degree for students to obtain this knowledge.

By research

An MDR, on the other hand, is free for domestic students under the Australian Government's Research Training Program (RTP). Additionally, the RTP also provides stipends for domestic students studying an MDR, although these are competitive, and students are not guaranteed a stipend even if they apply for one. Additionally, an MDR has a very similar structure to a PhD as they are both Higher Degrees by Research (HDR). Hence doing an MDR is probably the best preparation for a PhD out of these four pathways. Another benefit of an MDR is that many, like PhDs, are ungraded – you either pass or fail them but you do not receive a WAM or grade point average (GPA) for them. This can be seen as a benefit if, like me, you stress about your grades and always strive to get the best grades. That being said, there are exceptions – Macquarie University's MRes programme is graded, for instance (Macquarie University, n.d.).

That being said, getting into an MDR programme requires that the student can write a thesis proposal, which will only be the case if the student knows exactly what they wish to research. I know this entry requirement because I completed an MRes at UniSQ in 2023. I found writing the thesis proposal very exhausting and tedious as it forced me to flesh out the finer details of what I was going to research, which I did not know at the time. This was also while I was still studying my BSc degree full-time, so it was also a bit annoying. That being said, being forced to flesh out these details so early did prove helpful in the long-term as it ensured I knew what I was going to do when I finally entered the programme.

It is also important to note that not all MDR programmes are accessible to students that have just completed a bachelor's degree in a field relevant to their research. There are two main categories of MDR programmes:

  1. "Master of Research" or "Masters by Research" (both abbreviated as MRes) programmes which typically have an entry requirement of a bachelor's degree with a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 5.0 (or WAM of 65%). This is essentially the same entry requirement as an honours degree. These programmes can also be called Master of (Field name such as Science or Arts) (Research).

  2. "Master of Philosophy" (MPhil) programmes which typically have an entry requirement of an MRes or an honours degree with division B second-class honours or better.

MPhil programmes typically offer the option to articulate into a PhD programme if the student does sufficiently well at it, whereas MRes programmes typically do not have this option unless the student also satisfies the entry requirements for an MPhil programme. Some universities only offer one of these programmes (e.g. UniSQ only offers an MRes programme), whereas others offer both (e.g. Macquarie University offers both).

Research outside a degree programme

Conducting research outside of a degree programme is, in my opinion, a worse way to enter a PhD programme than the other options mentioned here for a few reasons:

  1. There is no guarantee that a paper you write, no matter how well you write it, will get published. Many great papers get rejected from multiple different journals. Without a published paper, it is unlikely that your research experience will suffice for entering a PhD programme.

  2. If you want the experience of publishing papers, you can get this from the MDR programme if you opt to do your thesis by publication. The benefit of doing it within an MDR programme is that you gain access to funds to cover any article processing charge (APC) you encounter (although, this typically is not enough to cover anything more than the APC of at most one article), you can also get the RTP stipend so you will get paid for your work, you also get the expert supervision of your supervisors and if your paper does not get published, it is no big drama as completing your degree will suffice for getting you into a PhD programme even if your papers do not get published.

My experience

When I was in the final year of my Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree at UniSQ I heard about the RTP from my peers, and it caused me to reconsider my next move. I had originally planned to do an honours degree after my bachelor's degree, but after learning about the RTP and that it not only covered PhD degrees but also UniSQ's MRes programme, I thought it would be prudent to opt to do the MRes programme instead. Luckily, I realized this before the deadline for applying for the RTP stipend for the MRes programme (which was on 30 September of the year before I was to commence my studies). I ended up getting the stipend and finishing the MRes in a single year, so I am immensely pleased that I did the MRes instead of an honours degree.

My MRes was originally meant to include coursework electives and RTCs, but the coursework electives available were not relevant for my research and I already had research experience thanks to UniSQ's undergraduate research scholarship programme and the AMSI VRS, so I already knew how to conduct research and the RTCs seemed irrelevant, especially since one of them was equivalent to a statistics course I had already done during my BSc. Consequently, my MRes entirely consisted of research with absolutely no coursework.

I worked on my Confirmation of Candidature (CoC) written proposal first. The CoC is a part of every Australian HDR programme, including both MDR and PhD programmes. In it, a student fleshes out their research proposal in greater detail than the thesis proposal they needed to submit to enter the programme, this results in a written proposal and the delivery of a seminar. This seminar explains the written proposal to the student's CoC panel. This panel consists of at least two people that are not members of the student's supervisory team. The student's supervisory team also typically attends the CoC seminar but is there largely to support the student. After completing one's CoC, one is officially confirmed as a candidate of the HDR programme they are enrolled in, and this allows them access to extra funding for covering expenses like APCs.

My MRes thesis proposal consisted of about 4-5 pages of my own writing, whereas my MRes CoC written proposal was over 40 pages long, just to give you some idea of the differences in their length. In it, I:

  1. Reviewed the appropriate background information required to justify my research.

  2. Formulated my objectives, hypotheses, and research questions.

  3. Conducted a literature review appropriate to each specific research question.

  4. Presented my theoretical and conceptual frameworks.

  5. Presented my proposed methods.

  6. Indicated the expected contribution my thesis would make to knowledge.

  7. Indicated the research papers and other chapters that would make up my thesis. I also indicated that my thesis would be by publication.

  8. Wrote an expected timeline.

  9. Indicated what resources I needed to conduct my research.

  10. Included a list of references (with appropriate in-text citations, of course).

  11. Included appendices of additional relevant information that was too bulky for the rest of my proposal.

After writing my CoC written proposal, I worked on writing my first research paper, obtaining access to the dataset I used and obtaining the ethics approval I needed for working with the dataset I used. The process of writing my first paper was tedious, especially with all the edits suggested by my supervisors that proved necessary. But it turned out that this experience caused me to write better research papers from then on that required fewer edits. The process of obtaining the data I needed for my research required some paperwork, but it was only like a day's work. The process of obtaining ethics approval involved a lot more reading and paperwork, but luckily, I only needed to do so once for my MRes.

After this, I tried getting my first paper published, which proved fruitless and time consuming as every journal I submitted it to had different requirements for the paper that I needed to edit the paper to meet, and they either outright rejected it or just never responded to my submission despite confirming that they received it.

During this process of submitting my first paper to multiple journals, I started working on my second research paper. Once I had finished it and implemented my supervisors' suggested edits, I tried getting it published. This time every journal without an APC that I submitted it to rejected it, but I did find a journal with an APC that approved my paper for publication, but it took over 6 months after the submission for the paper to get published and it involved a lot of work on my part (with responding to peer review comments, academic editor requested changes and just getting the APC covered) to get it to that stage.

I also started working on my third and final research paper during this time. After I finished my first draft, I started working on my CoC seminar. The feedback I received on my CoC written proposal and seminar was great and unexpectedly encouraging. I then proceeded to implement their suggested fixes to my written proposal (which were all fairly minor and editorial) and my third research paper. After the changes to both were approved, I started submitting my third paper to journals for publication and it was rejected by everyone I submitted it too. During this, I also started working on my thesis. Eventually, I finished my thesis and submitted it. After over a month, I received feedback from the examiners of my thesis. The suggested changes were all fairly minor and editorial and after I made the requested changes, I resubmitted my thesis and it was approved, and I was therefore approved to graduate from the MRes and this journey was complete.


The purpose of this article has been to just encourage students currently studying their bachelor's degree that wish to study a PhD to think about their options and to help inform them about those options. MDRs are often superior to honours degrees if students know exactly what they wish to research as they are free for domestic students, can come with a stipend, can be completed in just one year too, are similar in structure to a PhD and hence better prepare students for a PhD and they are often ungraded and hence may be less stressful for students that worry about their grades. Although, MDRs that accept students with just a bachelor's degree (and not also requiring an honours degree or MDC) are not available in every subject at every Australian university. For instance, I have not been able to find one for mathematical science students at the University of Melbourne (Rodway, 2023). MDCs can be superior to honours degrees for students that want to learn more about their field before deciding on a research topic as they typically include over a year's worth of coursework.

Reference list

Australian Qualifications Framework Council. (2013). Australian Qualifications Framework (2nd ed.). Australian Qualifications Framework Council.

Bologna Declaration (1999). (n.d.). Retrieved 19 February 2024, from

Macquarie University (n.d.). Doctor of Philosophy. Retrieved 19 February 2024, from

Macquarie University (2015, April 3). Postgraduate research–-Macquarie University. Retrieved 19 February 2024 from

Rodway, A. (2023, May 11). Study with us. School of Mathematics and Statistics.

The University of Melbourne (n.d.). Doctor of Philosophy–-Science. Retrieved 19 February 2024, from

University of New South Wales (n.d.). Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). UNSW Sites. Retrieved 19 February 2024, from

University of Southern Queensland (n.d.). Doctor of Philosophy (PHD). Retrieved 19 February 2024, from

University of Southern Queensland. (2024a). Bachelor of Science (Honours).

University of Southern Queensland. (2024b). Science Honours Project B.