Postgraduate study is further education that follows the completion of an undergraduate degree. As an undergraduate student, graduation can seem a long way away, and often the goal is to complete your degree and move straight into employment. It is important, however, to consider postgraduate study options and how these might align with your future goals. Postgraduate study is an opportunity to delve deeper into a specific field of interest, expand your knowledge, develop specialised skills, and open doors to additional employment prospects. From traditional disciplines such as business, engineering, and the humanities, to emerging areas like artificial intelligence, renewable energy, and biomedical sciences, postgraduate study caters to a diverse range of academic pursuits. This chapter begins by outlining postgraduate study in Australia and the benefits of furthering your education through a postgraduate program, including increased professional skills, employment opportunities and personal growth. Following this, the different postgraduate study options are explained and the various pathways into postgraduate study are described. The chapter concludes by discussing study load, and finances and scholarships. This chapter provides you with the information to consider and plan for future postgraduate study.
POSTGRADUATE STUDY IN AUSTRALIA
The postgraduate experience focuses on the practical and theoretical application of knowledge either through coursework or research. This often enables students to engage in research projects, collaborate with industry partners, and contribute to meaningful discoveries that have real-world impact. As a postgraduate student, you can expect to benefit from university facilities, well-equipped laboratories, and advanced technology that facilitate a dynamic learning environment. The multicultural nature of Australian society enriches the study experience. You will have the chance to interact with fellow students from around the world, exchange ideas, and gain valuable insights into different cultures and perspectives. This diversity fosters a global outlook and prepares you for an interconnected world where collaboration and cross-cultural understanding are highly valued.
BENEFITS OF POSTGRADUATE STUDY
Undertaking postgraduate education is an exciting endeavour that can lead to many different positive outcomes. It can advance your career; grow your earning potential, knowledge, and expertise; develop higher level thinking, writing and research skills; and provide networking opportunities with like-minded individuals that are invaluable for personal and professional life. The benefits of postgraduate education are especially evident in the development of professional skills, increased employment options, and personal growth.
Students who pursue a postgraduate degree, graduate with an important set of professional skills that will help them in their careers. When you pursue a postgraduate degree, you will be introduced to the skillset of those who practice the profession. For example, a postgraduate degree in journalism will expose you to faculty staff who have newsroom experience, technology within the field, and lessons in press writing. A postgraduate degree in history will expose you to courses on archival and primary source research work – the core of the historian’s job. Students will also be exposed to the culture of the profession and its language or jargon. It is a great start to enculturating yourself in your field, especially if you lack prior professional experience.
A postgraduate qualification can result in additional career options and opportunities for promotion and greater career advancement. Postgraduate degrees build specialised expertise on a topic, leading to employment requiring levels of expertise that exceed those provided by an undergraduate degree. Working within a university is a common option for successful postgraduates, as the research-focus and service-focus of universities naturally lend themselves to the content students studied while in postgraduate education. Postgraduate study can also incorporate internships, industry placements, and networking opportunities, which can significantly enhance your employability upon graduation (see the chapter Preparing for Employment for more discussion). Postgraduate qualifications can result in promotions and new pathways in already-established careers, as the degree can prepare you to critically think, analyse, and lead.
As you progress through your study, you may find that career progression becomes less of the focus, and personal benefits and growth starts to take a front seat; you may note the benefits of increased self-confidence, problem-solving abilities and critical thinking skills (Neary, 2014). Motivations for study exist on a continuum and relate to life course and context (Swain & Hammond, 2011). Typically, while undertaking postgraduate study, it is important to keep this motivation in mind as it will serve as a driving force during the postgraduate journey. Pursuing a postgraduate qualification can build upon your perception of self, especially concerning the future employment pathways you wish to pursue. This is a primary motivator to start a postgraduate journey. Although the reason for engagement in postgraduate study may fluctuate, the result will likely still be further development of skills that can be used in your personal and professional life.
Postgraduate STUDY OPTIONS
Postgraduate study programs include, graduate certificates, graduate diplomas, masters’ degrees by coursework, masters’ degrees by research, and doctorates. The table below (see Table 26.1) compares the differences between undergraduate study and the different types of postgraduate study, in terms of degree type, structure and workload.
Graduate certificates are often the first step students can take towards postgraduate study. Typically, these qualifications take between four to five months of full-time study. Undertaking a graduate certificate program can be a good way to add to your resume or explore a new topic or passion.
Graduate diplomas fit the ideal middle-ground between a graduate certificate and a master’s degree program, taking about a year of full-time study. Diplomas cover the same course options as the graduate certificates but extend into further study. The offering can be similar to a master’s degree program without committing to a complete master’s degree.
The master’s degree comes in two distinct forms; a master’s degree by coursework and a master’s degree by research. Each type of master’s degree is designed to build upon existing knowledge and requires approximately two years of full-time study. Similar to undergraduate coursework, a master’s degree by coursework involves attending classes and completing course-based assessment items. A master’s degree by research can also include coursework but this will be limited as most of the program is focused on undertaking independent research and presenting the results as a research outcome. This outcome is usually a written thesis. A master’s degree by research is a good stepping-stone towards doctoral study.
A doctorate is the highest academic program achievement at university. Doctorates focus on developing significant, original research, typically taking three to four years of full-time study. The goal of a doctorate is to make an original and significant contribution to the existing body of knowledge in a specific field. It involves independent research, critical thinking, and the production of a substantial research output, usually a written thesis. It is a highly regarded degree and often required for academic and research employment at university, as well as for career advancement in certain fields. It represents the pinnacle of intellectual achievement and expertise in a chosen area of study.
|Bachelor and diploma
|Graduate certificates, graduate diplomas, and masters’ degrees by coursework
|Masters’ degrees by research and doctorates
|A fixed curriculum with predefined course sequences
|More flexible curriculum based on type of study program or career goals
|More flexible curriculum based on research interests
|Clearly defined expectations. The ability to put more into study to achieve a higher result, but not a requirement at every step
|Compared to undergraduate, the workload is usually more self-directed and self-driven
|Self-directed. Most of the workload involves research and producing research outputs (e.g. publications, a written thesis)
COURSEWORK VERSUS RESEARCH
Both coursework and research postgraduate degree programs are designed to provide you with further opportunities to expand your knowledge, investigate issues within your field of study, and understand the important practical and theoretical underpinnings in your discipline.
The basics of postgraduate coursework
Although the two routes allow you to better understand your discipline, they have several key differences. Similar to undergraduate study, students studying a postgraduate degree by coursework achieve their degree by taking courses until they have met the number of required units for the degree. Depending on the institution, students undertaking a degree by coursework may be required to complete a final assessment that may include a comprehensive exam, practicum, project, or thesis. This is to test the content learned and the skillset necessary for a specific field.
In coursework, lecturers often serve as mentors guiding you on specific pathways or specialisations within a program. Relationships with lecturers are important during postgraduate study. Although the primary focus is for a lecturer to lead a course, in postgraduate coursework they often provide so much more in the form of guidance and assistance for you through the lifespan of your program. Indeed, sometimes in postgraduate coursework degrees, you may develop a mentor/mentee relationship with your lecturers who can later help you gain access to industry employment, postgraduate research degrees and other opportunities.
The basics of postgraduate research work
Although a postgraduate research degree may also contain courses, it is based on your success in producing a research outcome such as an independent thesis. Typically, these degrees include research master’s degrees and doctoral degrees. Research degrees are largely undertaken as independent study usually with assistance from at least two academic supervisors/advisors. The process of undertaking research includes sourcing these supervisors, proposing a research topic that will make an original and significant contribution to the field, designing a research methodology, working with your supervisors to plan and undertake the research, possibly producing research publications, and writing a thesis.
Undertaking research can be challenging (Brownlow et al., 2022), but this avenue of study offers a rewarding experience for those that choose to pursue it (Villanueva & Eacersall, forthcoming 2024). This is because research work allows you to contribute original knowledge to your field of study while learning and engaging in the research process. This prepares you for careers in academia, government work, consulting agencies, and the private sector. A research project commences with a student identifying an area within their field that they believe requires further investigation and crafting a proposal which presents a research question, identifies research goals, and establishes a research methodology. Both students at the master’s degree and doctoral levels (depending on program requirements) typically present their proposals at a Confirmation of Candidature seminar where they deliver their preliminary proposal to a panel of experts in the field (Bartlett & Eacersall, 2018). Many research projects require ethical approval to ensure that they are conducted in an ethical way. This is facilitated by the university ethics office and should be a supportive and collegial experience for student researchers (Hickey et al., 2021). Usually, Confirmation of Candidature and ethical approval will occur in the first third of the degree.
Because of the independent nature of the research degree, students need high-level organisational and communication skills. Indeed, communication is key for research students, as they are positioned at the intersection of their research teams, the university, and outside stakeholders. Research students must communicate with their supervisory teams in regard to meeting and drafting schedules. Further, research students need to prioritise their work. Since they are contributing a significant piece of research to their field, they may have to communicate with outside organisations such as labs, archives, and/or government offices to retrieve data or necessary supplies. Consequently, research students must be self-advocates, clearly explaining their needs. Finally, since each university has milestones for research degrees, students are expected to organise their time to meet these. In many instances, they must organise their research and writing schedule, but at a micro level, they must organise their daily research tasks so they can stay on track. The research study experience is an excellent way for students to hone these soft skills along with their content skills.
Coursework or research — How do I choose?
Both research and coursework postgraduate programs have immense benefits for an individual’s overall personal and professional growth. As you progress through your undergraduate degree program, you can plan for future postgraduate study by considering the following:
- What do you enjoy most about your undergraduate experience? Do you enjoy a more guided learning approach (coursework) or more self-directed opportunities to investigate solutions using theory, research, and/or knowledge-based results (research)?
- Do you desire structure and firm deadlines set by lecturers (coursework) or a more fluid structure (research)?
- Do you enjoy engaging with an existing body of knowledge to add to it (research) or
applying it more directly to your own context (coursework)?
- Do you prefer, shorter projects and collaborative thinking (coursework), or do you prefer independent work, presenting research to a small community, and keeping up-to-date with scholarship in your field (research)?
Ultimately, as you explore different opportunities at university and answer these questions, you will be able to make a choice about the next steps in your academic journey.
PAthways to postgraduate study
There are several pathways into postgraduate education, and it is important to recognise that not everyone’s pathway is the same. Postgraduate study occurs after successful completion of an undergraduate degree, or sometimes after evaluation of experience through work. Some may decide to pursue further study immediately after completion of their undergraduate degree and others might start a postgraduate qualification after time in the workforce. It is useful for undergraduate students to be aware of the pathways to postgraduate education so that they better understand the potential opportunities open to them for further study (see the chapter Life after Graduation for more discussion of pathways).
The typical way to apply for entry into a postgraduate degree is to first decide which degree you are aiming for. The degree you choose can have a great impact on your postgraduate experience and your career. Earlier in this chapter we outlined the graduate certificate, graduate diploma, master’s degree by coursework, master’s degree by research, and doctorate. Knowing which level of degree you are applying for is a good first step. Next, is figuring out which discipline to focus on. There are going to be many to choose from, be it social sciences, engineering, education, arts, law, science, business, etc. Once you have decided on the degree and discipline, focusing on the entry dates and prerequisites is next. In Australia, each institution has their own method of segmenting their calendar year, some use two semesters per year, some a trimester model, others use a combination, or divide their study periods into smaller blocks. Be sure to check the entry dates with your institution.
Similar to entry windows, institutions will have differing entry requirements for each of the postgraduate degrees on offer. For undergraduate, in particular Australian school-leavers, this would have been a rank dependent on your performance in your secondary education, potentially accompanied by an interview, audition, or folio entry. Postgraduate study is similar, though differs slightly as these secondary school rankings are replaced by a grade point average (GPA) requirement, which is a reflection on your performance in undergraduate studies. For a master’s degree by research and doctorate level courses, prior experience undertaking research may also be a requirement. For example, it is common for doctoral level courses to require successful completion of an honours degree or a research master’s degree. Elements such as recognition of prior learning can also be considered under certain circumstances. Different universities will have different entry requirements and so, the best source of specific information will be the university you are interested in.
In addition, many universities offer flexible pathways once enrolled in a postgraduate course, often breaking courses down to allow students to stop and start at their own pace. There can also be options to exit a master’s program early, utilising the existing work for a graduate diploma qualification. The busy schedules of postgraduate students, especially those working and studying at the same time, have encouraged many institutions to adopt further flexibility. Again, investigating what individual institutions have on offer, is the best way to see what can fit you and your study needs.
For international students, Australian postgraduate programs are an attractive option for many academic disciplines, notably biology, engineering, chemistry, mathematics, social sciences, and the medical fields. It is important to note that each higher education institution has unique programs, entry requirements, costs, and culture. There are also issues for postgraduate international students to consider, including supervisory relationships, communication ability, and the benefits of positive engagement with the Australian community and culture (Brownlow et al., 2023). Doing thorough research and fact finding into your ideal institution and destination is vital to ensuring that you get the best possible postgraduate study experience. To study in Australia, you must apply for a student visa through the relevant Australian government department. For both domestic and international students, if you would like to know more about postgraduate study, reach out to your intended institution’s student support team. They are there to help you.
Study load: Can I work and study at the same time?
The question of whether to work while undertaking postgraduate studies plagues many students and is often one of the first questions they consider when deciding to pursue their degree. The answer is – it depends on the individual. The decision to work while undertaking postgraduate studies is often a personal, individual one that requires careful consideration. International students also need to consider the work conditions of their student visa. Working can be beneficial as it can reduce or negate any student debt you may need to take out. Working can also provide you with disposable income that scholarships, grants, and loans may not cover. For example, this income can be used for school supplies, personal/family emergencies, travel, and savings. If you are working in your field of study, you will be able to put into practice the content you are studying. Even if you are not working within your chosen field, students who work often bring many professional attributes to the classroom.
At the same time, working can present challenges. Students, especially in the first semester of postgraduate study, may struggle to balance work and studies, which may impact their results and their ability to make meaningful connections with peers and mentors. Similarly, if students undertake coursework programs, they may find it difficult to schedule work around their courses and vice versa. Research students, as well, may struggle to plan and begin their research journey while balancing work, as the research process can be intense initially. Although these may present struggles at first, you can use university resources to manage time and discuss this with specialist advisors and supervisors who can give you advice on managing work and studies. In all, working while studying hones postgraduate students’ organisational, time-management, and communication skills (see the chapters Goals and Priorities and Time Management for more discussion).
Finances and scholarships
For students considering postgraduate studies, finances for both their educational and personal expenses can be crucial, and students should consider how they will fund their studies as soon as they decide that they want to pursue a graduate degree. Luckily, there is aid available for those interested in pursuing a postgraduate degree. One of the major areas of financial support is scholarships. Scholarships are awards students receive for achievements like grades, their participation in extra-curricular activities, or social beliefs and activities. Scholarships can be external or internal. External means the scholarship is awarded by an organisation or industry other than your university, while internal is awarded by your university. Students should investigate scholarship opportunities by accessing resources on external scholarship websites as well as the university’s scholarship webpages. Some scholarships are based on the student’s research activities, so students should seek out possible opportunities through professional and student organisations. Australian domestic postgraduate students undertaking a Higher Degree by Research degree (most doctorates and research master’s) may be eligible to receive a Research Training Program place. This is a federal government scholarship that covers tuition fees for the stipulated duration of the degree.
There are many things to consider in relation to postgraduate study. These include the benefits of a postgraduate education, different types of postgraduate study, entry pathways, when to start, the differences between postgraduate coursework and postgraduate research, the expectations required of postgraduate students, and available resources to support your study. If you are in the early stages of your undergraduate degree, postgraduate study may seem like an option a long way off in the future. It is important, though, to be aware of postgraduate possibilities and the opportunities they offer. Careful consideration of this information, during undergraduate studies, can enable you to identify and plan successful pathways into postgraduate study.
- Postgraduate study occurs after successful completion of undergraduate study.
- The benefits of postgraduate study include increased employment opportunities, personal growth and professional skills.
- Postgraduate programs include graduate certificates, graduate diplomas, masters’ degrees by coursework, masters’ degrees by research, and doctorates.
- Postgraduate study can include coursework and/or research elements.
- Your undergraduate Grade Point Average (GPA) is important for entering postgraduate programs.
- For postgraduate research programs, your GPA and/or research experience may be part of the entry requirements.
- There are many supports to assist you with postgraduate study.
- During undergraduate study, consider the pathways and options for future postgraduate study.
Bartlett, C. L., & Eacersall, D. C. (2019). Confirmation of candidature: An autoethnographic reflection from the dual identities of student and research administrator. In T. M. Machin, M. Clara & P. A. Danaher (Eds.), Traversing the doctorate: Reflections and strategies from students, supervisors and administrators (pp. 29-56). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-23731-8_3
Brownlow, C., Eacersall, D., Martin, N., & Parsons-Smith, R. (2023). The higher degree research student experience in Australian universities: A systematic literature review, Higher Education Research & Development, 42(7), 1608-1623. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2023.2183939
Brownlow, C., Eacersall, D., Nelson, C. W., Parsons-Smith, R. L., & Terry, P. C. (2022). Risks to mental health of higher degree by research (HDR) students during a global pandemic. PLoS ONE, 17(12), e0279698. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0279698
Hickey, A., Davis, S., Farmer, W., Dawidowicz, J., Moloney, C., Lamont-Mills, A., Carniel, J., Pillay, Y., Akenson, D., Brömdal, A., Gehrmann, R., Mills, D., Kolbe-Alexander, T., Machin, T., Reich, S., Southey, K., Crowley-Cyr, L., Watanabe, T., Davenport, J., …Eacersall, D., & Maxwell, J. (2021). Beyond criticism of ethics review boards: Strategies for engaging research communities and enhancing ethical review processes. Journal of Academic Ethics, 20, 549-567. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10805-021-09430-4
Neary, S. (2014). Reclaiming professional identity through postgraduate professional development: Careers practitioners reclaiming their professional selves. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 42(2), 199-210.
Swain, J., & Hammond, C. (2011). The motivations and outcomes of studying for part-time mature students in higher education. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 30(5), 591-612.
Villanueva, J. A. R., & Eacersall, D. (forthcoming, 2024). Autoethnographic reflections on a research journey: Dual perspectives from a doctoral student and a researcher development specialist. SpringerBriefs in Education, Springer Nature. https://link.springer.com/book/9789819949281
We would like to acknowledge our colleagues, Wendy Hargreaves, Ben Ingram and Eddie Thangavelu, for their valuable advice and feedback on this chapter.