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115: PhDown Under – 4 Ways a PhD is Better in Australia

It’s no secret that post-secondary education is a rough road to walk. Graduate students rack up debt for the privilege of working long hours for an unpredictable number of years with very little faculty support.

Well, that might be true in much of the Northern hemisphere, but in a land where mammals lay eggs and snakes eat crocodiles, all bets are off.

Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!

Of course, we’re talking about Australia, where PhD programs evolved in ways both unique and inspiring. We talked with Tahlia Perry, graduate student and echidna connoisseur, about her experience earning a degree from the University of Adelaide.

Tahlia describes many differences between a PhD program in Australia and the US, but we want to highlight four:

1. Higher Education is affordable

Imagine not being saddled with tens-of-thousands of dollars in student loans when you decided to start graduate school. Would that change your career choices, or at least decrease the existential dread you feel when you consider graduating and trying to start a family?

In Australia, higher education is supported by HECS-HELP loans – publicly backed funding that you only pay back AFTER you have a well-paying job.

For example, your tuition and fees are covered throughout the course of your training. If your annual salary is below about $52,000, you pay nothing on your loan. If you happen to earn more than $52,000, a graduated repayment scale kicks in and the fees are paid like income tax until your debt is repaid.

2. Almost all PhD students ‘take a year off to do research full time’

It’s called “Honors Year” and after finishing an undergraduate degree (in 3 years, no less), students who want to continue to post-secondary education will take 9 months to focus on research before applying for a PhD program.

Though the projects are time-limited and narrowly focused, it’s a great way to experience research full-time before committing to a multi-year ordeal.

3. A PhD takes just 3 years!

This one really surprised us. We thought we were being bold by advocating for a fixed-term 5 year PhD, but Australia went and raised the bar!

Instead of taking 1-2 years for rotations, classes, and trying to identify a project like we do in the US, Australian applicants include their research plan as part of the application!

By the end of the first year, they’ve done a literature review and designed the study for approval by their committee. Then, over the next two years, they have frequent (required) committee meetings to make sure the research stays on track.

4. Students have a safety net

In addition to regular committee meetings, the students have a safety valve to get help when the PI becomes a problem. During each meeting, the student’s advisor will step out so there’s a space to talk with the remaining committee members about any concerns the student may have about their boss.

It’s not perfect, as the power dynamic between student and faculty will still favor silence, but it’s a start, and one worth considering by other programs.

All in all, we were inspired by Tahlia’s experience, and by all the feedback we got from other listeners to our question about creating a fixed-term PhD. (We found out there are fixed-term PhD programs at UCLA and the University of Colorado!)

If you have thoughts, concerns, or even experience with the subject, why not send us an email? Or leave your comment below!


Refreshments come from the great state of Tennessee, where we picked up the Dunkel from Yee Haw Brewing Company in Johnson City. It’s dark by definition, but not heavy like a stout. Perfect for sipping when the summer nights get just a little too toasty.


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