Australia resurrects master’s degrees for PhD preparation

‘Macquarie model’ credited with cutting attrition and accelerating completion, and is now being emulated elsewhere

August 19, 2019
Source: Alamy

Australia’s resurrection of master’s degrees as a PhD pathway is catching on, according to the Sydney institution that pioneered the move.

Macquarie University says its master of research (MRes) degree – a two-year programme of advanced coursework and research training, which students must complete satisfactorily to qualify for doctoral study – has been adopted by Western Sydney University and the University of Wollongong, with more expected to follow suit.

The scheme was a departure from the norm in Australia, where bachelor’s graduates typically need only an honour’s year to gain entry into PhDs. Critics say this leaves doctoral candidates unprepared, and most do not complete within the three-year term of the typical PhD scholarship.

Macquarie said the MRes, introduced in 2013, has halved doctoral attrition rates while cutting the average duration of PhD study from 4.3 years to 3.1 years. Doctoral completions have almost doubled from 297 in 2013 to 556 last year.

Sakkie Pretorius, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at Macquarie, said the MRes was the most significant innovation in Australian research training in the past decade. “I had to deal with the pain of implementing such a big step change, but people now see the benefit – it’s a hugely successful programme for our students and supervisors,” he said.

Professor Pretorius said that while the change had technically increased research degree duration from four to five years, it made little difference in real terms because most students had needed extensions anyway.

He said PhD students who had not entered through the MRes pathway envied the “confidence” of those who had. “They know the topic. They know the literature. They know how to write a thesis.”

MRes students undertake a year of coursework covering integrity, ethics and research methodology, as well as discipline-specific topics. A year of full-time research follows, culminating in a 20,000-word thesis.

Students who achieve marks of at least 75, as judged by external evaluators, are eligible to undertake PhDs. Professor Pretorius said that about two-thirds of MRes graduates progressed to doctoral study.

The remainder are not “failed PhDs”, he stressed, likening the MRes to a UK master of science degree. “People are trained to do research and they have enough wraparound competence in terms of the discipline,” Professor Pretorius said. Students can also leave after one year with bachelor of philosophy credentials.

Professor Pretorius said the MRes had been conceived partly to remove obstacles hampering overseas collaboration. Macquarie works with universities in Europe – where honour’s degrees are rare – through the cotutelle model, under which each PhD student is enrolled in two institutions.

“In order for us to synchronise our academic prerequisites for candidates to enrol in a programme like that, we’ve adopted what is now done in the northern hemisphere, by and large,” he said.

A 2016 report by the Australian Council of Learned Academies lauded “Macquarie model” benefits, including multiple exit pathways, an absence of upfront fees – with the first year funded as a standard honour’s programme and the second under research training arrangements – and alignment with the Bologna model of progression.

Professor Pretorius said that, while many Australian universities wanted to adopt the “Macquarie model”, older institutions would struggle because their typically “devolved” administration meant that single faculties could veto its adoption.

“If they can, they will do it,” he said. “Universities [must] have the political will to manage a change process like that.”

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Reader's comments (6)

As someone who has done the masters that is complete rubbish! The reason people are finishing on time is because MQ has a huge international contingent that gets penalised out of pocket $88/day for every day they exceed their official submission date. The masters system is also incredibly capital intensive and without a scholarship (RTP or otherwise) to cover living expenses it is much more difficult to complete it because the advanced coursework is essentially a full-time job (many students working 50 + hours to complete). I would also note that I changed topics after my Masters so my research degree has not been 5 years, and many people I know got >75 and were offered PhD without living stipend - again making it near impossible to complete. While I like the MRes -> PhD ideal, and am glad that other universities see merit in it, MQ is a far way off implementing it successfully or ethically, especially when so many gaps exist and so many students are falling into hardship to do the degree.
Yes, it would be useful to separate data on completion rates between domestic and international students. If domestic students are completing in less time, after completing a MRes, then the claim would hold more weight. Bear in mind also that not enough time has passed to get much data on the full transition from MRes to PhD and out the other side. In addition to whether students can support themselves, there is also issue about whether the current rates of PhD enrolment is sustainable, logistically or ethically.
The University of Adelaide MPhil which sounds identical to the Macquarie MRes in structure and intent started in 2010. Perhaps this should be the Adelaide Model ?
Adelaide and many other Australian universities offer masters by research programs, usually geared towards specific fields. Macquarie's masters of research is a generalist research qualification; and completing either the MRes or another masters program with a major research component is mandatory for PhD admission. Most Australian universities accept honours degrees for PhD admission.
A direct admission to PhD with two years of course work(with strong research training) and one or two years for theses will be better for everyone. Masters is a waste of time. Those unable to proceed to PhD theses after coursework can now be awarded Msc or Mphil as appropriate.
I did an MPhil at Brighton Uni in 1992 as a route to a PHD. Decided not to progress to PhD due to me doing it part-time and I was running out of time to complete the PhD part .

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