Masters Students: Second Class Citizens or Academic Geniuses in the Making?

This post is by Belinda Duke who is doing a Master of Philosophy in Archaeology at James Cook University, Townsville, Australia.  Her research is based in NE Thailand at the site Ban Non Wat.  Belinda has travelled and worked in NE Thailand since 2008 and also southern Laos since 2010 through a consultancy project under James Cook University, in association with the Department of Cultural Heritage (Lao PDR) .

Belinda contacted me on Twitter asking if I sometimes felt like a second class citizen when I was doing my Research Masters. My answer was “God yes!”. This sparked a lively discussion on Twitter with other research masters students. I encouraged Belinda to write about it and this is the piece she came up with – I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

file4381240583641I am an archaeologist and chose to do an MPhil because I wanted to specialise in geological archaeology.  I thought a masters would give me time to learn about the field, but I have not been feeling much love from my university, supervisors or colleges in the six months I have been enrolled.

A few days ago I was introduced to my new class.  As everyone was introduced as a doctor or PhD student, they got to me and said, “This is Belinda, she is a post graduate student”.  I was left feeling a little put off about the comment.  It wasn’t until I discussed it with my friend Hannah, who had also had a similar experience, that I realised there was something not quite right. Why wasn’t I identified as Masters Student? Slip of the tongue or something more sinister?

The primary question posed (almost on a daily basis) is “why aren’t you doing a PhD?”  Quickly, I realised the question had a bit of a negative tone to it.  What’s wrong with doing a Masters? Are you insinuating that I am not as intelligent enough to undertake a PhD?  Am I not good enough?  To add to this, in many of my supervision meetings, I would be asked when I would be up-grading to a PhD.  Even my initial acceptance letter from our Graduate Research School said “congratulations to your admission to a Doctorate of Philosophy”.

All this attitude has caused me to question my motivations for under taking Masters: is there something wrong with my decision?  Some days it feels like an interrogation, it shakes your confidence to the core, leaving you with feelings of inadequacy.

While I had been troubled by these issues, I had not thought too much of it until later in 2012.  My School released research funding money twice a year, open to both Masters and PhD students.  This funding was designed to enhance a student’s work through non-essential research to enrich their dissertation.  My application was for experimental radiocarbon dating work.  My application was rejected for funding on the basis of being a masters student.

I was furious.  How is my research any less important or significant than those of a PhD?  So I complained, and policy was changed.  But I still feel like have been a victim of institutional discrimination.  Why am I being treated like a second class citizen? Might it be related to financial incentives the University may receive once I graduate?

Riding high from my policy changing triumph in 2012, I threw myself into 2013 with the excitement of submission year.  However, the feeling of being a second class citizen of the academic world still remains.  The structure of the post graduate system is designed to assist and foster PhD students.  

The view of some at my university, and no doubt other universities across Australia, is the Masters by research is pointless and obsolete degree. Is having such a view creating under prepared, underqualified Doctorates who aren’t on par with the rest of the world? The Australian post-graduate system has its failings, and I may have raised issues which are far beyond this post and the challenges I face with completing a Masters’ degree and getting to graduation.

Graduation is yet another avenue for segregation and discrimination.  When you graduate with a PhD, you are seated at the font on the stage with the other academics and distinguished guests.  You will make your Doctoral debut with you research present and acknowledged for its brilliance.  I know when I graduate, my research won’t be identified and I will be left sitting in the audience with the undergraduates waiting to be mustered on stage.  However, facing such discrimination and dealing with these issues has made me more determined to finish and to graduate. In that spirit, here’s five tips for asseting your right to be a masters student!

Be pro-active.

Knowing that I don’t have the same opportunities has forced me to get off my butt and be pro-active, e.g. signing up to do school seminar presentations, networking with other academics etc.  A good friend who has since moved on to very green pastures told me to remember that at the end of the day you will mostly be on your own, you need to make things happen.  Take the bull by the horns!

Be confident

After bringing up my issue on twitter, a common response was to be confident!  You belong, your research is important and you deserve every opportunity.  You’re research as new and inventive as any other PhD, contributing novel work to your field of study.

Stick to your convictions

Undertaking a Masters is for the good of your future, regardless of whether you follow on to a PhD.  You will be a better academic/employee/human being for it.  You made the decision to enrol and you are doing it for yourself, not for the university.

Be prepared

Have that confident fast fire answer to the annoying age old question… why aren’t you doing a PhD?

Be a squeaky wheel

Don’t fall to the wayside, be noisy and get what you need. Complaining gets results (How to complain and get heard)!  I once lived in fear about rocking the boat and feared getting in trouble for wanting to get things done, but often it’s necessary step.

Look to the future

Having long term goals has kept me on the straight and narrow, dreams of working overseas keeps me focused, despite the negativity.  When I finish my Masters’, I know I will be entering a workforce fully prepared and qualified to work in an international market.

While my advice isn’t ground breaking, I hope that it gives other Master’s students the confidence to continue on with the feeling that they are not alone.  To all those down trodden Masters students, stay strong and positive in your conviction.  You’ll be better for it in the long run.

Thanks Belinda! You certainly made me realise I am guilty of using ‘PhD’ instead of ‘research degree’ in blog posts… what do you think? Should we try harder to include masters by research as full researcher citizens? How might we do that?

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51 thoughts on “Masters Students: Second Class Citizens or Academic Geniuses in the Making?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Not my experience. Often I need to put in more work as a supervisor for masters students. It isn’t as big a project as a phd not the same time commitment.

  2. Susan says:

    Excuse my ignorance, but does a Masters research thesis have to contribute new knowledge, or does it instead have to demonstrate “mastery” of the subject? Your might well be contributing new knowledge, but if that’s not a requirement then I can see why masters students in general might not be treated the same way as PhD students. (as well as reasons you’ve identified, such as university funding). Your topic sounds fascinating and it sounds like it would convert well into a PhD if you ever want to take it further.

    • madeleinepenman says:

      A Research Masters is exactly the same as a PhD, with all the same requirements. The only difference is the word length. A PhD is usually 80,000 to 100,000 words, while a Research Masters is 60,000 to 80,000. And you have to complete it in two years!

      • Anonymous says:

        Depends on the country. In NZ a research Master’s is usually less than 50,000 words, there is not the same requirement to contribute “new” knowledge, and it’s generally only one year full-time. Although I definitely felt like I was a “2nd class” citizen compared to the PhD students in our department, I don’t think that was unreasonable given that in NZ at least it is a significantly smaller/shorter degree.

        In my ignorance I assumed the Aussie system would be the same so maybe that’s half the problem – we use the same terminology (Honours/Masters etc) all over the world to refer to what are essentially very different degrees (and that’s not even starting on the USA model!)

    • Felipe says:

      After reading through this article and the comments, I guess that each country has its own different kind of graduation.
      I am a Brazilian Masters student and here, the Masters degree is a step towards a Doctors degree. While sometimes one does skip from undegraduate directly to a graduate school to take the Doctor’s degree, that’s hardly the standard. In order to submit a proposal to enter a Doctors programme you must already have a Masters degree.
      As far as content goes, we don’t have a word count in either. It’s all about the content. While a Doctors thesis must contribute with something new, a Masters dissertation is something inbetween an undegraduate final project and new knowledge. Confusing? A lot! It must be interesting and “complicated” (due to lack of a better word) enough, but not as deep as what a thesis exhibits.

  3. Fiona says:

    This is an interesting topic, but one question I was hoping would be answered and wasn’t (although it was referred to!) – why did the author opt to do a masters by research? In my home country people typically do a 2 -2.5 year masters which is one year of coursework followed by a thesis. If you wish to do a longer research project, you do a PhD. Perhaps it’s peoples lack of understanding (such as my own naivety on the topic) which leads to these students feeling second class? I’d love to hear about the advantages of a Masters by Research!

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      traditionally masters by research has been seen as the ‘training wheels’ thesis in Australia. Practice for the big one. But not in science, where Honours performs this function. More disciplines are taking the science approach and more students are coming from courswoe masters now. So things are changing.

  4. Beth Dumont says:

    Hi Belinda – I am also a Masters research student at JCU. I am doing a Masters of Social Policy (currently engaged in writing my final draft). My supervisors, and the fellow students I have had contact with certainly do not make me feel as if I am a second class student. In fact I had a good discussion with my supervisors about the possibility of upgrading to a PhD, deciding to remain as a Masters (lot more effort for not a lot of gain in terms of where I wanted to be).
    I was also the Postgraduate Officer on the Student Council in 2011. During this time I had a lot of dealings with the GRS, sitting on the Higher Degrees by Research Sub-committee. My experience with that committee is that Helene and the rest of the committee are concerned solely with the research culture of JCU, regardless of whether or not they are Masters or PhD students. It is a good thing that you got the funding policy changed as a result of your experience, and shows how open the GRS is to Masters students.
    Part of the problem may be the complete lack of postgraduate culture across the university as a whole, including at school level. Some schools have better cohesion amongst the postgrads than do others. Both the SA and GRS have found postgrads in Townsville difficult to engage. I do remember that SASS used to have weekly morning teas on Monday’s, unsure if these are still happening.
    Otherwise, what we have here is the fact that the majority of Masters students are course work students, which means the majority of research students are PhD candidates, and research students are only a small percentage of the total postgrad cohort – at JCU there are 700 research students out of a total postgrad cohort of 3000 students (in 2011). This situation exists Australia wide, and relates to wider social stuff. All policy as a rule does seem to be targeted at the majority, and ignores the minority. There also appear to be differences between the hard and soft sciences which may also be part of your problems.
    Fundamentallly, given our very differing experiences, part of the issue does relate to your own personal feelings about being a Masters student. I never saw myself as being second class because I was doing a Masters, was never self conscious about doing what I wanted to do. Hope my comments do provide some food for thought to other Masters research students out there.

    • Aka says:

      A little birdy told me that like most other universities, JCU does not value their research students after graduation unless they are in the clique. They certainly don’t value Indigenous research graduates – the medical school is better than the rest – but still the number of Indigenous academics is falling. A quick look at the stats show that the SASS you talk of has no Indigenous academics. Alarming really. The same birdy told me of an Indigenous academic with many quals and much experience was offered a miserly tokenistic position at JCU.

      Despite the rhetoric, Indigenous folk gaining post grad quals actually seems to hinder their employability. Thankfully this has not stopped Indigenous academics undertaking masters and PhDs as the level of new knowledge uncovered in their thesis are outstanding.

      Having read many Indigenous academic thesis, it is a great loss that the academic class sideline these academics and their knowledge.

      • Beth Dumont says:

        I was speaking in general terms – you seem to have a focus on Indigenous academics. I have perused Indigenous issues during this thesis, and was told that most Indigenous graduates seem to get swallowed up into policy areas. This is why we see so few Indigenous role models with tertiary degrees. To get more Indigenous postgrads, we need to get more Indigenous undergrads, and to get those we need to see more Indigenous role models with tertiary quals.
        Secondly – does gaining post grad quals hinder in gaining employment with Indigenous organisations, or generally. In other words, is this lack of employability due to cultural cringe on the part of Indigenous people towards those with post grad quals?
        Thirdly – if you read your emails, you will note that JCU is looking for people to staff a working group towards creating a REconciliation Action Plan. Nominate and work towards creating the more inclusive university you want instead of complaining. Remember – the best way to change an orgnaisation is from the inside, not the outside.

    • Aka says:

      Sounds like a good move to set up a reconciliation action plan. Are you on it?

      Changing an organisation from within is great, but difficult when there appears to be a move by the academic class to keep Indigenous academics out. This is happening in almost every university in Australia, much to their shame.

      As for JCU, I was at an interesting national conference where the incidence of racism towards Indigenous students was discussed by JCU SW staff. They discussed a research project they had done where students experience racism in their placements from clients, supervisors as well as in the classroom from fellow students and staff. It is not surprising that I looked at the stats.
      Have you looked at the Indigenous Higher Education Review Report. It has a lot of info in it, including the falling rate of employment for Indigenous academics. This is despite the fact that there is more than 200 Indigenous people with PhDs.
      A simple look at available literature and the staff website says it all.
      When a Professor, with a PhD and numerous other quals and experience, is given short term employment as some sort of Elder in residence at JCU, that is hardly reconciliation.

      You ask why my focus is on Indigenous academics, but it is simply because I am one of the 200+ Indigenous PhD holders.

      Look around you Beth, how many Indigenous academics are in your dept?

  5. debwain says:

    At my university the term HDRs is commonly used & no distinction is made but I’ve found when using ‘HDR’ outside of the HDR cohort (and even within the Uni), people don’t know what it refers to. I have set about making it my mission to widen the use of the term in general. I think it’s the most sensible one to use & maybe it will help avoid the disparity.
    Chin up!

    • M-H says:

      HDR (or sometimes RHD) is commonly used at the University of Sydney too, to refer to both Masters by Research and PhD students. Funding by the federal government to Universities is supposed to go towards the costs of both degrees, with Masters level enrolments attracting half the money that is allotted to PhD enrolments. So there’s no reason people enrolled in masters degrees by research not to be given half of what PhD students get. Except, of course, ignorance on the part of the administrators. Good on you, Belinda, for sticking up for your rights.

  6. Katherine Firth says:

    One of the strange things about the Australian system is that you don’t need a Masters to do a PhD, just Honours. In the UK, you can’t apply for doctoral funding without a masters, and so there are lots of people doing masters for lots of different reasons.
    Here, I regularly teach stuff like ‘Starting the Lit Review’ to 90+ people in a room and there will be 2 Masters students. For that reason, they’ll get the odd mention, but not much more.
    So, it’s not personal, but yes you should feel like a marginalised minority–so it’s good to have ways to reduce the impacts.

    • James says:

      “In the UK, you can’t apply for doctoral funding without a masters”

      This isn’t universally true. Most of the funded students in my group came in straight from Bachelors, but that’s STEM. It might be different in other fields.

      • Peter says:

        I believe “honours” means something different in the UK. In Australia, it is a prep-year for a PhD (i.e. 3 yr bachelor, 1 yr honours, 3 yr PhD). In the EU, this is a masters degree (i.e. 3 yr bachelor, 2 year master, 3 year PhD). In the UK the master is often also merged into the PhD.

    • musingsofanearlycareerscientist says:

      That’s certainly not true for science PhDs in the UK. I know plenty of others who have gone straight into a PhD from their undergraduate degree and not done a taught masters (MSc) or masters by research (MRes), be that for better or for worst. Personally doing an MRes first better prepared me for the realities of a PhD, as I know it was a bit of a shock for a lot of those who at started at the same time as me and were coming straight from their undergraduate degree.

  7. Anonymous says:

    At my university in the U.S., it’s painfully clear that we’re second class citizens. Not due to research funding, as we generally have equal access to anything not particularly labeled for PhD students, but the level of commitment from the department is abysmal. We’re seen as more “temporary” and the structure is awful. There is very little guidance or mentorship, I’m relieved it’s almost over.

  8. Elizabeth Humphrys (@liz_beths) says:

    Thanks Belinda – what a great post! I had a little similar to your experience during my MA Res. I also experienced lots of academics saying things like ‘stop saying “just a Masters student”!’. I found some academics quite conscious many Masters students were deliberately choosing Masters programs, and not as a back-up plan or precursor to doing a PhD. Good luck for the rest of your research 🙂

  9. madeleinepenman says:

    Hi Belinda. What a breath of fresh air to read this. I am an MPhil student at the ANU and definitely feel like a second class citizen. For me, the Research Masters is a “no man’s (or woman’s) land”. One of the main drawbacks is the nonexistence of funding for Research Masters, among other things. In the end, you’re doing exactly the same thing as a PhD student does, except your thesis is slightly shorter, you have to do it in much less time, and you get zero funding and little support.
    I came into the MPhil with the idea of maybe converting to a PhD. For the last year I have been doing my MPhil and simultaneously holding down 3 part time jobs to fund myself for money, as there is no funding for MPhil students.
    I sit in a methods class of other graduate research students, all PhD students, all on scholarships I think, and they look at me as if I am crazy. Some days I think I am!
    I am planning to convert to a PhD later this year, and hope to get a scholarship. However, I have just found out that I could have got into a PhD from the start, last year, and applied for a scholarship.
    I was forced into an MPhil thinking I wouldn’t get into a PhD as I never did Honours.
    In sum, I think all of this is part of the academic bias against people who have been out in the ‘real world’ and done things as practitioners, or who are planning to do them. The MPhil is designed, I believe, for people who want to straddle the academic-practitioner divide. That is so important.
    This attitude against Research Masters fuels the whole rejection of academia as a profession that exists to gather dust on bookshelves.
    Apologies for being so negative, but this is an issue that really gets me fired up!

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I’ll admit I felt much the same during my masters at RMIT, but in retrospect I was glad to have a ‘starter thesis’ behind me. Doing a PhD was much easier, even though the final thing was much longer. So there can be an upside – it is a pity when there is snobbery about research masters degrees or Mphils though, as many, if not most contribute to knowledge in some way… sometimes even as much as a PhD might as someone else has pointed out.

  10. Tony Harman says:

    Exceptional piece. Totally agree – I had no interest in any thought of publishing my research from any quarter. Two years later equivalent research was published from a PhD! I was always made to feel ‘not quite good enough’

  11. Bri King says:

    I did a Masters in Counselling by coursework. I wanted to do a PhD but because I hadn’t done Honors in either of my 2 undergraduate degrees (despite having done 4 or more post graduate research methodology units) I have been unable to find any university in Australia that will accept me into a PhD program. As a result I am doing *another* Masters, this one with a research component (which makes up about half the degree) to prove that I am capable enough to be accepted into a PhD program.

  12. Jonathan Downie says:

    Here in the UK, we have two research masters degrees. MRes, which is respected (at least inside academia) and, yes, is seen as training wheels for a PhD and MPhil which has a very different status. Sadly, people with MPhils here are seen as candidates who, for whatever reason, were not able to get a PhD. So, weird as it might seem, an MPhil might actually seem like a negative thing here and not a positive. The other difference is that MRes students have to take classes where as, in most UK university, MPhil/PhD students don’t. So your “status” would depend on which research masters you have, which would (rightly or wrongly) form initial impressions as to why you have it.

  13. Brenda Gouws says:

    Hi all. Great discussion. I’ve had a very different experience from Belinda. As an older student (almost a senior citizen!), I wanted to study further but didn’t have an honours degree. I had completed my undergraduate degree, a Bachelor of Education and a Higher Diploma in Education, many years before and after being granted Recognition of Prior Learning, I was registered for a Masters in Education. I’m studying at a university in Durban, South Africa.

    As I had trained as guide at the local Holocaust Museum, I wanted to pursue my studies in Holocaust Education but there was no coursework available at the university for this. I therefore did my masters, which I completed in 2011, by full dissertation. What a fantastic experience. I worked very closely with my supervisor and never once felt like a second class citizen. Rather, in every contact I had with staff or students, I was made to feel rather special, as I was doing something unique.

    I’m currently in my first year of a PhD and have found my masters experience invaluable. I understand the structure of what I’m required to do (it’s basically a bigger version of what I’ve already accomplished) unlike many of the coursework masters students now in my PhD cohort who feel a bit at sea.

    I hope this adds a different dimension to those of you who feel undervalued. Remember, everything you do through your own efforts benefits you in the long run.

  14. anthokosmos says:

    • Great discussion, great post and tips! But Belinda just think of being Greek, architect and doing a MPhil and a PhD. in the south of Europe in Spain (as I do) and then you can get a wider aspect of the second class citizens and how to look the future. Not been feeling much love in academic places is the most common. But as far as I am concerned I have found that big part of these feelings of not acceptance was the result of an education based on ideals and hopes. Being good and obedient student and then all will come…but not….I vote for the “Be a squeaky wheel” and demythologize of titles and academics….

  15. Jennifer McLaren says:

    This is a really interesting discussion. I am in the first intake of students at Macquarie Uni in Sydney in the Masters of Research degree. I have had an almost entirely positive experience thus far. Macquarie no longer offers Honours, so if undergrads wanted to pursue further study, MRes was the only option. It has been structured as a feeder degree for PhD, apparently in accordance with the Bologna Model common in Europe and the US (3yr undergrad-2yr Masters-3yr PhD). Rather than feeling like a second-class citizen, I often feel a bit overwhelmed as the expectation is that MRes students will go on to do a PhD – our Master thesis in theory will be our draft Chapter 1 of PhD. As I understand the monetary value of PhD students to the university and faculty, I feel as though my academic journey is being well-nurtured to give me every opportunity to succeed. Perhaps this is a reflection of the environment in my department at Macquarie, but the staff take a keen interest in every student at Masters level, from what I can tell. The fact that Macquarie is funding MRes students with a stipend also helps, I must admit!

  16. Jillian says:

    Great tips Belinda. I haven’t felt that way studying my Masters by Research at my Uni but you make a valid point. Many people (non-academic) assume that I’m doing a PhD because I am doing research but I let them know that I’m doing my Masters and it is my pathway to a PhD. If I want to find research tips etc on social media then I tend to look up ‘PhD’ on Facebook and Twitter. I also think that there are more students doing a PhD than a Masters by Research. At the Uni I attend, the majority of students doing their Masters in Education are doing it by coursework. I find that people mostly associate the terms ‘research’ and ‘thesis’ with a PhD.

  17. BJ says:

    Try being a professional doctorate student. At least people know what a masters is. Prof doc…whats that?

  18. Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho says:

    Here in Finland, most university students aim for the Master’s degree (there’s a Bachelor’s degree but it’s regarded as a waypoint, not an end in itself). I wonder why the Master’s degree varies so much between countries.

    • Peter says:

      Finland does not have an honours degree as prep for PhD, not a master or “magister”. This weird extra degree in Australia means that a master degree is usually for people who have graduated in something else and worked a while. Finns can study longer because they get free higher ed, subsidised housing and food. Masters degrees in Australia are comparably expensive.

      • Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho says:

        I’m not sure what you mean by “not a master or “magister””. However, there’s the Licentiate degree, which traditionally was done by PhD students along the way, now only rarely so (some people do stop after their Lic).

      • Peter says:

        Sorry, typo. I meant that Finland does not have an honours degree, it has a master/magister (the Swedish language description of a 1-2 year master involving about 50-75% coursework and 25-50% research).

        From my interactions with Finnish students, the master is usually an extension of the bachelor degree (i.e. within the same discipline), which is similar to the honours degree in Australia. In Australia and other countries, the master is often not directly related to the bachelor degree. I think this is implied also in the Bologna 3-2-3 model for bachelor-master-PhD, whereby they are separate degrees.

        I think the great differences in terms of what a masters degree is across countries reflects the labour market for entry-level jobs. Generally, in countries where there is a very high particpation rate in higher ed, the masters degree has become the standard for entry-level positions in govt and business. In Australia, it is still the bachelor degree. I had 2 bachelor degrees (a double degree) at the age of 21, and went straight into a graduate employment program in govt. This was quite normal at the time. Some others were 20 and with a single 3 year bachelor degree. Such a situation would be unheard of in Finland where military service, longer times to graduation and a more competitive labour market prevails.

        However, the situation in Australia is probably going to change, two leading AU unis, Melbourne and UWA, have already introduced masters degrees to replace bachelor programs. As more Aussies get bachelors degrees, the MA will become the competitive standard, like in Finland.


  19. Bernie Anderson says:

    I am working on a research Masters through the University of South Africa (I believe South Africa follows a similar system to the UK), and for what I’m doing, I find the posts on this site to be incredibly relevant and helpful. For what it’s worth…

  20. Ria Pi says:

    So interesting! In the countries I’ve studied in, France and Switzerland, it is sort of unthinkable to apply for a PhD without going through a master’s degree first. The programs can vary quite a bit, but in my field (behavioural biology), they will include some core compulsory courses and mostly electives in addition to the thesis, which is often more intensely supervised. The PhD is when you get to really focus on your research.

    • Ivica says:

      Or in other words, fake it till you make it. Sage advice. And I toallty empathize with how you feel. I feel exactly the same way when I lecture at writers association meetings, do workshops, et cetera. Why do they want to know what I have to say? Why are they _paying_ me to blather on at them? It’s weird. But they do it, and all I can do is my best to give em their money’s worth.When I think about how long it took me to realize that fake it till you make it is not actually _faking_ anything, that this is just how things work, I also realize that it’s probably one of the best lessons I can pass on to my kids. If I can teach them to be confident in the value of what they can share with others, and that everybody’s just out there putting on a good show, maybe they won’t waste so many years of their lives telling themselves no’ like I did.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Whilst I agree absolutely that MPhil students should have the same access as the PhDs to funding and support services, I think there is more than one problem wrapped up in this post.

    First, it’s pointless not pretend that the MPhil students are not at a more junior stage of research training than the PhDs. An Australian MPhil is 60,000 words vs. the PhD’s 100,000; more importantly, an MPhil is exempted from the two great pillars of doctoral examination — original research and a ‘substantial contribution’ to the field. Therefore, it seems perfectly logical to me that the PhD applicants be prioritised by departmental funding committees, because the PhD students are supposed to be contributing directly to the university’s research output, whereas MPhil students are usually revisiting ground already established in the field. This training is undeniably important for the MPhil student, but it’s often no gain to the department. This may not be so in Belinda’s case, but in principle I consider the ‘discrimination’ against MPhil students in the funding stakes as a function of the impoverished state of universities. Given a hard choice, of course departments are going to back the students with stronger research credentials and more ambitious projects – i.e. the PhD students.

    The second problem is the untenable position of the MPhil in the Australian postgraduate curriculum. Universities like the ANU, which offer both research (MPhil) and coursework-research combined masters degrees (e.g. MA or MSc.) have inadvertently turned the MPhil into a sort of pariah — most people’s attitude is that you get an Honours degree (‘baby’ research training, as it were), followed by a coursework-research Masters if you want or need one (higher-level research training), and finally you get a doctorate, which is hard-core research training mimicking the experience of the professional academic. An MPhil therefore evokes the response ‘why would you need one?’ It’s fallen into the gap between other, more commonly-recognised qualifications, and so it gets a bit ignored. This is compounded by the fact that weaker students, or those with less proven research background, are often encouraged to ‘start’ with an MPhil and ‘upgrade’ to a PhD if they find they can. The ANU’s HDR admission procedures (in Eng. and Comp. Sci, anyway) actually separate the two degrees according to the supervisor’s opinion of the student. The supervisor, or the academic reviewing the applicant file, is required to sign off on one degree OR the other, and the MPhil is regarded as the option that should be offered if the supervisor cannot be sure of the student’s potential. It is thus regarded by some as a second class or ‘probationary’ state. The number of MPhil students who ultimately fail to submit (again, in Eng. and Comp. Sci.) is taken to justify this approach, but it’s a chicken and egg situation — do they drop out because they were not suited to research-intensive projects, or because they were denied the same levels of funding, supervision and validation that the PhD students get?

    • Belinda Duke (@BelindaJDuke) says:

      HI, Thanks for you feed back.
      I agree with both points you make. I think it’s incredibly sad that a monetary value is placed on my research. My research is both original and substantially contributing to the field… it’s just not as big. I fully understand why universities rank it this way, I just wish they didn’t make it out that it is a waste of time under taking such research. I think a Masters is an important step towards undertaking a PhD. Doing an honours thesis was valuable, but really is nothing compared to the huge undertaking of designing, implementing and completing a PhD research project. I feel in my case, I am often wondering why offer the degree if no one is willing to support the student?
      You also raise a great point about the dropout rate of masters students. I do wonder how they compare to the PhD. I have seen many before me dropout because they did not have the support they needed from the university. In the tough times of working three jobs and trying to somehow mange my research, dropping out has passed my mind a few times. I would like to think with greater support from my university, that this issue would never come up.
      I know I am living in a land of fantasy thinking research students might one day all be equally treated. I just hope that Australian universities head in a better direction towards being on par with the rest of the world.

      • Anonymous says:

        Hi Belinda, Glad you found my points useful — I didn’t want you to think I was bagging MPhil students!

        Regarding your question about why offer the MPhil if you’re not prepared to support the students: it’s probably different in other disciplines, but in the Humanities (well, at the ANU, anyway), the coursework-thesis MA and research-only MPhil are regarded as having two distinctly different purposes. The MA is for people who may well be intending to get a PhD, but want or need the interim stage of research training between Honours and PhD. The MPhil is intended exclusively for students who are unlikely to go on to a PhD, but prefer a research-only model to coursework-research combined. The only ANU MPhil students I’m aware of in Humanities who have gone on to PhD work are those who obtained the MPhil with a view to going overseas for doctoral work, especially to the UK, where universities are notoriously ignorant of how the Aussie system works, and where they see the coursework-research (MA) Masters model as an American convention with less weight in terms of allocating scholarships. Don’t know whether this has any bearing on your situation. All I’m saying is that I think one consideration for Australian universities is how to make their qualifications tick the ‘international marketability’ box, when different countries and different fields value different types of training. We’re a bit of a funny tertiary hybrid down-under!

        Finally, as a fellow Queenslander, and someone who grew up in Townsville when there was no National grid electricity, and there were nearly as many Black Hawks as people, I salute you! Good luck with the project!

    • Peter says:

      I appreciate your comment and mostly agree with it, but I don’t think you should assume all PhDs have “stronger research credentials and more ambitious projects”.

      People entering MPhil will often have similar research credentials (i.e. an undergrad degree) and ambition is not necessarily the same as length or size of the project. Where I currently work (in Australia), masters students regularly have their research published in peer reviewed channels out of their thesis. It is just smaller scale and often in journals of more professional orientation. I also published articles based on my MPhil degree.

      I think MPhils should be provided equal access to resources and judged based on their merit. My main gripe/rant with the master/MPhil is that it does not integrate well with the PhD in Australia. I did a one-year master in the EU and was told it was not equivalent to an honours degree in AU. I did another 2-year master in the EU and the uni I work for recognise it, but will not allow me to use these articles in a PhD (all articles and research included in the PhD must be completed after official enrollment). I chose to enroll externally at a uni in the EU that would. It seems like a waste to me.

  22. Belinda Duke (@BelindaJDuke) says:

    Thank you everyone for the great feedback. I am so pleased to see some debate over the state of the Masters student in the Australian university system. So many side issues have been raised that I hadn’t really considered.
    Big thanks to the Thesis Whisperer for allowing to me get my opinion out there and connect me with other Masters students who are feeling a little left out. I think a support group maybe in order!

  23. Composition of parliament says:

    Well i would go in the favor of second half of the sentence “Academic Geniuses”, although there are rarely allowed to contribute towards the real development of the nation, yet when they are provided with an appropriate chance, they always come up with their best.

  24. FrancesB says:

    I have had a different expereince. I deliberately chose to come to my PhD in small steps because I wanted to get a solid understanding of the area in which I am working. I stated with q graduate certificate, then when the opportunity came undertook the extra study to convert it to a Masters by coursework and then converted that to a Masters (Honours) by doing a research year. Those experiences gave me the confidence to aply for (and be accepted into) a PhD. I haven’t felt a second-class citizen during any of this process. Perhaps my School (Public Health at Sydney Uni) is unusually inclusive int hese things.

  25. Julio says:

    I guess I didn’t tell you about the incident lol send me a text. The 3DS I aculltay bought in like June or whatever but then I saw the 3DS XL on the internet a week later, so I returned the 3DS and had been holding onto a Gamestop card with $180 on it. 3DS XL is only $20 more lmfao

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