Upgrading from Masters to PhD

In Australia, enrolling in a Masters by research (or ‘MPhil’) it is a relatively common pathway to a PhD, but how hard is it to achieve the ‘upgrade’? This post is by Jonathan O’Donnell, who has spent most of his career in universities, helping academics to find funding for their research. His doctoral research looks at crowdfunding as a model for funding research. He runs the Research Whisperer, with his colleague, Dr Tseen Khoo of Latrobe University. It is the absolute favourite bit of his professional world.

I recently upgraded from my Masters by Research program to a PhD. A little while afterwards, I received this enquiry from a colleague:

“I have a friend who wants to start a PhD, preferably with an Aussie university. He has done several years of fieldwork already but has no Masters, just an honours from a UK university. Can you give me some info into the process of starting a project as a Masters and then upgrading to a PhD.  It may be the best route for him to take.”

I thought that my reply might be helpful for other Thesis Whisperer readers. Here is what I wrote (with a bit of judicious editing).

First of all, I should say that I don’t really know what I’m talking about. This advice reflects my own personal experience, which is based on my enrolment at RMIT, in Australia. If you are thinking about doing this, please get advice from your chosen university first.

I’m sure that processes will vary between universities, but here is the main story, as I understand it.

All universities want to know that you will be a good bet when you enroll for a PhD. The standard way to show that is to have done a good honours degree and/or a Masters. However, not everybody has gone down that route. Some have been in industry. Some haven’t had the opportunity due to socio-economic or other personal reasons. So some universities provide another route (sort of like mature aged entry into an undergrad degree).

At RMIT I enrolled in a Masters by Research as a stepping stone towards a PhD. This gave the university some comfort, as they could see whether I’d be a good fit or not. It also gave me a way out, if it wasn’t working. I could graduate with a Masters, and everybody would still be happy. Also, I felt that, if it all went completely to hell, I’d feel better dropping out of a Masters than a PhD (I don’t know why).

In Australia, all Higher Degree by Research courses (Masters and PhD) have milestones – Confirmation of candidature; Mid-candidature; and Completion. I’m doing my studies part time, so I came up for the Masters confirmation of candidature after two years. That seemed to go OK.

My next milestone for the Masters was my mid-candidature. Because I wanted to upgrade to a PhD, this became the confirmation of candidature for my PhD. That is, if I did well enough, I would be confirmed as a PhD student, and all the work that I’d done towards my Masters would be counted towards my PhD.

That’s what I did last month. It went very well.

My plan is to do a PhD with publications, and one of my supervisors was worried that I hadn’t done enough writing. I had one journal article under review and had done another conference paper. She would have preferred two or three journal papers, preferably with one accepted. But in the end, the review committee was very happy with my progress.

It they hadn’t been happy, I guess they could have either:

  • Accepted that I’d passed the mid-candidature of my Masters (and allowed me to continue the Masters), but not confirmed me as a PhD student.
  • OR if I’d done really badly, they might have had reservations about my progress in my Masters (which would have nixed any suggestion of a PhD).

But my supervisors were happy with my progress (mostly), and I did a practice presentation about four months ago, so there was lots of scaffolding to make sure that I didn’t fall.

As always, the wonderful Thesis Whisperer, Inger Mewburn, has a great article about how to get into a PhD program that might help. The bit that you want is the last couple of paragraphs: “…you can try enrolling in a ‘lower degree’ with the intention to apply for a transfer to a PhD.”

Good advice from that article, and borne out in some of the comments is:

  • Work out who you want as a supervisor, and get them on-board first. They may smooth the way for you (or rescue your application if it gets mangled by the bureaucracy).
  • Look for someone who has grant funding in the area, as that may make it easier to cover costs (e.g. fieldwork) and maybe even a stipend. This will vary according to discipline. In most Social Sciences, Humanities & Business (where I am) your project has little or no relationship to your supervisors work. But it may be different in your field.

If you want to work out who has funding in Australia, use my handy guide to searching the ARC database of funded grants.

The big caveat is that I’m not sure that all universities will allow students to do this. I’m studying at RMIT in Melbourne – it isn’t a ‘tier one’ university. Elite universities might be a bit more picky – they may require students to do a full Masters, and then enroll in a PhD (madness, in my opinion). I have no idea how this works overseas.

So there you have it – enroll in a Masters, prove that you can do some work and then upgrade to a PhD. Seems to be working for me. Maybe it will work for your friend, too.

Thanks Jonathan

Related Posts

Masters students: second class citizens?

PhD to … start up?

25 thoughts on “Upgrading from Masters to PhD

  1. Great article! I did not go this route myself, but I will keep it in mind for anyone else who does.
    Just one thing made my go “whaaaaat????”, though.
    In what universe is it possible to have two or three journal articles together when you haven’t even completed candidature?
    This seems totally bonkers, not to say far too much pressure on a prospective candidate.
    I would not want to have a supervisor like that one!

    • Thanks for this. I was trying to publish all of my work as articles, rather than write them as chapters. So you can translate this to ‘two or three chapters’ (eg introduction, lit review, methodology…).

      I had done a desk audit of what research crowdfunding campaigns were out there, and had interviewed (but not fully analysed) people. So I had data in hand.

  2. Here at ANU Crawford School of Public Policy we don’t have a masters by research. We require either honours or masters to enrol in the PhD. MPhil is in theory an exit path if the PhD doesn’t go well but in practice I don’t see it happening ever.

    • Thanks, David

      I think that there is a big difference, in both attitude and practice, between how the Group of Eight handle PhD students, versus other universities. My route is relatively common at RMIT.

  3. Great work Jonathon, I enrolled in the Masters at La Trobe (yes with the awesome Tseen) after year of being in the field of social work. With English as a second language and being far from any studies for nearly 15 years this worked out very well for me. I upgraded to a PhD after three years, I have five years to complete my PhD (with publications). La Trobe has been very good and I am very grateful for the opportunities, support and my supervisors. It is a looooooong road though!

    • Yes. I’m finding that there are so many other exciting things to do, that it is hard to stay focused.

  4. Thanks for this article. I enrolled in a Masters degree on the advice of a professor and I’m hoping to convert to a PhD. If I can’t convert, then I’m damn well going to work at a PhD standard although obviously I’ll have fewer (allowed) words for my thesis. It’s good to see others steaming ahead on the path I hope to follow.

    • Thanks, PhDpeeps. As I move forward, I become less and less sure about what standard I am working to. 🙂
      I know more about my topic, but I’m less sure that what I’m saying is very interesting. I’m sure I’ll get there, though.

  5. Do Australian universities ever accept someone for a PhD and then downgrade to an MPhil if it’s not working out? This is basically what’s done in the US in many fields.

    I’m currently applying to a top university in Australia from the US. I have an MS and a BS and a lot of PhD-level coursework, but no published research yet because in my field it is very unusual for people to publish prior to the doctoral dissertation.

    • Yes, a downgrade is a common exit point for people who do not wish to complete. Sometimes it is offered as a qualification instead of a Phd to someone who has not achieved the results desired by the supervision team

      • Thanks Dr. Mewburn. Since I only have a “coursework” MS, I’m a little concerned that I won’t be accepted directly as a PhD student. My prospective supervisor says that I’m qualified to start the PhD, which I hope is good enough. How much influence does the supervisor have over the admissions decision?

    • Hi, Hopeful applicant

      How much influence the supervisor has over the admissions decision depends on the university, and on the supervisor, I think.

      Remember that people come to PhDs with a wide variety of experience, including years in industry. So the university processes (ideally) should be robust enough to cope with a wide variety of situations.

  6. In 2003, I enrolled for a part-time Masters of Arts (in creative writing) at Victoria University. For my Masters’ confirmation of candidature, I wrote a PhD-level proposal and then was accepted into the PhD degree on that basis. The usual conversion pathway at the time was to pass your Masters-level confirmation of candidature and then submit a PhD-level confirmation of candidature later on. It did take a lot to persuade the Faculty to allow me to even attempt to upgrade at such an early stage. However, I argued that if my candidature proposal was strong enough, then why shouldn’t they accept me into the PhD? I have no idea whether other disciplines or indeed other universities would be amenable to a similar proposal, but I imagine it would be worth trying.

  7. Hi Jonathan,
    I upgraded at confirmation for my Masters of Ed. I already had a MA (Research) so it was logical to upgrade at this time. Group of eight uni. Lots of support from my supervisor.

    • Thank, Kate.

      David Stern, at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, said something similar in his comment.

      However Megan said that she was able to do this at a Group of Eight university. I thought that it might be a Group of Eight versus the rest thing, but maybe it is just ANU.

  8. Interesting… For a part-time masters I would have thought confirmation was at 12 months, because full time is 6 months…

    I also find it interesting you were upgraded to a confirmed PhD candidate, that’s some solid work. Not always possible, and harder to have approved in other institutions.

    • Thanks. From the comments here, it is pretty clear that it varies widely, even across universities in Australia.

      Maybe my Masters confirmation was at 12 months – I’d need to go back and check my dates. One of the issues with doing it part time is that the paper trail gets sooooo long. 🙂

  9. Another data point …

    I have a BE Hons from UoN and embarked on a P/T ME by research at UNSW which I didn’t complete due to job changes, promotions, etc. More than a decade later I applied to do a F/T PhD at USyd. I was accepted as a MPhil candidate with upgrade to PhD subject to satisfactory progress. At the end of the year, in spite of not having submitted any journal papers, my PhD candidature was confirmed due to sufficient progress being made during that year.

    I give credit to having a fantastic supervisor and an engaged review panel. So it is certainly possible to get the upgrade without getting anything published. Realistically, at best, you would have a good literature review and some preliminary results by the end of the first year.

    • Thanks, CyberFronic. Supervisors are key to all of this, I think.

      The two review panels that I’ve had were really good – hard but fair. I made public presentations for both my reviews (mostly friends and colleagues), which doesn’t seem to be the norm.

      Thanks for your comment.

  10. As a supervisor in a NZ university this has comes up once so far. It was a battle as University preference was for completion of the Master first as it was ‘better’. Not sure who it was better for. Anyway she showed them finishing in 2 1/2 years and multiple publications.

  11. Here at ANU Crawford School of Public Policy we don’t have a masters by research. We require either honours or masters to enrol in the PhD. MPhil is in theory an exit path if the PhD doesn’t go well but in practice I don’t see it happening ever.

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