Postgraduate Study

Further study has become commonplace in today’s competitive job market. Around 20 per cent of bachelor degree graduates immediately go on to further study (either part- or full-time) and many others do so at some point later in their careers.

Of those enrolled in study in 2008 over 27 per cent were in some form of postgraduate study (nearly 5 per cent in a research qualification), up from 16 per cent in 1996 (DEEWR Selected Higher Education Statistics 2008). However, the number of people between 15 and 64 who have postgraduate qualifications nationwide is only 6.2 per cent, as opposed to the 15.8 per cent whose highest qualification is a bachelor degree (‘ABS Education and Work, Australia 6227.0 May 2008’).

Types of postgraduate study

Want to undertake postgraduate study but daunted by the array of courses and confusing terminology? You are not alone. The different qualification levels available can be confusing if you are not familiar with standard postgraduate concepts and structures.


Some Australian universities offer an honours year as part of an undergraduate qualification. But it is generally considered a postgraduate year because a bachelor degree can be completed without it. To be eligible for honours, students need a high grade point average (GPA) for their core undergraduate years. An honours year contains both a research project and a course work component. In some disciplines, such as Science or Humanities, honours is considered a stepping stone toward a research career.


  • A Graduate Certificate (Grad Cert) can be completed with a three-year bachelor degree under your belt and usually takes one semester full-time (two semesters part-time). A relevant undergraduate degree is often required, however appropriate work experience can sometimes count.
  • A Graduate/Postgraduate Diploma (Grad Dip/PG Dip) is a step up from the Grad Cert and is generally one year full-time study (two years part-time). Often it can be continued on from the Grad Cert and requires similar prerequisites.
  • Masters by Coursework is similar to the Grad Cert and Dip, and requires a relevant undergraduate qualification or some form of relevant work experience. A masters usually takes 18 months to complete full time.

The structure of each qualification varies according to the discipline. They are usually structured like an undergraduate course; students enrol in a series of units and complete a certain amount of ‘credit points’.

  • The Professional Doctorate is considered a coursework qualification; it endows the title of Doctor and has an equivalent education level to a PhD. Where a PhD is most often an avenue to a career in academia, the professional doctorate caters for those wishing to pursue non-academia based careers (though not exclusively so).


  • Masters by Research is completed wholly on the basis of a research project. The student is paired with a supervisor whose interests align with the project. The thesis is examined on completion (usually two years full-time) and the degree conferred.
  • Doctorate by research or PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) is the highest degree that a university confers. It is similar to the masters by research, with a thesis submitted to examiners who determine whether the research work (generally carried out over four years) is worthy of the qualification. PhD candidates must, through their theses, demonstrate that they have made some original contribution to their fields. Once graduated, the candidate may use the title of Doctor.

Making the decision

Individuals choose to undertake postgraduate study at all stages of life, not necessarily directly following an undergraduate degree. Many graduates revise their career goals after a few years of work experience, which often leads to further study.

People undertake further study for a range of reasons, including:

  • to boost salary or employment prospects
  • to upgrade or specialise skills/knowledge
  • for career progression or change
  • for personal development or interest
  • for prestige or reputation
  • as a requirement for a specific occupation
  • to be seen by employers as more qualified than the next candidate.

Whatever your reasons for considering postgraduate study it is important to consider:

  • Lifestyle costs: will it leave you time for other activities (e.g. family or other work commitments)?
  • Employers fill vacancies based on a range of criteria, one of which may or may not be a postgraduate qualification.
  • Financial costs and rewards.


Regardless of how you intend to pay for your postgraduate qualification, look at the return on your investment. Qualifications don’t come cheaply and course and book costs can vary considerably between universities and subjects. Also take into account the loss of income if you have to give up work or move into a part-time role.

At the same time, most postgraduate courses significantly enhance employability. Research indicates that typical salaries for postgraduates are substantially higher than for bachelor graduates. However, postgraduates are generally older and have more work experience, and the impact of postgraduate study is difficult to measure.

Many universities provide scholarships to candidates who meet certain criteria, such as low income or of an Indigenous background. Other available financial support options include:

  • Australian Postgraduate Awards (APA): Specific scholarships available for postgraduate research students who show potential.
  • Austudy: Some postgraduate students now have access to income support through Austudy. Access may extend to students enrolled in Grad Cert, Grad Dip/PG Dip and honours programs, and masters by coursework, however eligibility does vary depending on the type of course.
  • Cooperative Research Centres Program (CRC): The CRC Program brings together researchers and research users, and emphasises the importance of collaborative research. Given the strong education component with a focus on producing graduates with skills relevant to industry needs, there are often industry/discipline-specific scholarships available. It is worth investigating what CRCs exist that relate to your discipline area and whether any are connected to your university of choice.
  • Employer Assistance: If you are already in some form of employment and your future study needs are directly beneficial to your current employer, it can be worthwhile approaching your organisation to ask for some form of assistance. Data from Graduate Careers Australia indicates that around 37 per cent of postgraduate students (who worked in their final year of study) gained some form of study-related financial assistance from their employer, while around 63 per cent also gained time off to assist their studies (Postgraduate Destinations 2008, GCA).
  • FEE-HELP: Similar to the HECS scheme for undergraduate study. Under this program the government pays all or part of a student’s tuition fees, which the student repays through tax after graduating.
  • Joint Academic Scholarship Online Network (JASON): A postgraduate scholarship search engine/database relevant to both Australian students wishing to study at home or abroad, and to international students wishing to study in Australia.
  • The Complete Guide to Postgraduate Funding Worldwide: An authoritative and comprehensive guide to postgraduate and professional funding.

Making the most of postgraduate study support structures

Most Australian universities have a range of services to support both undergraduate and postgraduate students, such as postgraduate centres, health services and study workshops. Some campuses have dedicated support services for postgraduate students, usually provided by independent postgraduate student associations.

Many career services at Australian universities are becoming aware of the needs of postgraduate students and have dedicated counsellors who specialise in this area.

Utilising your university careers service can ensure you make the most of your study and strategically plan where it is taking you, rather than waiting until completing your course to think about your career options.

Time management

By undertaking further study you will have added another task to what may already be a busy life, so planning how to use your time productively is important.

Plan ahead and make sure you set aside time to:

  • write assignments
  • study for exams
  • spend time with your family
  • enjoy leisure time for yourself
  • meet with your supervisor.

Whatever your goal for your future, further study is a unique opportunity to expand your horizons and grow as a person. Enjoy it!

{The above article contains edited extracts of “Enhancing Careers Through Postgraduate Study”, published by GCA, 2007 (author: Dr Alan McAlpine, Queensland University of Technology)}.


The typical median annual salary for a new postgraduate increased to $68,600 in 2009 (up by $3,600 from 2008).

Across all levels of postgraduate qualification, male graduates are paid between $4,000-15,000 more than female graduates in full-time roles. This ‘wage gap’ is due to a number of factors, including varying male to female ratios in different courses, which results in different employment outcomes for men and women (Postgraduate Destinations 2009, GCA).

Detailed information on postgraduate salaries and destinations is available in Grad Jobs and Dollars, Graduate Careers Australia’s searchable graduate destination database.

Top tips

  • Be clear about your reasons for undertaking further study and the financial and lifestyle implications.
  • Research how your study may impact your future employability and career options.
  • Investigate different modes of study (part-time, distance) and what level of qualification suits your needs.
  • Investigate all available options to fund both your fees and your living expenses while studying.
  • If choosing a research degree, do your homework on the institution and your research supervisor to make sure they meet your needs.
  • Find out about all university support services available. Which ones will you engage with during your time as a student?
  • Develop a rough plan of skills you hope to develop during your study.
  • When choosing to undertake a particular qualification speak with your institution to ensure that it meets your personal and professional needs.

There is a huge variety of postgraduate courses available. The type and range of postgraduate options within a given discipline are influenced by the history and nature of the area of study, student demand, workforce trends, skills shortages and the state of the economy. Below are postgraduate study snapshots of the most common disciplines.

Postgrad Voice:

“I chose to undertake a PhD because it offers a tremendous amount of freedom in my work, with substantial resources made available to support me. The independence and initiative this generates is essential for leading an academic research team, and is highly regarded in industry.”
— David Perry, PhD Candidate, graduating Dec 2010, The Bionic Ear Institute & University of Melbourne (Department of Otolaryngology)

“A change in course structure triggered my decision to undertake the Master of Architecture (Design). Midway through my Bachelor of Architecture/Bachelor of Construction Management, the option to transfer into a new masters program seemed a logical choice as it could be achieved in the same time as the original bachelor degrees. However, the choice to pursue a masters also enhances the educational achievements of my CV and should prove beneficial in the widespread search for employment.”
— Claude Di Rosso, Master of Architecture (Design), completed 2009, Deakin University