Upgrading from Masters to PhD


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 world.edu 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.

Author Bio: Jonathan O’Donnell has spent most of his career in universities, helping academics to find funding for their research.