Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Grad Study in Australia

If you are from the United States and are thinking about a graduate degree (PhD) in Australia, you should take a hard look at the program of study. I have looked at the system for three years now and have come to conclude that, for me, it is not the best decision.

1. The degree is paid for by the govt. Once accepted the program is paid for but the schools do not get paid anything the student's dissertation is approved (accepted). This is good in that there is no fees for Perm Res. and Citizens (like me). Problem: there is a motivation to push the PhD student through as fast as possible. Some schools are referred to as battery farms, USYD School of IT for example.

2. It is difficult to get research funding. Where it is/was widespread in the USA in Computer Science, it is the exception here. This means that most students must have part time jobs to feed themselves or acquire fantastic loan balances. Few RA positions and no TA positions. This also impacts the amount of research the student can do. I believe you get a better student and subsequently better graduates if you immerse the student in their field of interest rather than have them foraging for food and shelter half the time.

3. The dissertation is not defended in a semi-public forum like most US universities. The requirement is usually to have three journal/conference papers before you can submit your dissertation. Your stature here depends upon the number of journal publications you make and the quality of the journals (yet another problem which I will not discuss). This has a side effect of creating many publications which contain minimal content or changes - little signal with a lot of noise. The US institutions require publications as well, but I think a rigorous evaluation in an open forum by my committee and my peers is an additional valuable test.

4. There is no comprehensive test to gain entry in PhD programs I have seen here. It is done by evaluating your transcripts in an ad-hoc manor. The do however take Honors programs very seriously here. But the point I would make is that there are major difference between the way schools teach Computer Science and there is no check and balance to see how broad the knowledge base is. Additionally, this tendency to weight transcripts towards honors is faulted. The honor student may well be preoccupied so much with grades that they tend to take the "safe" classes and avoid the growth they might achieve by taking a more interesting, yet possibly more difficult class as an undergrad or a Masters level student. As a Masters student, the concept of honors was foreign to me and so I took a variety of painful yet very interesting classes. These classes in turn gave me a broad-based education which I believe is superior to the equivalent Australian institution.

5. A PhD from most Australian universities is perceived as less valuable than from a university in the USA, possibly because of previous points I brought up. But consider this: an Australia PhD ~= 3 years while USA PhD ~= 4 years. Does time make a better graduate?

6. In Australia you can't choose your dissertation committee, it is chosen by the school. Either way this can be a disaster, but I would rather it be MY disaster. I want to choose the best people to evaluate my work. In the same vein, where in the USA you have a thesis advisor, in Australia you have a thesis supervisor. The system is more authoritarian to be sure.

7. Some PhD students in Australian universities work in comparative isolation. They aren't generally required to give colloquia although PhD students are expected to speak at conference. A friend of mine, a kiwi who just graduated with PhD from Sydney Uni felt completely alone. I prefer to be in the thick of things, being a social animal.

8. There is no teaching requirement. In fact, you will not go far if you state that you are even slightly interested in teaching. I would like to do some teaching just to get down the subjects I like the most (which are most of Computer Science).

What Australian universities do well:
The Australian universities are very good at research and they teach their students how to do it right. USA universities could take some pointers on that score. Graduates here tend to be very narrowly focused and can do brilliantly if you don't expect too much lateral thinking.

Both in the USA and Australia funding is being hacked away by the government and by an unproductive overburden of administration. I think the Australians are micromanaged by their system and that they waste a good deal of time and money with useless planning and then trying to account for every bit of funding. This creates in some research environments like CSIRO the feeling that you are working in some kind of research gulag or futuristic dystopia. Details of your life, interests, future plans, and research known and tracked by "the man".