In Australia, when you want to do a PhD, you only would need first class honours (some universities even accept second class honours upper division). For instance, please see the self assessment for the Australian National University:

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I guess that most of the UK universities have the same requirements (at least Cambridge and Oxford).

Why do almost all US/Canadian universities make you do a Master's (before doing PhD) even if you have a first class honours from Australia?

I think the time that is spent for studying masters, can be saved for postdoc; on the other hand, UK/Australian PhD programs takes 3-4 years but US/Canadian PhD programs are much longer.

  • The University of Texas at Austin admitted me to a PhD program with just a Bachelor of Science degree. Not all top US universities require a Master's to enroll in their PhD programs. I could have gotten a Master's degree along the way during my PhD program, but I chose not to do so. – Bill Barth Jun 9 '16 at 14:10
  • @BillBarth, I am guessing that the OP is asking about the first two years of coursework when you are admitted to a PhD program. You may or may not choose to get a master's degree from it. But in any case you need to go through it. Or can you skip it if you already have a master's from a good university and taken all those courses and beyond? – John Jun 9 '16 at 14:16
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    @Bill Barth: I've been in several Ph.D. programs (long story), and none of them required a Masters. What you did have to do was pass the Ph.D. qualifying exams within a certain time constraint and/or with a certain number of attempts. There were course requirements as well, but these were generally not much of a concern (unless you thought you wouldn't pass the Ph.D. exams and needed a Masters to fall back on) and probably would be waved or altered (i.e. allow advanced graduate level courses to substitute) if a student passed the exams upon entry to the program. (This pertains to math.) – Dave L Renfro Jun 9 '16 at 16:44
  • @DaveLRenfro, that sounds like a much authentic explanation. I recommend you to convert your comment into an answer. Currently, the other answers are from confusing to incorrect. – John Jun 9 '16 at 16:49
  • @DaveLRenfro, that was my experience. Took me 2 tries to pass the UT ASE written qual, but I passed the oral a few months latter with only a few minutes of deliberation. There was a Master's-worth of coursework to do before I got to the point of taking the quals, but that's no surprise to me then or now. There was no entry requirement to already have a Master's since there was a Master's-worth of required courses in the first two years of every STEM PhD program at UT that I had any exposure to (friends, friendly profs, etc.). – Bill Barth Jun 9 '16 at 16:59

The principal difference between degrees in the US and Canada and those obtained in other countries is that the bachelor's degree in the US typically contains fewer "technical" courses than a comparable bachelor's degree from other countries. For instance, a student in economics may only have twelve courses total across four years that are economics courses; the typical international student may have twice as many. This is because most US and Canadian schools incorporate a "general studies" requirement into their degrees, which reduces the amount of credits available for the major.

Consequently, the coursework phase of the PhD program is to bring everybody up to the same level—also a necessity, given the diversity of undergraduate curricula—before moving on to the research phase.

Also note that this is not a universal requirement. Some programs will admit directly to the PhD with only a four-year undergraduate degree, with no expectations or requirements of acquiring a master's degree. (This is my case—I have no master's.)

  • so were you able to skip the 1-2 years of coursework? Whether you get a master's or not from the US university, it is the 2 years of coursework and the qualifying exam that seem compulsory even if you have a master's from another university outside the US. Or am I mistaken? – John Jun 9 '16 at 14:31
  • Also, @aeismail, are you asked to take the 'general studies' courses to get your master's in the USA, if you have done your master's with 'technical subjects', or only further technical subjects? The former case would be bizarre (e.g., a student admitted for a PhD in Physics asked to take an undergraduate French Literature course so that he/she could complete requirements of a master's!), and the latter case can be a waste of time (retaking the courses instead of learning newer things) for the student. I am sure the US universities must be following some different system. – John Jun 9 '16 at 16:30
  • @John what you describe can happen — actually especially with languages as many masters and PhD programs require competency in a foreign language, but many bachelor programs don't. I always have at least one graduate student in my lower level courses when I teach them. – user0721090601 Jun 9 '16 at 18:32
  • @John: No, because I hadn't taken it yet. – aeismail Jun 9 '16 at 23:45

My experience suggests that the premise of this question is not correct. In general, US universities do not require that Australians with an honours degree to do a Masters before entering the PhD program. I did an honours degree (in pure Math) in Australia less than a decade ago, and about half of my class went on directly into a PhD program in the US or UK. I have classmates or friends who did PhDs at University of Chicago, Stanford, Northeastern, University of Oregon etc, all with nothing but an Honours Degree. In general, the same is true for the most schools in the UK. For instance, one of my classmates went on to do a PhD degree in Warwick immediately after finishing Honours.

Cambridge is an exception, as all students usually take the Part III first, which is a one year long Master degree. In other places in Europe, such as Germany, you definitely need to do a Master first. The reason for the difference between the US and European systems is that more coursework is typically required in a PhD system in the US. Whilst an American PhD involves several years of coursework, a European PhD often involves no coursework at all (rather, one is expected to do research immediately upon starting the PhD). The coursework is instead done in the required Master program. As a result, a PhD in Europe takes just 3 years in total, whereas one in the US takes around 5 years. Once you add in the required Master program, the time required to get a PhD is roughly the same in either system.

Let me also add that the top schools in the US and UK are very competitive. A first class honours in Australia is by no means enough to guarantee one entry. In some cases a good Master degree may improve one's chances. But it is certainly not a requirement and most top US schools will and do accept exceptional Australian students with only an Honours degree (which is only logical, since domestic US students are only required to have a Bachelor degree).

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    I'd just add a slightly contrary perspective to this. At UT Austin, I was expected to start helping with research projects from day 1. In fact, I was working on research projects, as an undergraduate, a semester before I even started my PhD program. I wasn't required to be doing independent research at that point, but I was already getting steered in that direction as a last-semester undergrad. The fact that I hadn't taken all the PhD student startup courses didn't matter to my advisor at all. I was expected to contribute. This seemed to vary widely across UT and advisors. – Bill Barth Jun 9 '16 at 17:32
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    @BillBarth. Maybe I phrased this too strongly (and I will edit my answer). My main point is that PhD programs in the US require more classwork than in Europe (a European PhD, in pure math, typically requires zero coursework, with all coursework being done in the Masters). I think this may well be field dependent- my understanding is that, in the typical pure math departments in the US, one is not even assigned an advisor until the start of the third year or so of graduate school. – faisceaux Jun 9 '16 at 17:41
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    You had my upvote and comment from the beginning. Academia varies widely and wildly. – Bill Barth Jun 9 '16 at 18:14
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    @Aditya, I do. He works for me. How is that relevant? – Bill Barth Jun 9 '16 at 19:05
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    @Aditya, did you mean, by your question "why is * 2 years of coursework* required in the US/ Canada"? Because this is not what you literally asked. I am sorry you question was vague and not very well written. – faisceaux Jun 9 '16 at 19:22

This answer is not based on data but rather on my experience of both systems. I've recently spent 3 months in an Australian university as an internship in my Canadian PhD so I was able to compare.

Master degree in my field (Ecology/Biology) in North America are big research projects. They do not equal coursework even with first class honors. And honors projects I've seen would not be enough for a master degree either.

Also, in French-Canadian universities, we do not have the honor system, so I'm not surprised that first class honors are not recognized.

Edit: The previous answer also points to important difference in coursework that can explain the difference.

  • Which university in Canada requires a big research project for a Master's?! I have worked in Canada as a faculty member and I haven't heard of a master's with a big research project. You are not talking about a master's that you get while working for your PhD, do you? That's a completely different situation then. – John Jun 9 '16 at 16:23
  • @AlexanderMcFarlane, true. However, Emilie is comparing two completely different things: a coursework master's at an Australian/British university and a master's that you can choose to obtain while doing your PhD work from a US university. In the latter case, your research is meant to be towards your PhD but not a requirement for the Master's from the same university. – John Jun 9 '16 at 16:45
  • @John not exactly. Lot's of people in biology do research master degree for it's own sake, not toward a PhD. It can be two different degree, all in research. As the OP was asking for a "master (before a PhD)" I though he was talking about a research master degree. – Emilie Jun 9 '16 at 18:15
  • Also, this might be highly field specific @John. All canadian student's I know in biology do research project and some are quite big, especially in ecology. – Emilie Jun 9 '16 at 18:15
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    There are two different Master's you can pursue in British/Australian system. Masters by research in which the research projects are quite big; and Masters by coursework in which you have to take many courses and as well as a research thesis which then may not have big research. However, often times research of even masters by coursework students at Australian/British universities result into a research publication. In short, you are comparing two way too different systems and degrees, and hence students you encountered while your Australian research trip. – John Jun 9 '16 at 18:49

(expanded and edited from an earlier comment)

This pertains to mathematics programs. I've been in several Ph.D. programs (long story) and none of them required a Masters for entry or a Masters to be completed at some later time, whether the student was domestic or foreign. What you did have to do was pass the Ph.D. qualifying exams within a certain time constraint and/or within a certain number of attempts. There were course requirements as well, but these were generally not much of a concern (unless you thought you wouldn't pass the Ph.D. exams and needed a Masters to fall back on), and the course requirements would probably be waved or altered (e.g. by allowing advanced graduate level courses to substitute) if a student passed the exams upon entry to the program.

For the vast majority who were not so fortunate to pass the exams upon entry, the courses mostly acted as vehicles for you to study for the qualifying exams. In math at least (and in the U.S.), the exams are pretty much your primary concern until they are passed. When I passed the qualifying exams, there were 15 people taking the exams and only 5 passed, and this does not include several other people who decided to bail and not take the exams after some experience in graduate level courses (and the realization they would likely not pass the exams).

Incidentally, my experience is that as a general rule (in math), the more prestigious a department is, the more relaxed they are about course requirements and the less meaningful course grades are.

Leaving math, I suspect much of what I said varies quite a bit with the field of study.

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