<< Return to InPsych December 2004 

By Sarah Ford, InPsych feature writer

The number of psychologists with postgraduate qualifications has almost doubled in the past decade, according to Australian census data. Dr Jeff Patrick, lecturer in psychology at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), recently analysed census figures and found that the number of psychologists with postgraduate (masters and doctoral level) qualifications rose from 5,391 in 1991 to 9,597 in 2001, a 78 per cent increase (Note 1). During the same period, the number of psychologists with fourth year (honours and postgraduate diploma) level qualifications jumped from 1,940 to 4,346, a 124 per cent increase.

Jeff suggests several reasons for this "meteoric" rise in the number of students undertaking psychology degrees. Firstly, there is the growing coverage of psychological issues in the media, and its likely impact on more people enrolling in undergraduate programs. This increased popularity is an international trend, with the number of British undergraduate psychology students rising by nearly 2000 between 1997 and 2002 (Williams, 2002). In the past decade psychology has also been introduced as a high school curriculum subject in some states of Australia, increasing young people's exposure to the area. In the marketplace, tougher competition for jobs has fuelled the drive for higher qualifications. The bar for attaining full APS membership has risen, and there is talk of Registration Boards heading the same way. In addition, Jeff says industry sectors that traditionally employ psychologists - health, education and human services - are seeing a greater role for psychologists. This is reflected in low unemployment rates for psychologists, a further attraction for people considering gaining qualifications in the profession. According to Jeff's analysis of the 2001 census data, the unemployment rate for psychologists was 2.2 per cent for individuals with honours and masters level degrees, and 1.9 per cent for those with doctorates. This was comparatively lower than the national average of 3.3 per cent for tertiary qualified peers, Jeff says. "We are producing (more) people with more qualifications, but the economy has absorbed them."

Despite the growth in students studying postgraduate programs, little is known about the demand for these different types of courses, and the factors influencing choice of programs. No systematic research on the topic has occurred in Australia, until this year. Jeff and Professor Grace Pretty, Head of the Department of Psychology at USQ in Toowoomba, recently surveyed 466 fourth year psychology students around Australia to gain insight into the market (Patrick & Pretty, 2004). Based on census data from 1996 and 2001, they estimate that there were approximately 1053 fourth year students in Australia in 2004, with around 63.6 per cent of those expected to pursue postgraduate study. The survey sample represented 69.6 per cent of the estimated population of students intending to pursue postgraduate study. Respondents were mainly female (84.1 per cent versus 15.9 per cent males) and were studying at universities in either the 'Group of Eight' (39.2 per cent), or in regional areas (19.2 per cent) or at "other" institutions (41.6 per cent). The 48 per cent of the sample who reported intentions to defer postgraduate studies were included to represent the percentage of students who do not come straight from fourth year.

Jeff says a key finding of the survey was that of fourth year students who indicated wanting to pursue postgraduate qualifications, half wanted to do a coursework masters, and another 13 per cent wanted to do a coursework doctorate. "The bulk of students want coursework and not research higher degrees", he says. At the same time, almost 30 per cent of respondents opted for studying a dual research higher degree/coursework doctorate. Jeff says that different universities use various names for these dual degrees, such as research doctorate, and because they still attract government funding as a research higher degree, students are "lining up" to do them. There is also more potential for gaining a scholarship in such courses compared with straight coursework programs

The survey also asked students their preferred specialist area of study. Clinical psychology was by far the most popular, with 42.4 per cent of respondents preferring it. The next most popular response was for a generic, 'non specialist' qualification (13.2 per cent). Jeff says this was not a specific option listed in the survey, but a selection that students made clear in their responses. Students indicated they wanted a postgraduate qualification that is not aligned with a particular College. "I don't know what that generic qualification is or what it includes because I wasn't expecting that finding", he says. Organisational psychology was the third most common choice (11.5 per cent), followed by educational (7.6 per cent), counselling (7.1 per cent), clinical neuropsychology (5.5 per cent), forensic (5.2 per cent), health (4.3 per cent), sport (1.9 per cent), and community (1.3 per cent). To obtain data on course demand according to location, respondents were also asked where they would like to live while studying.

One purpose of this survey is to help university psychology departments make decisions about what sort of postgraduate degrees to offer. Most postgraduate programs require a minimum of six students per year to run. Jeff says that dividing the demand identified in the survey data by six provides a rough idea of the maximum number of programs required in various locations. He says that, based on the current programs offered, there is an oversupply of programs in every area of psychology, except in clinical and generic courses (there are currently no generic postgraduate programs). "A lot of universities are running postgraduate programs that haven't got a hope of succeeding because there's just no demand", Jeff says. "This means that many programs will probably struggle along until eventually they fail." There are plans to conduct the survey annually in order to determine trends, and to further explore responses, such as the generic postgraduate qualification.

While more people are gaining postgraduate qualifications, there are concerns about decreasing diversity in the psychology student population and, in turn, the profession. The spiralling financial costs of attaining a higher degree are fuelling perceptions that postgraduate psychology study is for the privileged. Nearly a decade ago the Federal Government began phasing out Government subsidised places for postgraduate coursework programs, known as HECS places, and replacing them with full fee places, which is now the prominent way of paying for postgraduate education (see Table 1).

Table 1: State of play

Year HECS places Domestic full-fee places APA scholarships
1995 942 85 42
1999 643 511 14
2003 582 775 1
Table 1: Masters and Doctorates by Coursework: Behavioural Science, Total Load (EFTSU) by payment type (1995 & 1999 data: CAPA, 2000, Sources: DETYA; 2003 data: DEST


Heather Gridley, senior lecturer in psychology at Victorian University (VU) in Melbourne, says this change has narrowed the range of students who are able to pursue these courses. But she says there is little awareness of this because of ongoing demand for many courses, particularly in clinical psychology. "What you don't see are the people who haven't been able to apply".

To illustrate the impact of the funding changes, students completing a two-year Masters degree are required to pay almost $30,000 at some universities for the course. In comparison, students in a HECS-liable course will incur around a $12,000 debt (note that the Government does still support some places in postgraduate coursework programs and, even without this support, some universities have chosen to continue offering subsidised places). Under new funding changes, from next year students can take out loans to cover all or part of their tuition fees, which they start paying back through the taxation system once earning $36,184 or more (Note 2). Even before paying a postgraduate debt, most undergraduate four-year psychology students have already accumulated a HECS debt of almost $15,000, according to 2004 costs.

Heather says that in her experience a lack of diversity is reflected in more postgraduate psychology students being from a high socioeconomic background, a limited ethnic group, and proportionally more males continuing through to postgraduate study than were in the undergraduate population. VU is one of the most ethnically diverse universities in the country, but the psychology students do not reflect this, especially at postgraduate level. However, Heather says the psychology department has indirectly tried to retain some diversity through a couple of initiatives. They continue to provide postgraduate HECS places, although this funding has been taken from undergraduate programs and thus does not have a certain future. Applicants' previous experience and their reasons for choosing a postgraduate course are considered, unlike some universities that focus solely on academic results. The school generally prefers students not to come straight from fourth year, and it encourages applicants with overseas psychological qualifications to get them assessed by the APS so they are not disadvantaged by that when applying for postgraduate courses.

Heather is concerned the trend in doctoral programs replacing masters programs as the preferred postgraduate qualification is further diminishing diversity in the student and professional population. "We had some students in Honours this year who were really shocked to find out that the only forensic psychology program they could do in Victoria was a three-and-a-half year doctorate", she says. "I do worry about the doctorate rapidly becoming the norm and, therefore, somebody who has a masters being seen as inferior. I think it filters out even more people, which is not an advantage to the profession".

Heather says that the psychology profession's neglect of diversity issues is partly due to the way psychology is taught. The current emphasis on empiricism has pushed the discussion of wider, social issues to the back of the class, she says. "I am happy with the emphasis in psychology on evidence based practice, but I think it depends on your definition of evidence. There has been a real narrowing down to a focus on biology and empiricism that has made it very hard to look at things with a wider lens. Psychobiology is much more dominant than it ever was and that makes it very hard to ask questions about social causes or context", Heather says. "Provided we are getting enough students in the door, we don't think too hard about who's not getting in, yet I think it's very clear that every time we raise the bar we will be narrowing down the field."


Note 1: In 2001 the 9,615 psychologists with postgraduate qualifications consisted of 7,320 with masters level qualifications and 2,295 with doctoral qualifications. No breakdown was provided for the 1991 census data. Return to text

Note 2: Information supplied by the Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST). Return to text


Patrick, B., & Pretty, G. (2004, September). Postgraduate market demand survey. Paper presented at the 39th National Conference of the Australian Psychological Society, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.
Williams, E. (2002, February 20). From shopkeepers to Woody Allens. The Age (Education section), p 5.

For information on the Postgraduate market demand survey, contact Dr Jeff Patrick at patrick@usq.edu.au .