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Postgraduate course satisfaction: which students have it best?

James Davis

QILT data sheds light on what both coursework and research graduates from all disciplines thought about their experiences.

Postgraduate study is a big commitment, so it can pay both figuratively and literally to know what previous graduates have had to say. In this article, we’ll cover what graduates thought of their courses in light of the longitudinal QILT graduate outcomes survey, which will be our primary reference. If you’re someone serious about taking up postgraduate study, this article will help contribute to your decision by laying out the data honestly. 

Research degrees

One of the most important governing factors in student experience is the program itself, not just what happens after. For the most part, postgraduate research students have a positive experience. 85% of surveyed graduates felt satisfied overall. Other criteria included quality of supervision, intellectual climate, skills development, infrastructure, thesis examination, goals, and expectations. The most highly agreed-upon of these were goals and expectations, with 91.7% of respondents agreeing theirs were met. The outlying quality was a perception of the intellectual climate, with only 61.1% of respondents agreeing it was positive or to their liking. 

Nursing graduates were most satisfied with their courses, reaching 91.2% overall satisfaction. Curiously enough, their perception of the intellectual climate from 2017 of 72.5% plummeted to 57.4% in 2018. This seems to be a sticking point across the board, with computing and information systems graduates reaching the highest satisfaction with the intellectual climate at 70.8%. 

Creative arts graduates experienced fairly stark differences between criteria. 90.1% believed their course was beneficial for skills development in 2018, but only 46.5% believed the intellectual climate was to their liking. 85.9% believed their goals and expectations were met, but only 59.2% believed the infrastructure of their courses was up to standard. This seems to correlate with cuts in arts funding, which started to become more serious in 2017 with the financial crisis in living memory and therefore the prioritization of perceived practicality. Others believe wider general support for the creative arts seems ‘counter-cultural’ in a country that so highly prioritizes sport and athletic achievements. Whatever the case may be, the fact that graduates are enthusiastic in spite of these barriers, be they real or perceived, bodes well for current students.

Students in other, even similar fields, faced lower percentages of disappointment. Humanities, culture and social science graduates enjoyed 82.9% overall satisfaction, just slightly below the overall average. All criteria except perception of the intellectual climate were quite reasonable, with 92.9% believing their goals and expectations were met. The only other real sticking point for them was infrastructure, which could again be attributed to funding cuts and reallocation to other disciplines. 

Most other disciplines seemed to enjoy quite reasonable levels of satisfaction, with only satisfaction with the intellectual climate as an outlier. Business and management graduates found 85.1% overall satisfaction, law and paralegal studies at 86.8%, communications at 86.4% and science and mathematics at 82.6%. It’s a reaffirming trend for any research student.

Student demographics sometimes had a significant effect on the results. Students with disabilities experienced drastic hits to course performance across the board, with roughly 12% fewer students reporting satisfaction with their course overall than other students. More troubling still was their perception of the intellectual climate, with only 48.1% reporting it to be favorable compared to 61.6% for other students. Their perception of campus infrastructure was also far lower at 58.4% compared with 75.2% for those without a disability. Equally troubling is their perception of supervision, for which 69.9% felt was satisfactory compared with the 82.4% enjoyed by students without disabilities. This suggests a need for better facilities and perhaps attitudes toward these students. 

Other demographics had very minor differences, with one noteworthy exception. There simply wasn’t a sample for Indigenous students. It pays not to make a habit of drawing conclusions from the absence of data, granted. But this could be interpreted as failing to include Indigenous students in the many lines of research our universities conduct. 

Coursework degrees

Coursework students experience 81.7% overall satisfaction across the board, making these programs a few points lower than research equivalents. These courses were evaluated against three criteria; overall satisfaction, good teaching, and generic skills. 

Overall, the perception of generic skills proved most favorable. At the top end, engineering students came out with 83.6% believing they’d developed generic skills during their degree. Curiously enough this was contrasted with the second-lowest teaching quality score, at 63.1%, only rivaled by medicine at a troubling 54.7%. The perception of teaching quality across the board was nearly 12 points lower than overall satisfaction, suggesting it may not play as much a part in the experience as one might think. 

The student profile had a marginal, but the still noteworthy effect on these results. Students under 30 were overall less satisfied with their course, but only by 5%. The same goes for students who reported disabilities, the fact of which had negligible effects on the results, especially considering the drastic influence this had on research degrees. Indigenous students too experienced 3.6% more overall satisfaction with their courses. Curiously enough, those with English as a second language only experienced 0.8% less overall satisfaction with the course, suggesting it’s not as big of a barrier to them as would be expected. Reasons for this may vary; students whose home language isn’t English may be international students, who are therefore wealthy and educated, or they may simply come from families of migrants for whom Australia is home. The latter makes sense, but isn’t plausible in all cases due to large numbers of international students we know are present at Australian universities making up this population. The former is moreso, but the data suggests an intriguing trend: high socioeconomic students were about 3% more likely to be satisfied than low SES students. A minor difference once again, but one contrary to the intuitive. 

In a few cases, the lack of meaningful differences across the board was meaningful. Just like the language difference, remote or regional students experienced next to no difference in satisfaction compared with on-campus, local students. The difference in sex had a little effect too, with women even experiencing 2.5% more overall course satisfaction than men. Even study mode was surprising, with external students finding more satisfaction than internal or mixed-mode students (2.4% more). This suggests a pleasing parity between students from all walks of life, certainly to a higher extent than for research degrees.

Is there a degree of success?

It seems across all disciplines and degree types there’s great opportunity to succeed. Most students find themselves satisfied with their postgraduate courses, whatever their reasons may be. 

Teaching is something to be looked at more carefully by institutions in the coming years, as it’s clearly falling behind. If you’re someone who values being taught over teaching yourself, consider searching for a course that bucks the trend.

Skills development seems to be one of the primary advantages. For research programs, the vast majority of students walk away feeling like they’ve developed. If this is the primary goal of your postgraduate study, that should be a relief. Coursework students also enjoy success, but not nearly to the same degree. 

One thing to note is the inconsistency of methodology when applied to demographics. While research degrees had seven criteria to test against, coursework programs merely had three. This is in part due to the lack of equivalence between some elements of these degree types, like the supervisor criteria for instance. But it may have been better advised to simply substitute close equivalents in order to produce closer comparisons whenever the criteria as written is inapplicable. For instance, the ‘supervisor’ satisfaction criteria could have been mirrored by a ‘mentor’ satisfaction criteria for coursework. ‘Thesis examination’ could be equivalent to ‘examination’ in general, or how they felt their coursework was evaluated. This would go a long way to preventing some criteria from getting lost. For instance, we arbitrarily don’t know how students with disabilities feel about campus infrastructure in coursework programs, which could be skewing the figures positively. We advise when reading the data yourself to consider its faults. It’s a very well-conducted study, but not flawless. 

This data bodes well for all postgraduate students generally. It indicates steady growth in graduate satisfaction, employment, and career outcomes too. The commitment is large, but so too is the potential for personal and professional gain. 

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