Research degrees in Australia are equivalent to doctoral degrees in Germany. They require the student to carry out original research and describe the results of this research in a major thesis.
It usually surprises German students when they learn that the normal qualification for entering a research programme in Australia is not a master degree, but a "good" bachelor degree with honours. This usually means a first or upper second class honours degree. (There are some exceptions to this rule, which are described in section 5.4.)
There are two main kinds of research degrees, the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree and the research master degree. In recent years a further kind of doctoral programme, called a "professional doctorate", has been introduced into some faculties of some Australian universities. In addition there are higher doctoral degrees, which are not awarded for normal study.
One final introductory remark: whereas in Germany a medical doctor (Arzt) can only officially use the title "Doktor" if he has been awarded a doctoral degree by a university, in Australia the word "doctor" is also a courtesy title in common use for the medical profession. All qualified medical practitioners use the title "doctor" but most of them do not have a doctorate.
A high degree of originality is expected in a PhD degree. Students who have achieved very high marks in their honours degree may be admitted directly into a PhD programme.
The standard time in which a PhD should be completed is three years, and at most Australian universities PhD students must be enrolled full-time. The PhD student does not normally attend any lectures, but carries out supervised research which is then written up into a thesis that is presented for examination.
In contrast with the German doctoral system there is no graded mark for a PhD in the Australian system. The result is either "pass" or "fail". However, examiners of a PhD can indicate how a thesis should be improved in order to avoid a fail. In this case the candidate may have to repeat some of the experimental work and will certainly have to change the thesis, which is then sent back to the examiner(s) for re-examination.
In contrast with Germany, the supervisor of an Australian PhD is never one of the examiners. It is usual that at least one of the examiners is an international examiner (i.e. a recognised researcher from outside Australia).
In my opinion the Australian PhD is equivalent to a first class Doktorarbeit in the German system.
Research Master Degrees
The research master degree, sometimes known as a "master by thesis" or "master by research" requires a certain level of originality, but the standard is not quite as high as that required of a PhD student. Students with honours degrees may be required to enrol at least initially in a research master degree rather than directly in a PhD degree programme.
Normally the work carried out in a research master programme is exactly like that for a PhD programme: there are neither lectures to be attended nor examinations to be passed, and a thesis has to be prepared for examination. The student must usually also be enrolled full-time.
Students enrolled in a research master degree can apply to transfer their enrolment to PhD if they consider that the quality of their research merits this. If the appropriate committee agrees to this, the transfer takes place without them being awarded the master degree.
In my opinion a research master degree from Australia is equivalent to a second class Doktorarbeit in the German system.
Notice that the effect of this system is that a research student obtains either a master degree or a PhD degree, but not both. Consequently you will only very rarely see an Australian (or other Anglo Saxon) researcher who has both a master degree and a doctorate. And in that case it is likely that the master degree will be a coursework master degree (see section 5), not a research master degree.
Research master degrees are usually (but not always) named according to the faculty name, e.g. Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MSc).
Research master and PhD students must normally be enrolled full-time. However in recent times some faculties of some Australian universities have introduced professional doctorates, especially in areas such as business and information technology. These could be called "part-time PhDs". They are designed for students who are qualified for entry to a PhD programme but who typically have a full-time job in a professional or research environment.
The standard required (with respect to originality) is like that expected of a PhD student. The only substantial differences are that the degree can take longer (because the student is part-time) and the thesis can be submitted in parts during the course of the programme. The research carried out can be associated with the student's work if the university-based supervisor considers it appropriate. In some cases the student may also be required to attend a few lecture units at the start of his course to reinforce his general research skills (e.g. in an area such as statistics).
Most professional doctorates have a condition of entry that the student has a number of years work experience. Because professional doctorates are taken part-time they are not available to international students while they are studying in Australia. (This does not exclude the possibility that an international student can be enrolled in a professional master degree outside Australia. However, this is only possible if the Australian university appoints a co-supervisor, e.g. in Germany.)
In addition to the PhD and the professional doctorates there are higher doctoral degrees which are only very rarely awarded on the basis of very highly distinguished work carried out over many years. Only very few professors ever achieve/ earn this distinction. Such higher doctorates are usually named after the awarding faculty, e.g. Doctor of Divinity, Doctor of Science, etc.
These degrees should not be confused with the German "Habilitation", for which there is no equivalent in the Anglo-Saxon systems.