Drafted by John Harrison with input from
- Phil Tomlinson
- Chris Dymos
- Mia Gray
- Neil Lee
- Michael Taster
1. How well do UK social science doctoral programmes equip students with the skills needed for their future careers? How competitive are they internationally?
- A UK PhD is generally well respected, however, the mandatory training provided as part of them are not. Skills that are valued are those that are specific and often self-taught through practice as part of the research process, rather than those extraneous to it.
- UK social science doctoral students continue to be appointed to postdoctoral positions and lecturing positions, suggesting they are competitive vis-à-vis international applicants. This said, when appointed they are often at a structural disadvantage in how ECR is then defined (i.e. years post-PhD). Many UK doctoral researchers enter ECR at 25 years old with only 3 years research experience, whereas internationally, the “ECR clock” starts ticking closer to and often beyond 30 years old with significantly more research experience and publications. This makes securing ECR funding very uneven especially where funders do not recognise these nuances. In a post-COVID world, funders and appointment panels might be expected to be more risk averse, which could put UK doctoral researchers at a disadvantage vis-à-vis international applicants with more experience and proven CVs.
- The current level of methods and research training varies considerably. It often depends on whether the person appointed/seconded to deliver generic training in the institution is aligned with the discipline a research student is doing their PhD in. Within the social sciences, a PhD in English is very different to Economics, but the core skills training for research are often generic and/or from a specific disciplinary tradition which is then mis-represented by the person delivering it as being generic. More appreciation of disciplinary traditions are required.
- Subject specialist or advanced methods training are often self-taught or research students rely on supervisors, meaning provision varies. Digital and data skills are important but it is common for EU students to apply for and be awarded quantitative/data projects, whereas UK applicants apply for qualitative projects in the social sciences.
- Writing workshops are useful, but the value and skill comes from actually having opportunities to write and have work published in different ways. Therefore, there are clear strengths to the longer PhD (say the US model) – it allows time for more publications, teaching, and alternative research. It is based on a different funding model, in which students are Teaching Assistants, on different course and on various research projects, but it balances students having more time, but also more obligations – to teach and/or to do additional research. As a result, they acquire research and teaching skills through numerous chances of applying these skills rather than in a sterile skills, methods or training course.
2. How well can UK doctoral programmes best prepare graduates for non-academic career pathways?
- Careers information remains poor. University careers are focused on the UG recruitment cycle. The lack of a fixed end point to the PhD is a major problem. From the point of submitting it can be up to 3 months before the examination, and then anywhere between 0-6 months for revisions for (so between 1 and 9 months). This does not make the transition to academic or non-academic careers straightforward, especially the latter where recruitment follows the annual cycle of graduates completing courses in June-July.
- Incentivising research students to develop the skills and attributes for non-academic careers requires further expanding opportunities to undertake 3-6 month secondments/placements with UK government departments/local government/government agencies/international bodies (IMF/UN/World Bank etc).
- Barriers remain the lack of guidance on opportunities. Many supervisors are unaware of the opportunities or the needs of doctoral students if they are not looking to pursue an academic career. This is slowly changing as UKRI require engagement with non-academic stakeholders and partners but there is still a way to go.
- The only output required to pass a PhD is solely an academic one – can you write a thesis. Therefore, everything is geared toward thesis writing because this is what is needed to pass. All other things that are done as part of a PhD are desirable, and helpful in securing an academic or non-academic career, but they do not fundamentally contribute to whether you pass the PhD. A more holistic PhD offering that sees the award of a PhD being less narrowly focused on “thesis writing” for a solely academic audience, but allows for evidence of contributions to knowledge and society, would be a way of allowing those wishing to pursue an academic career to focus more on an “academic PhD” while those wishing to pursue a non-academic career to submit for the award of PhD something which is equally original, significant and rigorous but with more of a practitioner focus.
3. How can social science doctoral programmes best prepare graduates to work collaboratively?
- Research students are already required to work collaboratively by virtue of having a supervisory team. The DTPs have helped collaboration but not necessarily research collaboration explicitly – collaboration has been more focused on training, support and fostering a cohort than research per se. Some institutions have created their own mini-CDTs (3-5 related PhD projects) to expose research students to the benefits of collaborative working and experience of working as part of a larger research team. These work well and might be incentivised more via ESRC given each project remains discrete.
- An issue remains the traditional mode of supervision. Exploring ways of diversifying the student-supervisor relationship as being the focal point of the PhD experience is key to preparing graduates to work collaboratively. Group supervisions are more common in other disciplines, whereas in the social sciences they are almost unheard of.
- During the PhD itself, support for attendance at Summer Schools / PhD conferences. ESRC could pick interdisciplinary social science themes / grand challenges around which PhD students could present their research and foster discussion through interactive workshops.
- Of course, PhDs being part of major research grants is the other option. This was previously removed but is still used by other international funders. There are advantages (working collaboratively as part of a bigger team, in effect a work package in a bigger, more ambitious overall project) and disadvantages (knowing where the PhD starts finish, dependence and line management of the project, intellectual ownership, reliance on others for data). The mini-CDT option mentioned above is therefore a potential win-win.
4. How can doctoral student health and well-being be safeguarded?
- A major concern is that the expectation of what a PhD is, or a research student is required to undertake to be competitive in pursuing an academic career, places extra pressure on them and their supervisory teams. There has been some relaxation of the 3-year funding model through 1+3 and 3.5 year PhD funding, but there are still issues with non-completions, increasing numbers of student health and well-being concerns. It should not be under-estimated how much the additional pressure on supervisors and the competitive nature of higher education more generally then translates on to research students. Extending the PhD funding/expectation to 3.5 years can have a detrimental impact if this ‘extension’ to the 3-year model is filled with more expectations on research students, which is increasingly the case. Rather than providing space and time to manage the PhD and take-up additional opportunities, it prolongs the completion and challenge of managing the pressures.
- Student health and well-being is a classic example where PhD students fall between the gap of sometimes being seen as ‘students’ and grouped with UG/PGT but also as ‘researchers’ and grouped with staff. Universities see health and wellbeing as different for staff and students, but where PhD candidates fit is often into both or neither. A strong statement from ESRC/UKRI on whether universities consider PhD applicants as ‘students’ or ‘researchers’ is essential.
- The result is the pressure falls on supervisors. Supervisors cannot become counsellors, but good practice in supervision helps address poor student mental health. There is a lot more which can be done in terms of providing access to support e.g. a dedicated ESRC Mental Health Officer to oversee PhD mental health support at Universities, enhance awareness of mental health issues (n.b. PhDs today are not the same as when supervisors did their PhD, and the “Well in my day …” approach needs to be eradicated).
5. How can we ensure a diverse and inclusive population of social science doctoral students?
This is critical at several stages.
- There needs to be better targeting of good students (from all backgrounds, but especially less advantaged and diverse backgrounds) because they are first in line for higher paid, more secure, graduate employment opportunities.
- This is particularly an issue for students from less advantaged backgrounds who it is harder to persuade to take the riskier PhD route (even with full funding but no guarantee of a secure job at the end) than to go into a good job in banking, civil service etc.
- Provide more generous funding for PhD research, so that it is a competitive career option. Also, provide more varied and flexible pathways to completion – part-time, in-work – to allow people not to have to choose one or other at the start, thereby cutting-off the other route.
- It is also more challenging for those with less advantaged backgrounds to navigate the PhD opportunities, where they might be less likely to have a family member/personal contact who has done a PhD or knows how the system works.
- The current regulations and eligibility criteria are prohibitive to international applicants – it is noteworthy how few, if any, US graduates (one of the biggest and most successful HE markets) move to the UK to do their PhD.
- Some social science disciplines are more white/male dominated and therefore ensuring the proportion of ESRC scholarships are fairly distributed across the social sciences is key.
- Ensuring evaluation and appointment panels are diverse themselves to avoid the “like-hiring-like” phenomenon.
- Other countries incentivise doctoral students to undertake 6-12 months of their PhD at an institution outside of their home country. The UK is poor at this. Moreover, when doctoral students undertake fieldwork internationally there is almost no connection with universities in that country. This could be a missed opportunity to expose our research students to other HE systems and researchers from diverse backgrounds.
6. What aspects of current UK social science doctoral programmes could be developed to ensure they remain world leading?
- Many social science doctoral programmes and supervisors still see PhD students as part of their ‘teaching’ as opposed to ‘research’ work. This contrasts with research students in natural or physical sciences/engineering where they are fundamentally part of their research team or lab. Still referring to them as “students” – doctoral, PhD, or research – and staff as “supervisors” reinforces this. The ESRC leading on replacing ‘student’ with ‘researcher’ and ‘supervisor’ with ‘advisor’ would send a strong message.
- This results in an ongoing grey area regarding co-authoring outputs with PhD students, authorship policy therein, and the “PhD thesis” vs “PhD by publication” debate. The latter clearly has benefits for job applications where journal publications are the norm, whereas the PhD thesis is written as a book but still requires conversion into a book or divided up into articles – which is not straightforward – to be published. The former boosts research outputs from publicly funded research and a much quicker route to published research but is not altogether common and presents issues with determining the candidates work for the PhD award.
- Longer PhD programmes are potentially important here in making UK social science graduates competitive in the academic market, but how best to balance this against the need for PhD students to be competitive in the non-academic market is difficult when they need to enter the job market sooner rather than later.
- A consistent point is the offer of optional Intermediate/Advanced level courses in Research Methods/Statistical packages (such courses could be run at specific Summer training Schools), with more emphasis given to hands-on research and in particular, on data analysis (quantitative or qualitative).
- Finally and most importantly, re imagining the PhD by offering two routes to achieving the award –the traditional academic route with a focus on thesis writing, and a non-academic route which is more flexible and reflective of research which is making a stronger contribution to society. The key is both would retain the same pass/fail threshold for a PhD based on criteria such as originality, significance, rigour, but would allow the PhD to be a better steppingstone to both academic and non-academic careers.