The many paths to PhD study

I presented at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference today. My slides have been published and this post is a summary of the issues covered in my talk.

Every year more than 20,000 students embark on a journey towards qualifying with a PhD. As part of that journey they make a significant contribution to the research endeavour. And when they graduate they progress into all sorts of careers, inside and outside of research, here and overseas, bringing the benefits of doctoral training in a myriad of ways.

It is hugely important that we set a policy environment that ensures that talented people with the commitment and aptitude for PhD study make the successful transition, with the minimum of barriers, and certainly no barriers that lock people out of this course for reasons outside of their control. To set this policy environment we need to understand how and when the transition happens, who makes the transition and what motivates them.

New data and new analysis is illuminating the transition process, and it turns out to be more complex than many might think. HEFCE analysis published last year demonstrates that there are some students who transfer directly from their undergraduate courses within a year or two, and without acquiring any additional postgraduate qualifications. But for others there is a much longer gap between their first degree and PhD study, often including a period studying a taught postgraduate course.

The students who transfer directly have some particular characteristics. They are mostly male, mostly study STEM subjects, and mostly graduate from more selective institutions in terms of undergraduate entry.

New analysis has shown that the group who begin their PhD studies after a period of taught postgraduate training are more likely to be in the social sciences or humanities, but this is not exclusively the case. For example, around a third of the students starting a PhD in the Life Sciences have a prior postgraduate qualification. Those with prior qualifications also tend to have longer gaps between their last period of study and starting on PhD. In contrast to the direct transferrers, these students are moving from study to the workplace and back again over an extended period before PhD study.

Understanding the many and varied pathways to PhD is important to the policy goal of minimising barriers to the pursuit of doctoral study. The challenges facing students taking the longer, more complex routes involving taught postgraduate study will be different from those moving directly from undergraduate courses. There will be different financial challenges, for example. Even navigating the processes of recruitment and selection for PhD places may be more complex for those students doing so from a position outside of the Higher Education sector. These issues are strongly confirmed by a qualitative study of the recruitment and selection of PhD students carried out for HEFCE by CRAC.

Further insight into the transition into PhD study is also coming from the new Intentions After Graduation Survey (IAGS). This survey, part of the National Student Survey, is providing important information on the proportion of final year undergraduates who are planning postgraduate study, and their motivations for doing so.

According to these data, some 44% of final year students are either 'certain' or 'likely' to progress to postgraduate study, and around a fifth of these express an intention to study for a doctoral degree. A further 14% are planning a postgraduate taught course as a step towards a PhD. This information will be an important baseline for discerning any effects of the undergraduate fee regime on intentions for further study. But the survey is also revealing important information about the transition. Some ethnic groups, for example, have a very much higher expressed intention to progress to PhD study than is achieved in reality, helping to pinpoint potential barriers to progression.

So there are many paths involved in progression to PhD study, each with their own issues and possible barriers. Does the policy environment appropriately cope with this diversity? At one level the answer is yes – the evidence published today suggests that there is no shortage of well-qualified candidates applying for places. But in other respects we are less successful. There are still issues with the diversity of the PhD student population; in terms of gender, ethnicity, disability and socio-economic background the population does not reflect the representation in the undergraduate population from which they are drawn. To address these issues a better, more nuanced understanding of the pathways of transition is essential.