Assess PhD applicants ‘on potential, not past excellence’

Guaranteed interviews for ethnic minority applicants of a certain standard would also tackle postgraduate underrepresentation, says Research England-backed initiative

August 4, 2023
Judge PhD hopefuls on potential, not excellence
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UK universities should assess applicants on potential, not prior “excellence”, if they want to address the underrepresentation of PhD students from ethnic minority backgrounds, proposed new guidelines on postgraduate admissions suggest.

The call to drop “rigid assessment criteria based on undergraduate grades” in favour of “more holistic evaluation” and introduce guaranteed interviews for candidates from minority backgrounds who meet minimum requirements are two of the recommendations by the Equator project, based at Sheffield Hallam University, which aims to improve ethnic representation in geoscience research.

In a report published in the journal Nature Geoscience on 3 August, researchers note 26.5 per cent of UK undergraduates come from ethnic minorities but this falls to 19 per cent at postgraduate level.

Drawing on analysis of admissions practices at UK doctoral training organisations and feedback from students, the Equator project calls for wide-ranging changes to how PhD applicants are assessed, advocating greater use of “holistic interview questions designed to prompt candidates to showcase their transferable skills and character attributes”, such as resilience or creativity.

Campus resource: Decolonising interview methods

“Such an evaluation scheme could include downweighting grade point averages or number of prizes and awards won by an applicant, while upweighting evidence that they possess the skills necessary for future academic success from interviews, reference letters, and personal statements,” it states.

To eliminate potential bias against ethnic minority students, panels should decrease the emphasis on supervisor-specific nominations and become more aware of conflicts of interests for internal applicants, it adds.

The report also stresses that advertising doctoral training opportunities is not the main barrier to entry, though ethnic minority students should be provided with pre-application support, such as mentoring, networking events and workshops.

“It is often assumed that students from minority backgrounds are underrepresented simply because they don’t know about PhD opportunities,” said the study’s lead author Benjamin Fernando, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford.  

“Our work suggests that this is not the case – rather, they choose alternative paths for a range of complex societal, cultural and personal reasons,” he added, stating that worries about career security or PhD funding were more likely to deter applicants from minority backgrounds.

The project’s action plan also calls for greater use of contextual data in PhD funding decisions (data that is not always collected at postgraduate level), more written resources about the financial support available to students and standardised expression of interest forms for students to contact potential supervisors.

Most of the reforms suggested by the group, which has been supported by Research England, the Natural Environment Research Council and the British Geological Survey among others, would take only one to two years to implement, though some might take up to five years to introduce, it claims.

Natasha Dowey, the Equator project’s principal investigator, a senior lecturer in geoscience at Sheffield Hallam, said the group had produced an “action plan that departments across the country who admit PhD students in the physical sciences can copy”.

“There is no excuse for not taking immediate action,” she added. 

“PhD recruitment is typically biased against students from diverse backgrounds,” continued Dr Dowey, adding: “We hope that our study challenges those in academic leadership to consider their own PhD recruitment practices, and to make meaningful and long-lived reforms for improved equity of access and opportunity.

“While we were focusing on the geosciences because geology, physical geography and environmental science are three of the worst physical science subjects for representation of students from ethnic minority backgrounds, our findings are transferable to other disciplines.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Explain how "potential" is accessed? If you cannot, this is without any meaning