Embed impact in PhD training from day one, says UCL doctoral head

Head of UK’s biggest PhD school says promoting impact in doctoral studies would make students more employable and research more visible

July 4, 2024
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Doctoral students should be required to consider the potential impact of their research throughout their studies, the head of the UK’s largest doctoral training school has argued.

Speaking at the UK Council for Graduate Education’s annual conference, Elizabeth Halton, director of UCL’s Doctoral School, said her institution currently required its doctoral researchers to submit an impact statement describing the likely influence of their research when submitting their PhD thesis.

But doctoral students should be asked to start thinking about impact years earlier, she told the event at UCL East on 4 July.

“We should be embedding activity around impact from the start,” said Ms Halton, whose institution has about 8,000 doctoral researchers, roughly 5 per cent of all UK PhD students.

“Impact should an expectation in all doctoral degrees for the benefit of both researchers and society,” she continued, arguing that considering the likely application of their research would help students to hone critical thinking and public presentation skills.

“Training to think about impact would help them develop these critical thinking skills which are what employers think about more than the actual topic of [a PhD student’s] research,” said Ms Halton.

In addition to providing training about how to reflect on impact, doctoral supervisors might also have to consider whether traditional assessment methods – such as the PhD thesis and viva voce examination – were the right ways to evaluate this kind of activity, added Ms Halton.

“We should be looking at assessment and whether it is what we should be doing,” she said.

Introducing an additional impact requirement to the PhD is likely to find some resistance, with doctoral training institutions already having to provide professional development opportunities for PhD students, such as internships, in addition to providing teaching opportunities and training in research ethics and writing skills.

Some doctoral supervisors are sceptical of the impact agenda altogether, said Ms Halton, who said some viewed exaggerated claims for the wider impact of research as “BS statements”.

However, Ms Halton argued that the need to articulate impact would be “essential to the future of the doctorate”.

With some 113,000 people in the UK currently studying for doctorates, of which only about 45 per cent would remain in academia after receiving their qualification, she argued that “now is the moment to think about doctoral training and how it can impact society more deeply.”


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Reader's comments (1)

Finally, a real use for AI... I should think that finding the truth about a question ought to be justification enough for a doctoral project. But I guess that administrators are sworn to have people they see as beneath them do make-work in order to reinforce hierarchy. Some people drink the Kool-aid, but there are others making it. I am afraid that