Social science PhD students short on quantitative skills, study finds

Employers and grant-holders concerned at lack of qualified research staff. Melanie Newman writes.

February 14, 2008

Doctoral students in the social sciences are failing to develop the research skills required for an academic career in the field, according to a research paper.

While students prefer to use qualitative methods of research in their PhDs, job vacancies for academic posts indicate a need for quantitative research skills such as computer programming and handling statistics, according to a paper by Rose Wiles, a research fellow at the University of Southampton.

"There is a dire shortage of properly trained quantitative researchers," one employer told Dr Wiles, whose paper "Methodological Approaches at PhD and Skills Sought for Research Posts in Academia: A Mismatch" was published in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology.

Another employer said: "The lack of basic quantitative skills is the most important issue facing UK social science."

The Economic and Social Research Council has funded PhD studentships and invested in research methods training to address a shortage of social scientists with advanced quantitative skills, but the skills shortage remains, the paper warns.

Dr Wiles, who works at the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods at Southampton, surveyed 448 PhD students registered with the ESRC as well as 58 research centre heads and holders of large grants. She also analysed vacant social science research posts advertised during one month in 2005.

She found that 78 per cent of sociology students, 77 per cent of political science students and 70 per cent of social work students use qualitative methods in their PhDs. Two thirds of education and human geography students also reported using qualitative methods.

One student commented: "A lot of students come into geography with little maths background and so struggle even with basic statistics ... and in due course often lean towards qualitative methods."

However, respondents said training in quantitative methods was more readily available than training in qualitative methods. Most identified qualitative data collection and analysis as an unmet training need.

Dr Wiles' survey of employers, including professors, readers and heads of unit, found two thirds said that when making appointments they looked for quantitative skills including software, IT and programming skills, survey methods, statistics and management of data sets. Only 10 per cent of respondents said they found candidates lacked qualitative skills.

Dr Wiles also analysed 115 job advertisements for research posts in the social sciences and found that half sought applicants with quantitative skills. Only 16 per cent of posts required qualitative skills. Fourteen per cent of jobs required skills across both methods.

Training provision for research students in the UK is under review by the ESRC. The current system has been criticised for introducing students to a broad range of research methods but failing to develop these in depth.

"The findings from this study support that criticism," Dr Wiles said.

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