How to make access to doctoral study more equitable
A three-pronged look at how to make access to doctoral study more equitable and remove barriers to entry that disproportionately impact students from ethnic minority backgrounds, based on findings of the Equator Project
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There is a well-documented disparity in representation of ethnic minority students in postgraduate research, compared with representation at undergraduate level. This lack of diversity in research training has a knock-on effect on representation, culture and equity within senior levels of research in academia, industry and the public sector.
Multifaceted, properly funded structural changes are needed to address the complex interplay of factors responsible for inequity in doctoral study. Here, we discuss findings from the Equator Project, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, which set out to improve diverse participation through a research school, improve retention through a mentoring network, and remove barriers within doctoral admissions processes. The project used the discipline of geoscience – which has particularly poor representation at all levels – as a case study.
Admission to doctoral study is a crucial step in the academic pipeline, but current procedures can disproportionately disadvantage students from ethnic minority backgrounds. We set up a working group of UK doctoral training organisations and collaboratively developed a framework of recommendations to make recruitment more equitable.
We considered this issue from three perspectives:
- Student-facing: how PhD projects are advertised or communicated;
- Procedural: the administrative work that supports and monitors PhD programmes;
- Evaluative: the processes beyond the shortlisting of candidates and interviews.
Although focused on geosciences, the recommendations are broadly transferable across higher education.
How we advertise PhD projects, and how we support prospective applicants, matters. Are PhD opportunities being presented to the broadest audience possible?
Advertising projects via demographic-specific networks rather than relying on traditional PhD databases will be more effective at reaching minoritised groups, our work suggests.
When students see PhD adverts, are those adverts inclusive and accessible?
Students from minority ethnic backgrounds often lack familiarity with research careers, making them less likely to apply to doctoral programmes, our work found. These concerns can be addressed by providing pre-application support, including funded workshops, online Q&A sessions, office hours, networking events and mentoring — all of which will help boost belonging and confidence among prospective applicants.
Introducing standardised tools during the application process, such as forms to help with writing informal expressions of interest to supervisors and standardised CV templates, can help remove some of the hidden barriers faced by minoritised students, who are less likely to have attended research-intensive universities for their undergraduate degree, and may not have networks to ask for advice.
- Resource collection: How to achieve equity in higher education
- Ten steps to equity: making fieldwork accessible
- Address STEM inequality by reconceiving merit
The collection of demographic data during doctoral recruitment is not standardised and is often insufficient to track and understand the diversity of candidates at every stage of the process. Funder- or institution-mandated frameworks for the collection of demographic and contextual applicant data would enable any necessary interventions to be more effectively targeted, designed and evaluated.
Ring-fenced opportunities are also a vital step in redressing the balance and ensuring access for students from minoritised backgrounds. Best practice in this area includes combined master’s and PhD funding to increase access, ring-fenced summer research experience placements, and ring-fenced PhD studentships, all of which are starting to emerge in UK higher education.
The way PhD applicants are evaluated can be subject to discriminatory practices and bias. Existing relationships with supervisors can be advantageous to some and not to others. Traditional assessment metrics often reward access to opportunity rather than true potential, without accounting for awarding gaps and inequities earlier in the educational pipeline.
We propose that recruitment committees reduce the emphasis on supervisor sift during the initial applicant sorting stages or require conflict of interest statements. Contextual evaluation tools, that judge potential to carry out research rather than simply prior access to opportunity, should be developed. This could include placing more emphasis on skills evidence from non-academic employment as well as summer research placements, which are not accessible to all students, while reducing the focus on students’ grade ranking within their cohort, academic publications or prizes.
Guaranteeing interviews to students from groups under-represented in postgraduate research student cohorts is another way to overcome barriers introduced by reliance on biased performance metrics. And a more holistic approach to interview questions is needed; one that prompts applicants to present the qualities that make them suited to research training, such as resilience or creativity, and which invites evidence from a range of prior life experiences.
These recommendations are just one part of a far bigger picture of the structural changes needed within higher education. They are not exhaustive and are presented in the hope of providing a starting point to guide discussions and efforts within institutions and funding bodies. They do not address crucial areas such as retention and inclusion within PhD programs. Tailored support across the whole educational pipeline is needed to make our research community more equitable, diverse and inclusive.
Benjamin Fernando is a research fellow at the University of Oxford, Sam Giles is a senior research fellow at the University of Birmingham and Natasha Dowey is an associate professor at Sheffield Hallam University.
With input from colleagues on the Equator team:
Rebecca Williams (University of Hull), Christopher Jackson (Jacobs), Munira Raji (University of Plymouth), Anya Lawrence (University of Birmingham), Jenni Barclay (ARIES Doctoral Training Partnership), Louisa Brotherson (University of Liverpool), Ethny Childs (Institution of Environmental Sciences), Jacqueline Houghton (University of Leeds, Diversity in Geoscience), Anjana Khatwa (EDI Consultant), George Jameson (Geological Society of London), Keely Mills (British Geological Survey), Francisca Rockey (Black Geographers), Steven Rogers (Keele University), Catherine Souch (Royal Geographical Society with IBG).
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For Equator resources, how to guides and articles, please visit the website here: Equator Resources