Universities are awarding more doctorates than ever before. But are we all agreed on the need to expand PhD programmes? Attitudes are increasingly polarised.
Policymakers continue to insist on the need for people with PhDs, to boost our research capacity and teach our students. Others argue that many nations, including the UK, have reached doctoral saturation point, with too many PhD holders facing underemployment. A third perspective, aware that the PhD is no longer just an academic apprenticeship, calls for radical reform of the degree.
Related debates on the economic benefits of doctoral expansion, lived experiences – including the career expectations of PhD students, mental health and wellbeing, and equality, diversity and inclusion in the research system, illustrate well the divisions between those who think expansion is a force for good and those with an altogether more pessimistic outlook.
Our data is patchy
In our Research on Research Institute (RoRI) working paper, 21st Century PhDs, we argue that consensus is elusive because we know little about the risks and rewards of continued expansion. The UK falls behind many leading scientific nations in its attempts to understand the complex interplay of factors which shape doctoral access, experiences and career pathways. In short, the PhD’s prominence has not been matched by the quality of evidence and data about PhD students and holders.
Doctoral expansion is not unique to the UK, prompting several nations to launch studies to map pathways into and out of the PhD. These developments offer a significant opportunity for the UK to learn from international best practice and improve national data collection on PhDs; encompassing the application stage through to the early career. This data collection must cover the range of academic and demographic variables known to be associated with access to higher study and labour market outcomes, and be rich on the attitudinal and environmental factors known to affect study and career decision-making. Such data needs to be genuinely longitudinal – tracking pathways beyond the three and a half years post-graduation that is currently available.
Admittedly, many of the issues highlighted in our working paper reflect the longstanding agendas of key stakeholders of the UK doctorate. UKRI has established strategic objectives for equality, diversity and inclusion. The Careers Research and Advisory Centre and Vitae have led work on researcher development and careers for decades. The Wellcome Trust has recently reviewed and redesigned its funded PhD programmes to promote positive research cultures. The UK Council for Graduate Education works to extend understanding of the economic, social and cultural returns to doctoral study. Our working paper has been positively received by this community, but the challenge of translating these ideas into policy is considerable.
Who’s in charge?
Within the current frameworks, the regulatory ownership of doctoral education is difficult to discern, as Sofia Ropek writes on Wonkhe. We need more research on each phase of the PhD process – on access, experiences and outcomes. But these phases crosscut the responsibilities of different agencies. Oversight is also dispersed geographically across the home nations.
Access is a particularly thorny issue. Within the Office for Students, the Director for Fair Access and Participation is mandated to monitor undergraduate programmes, with doctoral study featuring only as an undergraduate destination. We don’t have much information on who applies, who receives an offer, and who enrols. We know that certain groups, such as those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, are under-represented at doctoral study. But in the absence of consistent sector-wide approaches to collecting demographic data, it is not possible to determine whether underrepresented groups aren’t applying for doctoral study, or if they don’t get places. Understanding these dynamics is crucial if stakeholders are to plan successful interventions to diversify the doctoral cohort and research workforce.
Once enrolled, HESA collects equivalent data on doctoral students through the Student Record – but most of its published analysis is on undergraduates. The Postgraduate Research Experience Survey, administered by AdvanceHE, is the only sector-wide survey of doctoral students during their programme – but provides just a snapshot of the doctoral experience, and is disconnected from what happens after graduation. Until recently, doctoral employment destinations in the UK have been recorded by HESA’s Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education Longitudinal survey. However, this data offers little insight into context and decision-making, and coverage of important academic and demographic variables is patchy.
Funders can lead the way
The need to close these knowledge gaps is clear, but the path forward is less so. The dislocated regulatory framework for PhDs means that atomisation is a real risk. With the capacity to encourage institutional compliance, the major funders of doctoral study are well-positioned to lead here – but they must do so in a way that extends beyond individual interests. Crucially, self-funded PhDs and those in receipt of doctoral loans must not be neglected. RoRI has a significant role to offer in facilitating next steps: an international workshop planned for early 2020 will bring together leading researchers and key stakeholders, to promote greater understanding and progress towards solutions.