The Review

In February 2020 we commissioned CFE Research in partnership with the University of York, to undertake a fundamental examination of the UK social science PhD. The focus was on the capabilities needed by social science graduates to ensure their contribution to research and their global competitiveness, and the optimum ways to develop them. Following extensive research and engagement with stakeholders, ESRC is delighted to be publishing the report (PDF, 6.7Mb) from this independent review.

ESRC’s Response

The report provides a rich evidence base and makes a series of recommendations directed not only at the ESRC but also at Research Organisations and UKRI, recognising that not only do some of the issues raised extend beyond the social sciences but also that doctoral training is the responsibility of the sector as a whole.

Over the following months ESRC will be considering the recommendations carefully and, guided by advice from the Review Steering Group, will publish a response in December 2021. This response will set out how we will address the issues identified and recommendations made and will inform the ESRC’s strategy for doctoral training and for recommissioning our Doctoral Training Partnerships in 2022/23.

Our response will also indicate where we will work with our sister Councils within UKRI, Research Organisations and other stakeholders. The government’s commitment to a New Deal for postgraduate research, as part of its People and Culture Strategy, makes this a particularly opportune time to be taking collective action to address broader issues.

Key themes

The breadth and depth of evidence in this review shows that there is a lot we can be proud of and that ESRC investment in doctoral training is positively driving best practice and standards. However, the report highlights that, in a highly competitive and international jobs market and a rapidly changing research landscape, we must challenge ourselves to adapt and innovate to keep pace and we must do more to ensure we support a more diverse and inclusive student population.

Research Skills - provision of training in a broad base of social science research skills is a key strength of the current PhD. However, we must ensure core research provision evolves to keep apace of the rapidly evolving digital landscape and increase the flexibility of provision to respond to students’ discipline, prior qualifications and experience.

Employability skills - There is a pressing need for a greater focus on, and innovation in, developing PhD graduates employability skills. Current training does not provide students with enough opportunity to develop their wider core skills and build their understanding of applying research in practice. These skills are essential for academic and non-academic careers a like.

Duration, funding and form of PhD - ESRC should extend their funding to ensure students can develop their wider research and employability skills. It is important to continue to offer a range of doctoral structures and pathways to ensure the PhD is aligned to the needs of individual students, disciplines and remains at the cutting edge.

Equality Diversity and Inclusion - ESRC has taken positive steps requiring DTPs/CDTs to consider widening participation but more needs to be done to ensure a more diverse and inclusive student population.

The Steering Group

A Steering Group provided guidance to the Office throughout the Review. The Steering Group was Chaired by Professor Kathy Rastle, Royal Holloway University, and comprises members from across the sector, including major employers and students. Full membership details can be found in Appendix 1 of the report.

Publication of student data

Evidence collected as part of the review will be published in the ESRC funded UK Data Service. ESRC studentship data will be published later this year as part of a wider analysis of the demographic characteristics of people we fund.

If you wish to get in touch about the Review, please contact: Dr Lucy Thorne, Head of Leadership and Skills, ESRC