The ESRC has announced a comprehensive examination of the UK social science PhD. The focus is 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. The findings of this review will directly inform the ESRC’s strategy for doctoral training and for recommissioning our Doctoral Training Partnerships in 2022/23. More broadly as a constituent part of UKRI the findings will contribute to wider discussions on the development of doctoral training across Councils as part of the UKRI Talent Strategy. Findings will also be of benefit to the sector more broadly.

A key driver for the review is the changing research landscape. While there is no less need for deep expertise within fields of social science, there is also a growing amount of research grant funding that emphasises challenge-led research that requires collaboration across traditional disciplinary and professional boundaries, and that requires engagement with users in government, business and the voluntary sector.  In addition, our Delivery Plan highlights how social scientists will increasingly need to work with new forms of data, or use traditional forms of data in different ways, employing innovative methods to transform what is known about society and the economy. In all cases, it will continue to be vital that this work is underpinned by rigorous research designs. We need to ensure that we nurture skills to work with the demands of new data, develop skills for team-orientated and interdisciplinary research environments and enhance the capabilities required by the next generation of employers.

We will be building a robust evidence base for ESRC (and also ROs and other social science doctoral funders) regarding the state of the art for social science doctorates in terms of length, structure and training content. Specifically, the review seeks to answer two key questions:

  • What are the skills needed by social science PhD graduates to prepare them for careers both within and beyond academia?
  • What are the optimum ways to develop these skills, while recognising the need to support a diverse and inclusive student population, and to safeguard student health and wellbeing?

In addition to a comprehensive evidence review and analysis of existing data, a crucial element of the review will involve gathering the perspectives of all stakeholders involved in doctoral education. Ten universities are working with us to facilitate access to students, graduates and supervisors and these have been selected to represent a mix of institutional types, sizes, those that receive ESRC funding for students and those that don’t, together with geographical spread. They are:

  • Bath
  • Manchester
  • UCL
  • Coventry
  • Canterbury Christ-Church
  • Sheffield
  • Glasgow
  • Cambridge
  • Cardiff
  • Newcastle

In addition, wider stakeholder engagement is a critical component of the review and it is essential to ensure that the views of students, graduates, supervisors, leading social scientists, funders and all major employer-types including the public, private and voluntary sectors are well-reflected. As well as interviews and focus groups with different groups, an open consultation will be launched over the summer and we welcome all views. This open consultation will be followed by a series of regional workshops during late 2020/early 2021 where again, we will be looking for input from a range of stakeholders-more details of how to participate in the consultation and these events will follow.

A Steering Group has been established to provide expert advice to the ESRC during the review and oversee the work of the external consultants. The Group is chaired by Professor Kathy Rastle, Royal Holloway University, and comprises members from across the sector and from major employers.

ESRC has appointed CFE Research in partnership with the University of York to undertake the Review. CFE is an independent, not-for-profit social research agency with a strong track record in research and evaluation in higher education and York brings particular expertise in access to postgraduate study, student aspirations and the fit between training and outcomes.

If you have any queries about the review or are interested in getting involved, please contact: Dr Lucy Thorne, Head of Leadership and Skills.