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Report plots path to more diversity among PhD students


Researchers recommend changes to assessment systems used by universities and funders

Universities and funders should tackle the underrepresentation of PhD science students from ethnic minority backgrounds by improving their application and evaluation methods, researchers have argued.

Researchers from the Equator project, a scheme based at Sheffield Hallam University that aims to boost diversity in postgraduate geosciences research, published a series of recommendations on 3 August for universities, research institutes and funders to help them address low recruitment among ethnic minority students.

They included offering pre-application support to increase candidates’ confidence, using metrics to assess researchers’ potential rather than their track records, and offering guaranteed interviews for students from ethnic minority backgrounds who meet the entry requirements.

Postgraduate underrepresentation

Students from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are underrepresented at postgraduate level. While nearly 27 per cent of UK undergraduates were from ethnic minorities in 2020-21, this was around 19 per cent for postgraduate students.

Geosciences has particularly poor representation—a previous study found that 5.2 per cent of physical geography postgraduates, 6.9 per cent of environmental science postgraduates and 10.4 per cent of geology postgraduate students in 2018-19 identified as either Black, Asian or minority ethnic.

Researchers from the Equator project found that a lack of advertising for positions was not to blame for low representation.

Career security and funding concerns

Benjamin Fernando, lead author of the study, said it was “often assumed that students from minority backgrounds are underrepresented simply because don’t know about PhD opportunities”.

“Our work suggests that this is not the case—rather, they choose alternative paths for a range of complex societal, cultural, and personal reasons,” he said, such as concerns over career security or funding.

The study’s authors suggested that universities and funders should make “student-facing improvements” such as offering standardised expression of interest forms for students to use when they want to contact potential supervisors and offering information to ease their fears over financial support.

They also advised changes to application procedures, including the use of contextual personal information—for example, information about a candidate’s background or demographics—when considering candidates. 

Action plan

The authors also recommended improvements to student evaluation such as using interview questions to allow applicants to show transferable skills and reducing bias by decreasing the emphasis on supervisor-specific nominations.

Natasha Dowey, principal investigator on the project, said: “We have produced an action plan that departments across the country who admit PhD students in the physical sciences can copy. By providing a prioritised list of actions spanning multiple years, there is no excuse for not taking immediate action.”