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ESRC review shows how the PhD can be more than a thesis


Plan for longer, broader training can help disciplines adapt to changing demands, says Matthew Flinders

Not so long ago, universities were discussed mainly as providers of higher education, and a PhD was viewed as an academic apprenticeship. Today, the talk is of navigating a complex research, innovation and development ecosystem, and early career researchers are expected to operate in an increasingly precarious professional environment. 

Those who doubt the pace and extent of this change might peruse the government’s recent Innovation Strategy or R&D People and Culture Strategy. Those who doubt the ecosystem’s complexity might ask themselves why Paul Nurse is on his second review in seven years of the structures through which the UK creates and mobilises knowledge. 

The message of all these strategies and reviews is that to flourish, each part of the broader ecosystem will have to evolve to keep pace with the world around it. In this context, the Economic and Social Research Council’s review of the PhD in the social sciences, published on 7 October, is a positive, strategic and future-focused contribution. 

Over the past 18 months, the ESRC review has investigated two questions. First, what skills do social science PhD graduates need? Second, how can a diverse student population gain these skills without jeopardising its health and wellbeing?

Evolving ecosystem

The social sciences PhD has been transformed in the past two decades so that it results in not just a 100,000-word thesis but also a rounded researcher with an arsenal of theoretical and methodological skills. The ESRC has shown leadership in driving up standards, even though it funds only around a fifth of UK social science PhDs. 

As the ecosystem has evolved, so have the demands of employers and the public. The review sees “a pressing need for PhD graduates to develop transferable employability skills to ensure they can compete for both academic and non-academic positions”. 

This dual focus is welcome, although, as the review says, “more radical action may be needed to move the dial on this”. The challenge may be to create an environment that encourages braided careers, where researchers can move in and out of academia.

The report also acknowledges, however, that there is only so much you can ask of a postgrad student before high expectations become unhealthy stress. Hence, “any additional requirements of PhD students will not be feasible without an extension to the funding period”.

This creates a dilemma for the ESRC. If the chancellor does not deliver good news in the spending review on 27 October, funding the shift from three to four-year PhDs recommended in the review might mean fewer scholarships or cuts elsewhere. 

Flexible model

Higher education is just a part, albeit a central one, of research and innovation activity. With this in mind, the review emphasises helping people and ideas move across organisational, professional and disciplinary boundaries. This is about creating opportunities and nudging students—and their supervisors—towards seeing the benefits of understanding different research-related environments. 

“All ESRC-funded students should undertake some form of activity to build understanding of applying research in practice,” the report says. Doctoral Training Partnerships should increase opportunities for students to work in team-based projects, and funding should be ring fenced for students and postdocs from underrepresented backgrounds. 

Even the PhD thesis is placed within the innovation landscape: “The ESRC should encourage alternative formats to the traditional long-form monograph in the context of a more flexible model of doctoral training.”

Some scholars might find all this a little too radical, but a dose of future thinking is exactly what’s needed. This is a review founded on two unwritten principles: alignment, in ensuring that a PhD in the social sciences fits the intellectual, professional and societal needs of the 21st century; and ambition, in terms of seeking to build a social science community with the confidence and tools to tackle the most complex societal challenges. 

Such challenges have no simple solutions, and when the ESRC publishes its response in December I would expect a phased approach. However, by curating a clear evidence base and identifying a clear direction of travel, the review has already made a major contribution to the debate concerning the role and future of the social sciences. 

The twist in the tale is that many of its insights are of great relevance far beyond the social sciences. At stake is not just how the ESRC responds but how the review might shape a rethink across the scientific spectrum. 

Matthew Flinders is founding director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre and professor of politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also vice-president of the Political Studies Association and chair of the Universities Policy Engagement Network

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight