ESRC review of the PhD in the social sciences - ESRC

In October we published the report from the independent Review of the PhD in the Social Sciences. The focus of the review 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.

ESRC commissioned CFE Research in partnership with the University of York in February 2020 to undertake the review, and they undertook extensive research and engagement with the community. The report provides ESRC with a comprehensive evidence base from which it will develop its vision for postgraduate training and will directly inform the ESRC’s strategy for doctoral training and for recommissioning our Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs) in 2022 to 2023.

ESRC’s response

This response summarises how we will address the issues identified and recommendations made by the Review and sets out our ambitious vision for postgraduate training:

To develop globally competitive social science researchers who are able to operate in interdisciplinary, collaborative, and challenge-led environments across a range of sectors, and are drawn from diverse backgrounds and experiences.

The evidence report shows that there is much we can be proud of; the quality of doctoral training delivered by UK Research Organisations (ROs) is internationally recognised and ESRC investment in doctoral training is positively driving best practice and standards.

However, the issues identified in the report are significant and our response recognises that some of the issues raised extend beyond the social sciences and that doctoral training is the responsibility of the sector as a whole. We therefore indicate where we will work with our sister councils within UKRI, research organisations and other stakeholders, and 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 changes

The key changes that we will make are detailed within this response and include:

Research skills – embedding digital methods and strengthening quantitative training whilst not losing sight of the importance of qualitative training and ensuring all students have a strong foundation in research design. Supporting the DTPs to innovate in the content and delivery of core training and strengthen the advanced training offer to students.

Employability skills – introducing Research in Practice as a core component of the doctoral experience for all ESRC funded students, including the opportunity for a 3-month placement in academia, policy, business or third sector organisations.

Duration, funding and form of PhD – extending funding from 3 to 3.5 years as standard to ensure students can develop their wider research and employability skills. Targeting our master’s funding at students who don’t already have a social science masters and providing funding to support additional training at the PhD stage for students whose prior training meets some but not all our core training requirements.

Equality, diversity and inclusion – requiring all DTPs to provide an EDI Strategy as an assessed part of their bid for funding, setting out how they will widen participation and provide an inclusive environment for all. As part of a holistic strategy DTPs will be required to set out how they will make entry requirements more inclusive and be encouraged to consider ring-fenced funding for under-represented groups.

Timeline for recommissioning

Below are the key dates for recommissioning the DTPs:

  • early summer (May/June) 2022: call opens
  • February 2023: call closes
  • June 2023: panel meeting to agree recommendations for funding
  • July 2023: applicants informed of panels decision
  • September 2023: studentship allocations confirmed
  • from October 2023: funding available to support the development of placement opportunities
  • October 2024: first students start under the new framework.

The Steering Group

An independent 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.


Dr Lucy Thorne, Head of Leadership and Skills, ESRC


Last updated: 12 April 2022

This is the integrated website of the seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK.
Let us know if you have feedback or would like to help us test new developments.