EPSRC and ESRC doctoral reviews published

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Two reviews, published today, provide valuable evidence to support UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) ambitions to provide globally competitive doctoral education.

The reviews, carried out by UKRI’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), reveal both strengths and areas for evolution in each councils’ approach.

The publication of the two reports follows comprehensive reviews conducted by the councils to gather evidence and assess how both councils’ support sits within the wider national and international landscapes.

Common themes include:

  • the importance of UKRI investment in shaping best practice and standards, with the EPSRC review highlighting the risk to doctoral education posed by a reduction in student numbers caused by increasing costs and constrained funding
  • the value placed by employers on the skills developed by UKRI-funded doctoral graduates, with both reviews indicating that skills developed are highly valued by employers. EPSRC’s review indicates that the engineering and physical sciences doctoral graduates it supports are highly employable across multiple sectors and produce significant research outcomes, while ESRC’s review found that social science graduates are prized for their depth of knowledge critical thinking and research skills
  • a need to ensure that training keeps pace with the evolving research landscape and that a diverse student population is supported. Both reviews outline the underrepresentation of minority ethnic groups and a need to consider the socio-economic background of students
  • both reviews also identify the critical role of supervisors.

The councils will consider the recommendations in each report, and independently publish responses.

Continued improvements

The reports also make recommendations for continued improvements, including:

  • EPSRC’s review identifies a need to avoid over-specialisation, which can reduce resilience and opportunities
  • EPSRC should engage with industry to encourage and enable increased industry funding and co-funding of doctoral students, and widen participation among small and medium enterprises
  • ESRC and funded Doctoral Training Partnerships should increase and diversify the opportunities for social science doctoral students to work collaboratively and across disciplines
  • ESRC should develop more opportunities for students to build understanding of applying research in practice within and beyond academia.

Alongside council-specific actions, the two reviews are also an important contribution to the evidence base for a new deal for postgraduate research, which will address:

  • funding and stipend levels
  • routes in, through and out of doctoral training
  • rights and conditions
  • diversification of models and access.

UKRI is committed to working with stakeholders across the research and innovation landscape in support of the ambition in the government’s research and development (R&D) roadmap. This is to co-design a joined-up talent offer, open to the diversity of people and across all career stages, connecting sectors, disciplines and working cultures.

Driving the research and innovation ecosystem

EPSRC Executive Chair, Professor Dame Lynn Gladden, said:

Doctoral researchers are central to the UK’s research and innovation ecosystem, with the students funded by EPSRC involved in ground-breaking research and technology development across engineering and the physical sciences.

We are committed to challenging ourselves to improve the support provided to doctoral students, whose work delivers societal benefits and economic growth for the UK.

ESRC Interim Executive Chair, Professor Alison Park, said:

The breadth and depth of evidence gathered shows there is much to be proud of and that ESRC investment in doctoral training is positively driving best practice and standards.

Social science graduates are highly valued by employers for their critical thinking, depth of knowledge and research skills. However, in a rapidly changing landscape we must adapt and innovate to keep pace and ensure doctoral students develop the skills and gain the experience they need. We must also ensure we support a more diverse and inclusive population.

The government’s commitment to a new deal for postgraduate research, as part of its R&D roadmap, proves fresh impetus to take collective action to address broader issues.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), also part of UKRI, recently announced plans to undertake a review and engagement exercise on future doctoral provision in the arts and humanities. Further details are available on the AHRC website.

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