Who gets to be a doctoral researcher?


The limited diversity of the research profession is a global problem, with those who are minoritised on the basis of gender, race, caste, ability, class and socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and citizenship status (among other reasons) facing systemic disadvantages in becoming a research professional.

Limited diversity in the research profession means not only that the wider ‘body’ of researchers fails to represent and reflect the societies we serve, but our society is robbed of the knowledge that a more diverse community of researchers would bring and create. The limited social diversity of the research profession has been identified as a significant problem by national policymakers, such as the UK’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). In 2021, BEIS released an R&D People and Culture Strategy [446 kb PDF] which aims to put ‘people at the heart of R&D’ to ensure that a diverse array of people are attracted to, developed and retained in the R&D sector.

To contribute to these wider debates about the recruitment of diverse researchers into the sector, it is important to closely examine the entire ‘pathway’ that leads to a research career. Doctoral education is a crucial step along this pathway. We need to gain a better understanding about what barriers prevent those from diverse backgrounds accessing doctoral education. We don’t know enough about how minoritised communities navigate the doctoral application process and what can be done to make it more inclusive. 

Research background 

Last year, our research team from the Department of Education Studies at the University of Warwick launched a project called Opening up the Black Box of Pre-Application Doctoral Communications. The term Pre-application doctoral communications (PADC) refers to contact between aspiring doctoral applicants and university staff prior to the submission of a formal application for doctoral study. This ‘communication’ could involve anything from seeking guidance on how to apply, getting feedback on a draft research proposal, or obtaining supervisor endorsement to make an application. We’re often talking about emails, but pre-application doctoral communications could also include social media messages, phone calls, connecting at a conference or dropping into someone’s office to make contact. 

We wanted to understand if these informal and largely unregulated processes potentially disadvantage minoritised applicants. We looked at our own university, the University of Warwick, and undertook an institutional website review and talked to:

  • academic Directors of Postgraduate Research (DPGRs),
  • professional staff Programme Officers (POs) and
  • prospective doctoral supervisors.

We focused on how they engaged with and made judgements about pre-application communication. Although the study was interested in mapping processes and practices in general, there was a focus on how enquiries from minority applicants are managed.   

Pre-application communication was routine and ordinary for many of the people we spoke with, although the extent to which this was a key part of the application process differed by discipline. We also found that many Programme Officers, Directors of Postgraduate Research and supervisors wanted more guidance about how they could incorporate Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) thinking into their information provision (e.g. on websites) and decision-making (i.e., deciding which applicants to encourage / decline) at the pre-application stage.  

Some attributes were likely to privilege potential applicants during the pre-admission stage:

  • applicants from the United Kingdom (in our UK-based study),
  • current students in the institution,
  • Anglophone applicants,
  • applicants from an elite academic trajectory.

Applicants with none or only some of these attributes were less easily seen to ‘fit’. It was clear that applicants who have more access to support with their application are more able to navigate the pre-application stage, especially if the admissions information is hidden or tacit. 

Our project findings have led to the development of clear recommendations for key stakeholders in the pre-application stage.

Those who work in central or leadership roles [350 kb PDF] (e.g. in a doctoral college or as a director of a doctoral programme) should focus on

  1. the development of pre-application communication strategies,
  2. enhancing training and reflective practice in this area, and
  3. developing clearer and more transparent webpage information on the pre-application process.

Doctoral supervisors [358 kb PDF] should focus on

  1. improving how they manage pre-application communications with prospective applicants,
  2. thinking critically about how they respond to this communication, and
  3. developing strategies for reflecting across the pre-application process.

Applicants themselves and others who work with them [390 kb PDF] (e.g., personal tutors and academic developers) should focus on

  1. thinking holistically about institutional choice,
  2. carefully weighing up the different aspects of supervisor choice, and
  3. writing concise, clear and considered pre-application communications to specific supervisors.

We have also created a professional development kit [250 kb PDF] for those who might wish to lead training (e.g., with supervisors or other university staff) about the issue of inequalities in pre-application communications.

Following the first phase of the project, we recognised the need to listen to the voices of minoritised doctoral students themselves to better understand how pre-application doctoral communications is experienced by applicants on the ground and how intersecting disadvantages may influence the journey. We pitched a second project, which is called Searching for a Supervisor. We interviewed doctoral applicants from diverse backgrounds to understand their experiences of the pre-application stage and any challenges or barriers they had to overcome during the application process.  

As part of the Searching for a Supervisor project, we hosted an intern, Annum Mahmood, from the MA programme Global Education and International Development. Annum’s involvement in the work and her contributions brought to light many of the barriers to doctoral study that we discovered in the literature and data collection, drawing particular attention in real-time to the importance of early involvement in research for minoritised students. It was fascinating that the importance of getting first-hand experience of research projects, and the skills and contacts that this enables, was emerging as a key theme in our research, and that it was also happening as part of the research process itself! 

To help people to understand the issues, Annum shares some reflections about her experience.  

Annum’s reflections as an emerging researcher

As a woman from an ethnic minority background and the only member of my family to have attended university, postgraduate research was never an option I considered for myself. While I had heard of the word ‘PhD’ during my undergraduate studies, I always felt academic research was only welcoming to people from white, middle-class backgrounds. Equally, I knew little about the funding options available for PhD study and assumed it would involve a costly investment that I would not be able to afford. It was only after starting my MA placement as part of the Searching for a Supervisor project that I discovered the opportunities available in Social Science research.

In terms of our time working together on this project, the placement period was relatively short (30 hours spread over around 10 weeks), but I have learned many things. Given the focus of the project on pre-application doctoral communications, I now understand the processes involved in applying for a PhD, and it has even inspired me to consider doctoral studies in the future. I also learned valuable experience about how to undertake a research project: from learning about ethics approval, to sitting in on pilot interviews with PhD students to understand their experience of applying for a PhD and any barriers they had to overcome. Being involved in a research team has also provided me with more contacts and people to consult, too.

My personal experience has highlighted to me the importance of early exposure to research, particularly for people from ethnic minority communities. I imagine there are many others like me who may not have the networks and contacts to understand the opportunities available in research and how to navigate the application process to become a doctoral student.

Looking forward

There is much to be done to think about how the pre-application and admissions processes could be made more equitable and open for a diverse community of potential doctoral scholars. The briefings we shared above emerge from the UK and our particular institutional context, but we would love to hear from those in different contexts about whether the suggestions we share might work at your institution. Our briefings are already being translated into different languages, for example French. We suspect that across the world there are many talented students like Annum, who might not know that doctoral research is possible for them too and who might benefit from greater help in navigating the process.

Author Bio: Annum Mahmood is a student enrolled in the MA-Global Education and International Development at the University of Warwick