What stops people choosing to become postgraduate research students?
Despite their well-meaning efforts, surveys show that institutions have often struggled to provide the right information at the right time. They may fail to inspire undergraduate or A-level curiosity as to where knowledge is created, developed and from where it is disseminated. Traditional undergraduate degrees may be presented as the end of the road in education, or simply adequate preparation for a job directly after. Even to their own undergraduates, universities may fail to provide timely information about the application process or the potential benefits of undertaking postgraduate study.
At the same time, negative perceptions may be fostered regarding the scholarly environment. A student may not always feel they are able to become a research professional or student. Higher level study can appear daunting, especially for those without role models from within the family or those who do not see themselves reflected in the role models at the institution.
In research conducted at the University of Brighton into PhD applicant diversity, simple awareness of the existence of postgraduate study prior to joining a university proved very low in some sectors. This proved especially so for students in the 'post-92' universities (like the University of Brighton, former technical colleges, art or education colleges and polytechnics), institutions which attract many students for industry-relevant disciplines; research in these areas - engineering, computing, graphic design, nursing, journalism and so on - may take a non-traditional form and could be more hidden to students despite the dual roles of most teaching staff.
The application process can remain mysterious. PhD applications are different from those experienced for undergraduate degrees and different from job applications, about which information is more common and more actively sought. There are fewer people to share what may seem 'insider knowledge' to those interested in becoming higher-level students. Technologies behind application systems can be less sophisticated due to the smaller numbers of expected interest, while few undergraduates will immediately recognise the fundamental importance of individual supervisors' expertise and enthusiasm.
Even where interested students find an advisor and may work towards the processes they need to complete, there seem to be entrenched difficulties in perception of capability. Research shows that students at post-92 universities are likely to feel discouraged from applying to what are perceived as high-performing departments, universities or disciplines. Higher levels of perceived prestige may develop through research-intensity, historic notions of specialisms and traditional academic disciplines, all of which can create a barrier to applications from the full breadth of scholarly backgrounds.
Universities in the UK are striving to break down all these perceived barriers and to promote diversity in the student numbers at PhD level: diversity of educational background and opportunity, also diversity of age and professional background, as well as representatives of the full wealth of life experiences. It is this diversity of representation that makes the finished research more valuable.