Forging a future for postgraduate research: policy input co-developed by the Vitae member community


Forked path between trees

In the UK Research and Development (R&D) Roadmap(2020), the government set out a commitment to evolve the current offer for postgraduate research (PGR). As a crucial part of this endeavour, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) pledged deep sector engagement to ensure the myriad voices in PGR were heard and ultimately contributed to a ‘new deal for postgraduate research’. 

The Vitae member forum Focus on: New Deal for Postgraduate Research therefore brought together a range of stakeholders from the Vitae membership community, all with an interest in enhancing the future for PGR. Nearly 50 participants from 35 universities, two university consortia and one funder registered for the event, representing a breadth of experience and perspectives needed to co-develop a comprehensive policy statement for UKRI’s open call for input. 

Responding to the consultation framework, and given the expertise of those in attendance, the forum focused on three issues critical to postgraduate researchers’ (PGRs) inclusion: experience, development and professional prospects. These are discussed below. 

What should be the goals for contemporary postgraduate research training? 

Forum participants consensus for a person-centred model placed considerable emphasis on professional and personal development as key pillars in PGR training. This included focus on enhancing career prospects for the individual, which in turn provides value for society by fostering a diverse and specialised pool of talented researchers. PGR training should also nurture qualities needed to bring fulfilment for the researcher, demonstrating clear value to individuals across a broad range of personal circumstances and thereby ensuring equality of opportunity across society. 

Ultimately, attendees asserted that PGR training must have direct value for research, by producing well-rounded, creative and independent thinkers, and stressed that pursuing research outputs should not come at the expense of developing a research mindset and skillset. 

Crucially, forum participants expressed concern around the use of PGR “training” in UKRI’s open call, highlighting that this phrasing might limit or constrain the stakeholder engagement sought for developing a new deal. Participants suggested, as safer, more holistic alternatives, the use of doctoral/PGR -development, -programme or -experience. 

How should contemporary PGR training be structured? 

The model of the doctorate has become increasingly fluid in recent history, such as the emergence of cohort-based programmes, and participants critically examined the conventional nature of the doctoral award. This included reviewing the length of PGR training, with many proposing an extension to include protected time for professional and career development, such as industry placements. Those in attendance also urged a shift away from the thesis-reliant awarding of the doctorate, citing the experience of PGRs in creative or practice-based disciplines. 

The nature of supervision was highlighted as a critical priority for future PGR training and forum attendees were unanimous in calling for research into- and better standards for training on how to supervise PGRs. Some also reflected on the relative merits of team supervision, and even the involvement of ‘external’ supervisors, given that academic supervisors may not possess the experience or understanding needed to support PGRs in exploring diverse career pathways. 

How should routes into, through, and out of PGR be enhanced? 

Participants called for enhancing the degree of diversity and standard of inclusion when considering routes into PGR. This included widening participation by exposing families of PGRs to what their role entails, as well as instilling broad assessment criteria when assessing applicants that recognise work experience and take applicants on a case-by-case basis. 

For those actively undertaking PGR, forum participants strongly advocated for the provision of holistic and multifaceted support of PGRs. For example, UKRI could ringfence funding for professional development, analogous to Research England’s support for research culture, and bolster this approach by continually promoting the value of such development to current fundees. This approach, coupled with a heightened attention to wellbeing (such as by using social support structures), can go a long way in meeting the People and Culture Strategy’s aims of fostering sustainable research careers and nurturing a positive research culture. 

Finally, drawing on their experience delivering PGR research, participants captured the need to publicise and enable career planning post-doctorate. This would begin with clarifying career expectations amongst all academic stakeholders, identifying the challenges of an academic career and highlighting the value of those pathways beyond the academic sector. For those still committed to an academic career, UKRI could leverage funding instruments to finance non-grant holding roles to retain talented researchers within higher education who do not yet wish to work as a leader themselves. Moreover, funded internships towards the end of the doctorate can support PGRs’ transition into new sectors, and also engender greater acceptance of this mobility amongst their peers and non-academic employers 

Consolidated feedback and recommendations from the event were submitted by Vitae on behalf of the community to UKRI’s call for input, which can be found below. We would like to extend thanks to all those who contributed to such an engaging and informative forum, as events like these are pivotal in shaping policy for the future of postgraduate research.