by Dangeni, James Burford and Sophia Kier-Byfield
Working out how to apply for a doctoral programme can be a challenging process for many potential applicants. As countless Youtube videos, blogposts and twitter threads attest, there is much confusion and plenty of (sometimes contrasting) advice on the internet about what to do, whom to contact, and how to contact them. Some applicants find this process so challenging that they turn to a range of paid services that help them to learn how to contact a potential doctoral supervisor or develop a research proposal. There is clearly much demand for guidance on how to make a successful application to doctoral study, but for many academics and professional services staff doctoral admissions is a familiar and routine process where quick assessments can be made about the enquiries of a given applicant.
We began our recent exploratory research project, ‘Opening up the Black Box of Pre-application Doctoral Communications’, with an interest in the somewhat opaque processes that occur prior to formal doctoral admissions, but which often form a crucial part of the pathway to applying. We were concerned that the mysteries of the pre-application stage may have Equity Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) implications, making it easier for some to navigate toward doctoral study than others. We conducted a study to examine the pre-application stage of doctoral admissions in a single university context, the University of Warwick.
At the start of our study, we conducted a search for public-facing, institutional webpages relevant to doctoral admissions. Webpages are one of the key spaces where potential doctoral applicants can gather information about the application process, including institutional pages (eg produced by a Doctoral College) and departmental pages (eg departmental guidance or a potential supervisor’s webpage).
We aimed to identify and characterise information aimed at doctoral applicants prior to their making formal applications to study. Our primary goal in conducting this review was to understand: (a) the nature of pre-admissions information on university webpages; (b) whether this pre-admissions information was consistent across the institution; and, (c) whether the detail was a sufficient and adequate explanation of key pre-application steps to potential applicants.
This blog post gives our top six tips for stakeholders involved in doctoral admissions to consider for potential applicants, so that they have all the information they need from public-facing web pages.
- Avoid complicated web designs, texts and duplicated material
All the webpages we reviewed provided ‘opening pages’ which covered the basic details and specifications of programme, but there was a wide variety of detail in terms of the introductions to departments. Some departments included short paragraphs, others offered more elaborate introductions which included orienting students to the research areas of the department, the ranking of the department in UK league tables, and student testimonials with multiple tabs and long paragraphs, sometimes with invalid links. These layouts can be confusing on a computer screen, but institutions and departments could also consider that potential applicants may use phones or tablets to access the information, and thus the webpage design should be tablet/phone friendly. It is also necessary to check whether the page is accessible, eg for visually impaired visitors or those with learning difficulties.
- Display a checklist and flowchart for the pre-admissions process
We found two categories of admission information across department webpages. The first category was a link to signpost applicants to the central university portal for application advice and guidance, which provides an overview of the pre-application procedure for potential applicants to follow. The second category of admission information is commonly more tailored to a department’s specific procedures and is often accessed via a ‘how to apply’ section. However we noted that several departments did not undertake much departmental level ‘translation’ of general admissions information, perhaps simply linking applicants to the central university portal. We do not believe this would give potential applicants sufficient information to know how to get started and what to do in local contexts. In particular, decision-making related information and explanations were rare: very few departments explained details such as evaluation criteria, who is involved, the maximum cohort size each year, and the timeframe for decision-making. Therefore, we suggest that departmental webpages should consider displaying a checklist of key steps and a flowchart explaining the timeframe, decision-making process and who is involved.
- Outline what is expected from applicants in terms of locating a supervisor before applying
Most departmental webpages advise applicants to contact prospective supervisors in advance of the application to discuss research interests and compatibility, although some do not require a nominated supervisor for application. Our web review identified that most departments do consider this process to be a key pre-application step, and some provide relevant information and guidance regarding how to identify a supervisor. Therefore, a clear indication of what is expected from applicants to contact prospective supervisors is needed on departmental webpages. Additionally, institutions/departments should encourage academic staff to update their staff profile web pages with consistent information eg current projects supervised, information on interests (topic, methodology/approach, country contexts, and capacity to take on new students) would be helpful for applicants in the preparation and communications stages.
- Explain what counts as a ‘good’ research proposal
Another key category of pre-application information concerns how to draft a research proposal. Most departments require a research proposal for an application to be considered; research proposal-related guidance can be found in two categories. Most departments link to the central university portal for application advice and guidance, which contains the general structure of a research proposal (eg an overview of research question(s), main objective of research, potential contribution to existing research field/literature, research techniques, suggested data collection procedures and an outline timeline) and a list of department requirements. In contrast, in several departments, a webpage or a link to department-specific guidance can be found, providing an outline/structure with word count and what to include in detail. It is suggested that clear guidance on a ‘good’ research proposal (disciplinary equivalent) is necessary for applicants, including information on expected sections and length, as well as the evaluation criteria for the proposal.
- Include clear contact information for the department for potential applicants
As emphasised on the central university portal for application advice and guidance, one of the most important points to consider is whether the academic department shares the academic interests of the applicant. While all departments suggest applicants make contact before proceeding with their application any further, different formats and categories of making the initial contact and sending inquiries can be found across departments. Though all departments provide email addresses for applicants to make general inquiries, some provide the Academic Director of PGR (who manages the department’s PGR programme) and relevant professional staff contact details. It is suggested that institutions/departments should include clear contact information for potential applicants, including which queries should be directed at which named members of staff and how long the wait time may be for responses.
- Welcome applicants from underrepresented groups implicitly and explicitly
Only two departments across all faculties featured EDI-related information in their pre-admission information webpages. The first was in the form of a statement explaining why plenty of information was provided (‘in order to demystify the admissions process, as part of our commitment to enhancing inclusivity in doctoral education’). The second featured a video clip which sought to detail principles of an inclusive working and learning environment and welcome applications from individuals who identify with any of the protected characteristics defined by the Equality Act 2010. Websites which clearly communicate all required information to applicants serve an EDI function in that they do not require applicants to draw upon tacit information to make sense of pre-application steps that have not been carefully explained. In addition to clear and accessible information, welcome statements that determine a departmental position on inclusion can be helpful in that they directly acknowledge those under-represented in higher education. This could be written in collaboration with existing minoritised students.
Our aim is to share the findings from our institutional case study, but also to encourage reflection, review and conversation amongst colleagues about pre-application practices. We highly recommend involving staff and students in review processes as much as possible to ensure that webpages are readable, relevant and useful.
Two linked Pre-Application Doctoral Communications Research Projects have been carried by a research team based at the University of Warwick including Dr James Burford (PI), Dr Emily Henderson (Co-I), Dr Sophia Kier-Byfield, Dr Dangeni and Ahmad Akkad. The projects were funded by Warwick’s Enhancing Research Culture Fund. The team have produced a suite of open access resources including project briefings. For more information on the project see the website (www.warwick.ac.uk/padc) or #PADC_project on Twitter.
Dr Dangeni is a Professional Development Advisor at Newcastle University, where her teaching and research focus broadly on teaching and learning provision in the wider context of the internationalisation of higher education. She is particularly interested in research and practices around international students’ access, engagement and success in postgraduate taught (PGT) and postgraduate research (PGR) settings.
Dr James Burford is an Associate Professor at the University of Warwick. James’ research interests include doctoral education and the academic profession, higher education internationalisation and academic mobilities. Dr Sophia Kier-Byfield is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Warwick, where she works on the ‘Opening Up the Black Box of Pre-Application Doctoral Communications’ projects. Her research interests broadly concern equity in higher education, feminisms in academia and inclusive pedagogies.