The changing future of postgraduate research

Research student

How can we maintain a flourishing postgraduate research community? Here’s a first look at a new programme of work that will address key external challenges and help ensure that postgraduate research here at Sheffield is an attractive and sustainable endeavour.

Our postgraduate research (PGR) students represent around 10 per cent of our total student population – that’s over 2,500 students. PGR students are important to our University for a number of reasons. They contribute to the future strength of academic disciplines; play a key part in our research, representing around 50 per cent of our total research community; and deliver education to undergraduate and postgraduate taught students as demonstrators, tutors, fieldwork supervisors and role models.

Given the value we place on PGR, it’s important that we think carefully about how we respond to changes in the external environment. Key challenges include:

  • Changing expectations about career pathways: proportions vary but there is evidence that as few as one in ten PhD students go onto a permanent academic contract. For example, evidence from the Royal Society shows that although a PhD can be a gateway to a scientific career, the majority of people undertaking a PhD will end up in careers outside scientific research.
  • Changing emphasis from funders: Funders such as UK Research and Innovation and Wellcome Trust are placing greater emphasis on PGR students learning from each other through peer support and cohort building, as well as on employability and leadership skills training.
  • Mental health: surveys in the sector suggest that 40–45 per cent of PGR students report having mental health issues.
  • International student recruitment: this is increasingly challenging as some sponsors will only fund PhDs at higher education institutions in the top 50 or 100 in global league tables. Our domestic policy environment may also be off-putting for international PhD candidates, with the removal of post-study work visas and ever more complex UK Visa and Immigration expectations.

So, what are we doing to address these external challenges?

We are just beginning a new programme of work focussing on five key areas with the aim of making sure our PGR offer remains attractive and sustainable in the coming years. The work is being led by the University PGR Committee, chaired by Professor Lorraine Maltby, Deputy Vice-President Research and Innovation, and including Faculty Academic PGR Leads and Professional Services colleagues. The following five workstreams are each led by a Faculty Academic PGR Lead:

  • Structures: updating the structures which support our postgraduate research provision. This means moving towards a hub and spoke model, which will include central support and vision to offer a cohesive approach to PGR activities, with student-facing support delivered locally in faculties and departments.
  • Wellbeing: working together with the Student Mental Health Strategy to ensure that the specific drivers of PGR mental health issues are taken account of.
  • What is a PhD?: agreeing on what we should expect of PGR students and supervisors.
  • Recruitment: considering the number of postgraduate research students needed in departments for a vibrant PGR community.
  • Quality assurance: developing assurance of our standards for postgraduate research study across the University.

We are in the beginning stages of this important work and will keep you updated along the way. If you are interested in making a contribution to any of these workstreams or have any ideas or thoughts on any of areas mentioned above, please contact Charlotte Williams, Secretary to the University PGR Committee. You can email Charlotte at: Charlotte.Williams@sheffield.ac.uk