Publication of EPSRC and ESRC Doctoral Reviews

The two reports highlight strengths and areas of improvement of doctoral opportunities offered by the EPSRC and ESRC.

Two reports have been published presenting the findings of separate reviews into the approaches to and priorities of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) towards doctoral funding and education.

The reviews were conducted by the two research councils and are designed to assess how both councils’ support sits within the wider national and international landscapes. Although conducted independently, the following findings were common across both research councils:

  • The importance of UKRI investment in shaping best practice and standards, with the EPSRC review highlighting the risk to doctoral education posed by a reduction in student numbers caused by increasing costs and constrained funding.
  • The value placed by employers on the skills developed by UKRI-funded doctoral graduates, with both reviews indicating that skills developed are highly valued by employers. EPSRC’s review indicates that the engineering and physical sciences doctoral graduates it supports are highly employable across multiple sectors and produce significant research outcomes, while ESRC’s review found that social science graduates are recognised for their depth of knowledge critical thinking and research skills.
  • Both reviews outline the underrepresentation of minority ethnic groups and a need to consider the socio-economic background of students. There is a need to ensure that a diverse student population is supported.
  • Both reviews highlighted the need to ensure that training keeps pace with the evolving research landscape.
  • The critical role of supervisors was also highlighted in both reviews.

The reviews also identify the following areas for improvement for both councils:

  • The EPSRC identified a need to avoid over-specialisation, which can reduce resilience and opportunities for doctoral students in varying and multidisciplinary environments.
  • The EPSRC should engage with industry to encourage and enable increased industry funding and co-funding of doctoral students, and widen participation among small and medium enterprises.
  • The ESRC and funded Doctoral Training Partnerships should increase and diversify the opportunities for social science doctoral students to work collaboratively and across disciplines.
  • The ESRC should develop more opportunities for students to build understanding of applying research in practice within and beyond academia.

Both research councils will carefully consider the findings of the reviews and publish responses. The EPSRC will publish an action plan with both short and long-term actions in early 2022. It will seek stakeholder feedback to inform this process, and will host a series of webinars for all members of the community who have an interest in doctoral education in order to provide additional context to the review and respond to questions. Those interested may sign up for the webinars here, which will be held on:

  • 12 November, 10:30-12:30
  • 22 November, 14:00-16:00
  • 2 December, 10:00-12:00

The ESRC’s response will also set out next steps and inform its strategy for doctoral training and for recommissioning its Doctoral Training Partnerships in 2022/23. Elsewhere, UKRI has committed to looking at a broad suite of doctoral issues in the New Deal for Postgraduate Research, and relevant findings from the EPSRC and ESRC reviews will feed into this activity.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) also recently announced plans to undertake a review and engagement exercise on future doctoral provision in the arts and humanities, further details of which are available on the AHRC website.

(This report was the subject of a ResearchConnect Newsflash.)