By Alex Powell
New postgraduate loans have made extended higher education more accessible. While the situation is far from perfect, and access to further higher education remains restricted for many, new possibilities have been opened up. However, if students are to make the best of these opportunities, they need guidance.
I am currently in the process of applying for PhDs. In pulling together my proposal, and transforming a loose idea to a concrete project, I have been exceptionally lucky to receive copious amounts of support and assistance. During my time at university, I have formed close relationships with a number of academics who are in a position to point me in the right direction and look over innumerable application drafts. On top of this, my boyfriend is a current PhD candidate who has put far too much time, patience, and (undoubtedly) frustration into putting me back on course with my applications when I have waivered. I am in a very privileged position, but for most this is not the case.
The details of the opportunities offered by postgraduate education remain poorly conveyed. The information on which students are expected to commit multiple years of their life is mixed up in a stream of corporate advertisements and poorly designed websites. Competition for funding is hard and getting harder. The sad truth is that, at this moment, students are not given adequate information to create a fair playing field. With universities overly focused on achieving eye-catching graduate employment rates, the benefits and opportunities of postgraduate study often go unhighlighted, and students are left to find their own way.
Even getting together a good appraisal of what it takes to get into the competition is extraordinarily difficult, and for many the barrier proves insurmountable. Many funded doctoral programmes are funded by research councils. For example, the Economic and Social Research Council could have covered my own research – had I been aware of the deadlines that loomed a few months back. The cut-off point for applications to these funding streams falls early, often in January for a September course start date, and those not in the know miss out.
The current system ensures that nepotism rules the day
Obviously, it is important for students wishing to pursue doctoral study to have research skills; the dissemination of information on postgraduate education should not be a case of hand holding. However, students are currently expected to dig up information on postgraduate opportunities while keeping up with their studies and, in the majority of cases, looking into alternative career routes in case the postgraduate option doesn’t work out. In addition, at present, undergraduate degrees do not provide students with the skills necessary to produce research proposals of the required standard. Yes, the application process should be hard in order to test the skills of potential applicants, but the current system ensures that nepotism rules the day. Those students who have made the right contacts in academia, who have friends and partners able to give them a leg up, are at a distinct advantage.
In effect, what I am calling for is a democratisation of postgraduate education: a move to ensure that greater availability of funding for masters degrees actually results in greater diversity of applicants at both masters and doctoral level. At present, we are losing far too many potentially talented researchers simply because they do not see themselves as the type that do PhDs. It is imperative that universities take the initiative and ensure that adequate and accurate information on postgraduate opportunities is given to students. Simply stating that the opportunities are there is not enough. Universities need to be advertising them openly and widely to create the level field that will enable new groups to conceive of themselves as potential PhD students and academics.
Featured image credit: Andrej Karpathy