MeCCSA response to Review of the UK Social Science PhD

MeCCSA responded to the ESRC’s comprehensive examination of the UK social science PhD. In brief the purpose of the review was:

The focus is on the capabilities needed by social science graduates to ensure their contribution to research and their global competitiveness, and the optimum ways to develop them. The findings of this review will directly inform the ESRC’s strategy for doctoral training and for recommissioning our Doctoral Training Partnerships in 2022/23. More broadly as a constituent part of UKRI the findings will contribute to wider discussions on the development of doctoral training across Councils as part of the UKRI Talent Strategy. Findings will also be of benefit to the sector more broadly.

The below response was prepared and submitted by Prof John Downey on behalf of the MeCCSA Executive Committee.

In your view, how well do UK social science doctoral programmes equip students with the skills needed for their future careers? How competitive are they internationally?

The field of communication, media, and cultural studies in the UK is widely regarded internationally to be world-leading. This has been true since the 1960s when the first research institutes when established in the UK and the field continues to be at the forefront of theoretical and methodological innovation globally. In the 2020 QS world rankings 7 UK departments were ranked in the top 50 in communication (second nationally behind only the USA with 23 departments in the top 50). In successive RAEs and REFs the field as a whole has performed outstandingly well in terms of both quality and quantity of world-leading research.

As an interdisciplinary field communication, media and cultural studies is eligible to receive doctoral funding from both the ESRC and AHRC as it draws on disciplines in both the humanities and social sciences. However, this has not led to significant funding for doctoral research in the field as its interdisciplinary character has meant that it is relatively neglected by both funding councils and this has led to the problem of insufficient funding for UK doctoral researchers. This places at risk the international standing of the field in the UK in the short to medium term.

The prominence of communication and media, including but certainly not limited to social media, in contemporary societies has meant that doctoral researchers from a number of disciplines include, often as a secondary method or type of data, communication and media methods and data analysis in their theses. Presently, however, the core training of the ESRC does not stipulate any specific training in communication and media research methods. This means that doctoral researchers, often undertaking research in a different discipline and with supervisors unequipped to advise on appropriate methods, are not sufficiently trained to undertake communication and media research and are thus at a disadvantage in comparison to overseas graduates.

MeCCSA requests that:

  • when new doctoral training partnerships are commissioned in 2022/3 that all relevant departments and units in the field subject to having satisfied threshold research requirements (usually REF profile and number of researchers) be members of one of the DTPs bids for funding;
  • the ESRC should actively promote such membership in the bids through advice given to potential consortia; 
  • the ESRC should consider the importance of funding doctoral training partnerships that include communication and media pathways as part of their bids when determining which consortia receive funding; 
  • the ESRC consider incorporating communication and media research methods into the core curriculum of the MA stage of ESRC funding scheme;
  • the ESRC should monitor the number of doctoral awards in different field and disciplines including communication and media to ensure that the demand for UK doctoral researchers is met and that funding enables the world-leading position of the field in the UK be at least maintained if not enhanced.

Research training in media, communications and cultural studies related social science subjects which UK institutions offer to PhD students is amongst the best in the world and we know this because of the extremely large volume of applications we receive every year from overseas applicants who want to undertake PhDs in our departments and under our supervision. While we welcome the diversity and excellence brought by international PhD students, it is noteworthy that many/most of the highly capable PhD students that we successfully train in our social science departments are not contributing to capacity building in the UK but rather are taking their expertise back to other countries.  While this is extremely valuable in itself we must be mindful of the need to train and educate the next generation of communication and media scholars to work in UK universities and indeed beyond academia.

How can UK doctoral programmes best prepare graduates for non-academic career pathways?

We fully recognize that many doctoral researchers wish and indeed will pursue careers beyond academia. To facilitate this and to achieve research impact UK media, communications and cultural studies related social science departments have forged partnerships with non-academic organisations and industry bodies in recent years in order to support training and development of innovative and flexible researchers equipped for a range of non-academic careers and a number of doctoral researchers in the field hold ESRC collaborative awards working with non-HEIs. However, capacity for excellence in academic research is scarce and needs to be nurtured and so, through our well-functioning PhD programmes, the UK sector is and remains highly committed to building expertise among emerging postgraduates in conducting world-leading academic social science research.  

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